Why Study Physics? – The Results

By Mark Trodden | June 18, 2006 12:22 pm

I’m currently in England to attend the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of New Journal of Physics. I flew in on Thursday morning, watched England scrape a win against Trinidad & Tobago with friends in a pub in London that afternoon and participated in the actual meeting on Friday. Yesterday I drove up to the North West to see my parents for a few days and am blogging from their house.

It’s about time I reported on the small competition I initiated before my last trip. As a reminder, I said

I’d like to construct a Letterman-like top ten list of reasons why undecided college students should seriously consider physics as their choice of undergraduate major. An important ground rule is that it is not my assumption that anyone choosing to become a physics major would intend to later go to graduate school and become a professional physicist, although they might.

I’ve now chosen my top ten. I’ve picked five serious and five humorous ones and tried not to repeat sentiments or authors, although it was tempting since multiple people made some of the same points in such nice ways. Obviously this is mostly fun and my choices are completely idiosyncratic. I have chosen to slightly edit some, either for grammatical reasons or for length, although I hope I’ve been careful not to change the meaning. Let me know if yours is chosen and you think I’ve misrepresented your meaning. Here goes:

  1. To gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental principles that govern our universe and everything in it, while at the same time picking up a broad and eminently useful skillset—the ability to analyze and deconstruct problems, to effectively communicate solutions. [tom fish; see comment number 1. Very nicely put.]
  2. You get an excellent “Bullshit detector” and learn to see what is important. [Dimitri Terryn; see comment number 22. Straight to the point.]
  3. Because you want to succeed in (choose one):
    business, law, medicine, education, engineering, politics. Or research in physics.
    [macho; see comment number 21; read the entire comment for the justification for this. Punchy!]
  4. There are lots of people in the world who can read and write well (despite much conflicting evidence in the blogosphere). There are far fewer who can think clearly. The world needs more of the latter. [gbob, see comment number 31. Indeed – it’s not just about learning facts.]
  5. There will never again be such a thing as scary math. On the other hand, nonrigorous math won’t scare you. When the metal meets the road, you can do back of the envelope calculations and clean them up if things pan out. [Fred Ross; see comment number 25. A nice complement to the first point about critical thinking skills.]
  6. The thrill of being on the brink of discovery is second only to being madly in love. [twaters; see comment number 33. Beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more.]
  7. You get to play with cooler, more expensive toys than your friends. [Spatulated; see comment number 13. Mostly for experimentalists, but still a fair point – the LHC is the World’s largest machine!]
  8. When you are referred to as a nuclear physicist or rocket scientist, it may not be a mere figure of speech. [citrine; see comment number 34. True, and see comment number 35 for how to use this.]
  9. Because the cows won’t launch themselves. [Stephen; see comment number 4. Irresistible – we love our spherical cows.]
  10. Can try to use Heisenberg uncertainty principle to talk your way out of a traffic ticket. [Elliot; see comment number 14. Optimistic – a perfect way to end.]

Thanks to all for participating – it was fun to see what you all think about this.

  • Science

    A very nice optimistic list. It is good to keep optimistic about physics, no matter what happens.

  • Ambitwistor

    Re: #10: I had a physics teacher in high school who claimed he once talked his way out of a speeding ticket. He convinced the judge at traffic court that the reading didn’t reflect his true road speed, because the cop was moving as he took the reading (lunging out of some bushes after my teacher passed by). Went into a lecture on the Doppler effect and everything. Of course, (a) his true speed was greater than what the gun read since the instrument was approaching him, and (b) the difference could only have been a few miles an hour, but he claimed the physics jargon saved the day and the judge bought it…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Science – it is not an optimistic list; it is a list that fits the bill of the original post.

  • Science

    Well it makes me optimistic!

  • Stephen

    I still maintain that if the cows could launch themselves, I would go into real estate.

  • Chris W.

    Re: #2 and #10, and comment 2: An undergraduate major in physics can give you an excellent bullshit generator to go along with that bullshit detector—kind of like being a magician. (Think James Randi…)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Great list, Mark!

  • Edi

    I don’t see why none mentioned what I think is one of the more.. real reasons. Physics (including engineering) offers pretty good employment opportunities. Only a very small percentage, far lower than the national, of physics graduates are unemployed. And if worse comes to worse you can get a job as a high school teacher. Even if you don’t go to graduate school, a physics degree tells people that you have what it takes to both do the mathematics and apply them to real life. So even if you end up getting a job outside the physical fields, i’d bet that any employer would see a physics degree as a definite plus.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Edi. I agree, but think that is at least partially covered by 1., 3., and 5. Some of the comments did mention it more explicitly, but somehow I liked the broader wordings of the ones I chose a bit better. Cheers,

  • Say Lee

    An idiosyncratic list indeed, with some “feel-good” elements thrown in. But it was fun while it lasted.

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  • http://viciousmomma.blogspot.com Rae Ann

    A late entry just for kicks, thanks to Cynthia for complimenting my answer at CIP’s blog. My answer was:

    Isn’t physics basically the study of bodies (or particles or strings or whatever) in motion and their interaction? What’s more interesting than that? 😉

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ QUASAR9

    Physics & Engineering. Understanding the world around us, the world we are in and the world we are building. From cutting the stone & marble (stonemasons) to raising the tallest spires. From extinguishers for Towering Inferno, to double hulls for the Titanic & Exxon Valdez. From silent/safe lifts for skyscrapers, to maglev and bullet trains. From energy generation to energy transmission to energy use. From jet engines to Boeing and Airbus. From smooth silent & safe road surfaces to optimum wheels and tyres. Everything around you is physics, even your laptops, your communications & satellite systems.

    And the future: well imagine, and then imagine some more. Applied Physics & Material Sciences, Geophysics, Particle physics, Theoretical Physics, Astrophysics … ad infinitum. Q

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  • http://dcubed.blogspot.com Dilip D

    Well … am I thinking clearly or writing clearly here?

    What a delightful list, anyway.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    8/9, Edi/MarK: The PhD as a device to help one land a job is dependent on country/economic conditions however. For example, it is an argument that wouldn’t work in Italy, in fact it would work against you. If you meet an Italian older than about 45 years old with a PhD, then that means that they were educated outside of the country, because the PhD degree was only begun in the middle 1980s to try to match the educational conditions abroad (Note that the assignment of title: ‘Dottore’ or ‘Dottoressa’ can be used for anyone who has earned a Laurea degree, the equivalent of the Masters.) The general population’s nonacceptance / misunderstandings about science and technology persist today; the PhD is not considered important or useful in Italy; it’s a common idea that if one has a PhD, then one didn’t want to work during those years of earning the degree (I discovered this view even among people who should know better, such as the upper management of Italy’s largest aerospace company.) Young people in Italy who know that the PhD degree is important have many obstacles to overcome when choosing science as a career path, their love of their respective fields is what gets them through it.

  • Don H.

    “…When the metal meets the road,…”

    If the metal is meeting the road then it is time to stop and change your tire.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    What’s your point Don H.?

  • Bob E.

    Why study physics? A personal perspective…
    I have returned to physics grad school after a 30 year hiatus attempting to complete my PhD (previously attended UofC Sean, way before your time). Why? Obviously a career change in this latter third of my life is highly improbable. I have no economic motivations. Why go through the self-imposed stress?. Why study late into the night to the point of exhaustion? Why divert attention from my wife (who is totally supportive BTW)? One word not mentioned in the list is LOVE. Why do I study physics? Simply, because I love it. It excites me. It makes me feel young(er) and more alive. I HAVE to do it. Do others view me as an older man just trying to resolve a mid-life crises in a most strange fashion? I don’t care. Physics is my extra-marital affair.

    Great blog. I keep stumbling on all these incredible physics Internet resources.

  • roman

    hay i am physics lover.
    i love physics morethan i love myself .
    is this my madness or my thirst to learn nature.

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Cosmic Variance

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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