Monday, June 9, 2014

Why choose physics?

Students are accustomed to hearing this question: "What will you major in?" Here, I describe why one might choose physics.

We have a reputation. 
I tell my students in every class that the most important thing I think you will take from physics is the ability to look at a problem you have never seen before, break it up into its fundamental parts and not give up until you have solved it. That is the proud reputation of a physicist. Employers hire us because we are problem solvers, hard workers and creative thinkers (yes, creative!). We learn to look at a situation from many angles. We can analyze systems. We think skeptically yet constructively, even about our own work.

Physics is fundemental. 
Students who pursue physics are often seeking answers to questions. Physics is an elegant fundamental science. It is the study of the observed laws of nature and consistencies in the universe. It is a mathematical description of how physical things work. Physics can be used to explain and predict. 

Our skills translate. 
Skills learned in physics can apply to many fields. A former student told me that before she took physics, she didn't know how to approach a problem that she did not immediately understand. She used to give up, but now she has learned to dig deeper. She also learned how to structure written work, think logically and communicate effectively. Our skills, such as problem solving, error analysis, critical thinking, theoretical and experimental design, are useful in many professions. Want to go into law or medicine? Choose physics. Did you know that physics majors are among the highest score achievers on the MCAT (medical school entry test) and the LSAT (law school entry test)? Fewer physics students take these tests but when they do they score higher than biology, chemistry or pre-medical major students on the MCAT and higher than pre-law major students on the LSAT (citing American Institute of Physics publication, "Focus On" December 2013). Physics is closely related to mathematics. Mathematics is the language we "speak." Our math methods can describe other systems too, such as ecosystems, financial markets, earthquakes or blood flow. We can analyze collisions between galaxies or behavior of particles so small that you can't even see them with a microscope. But let's be clear here. Like all skills (think of, for example, mastering a musical instrument), physics takes practice, perseverance and continual dedication. 

We ask questions.  
How do we get energy from the sun, a material or the ocean? Can we predict the direction that a hurricane will spin? Or a Frisbee will glide? Or a comet will orbit? What is the strange and wondrous link between electricity, magnetism and light? How can a spacecraft travel through space when there is nothing to push off of? How is it that our bodies are made of remnants of exploding stars? How do we know what the stars are made of anyway? What is a black hole? Do you want to investigate these questions and ask deep questions of your own? Do you enjoy the language of mathematics? Then physics may be the right choice for you.

Photograph by Katrina Hay and Cullen Andrews, Rattlesnake Mountain Observatory
People choose to study physics for many reasons. For me, I was seeking answers to questions. Big questions. I wanted to know more about the cosmos. Investigating my questions led me deeper into more questions. Physics tells the story of mathematical elegance, the surprising simplicity of the laws of nature and the rich beauty of the universe.