Sciency Words: What the Heck is a Tensor?

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Sciency Words is a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at new and interesting scientific terms to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


I have barely scratched the surface of what this word means. In my efforts to become a better science fiction writer, I spend a lot of time reading (or attempting to read) scientific papers, and I’ve encountered this word many, many times. I have come to the conclusion that tensors—whatever they are—are one of the most important concepts in all of physics.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Tensors involve a lot of math.
  • They can be easily translated from one frame of reference to another, assuming you understand all that math.
  • They mathematically show how large sets of coordinates and/or forces are related to each other.
  • Tensors are categorized into different ranks or orders, depending on how much math they involve.
  • Scalars and vectors are examples of simple tensors (order zero and order one, respectively).
  • Seriously, there’s a whole lot of math.

I think I’m off to a good start, but clearly I have a lot to learn. Tensors are used in a wide range of fields (I think I’m making a pun here, though I’m not sure if I get it). They’re used in both relativity and quantum mechanics, they’re used in engineering, and apparently they’re used in computer graphics (meaning they have an artistic application).

If anyone can help me get a better understanding of this concept or if you know a good place where I can try to learn more, please let me know in the comments below. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to write a more intelligent post on tensors. Until then, keep it sciency, my friends.

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