array: A broad and organized group of objects. Sometimes they are instruments placed in a systematic fashion to collect information in a coordinated way. Other times, an array can refer to things that are laid out or displayed in a way that can make a broad range of related things, such as colors, visible at once. The term can even apply to a range of options or choices.
astrophysics: An area of astronomy that deals with understanding the physical nature of stars and other objects in space. People who work in this field are known as astrophysicists.
atom: (adj. atomic) The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
atomic clock: A timekeeping device that relies on the frequency of microwave emissions from excited atoms. For example, for the cesium atom that frequency is 9,192,631,770 hertz (or cycles/oscillations per second). Many common devices including cell phones, computers and GPS-satellite receivers rely on the high accuracy of atomic clocks to regularly reset their time (known as synchronization).
autonomous: Acting independently. Autonomous vehicles, for instance, pilot themselves based on instructions that have been programmed into their computer guidance system.
behavior: The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.
climate change: Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
cloud: A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents.
cosmology: The science of the origin and development of the cosmos, or universe. People who work in this field are known as cosmologists.
dilation: A term that refers to widening of an opening (such as the pupil of an organism’s eye or the lens of a camera) or lengthening/stretching of something (such as time).
distort: (n. distortion) To change the shape or image of something in a way that makes it hard to recognize, or to change the perception or characterization of something (as to mislead).
electric field: A region around a charged particle or object within which a force would be exerted on other charged particles or objects.
electronics: Devices that are powered by electricity but whose properties are controlled by the semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.
elevation: The height or altitude at which something exists.
force: Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.
frequency: The number of times some periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified time interval. (In physics) The number of wavelengths that occurs over a particular interval of time.
fundamental: Something that is basic or serves as the foundation for another thing or idea.
glacier: A slow-moving river of ice hundreds or thousands of meters deep. Glaciers are found in mountain valleys and also form parts of ice sheets.
GPS: Abbreviation for global positioning system, which uses a device to calculate the position of individuals or things (in terms of latitude, longitude and elevation — or altitude) from any place on the ground or in the air. The device does this by comparing how long it takes signals from different satellites to reach it.
graduate student: Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
gravity: The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.
laser: A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, in data storage and in surgery.
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): A U.S. government research agency founded in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards. Its name changed to NIST in 1988. Over the years, NIST has become a major center for research in the physical sciences. One of its enduring functions is the development of new and more precise ways to measure things, from time and electricity to the size of an atom and wavelengths of light. With facilities in Gaithersburg, Md., and Boulder, Colo., it employs some 2,900 people.
optical: An adjective that refers to light or vision.
oscillate: To swing back and forth with a steady, uninterrupted rhythm.
primary: An adjective meaning major, first or most important. (In reference to colors). The basic hues that can combine to make all other colors. For mixing light, the primary colors are red, green, and blue.
quantum: (pl. quanta) A term that refers to the smallest amount of anything, especially of energy or subatomic mass.
quantum physics: A branch of physics that uses quantum theory to explain or predict how a physical system will operate on the scale of atoms or sub-atomic particles.
regime: A system of government or an established organization that tends to establish rules; or the normal or conventional way of looking at something or doing something.
relativity: (in physics) A theory developed by physicist Albert Einstein showing that neither space nor time are constant, but instead affected by one’s velocity and the mass of things in your vicinity.
system: A network of parts that together work to achieve some function. For instance, the blood, vessels and heart are primary components of the human body’s circulatory system. Similarly, trains, platforms, tracks, roadway signals and overpasses are among the potential components of a nation’s railway system. System can even be applied to the processes or ideas that are part of some method or ordered set of procedures for getting a task done.
technology: The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
theory: (in science) A description of some aspect of the natural world based on extensive observations, tests and reason. A theory can also be a way of organizing a broad body of knowledge that applies in a broad range of circumstances to explain what will happen. Unlike the common definition of theory, a theory in science is not just a hunch. Ideas or conclusions that are based on a theory — and not yet on firm data or observations — are referred to as theoretical. Scientists who use mathematics and/or existing data to project what might happen in new situations are known as theorists.
trillion: A number representing a million million — or 1,000,000,000,000 — of something.
universe: The entire cosmos: All things that exist throughout space and time. It has been expanding since its formation during an event known as the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years).
vacuum: Space with little or no matter in it. Laboratories or manufacturing plants may use vacuum equipment to pump out air, creating an area known as a vacuum chamber.