Classical mechanics


In physics, classical mechanics and quantum mechanics are the two major sub-fields of mechanics. Classical mechanics is concerned with the set of physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the action of a system of forces.

The analysis of projectile motion is a part of classical mechanics. image: wikipedia

Classical mechanic origins are ancient

 The study of the motion of bodies is an ancient one, making classical mechanics one of the oldest and largest subjects in science, engineering and technology. It is also widely known as Newtonian mechanics named after it’s formal development by Isaac Newton.

What it describes

Classical mechanics describes the motion of macroscopic objects, from projectiles to parts of machinery, as well as astronomical objects, such as spacecraft, planets, stars, and galaxies. Besides this, many specializations within the subject deal with gases, liquids, solids, and other specific sub-topics. 

Classical mechanics also provides extremely accurate results as long as the domain of study is restricted to large objects and the speeds involved do not approach the speed of light. 

When the objects being dealt with become sufficiently small, it becomes necessary to introduce the other major sub-field of mechanics, quantum mechanics, which reconciles the macroscopic laws of physics with the atomic nature of matter and handles the wave–particle duality of atoms and molecules. 

What it doesn't describe well or classical mechanics limitations at scale and speed

However, when both quantum mechanics and classical mechanics cannot apply, such as at the quantum level with many degrees of freedom, quantum field theory (QFT) becomes applicable. 

QFT deals with small distances and large speeds with many degrees of freedom as well as the possibility of any change in the number of particles throughout the interaction. 

To deal with large degrees of freedom at the macroscopic level, statistical mechanics becomes valid. Statistical mechanics explores the large number of particles and their interactions as a whole in everyday life. 

Statistical mechanics is mainly used in thermodynamics. In the case of high velocity objects approaching the speed of light, classical mechanics is enhanced by special relativity. 

General relativity unifies special relativity with Newton's law of universal gravitation, allowing physicists to handle gravitation at a deeper level.

Origin of the term classical mechanics

The term classical mechanics was coined in the early 20th century to describe the system of physics begun by Isaac Newton and many contemporary 17th century natural philosophers, building upon the earlier astronomical theories of Johannes Kepler, which in turn were based on the precise observations of Tycho Brahe and the studies of terrestrial projectile motion of Galileo. 


A replica of Galileo's  workshop in the Deutsches Museum. image: R.Conan-Davies

Since these aspects of physics were developed long before the emergence of quantum physics and relativity, some sources exclude Einstein's theory of relativity from this category. However, a number of modern sources do include relativistic mechanics, which in their view represents classical mechanics in its most developed and most accurate form. 

The initial stage in the development of classical mechanics is often referred to as Newtonian mechanics, and is associated with the physical concepts employed by and the mathematical methods invented by Newton himself, in parallel with Leibniz, and others. 

How classical mechanics developed further

Later, more abstract and general methods were developed, leading to reformulations of classical mechanics known as Lagrangian mechanics and Hamiltonian mechanics. 

These advances were largely made in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they extend substantially beyond Newton's work, particularly through their use of analytical mechanics. Ultimately, the mathematics developed for these were central to the creation of quantum mechanics.

source: adapted from