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Aspiring Physicist

  1. May 31, 2010 #1
    I'm confused on the different fields of physics. 14 years old and I"m very interested in this type of work, but I can't really decipher the difference between two fields which really interest me. Astrophysics and Theoretical physics. I have the definitions of the two and I've read about Theoretical Astrophysics but compared to actual Theoretical physics what does that entail? I've also read a lot about Quantum Physics and that really interests me as well. I've read a couple books by Dr. Michio Kaku and am especially interested in String theory and a possible theory of everything. So I guess my overall questions here is: based on the information given what do you think would be the best branch in physics for me to look into?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 31, 2010 #2
    You don't have to make that choice yet. You have years upon years of schooling left before you even get to make that choice.

    To be clear:
    In general, there is experimental physics and theoretical physics.

    Then, there are various fields within physics: Astrophysics, Computational Physics, Particle Physics, Quantum Field Theory, etc.

    There are experimental and theoretical aspects to all of these. So, you pick a field, then you go, "Okay, now, do I want to do theoretical of experimental?"

    Are you good at mathematics and formal logic? (You probably don't know yet) or would you rather be working in a lab? (again, you probably don't know)

    If you don't know, what sounds more appealing?
  4. Jun 1, 2010 #3
    Dude no offense but you're 14 years old. When i was 14, i wanted to be a paleontologist and then a stock broker, then a chef, then a pirate (yes i'm serious), then an actor, then an astronaut, and the list seriously goes on and on. I really doubt you would want to be a physicist by the time you're ready to attend university. Just relax and be a kid. I mean honestly gr 10 and under really don't matter at all. Even when you're in grade 11, it doesn't matter as much. Grade 12 you gotta work a bit but not that much to get into university.

    Just have a good work ethic and that will get you through anything in life.

    edit: Oh yeah when i was 16, i wanted to be a quantum physicist too. Now i wanna take things slowly and just try and get into university for any math program. Take it one step at a time. No need to rush into this at all.
  5. Jun 2, 2010 #4

    For now, I would stick to the popular science books - enjoy what you're doing. The thing, however, about these books that you're reading is that they offer not only a romanticised version of events, but also do not even reflect the area of study that is relevant for almost all physicists. Things like 'string theory' are extremely difficult to get in to - not a lot of universities work on this, and this is the same with a lot of things you will read in popular books. Otherwise, there is also the fact that things like 'quantum physics' don't really exist as research entities anymore - quantum physics was developed and tested a long time ago and exists now as simply a tool for anyone that needs to use it. This applies to many, many fields in physics.

    To answer one of your questions, 'theoretical physics' isn't a subject. One does not go and study 'theoretical physics'. Loosely, there are two all-encompassing branches in physics: experimental and theoretical physics. Each subject (solid-state physics, optics, gravitational physics etc.) will have a theoretical aspect and an experimental aspect. Theory is about developing models, experiment is about testing those models to see if they match-up with the real world.

    Anyway, for the time being I would just say that you should focus on school, enjoy what you're doing for the moment and try to work hard in every subject you take, not just physics.
  6. Jun 2, 2010 #5


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    You could study theoretical astrophysics - in graduate school, about 8 years from now. You've got plenty of time to change your mind, and probably will (most people do). But I knew at age 12 I wanted to be an astronomer, and I'm finishing up a PhD in physics now working in astrophysics, so it's not unreasonable to think you'll stick with it. Major in physics in college. Get some research experience and see if you really like the fields. I had thought theory at first, thanks to reading popular books, but wasn't as interested in it after doing some research and taking the classes; I went into observational instead. And now I'm back to doing some theory/computational work in the field. You don't pick one thing and do only that anymore.

    But do be wary of the popular books - string theory isn't anywhere near as accepted as they make it sound, nor is it considered a good field with a future for students who enter it. You might enter wanting to do a 'theory of everything' but you'll almost certainly end up specializing on something far more narrow in scope. And yes, there's still research going on in quantum mechanics.
  7. Jun 2, 2010 #6
    As you learn more, some fields will be more interesting and some will be less. Around the time that I started grad school I stopped becoming interested in string theory, because it looked to me like a lot of math that was unlikely to actually lead to anything because there wasn't enough data, so I started working on astrophysical turbulence and convection which got me into supernova.
  8. Jun 2, 2010 #7

    You're a really rare case though. You stuck with what you loved. I thought i was going to be a brick layer and even did the course on it but when you're actually laboring, it's totally different. I'm not saying the topic creator won't become a physicist but for most people it's extremely rare.
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