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Cosmology or Theoretical Physics?

  1. Nov 19, 2014 #1
    I don't really have to look into this just yet but it bothers me.
    I quite like cosmology and stuff like such. Universal topology and relativity and sum of histories and stuff. Fun! I really would like to study any theoretical physics though, it just strikes my fancy particularly. I figure I'd have to be looking into Astronomy. However, when looking into the three-year entrance-level programmes at uni (Kandidatprogram in Sweden) I'm sort of worried. Astronomy in my head feels more like things along the lines of studying aspects of celestial bodies and categorical observation or somesuch. That's all fun but not really what I want.. I could probably phrase it better. I'm also all about phi-of-sci, metaphysical philosophy (+epistemology) and purer mathematics.
    Should I be going straight for Astronomy, or should I be gunning for physics and then Theoretical Physics master? Where does "Astrophysics" fit into all that?
    Have also been looking into some other programmes like pure mathematics, Applied physics, and doubley stuff such as "Physics and philosophy", "Mathematics and philosophy". How far off from theoretical physics would these kandidatprogram put me?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 19, 2014 #2
    Have you thought any about who is going to employ you (assuming you are not independently wealthy)?
  4. Nov 19, 2014 #3
    Not particularly. Is that of much use to me so early? I mean, there's a lot of things I can't predict at this point and I'm not even sure what or where to study, obviously.
  5. Nov 19, 2014 #4


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    Cosmology is more linked to theoretical physics than you might think. I would say that the link is at least as strong as the astronomy link. Of course, you can go into anything in between, such as the physics within astronomical objects, but a physics degree would probably be more useful in this scenario as well. A physics program will give you a broader physics knowledge which is applicable in a larger variety of settings.

    Programs such as engineering physics (sv. teknisk fysik) are broader and contain more applied courses, yet it is perfectly possible to pursue a PhD in theoretical physics or cosmology after completing a master (assuming that you select a suitable master after the bachelor -- e.g., not solid mechanics and strength of materials). My impression is also that graduates from engineering physics generally have an easier time getting a job if they leave academia than those with a degree in physics or astronomy.
  6. Nov 19, 2014 #5
    Ah, yeah, that's what I was trying to get at with "applied physics". Probably the safest bet, but with that one I'm just worried that I'll be left out of some theoretical things in lieu of stuff that is fun but which I can't see being all too useful in what I'm actually interested in. Like, programming as an example. I'm supposing it would also further remove me from secondary interests like pure maths and phi-o-sci. Could the worries be grounded?
  7. Nov 19, 2014 #6
    Oh, sounds to me like you have a lot to worry about, a whole lot.

    But don't let employment prospects ever get in your way. Do what you want, and somebody else will pay the bills.

    You ask if you should worry about employment "so early." If you are worrying about all these other things, I really would hope that there would be enough reality in your considerations to think about employment.
  8. Nov 19, 2014 #7
    Okay, uh, wow. It's not been completely out of my mind I just haven't been quite as confused about it. I suppose I'd prefer going into university academia, maybe tutoring and such, or working on those massiveish international projects (The ones I know top of my head is ESA and while not cosmology there's the inland particle physics stuff like CERN). I understand though that it's not something to count on. (This site in particular seem to be very pessimistic, not sure how US-local that is though).
    If such things doesn't work having studied Engi Physics would give the biggest prospects for work in industry (Teknisk Fysik is a Civil Engineers' programme). Depending on neccessary education at that point subject-specific teaching at upper secondary or junior high wouldn't be out of the question. I hear a lot about physicists going into finance, which I'd like to avoid even though it wouldn't kill me, oh dear.
    I have (if mostly equally distant) other interests that might be something to work with at some point, too.
    Should I be more specific? Companies I wanna work with? I'm not sure I understand the attitude.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2014
  9. Nov 19, 2014 #8
    Cosmology/pure theoretical physics (people working on topological order, HEP, quantum gravity, string theory etc) are very minuscule pools to try and swim in. I would say that it is probably in your best interests to pursue more applied topics. Even excellent students have a very hard time making it into the fields you have implied you have an interest in, and frankly, the enjoyment of working on more "pure" disciplines relative to more applied ones is unlikely to be significantly different.

    At the end of the day, you are either a) building mathematical models, b) calculating the consequences of mathematical models, or c) collecting empirical data via experiment and observation which other people build models with and compare with calculations, or some combination. I once worked on a numerical QED project, and then worked on projects on protein simulations, two very different scientific things, and the feeling was pretty much the same. Coming up with algorithms, writing the algorithms, debugging the algorithms, going back to the drawing board if it's a disaster, or optimizing it if it wasn't. Why pursue something absurdly difficult when you can pursue something with better funding and industrial opportunities?
  10. Nov 20, 2014 #9
    Believe it or not, but there are some people who just don't care about applied research, 'industrial applications', or even expecting any type of employment once they finish all of their schooling. OP might be one of those people. I'm sure it sounds crazy to people who reduce an abstract thing like education to employment prospects and projected salaries, though.
  11. Nov 20, 2014 #10
    It's dangerous to idolize, but I think the question "What would Feynman do?" is relevant to ask here, and I do not think if he were a young student that he would study cosmology or particle physics.

    Why? Because the character of a good physicist is not the character of a philosopher, who is trying to find "deep answers" or is driven by mathematical aesthetics; a profusion of such individuals has dominated aspects of modern physics, and we are left with rubbish such as the multiverse hypothesis. The character of a good physicist also looks for situations which are motivated by good experiments, because the heart and soul of physics, as an empirical enterprise, is good experiments. Feynman didn't like Bohmian mechanics or quantum gravity for these reasons; he thought the former was interesting but saw no meaningful problem in it, and worked a bit on the latter as his last priority before death, after first decrying that there were no good people in the field because there were no good experiments.

    You should think for yourself, and not just do what Feynman would do, but I think the Feynman's of today are entering robotics, neuroscience, genetics, quantum information (where the good experiments are, i.e. not topological quantum computing), biophysics, and other similar fields. They do not dismiss a field for puerile philosophical reasons; they just want a good problem to solve, one which keeps the mind satisfied with a good challenge.
  12. Nov 20, 2014 #11


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    Regarding names of Swedish programs in English: In general, you cannot just translate civilingenjör as civil engineering, as that is more akin to samhällsbyggnad. Thus, you can be a civilingenjör in civil engineering, but a civilingenjör is not necessarily a civil engineer. Even before the Bologna process, the closest international equivalent to civilingenjör was master of science or master of engineering, depending on the program. My own degree certificate says "Civilingenjör i Teknisk fysik / Master of Science in engineering physics" if I am not misremembering. Today, the civilingenjör programs are generally split into a bachelor and a master, with several master programs being mapped by the engineering physics bachelor program - meaning you will get the title civilingenjör if you complete the bachelor and one of these master programs.

    That being said, the programming courses in engineering physics are not as far removed from research in theoretical physics or cosmology as you may thing. A lot of front line research today requires the use of computer simulations and being able to program efficiently and well is a good skill to have. Personally, the courses I have taken that I use the least in my research are probably solid mechanics and strength of materials (hållfasthetslära) and automated control (reglerteknik). In the end, you can select the focus of your studies through a master program and there is going to be a certain amount of elective courses already at the bachelor level.

    I would recommend the engineering physics program at KTH, but as you might have guessed, I am highly biased in this matter (I hear the current lecturer in Mathematical Methods in Physics is just excellent :p).

    Edit: Since you mentioned ESA: The only Swedish astronaut has his degree from engineering physics at KTH.
  13. Nov 20, 2014 #12
    You're probably right, but the more pressing question is, why should anyone care whether Feynmann wouldn't go into HEP or cosmology if he were a student today?

    I believe your definition of a 'good' physicist is rather arbitrary, but that's really besides the point. Now, it's rather obvious that there are no shortage of physicists working on applied problems and who are intrigued by that sort of thing (in fact, the majority of them are), but it almost appears as if it's offensive to certain people on here that there are people who are captivated only by fundamental and esoteric subjects and have absolutely zero interest in practical application.

    Sure, but that type of person who decides to go into HEP and cosmology these days, knowing full well they will likely have to either retrain for a different career or work low-skill work upon finishing their doctoral work, would likely not very much care what the 'Feynmanns' of today are doing.
  14. Nov 20, 2014 #13
    I get your point, yeah. I'm looking into applied stuff too, but the theoretical stuff just seems worth the difficulty.
    Oh, right, silly me. Thanks for catching that!
    How big parts of the programme are they? I'd really want to avoid null courses the best I can :/
    Haha, yeah, that's the one I'll be checking out! Might even get a course there in third grade of Upper secondary/Gymnasiet because of Mattecirkel.
    And yeah, I heard about that. I was under the impression he teaches one of the obscurer masters there now?
  15. Nov 20, 2014 #14


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    The program is currently being reshaped, so I cannot tell exactly how it is going to be when you start. The general idea is to introduce more elective courses in the bachelor program, which makes all departments upset because they are losing compulsory credits. What I can say is that I used to think very much like you do and the applied courses were also interesting, although I do not use the subjects directly nowadays. As someone said when I started: "An engineering physicist does not need to know everything, just to be able to learn it until friday." Meaning that the main skill learned is how to learn effectively - from there you can go in essentially any related directions.

    And yes, Christer is currently a teacher and researcher at the department of physics. They have several connections to experimeents such as FERMI, PAMELA, PoGoLite, and ATLAS. There is also the Theoretical physics department doing research in high-energy theory, condensed matter theory, and theoretical biological physics, as well as the Applied physics department (but from what you are saying this is not your cup of tea).
  16. Nov 20, 2014 #15
    Looking at employment prospects is not the low-life, down and dirty, perspective that Dragoon makes it sound. Each of us eventually has to find our place in society. If you are employed, you have validation that someone (your employer) values your work. If you are unemployed, and unemployable, then you really have to question whether you are a contributing member of society, or not.

    For a very self-absorbed young person, the prospect of doing just what they want to do, and let others pay the bills, may sound very attractive. As that person ages and matures (some age but don't mature), they will eventually question what their own value is. If your field is one will fund (thus there are no jobs for navel gazers), then what have you done with your life?
  17. Nov 20, 2014 #16
    I'm not sure I understand what I did to sound self-absorbed...
    It's not like I haven't thought at all about work and such, it's just that I wanted to have some stuff cleared up regarding fields to study. I mean, PF gave me the impression that what you study isn't neccessarily what you work with so specifically. Even (or especially) in physics.
    I don't see the need to have the attitude that you need to "put the kid in his place" and stuff..
  18. Nov 20, 2014 #17


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    Indeed, people will do several different things after completing a Master or PhD. Among my PhD "brothers and sisters" (i.e., the other graduated students of my supervisor) I am currently the only one with a tenure track position. Two are post-docs, one is working as a financial analyst, and one is working for Comsol. In general there are several options, I have a friend who did his PhD in quantitative biology who is now doing things related to how to present statistics to the general public. I think that the only thing one needs to be aware of when selecting a path is that the academic job market can be quite harsh, which does not mean that you should just give up before trying. However, it is a healthy realisation that will serve well if (not when) everything does not end as expected.
  19. Nov 20, 2014 #18
    Feynman was just the easiest example of an excellent physicist who's skill was not controversial. Unlike Einstein, who's a bit easier, he did not become steeped in philosophy and irrelevant in his later life.

    The problem with being interested in fundamental, esoteric subjects is not that you won't find a job, you definitely can find non-academic employment, but rather that physics isn't the proper vehicle for studying fundamental, esoteric subjects. That's never been the point of physics. Physics as philosophy commentating on deep philosophical questions has produced hardly any good results. The Copenhagen interpretation is an example of what happens when professional physicists run into philosophical problems; they concern themselves with calculating things, not frivolous open ended questions about "what does it all mean?"

    There's no scientific relevance to questions such as "What does a unified theory of all the fundamental forces look like?" or "How will the universe end?"; the former being an example of an aesthetic philosophical question, and the latter being a question which, lying outside of our experimental reach at present, is scientifically meaningless.

    I suppose what I would argue is that if your approach to physics is philosophical, you should consider a philosophy degree. By all means, think very hard about philosophical questions, perhaps even make mathematical arguments, people seem to enjoy buying popular books about them. But don't confuse what you are pursuing with physics or science.
  20. Nov 26, 2014 #19
    What would you recommend instead, then? Astrophysics - being less heavy on (dry) mathematics, or what? Those job prospects are even worse.
  21. Nov 26, 2014 #20
    That's a hard question to answer. Computational astrophysicists deal with complex systems. Stochastic processes, high performance computing, and model building are probably par for the course in this discipline. This is merely a guess, but I suspect that such people can get good jobs in finance.

    Less of a guess is what's in store for some of the experimenters. Much of the work on detectors from conversations with friends and colloquia looks an awful lot like condensed matter experiment. A friend of mine got a job offer at IBM's quantum computing center with a background in detector design. I'm not an expert on this stuff but I imagine astrophysics has less abysmal prospects than you suggest.

    I chose something which is very active, has excellent funding potential, and is very interesting (biophysics). One upside for those of you who like arcane mathematics is that there is always somebody trying to use it somewhere. I've seen groups which use differential geometry (membrane modeling, predicting the shape of the endoplasmic reticulum), algebraic geometry (algebraic statistics; algebraic models of the genome, applications to bioinformatics), algebraic topology (I know people have been trying to use knot theory to study DNA/Protein folding for some time now). These convoluted disciplines are much less mainstream than more mundane stuff like stochastic processes, though, so your mileage may vary.
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2014
  22. Nov 26, 2014 #21

    I suppose you made my point: They won't be working (employed) in astrophysics.
  23. Nov 26, 2014 #22
    I keep seeing a lot about people going from physics to finance. Is it just because the mathematical modelling is similiar and it's a stable job or is there something else to it? Would someone with a interest in physics and mathematics be stimulated by finance?
  24. Nov 26, 2014 #23

    Larry Gopnik

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    One word: Money.

    A few people on my course (Im studying Theoretical Physics) actually dont really have an interest in Physics. They are capable of taking the course and see it as a great way of getting a well paid office job in banking or whatever when they graduate since Physicists and Mathematics is a well respected course
  25. Nov 26, 2014 #24
    Ah, I thought you were referring to employment in general. I suspect that academic employment depends upon a fine balance of the following:

    1. How many people are entering the field.
    2. How good funding is in the field.
    3. How scientifically active the field is.

    High energy particle theory, as an example, is a pretty stagnant field, and the funding is not growing from my understanding. The number of people entering the field has well over-saturated it. So 1 fails; you'd need to be absurdly competitive. To have a chance at being competitive, you need 3 to be satisfied. 1 and 3 are irrelevant if 2 isn't satisfied. Of course these conditions are not independent of each other, necessarily.

    You'd have to look into these three conditions or some variation thereof for astrophysics.

    There's more to it than money; the financial system is a very difficult unsolved mathematical modeling problem, with the interesting caveat that if you model it well, you can make quite a bit of money. Of course most graduates are hired to babysit supercomputers, I assume, rather than build new models, but I don't personally know.
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