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Studying Do I have to be interested in practical applications to study physics

  • Thread starter Donman90
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I'm looking at changing my university degree to go back and study science with a major in physics. I've always had a deep interest in the way the world works and how much of what happens around the world and the universe seems to be governed by simple laws, or some cases not so simple. My main reservation is that I really have no great interest in some of the more ' practical ' application behind these things. I have absolutely no interest in becoming a engineer, my interest in coding basically exists only at the level that it can assist us in discovering and making the world a more manageable place, but I have no fundamental interest in it. I'm also quite interested in chemistry for the same reasons, but again have no real interest in actually pursuing some of the more practical jobs surrounding chemistry.

My goal behind studying science would actually be to become a high school science teacher, so it's not so much a question around what job aspects exists if I'm not interested in practical applications of the knowledge, but rather in studying physics at a undergraduate level is it possible to get through this without really focusing on the practical applications of this?
 
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Yes. Do not listen to people who are advising you that it isn't so for their advise is usually tailored for a very narrow career path e.g. someone who wants to become 'the best' academic, professional physicist or engineer that they can be and financially successful and societally respectable as well.

Learning physics for the love of physics is great; it means you do not care about fame/financial rewards/etc and the opinion that other physicists have about you or your career. This makes your motivations for doing science far purer than many people who go into particular directions in science in their career for the wrong reasons.

Even moreso, if you are able to impart that burning passion for physics to new generations at a young age, you are doing noble work. Nothing is stopping you from becoming a physics education showman like Walter Lewin but at a high school level. I also recommend you watch all his lectures if you haven't already and get/listen the Feynman Lectures as well.

To end, I quote Feynman:
Feynman said:
Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.
 

CrysPhys

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My goal behind studying science would actually be to become a high school science teacher, so it's not so much a question around what job aspects exists if I'm not interested in practical applications of the knowledge, but rather in studying physics at a undergraduate level is it possible to get through this without really focusing on the practical applications of this?
Is it possible to do well in undergrad physics, without being interested in practical applications? Yes, because most undergrad physics courses deal with simplified, ideal, model instances. However, if your goal is to become an effective high school science teacher, I think an interest in practical applications would be useful: i.e., there may be some students such as you who are interested in pursuing physics in and of itself, but many more students will likely be more motivated if they see physics in action, applied to solving real problems. If you can discuss how physics approaches problem solving (evolving from ideal models to real-life scenarios), I think you'll get more student engagement.
 
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Dr Transport

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If I was still in the education field, I'd hire a competent, inquisitive physics major who was certified to teach high school. In the time I was working in that field, I didn't see that in any of the science/math teachers I interacted with. I don't recall any of my co-workers, save two, who had an actual technical degree, all were education majors who had the necessary credits to teach particular subjects, both of the exceptions are women who worked as engineers in industry and decided that after some years they wanted to have kids and stay home with them so they taught.

One of the reasons why I got out was that I had ~20 years in industry, loved that and wanted to go back, not to mention I had to take a 50% pay cut to teach high school full time.
 

CrysPhys

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My main reservation is that I really have no great interest in some of the more ' practical ' application behind these things. I have absolutely no interest in becoming a engineer, my interest in coding basically exists only at the level that it can assist us in discovering and making the world a more manageable place, but I have no fundamental interest in it. I'm also quite interested in chemistry for the same reasons, but again have no real interest in actually pursuing some of the more practical jobs surrounding chemistry.
<<Emphasis added.>> This comment appears out of place with your other comments. There's no issue with pursuing a subject as an end in itself. But how do you make the world a more manageable place without applying coding (or science) to solutions of real-world problems?
 

Choppy

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Undergraduate physics programs tend to be pretty demanding. And they're set up to cover as much of the field as they can. This will very likely include a lot of "practical application" course material.

As with learning just about anything, if you walk in with an attitude that you're not going to like a portion of it (particularly before you know what it really is), you might be able to get through, but that's a recipe for a negative experience.
 

vela

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By "practical application," do you mean doing any experimental or lab work?
 
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By "practical application," do you mean doing any experimental or lab work?
I'm assuming he means (monetizable) applications to the real world, i.e. engineering, at least this is the standard usage of the term. The justification for the existence of science is often presented in such a way to the public i.e. as a means to make things and make money by making things; this is a very impure motivation for doing and justfying the practice of science and its continued funding through tax money.

Consider biology as a science in comparison to physics. Learning and studying biological theory itself can be IMO very interesting - especially theoretical and mathematical biology and biophysics - but the man-made practical monetizable applications in and of themselves (e.g. gene editing techniques, novel pharmaceuticals etc) that have come from the practice of biology tend to be boring as hell from a purely theoretical scientific standpoint.

I assume many experimental biologists may think very differently about this and I admit that they are probably right if they were given the time to explain their point of view; the problem is time is limited and therefore of value. Occasionally something cool is discovered by them (like CRISPR-Cas) but 'cool' and scientifically inherently interesting are very different kinds of appreciations of knowledge; if some kind of knowledge can only be justified as valuable because of its practical applications it tends to be intellectually worthless from a non-experts perspective.

Of course, this is a very biased perspective and in fact everything I said about 'seeing science as only interesting because of its practical utility' as a bad view of science is somewhat hypocritical, because in scientific practice I tend to view much of mathematics in exactly this way. How do I justify this? Simple, by acknowledging that mathematics is not a science, but instead a collection of mental tools in order to do science; the academic study of this mental toolset is more akin to artisanship, philosophy and humanities than many would like to admit.
 
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vela

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I'm assuming he means (monetizable) applications to the real world, i.e. engineering, at least this is the standard usage of the term.
The question doesn't really make sense then. It's like asking if the OP asking if he has to take a bunch of engineering courses to earn a degree in physics.
 
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The question doesn't really make sense then. It's like asking if the OP asking if he has to take a bunch of engineering courses to earn a degree in physics.
You'd be surprised. Today many physics students just go into physics in order to learn mathematics, mathematical modelling skills, programming skills and/or experimental analysis skills and then leave physics/science altogether to find a high-paying job in other areas, such as the military/government, financial areas or engineering.

Because of this, many university administrative department and faculties are now even beginning to offer specific courses tailored to such applications and choose textbooks for their curricula which focus more on real world applications. Data science, which is actually just glorified large volume statistics coupled with good computized analysis programs, is a very hot area at the moment under young graduates who often never really planned to stay in academia in the first place.
 

symbolipoint

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Bunch of practical applications like in any of engineering, senses-medical assistance, maybe other stuff.
You think optometry and corrective eye lenses have something to do with Physics (Optics, geometrical and physical)? Earlier and modern hearing aids have anything to do with sound waves? (but maybe this relies far more on engieering).
 
Thanks for such a great collection of diverse replies. I apologise, my initial post was certainly not as clear as it could be. I'll try and clarify a few points below:

I'm interested in studying science more broadly, but specifically physics as it seems to me it is key to understanding much of what we currently know about the world. I find myself far more drawn to the theoretical side of physics, that's not to say I see myself working on some string theory or something along those lines, I just find the theoretical side of it far more interesting. When I said, " Making the world a more manageable place" that was definitely poorly worded, what I was referring to was not so much making it more manageable by creating technologies or applying science in a way that allows peoples lives to be easier, but making it conceptually more 'manageable'. I'm definitely not opposed to experimentation or lab work, if anything I'd be looking forward to that.

My concern really comes from often I read about people posting about should I study physics or engineering, should I do computer science or engineering, which just led me to think that perhaps it's impossible to separate the two. I understand entirely that a lot of physics these days relies on programming to analyse data sets, but frankly that is not specific to physics either. My current major is economics and the same thing goes there.

I also understand that naturally many physics experiments or work involes engineering, I guess I think of CERN and the large amount of engineering work that went into building the LHC, but again my interest there is in the actual discovery of new particles, I have very little direct interest in the actual creation of the physical LHC, but rather what happens in this.

Auto-Didact more or less summed up what I was getting at, I'm not really interested in many of the commercial applications of physics, they do amaze me in many ways but I'm far more interested in the theory itself. I find the simple discovery of the Higgs-Boson for more intriguing that what this may lead to in terms of industry, which to my understanding no one can really say yet anyway.

If I had the chance after undergrad, I wouldn't be opposed either to pursuing a PhD and research, but I'm far more interested in helping other people understand the world which is why I'm leaning toward teaching. I also have a teaching degree from a number of years ago but my major was in History, not science.
 

ZapperZ

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I find the simple discovery of the Higgs-Boson for more intriguing that what this may lead to in terms of industry, which to my understanding no one can really say yet anyway.
Ah, but where did the Higgs mechanism came from in the first place? If you have read a bit of history, it came out from a "practical application", i.e. how one handles Goldstone boson in something as "mundane" as magnetic/superconductivity!

There is this fallacy that the "practical" aspect of physics, such as in the applied fields of condensed matter, etc. have no bearing or impact on fundamental physics. This has been proven to be wrong many times over. A lot of "pure knowledge" topics, such as QFT, QED, etc... all have analogous cousins in the applied areas of physics. It was why we found Majorana fermions and "magnetic monopoles" in condensed matter system first.

It is fine if you are not interested in all the applications of physics. However, if you wish to be a teacher, you need to be aware that the students you will be teaching MIGHT! In fact, as a teacher, you need to accept the idea that you will have a study body with a very wide and varied interests. Most students that I come in contact with will be bored to death learning something in which they can't relate, or can't see any practical application for. And you need to face the fact that the overwhelming majority of your students will NOT be physics majors and therefore, will not share your interest in just studying physics for no useful application.

Zz.
 
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Actually, there are far more teenagers (as well as adults) that do not care about applications at all, especially in high school. This seems to be because the subject is introduced too late i.e. should actually already have been introduced at the latter stages of primary school, next to subjects such as language, geography and history.

Teaching people physics as a way to understand the world itself is something that many more people seem to be very much interested in, as evidenced by polls under the public who listen to lecturers like Walter Lewin and Richard Feynman speak/spoke in public and general public reception of their work.

It is no secret that physics education suffers from a terrible PR/marketing problem; the terminology itself is already too scary for most kids/people i.e. unexplained words like 'mechanics', 'dynamics' and 'conservation', making them avoid the subject based on such factors alone; the problem is then compounded once the mathematics is introduced making most minds go blank.

Often once young people are introduced to physics e.g. mechanics in a completely different way, i.e. avoiding all the mathematics and the terminology, but directly starting to talk about motion as a concept which they already know, things seem to change drastically. Even terms like 'experiment' and 'theory' should be avoided as long as possible.

I have actually tutored kids and teens in this way with suddenly more than half of them ending up being interested in physics, without realizing that they are, while before they were afraid of science as too difficult for them and therefore hated/avoided the subject. The reason they all give for being interested is because they finally understand what the subject is actually about.

Once the subject is introduced in this way far more teenagers/kids tend to quickly get hooked in and be far more interested than when presented in the traditional way, especially when you start showing them that questions about motions can be decided by asking something beforehand and then afterwards letting a real demonstration decide the answer.

This way of describing mechanics is also a short recapitulation of how humanity discovered mechanics. After a strong conceptual basis is made in this way based on observations, only afterwards should the more standard terminology be introduced in a second run, and then the basic mathematics in a third run. All of this should be done between the ages of 10 and 14.

Notice also that this is in no way an exclusion of applications, because that explicitly gets addressed at the appropriate stage as well, as well as the relation to chemistry and biology, and especially the relationship to mathematics. Instead of appealing to a small crowd who are already 'in the know' (often due to parential influence/etc), in this way it seems the subject can become much more broadly appealing than it is today.

tl; dr: if we want the public to understand physics we should introduce kids to mechanics around the age of 10 by a school subject called 'motion' in which answers are to be guessed and decided by observation -> formalize this knowledge into mechanics and science around 12 -> introduce the mathematics as a way to predict the answers to experiments around 14, given that they already took the minimum necessary math.
 

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