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.


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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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