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Does an intense interest in classical physics mean that one should pursue an engineering career?

  1. Nov 9, 2014 #1
    A very brief history about myself: I was an undergraduate student for one year at a four year university in an engineering major. I applied for engineering mainly for its employment prospects. I didn't do well that year due to emotional problems. I did so poorly that I got dismissed from the university and then attended a community college. At community college, due to anxiety that I wouldn't graduate, I decided to major in computer science instead because it generally has a much higher graduation rate than does engineering. 2 semesters of general physics are required for the major the university I intend to transfer to (not the same university as before) and i found that solving physics problems put me in what they called "in the zone". I get this high when solving physics problems and learning the laws that govern the physical world, and when i find out that my answer is correct, i feel like shouting to the sky, "GOD i love this stuff!". Programming/computer science never made me feel this way.

    As a kid, i've always wondered about how things work and as I grew older, this curiosity intensified, to its current point where I want to know all there is to know about classical physics. However, I don't know much about engineering, or what the career entails. I just know that I love classical physics.

    Computer science is not bad. I like it as well, but it makes me want to cry when i think about how much i'd rather be learning about dynamics, statics, or thermodynamics. What frustrates me, however, about programming, is that much of the time is spent learning syntax, and words, and whatnot of various programming languages. It doesn't matter that I have a perfect algorithm ready. I have to dig through books and sites to find the words and syntax for the languages that are so different from one another. Also, there are also so much difference in each programming language to do the same stuff, and it really just takes the fun out of it for me. The languages are manmade and the words therefore are arbitrarily assigned. This is different from what engineers learn, which are the laws of nature and never arbitrarily assigned.

    So i guess my question is: Given that I have absolutely no idea what it is like to be an engineer or if i would like to be an engineer, should my interest in classical physics and all things mechanical be reason enough for me to change my major to engineering? Changing my major would delay graduation, but I'm not so far in that switching is impossible, but i have to make a decision soon. And based on how i feel about computer science, is computer science not right for me?

    Thanks for reading and any advice would be greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 9, 2014 #2
    I have degrees in physics and engineering and work experience in these fields, but I had also worked in a job considered a perfect match for CS graduates for a long time.

    But it did not feel that much different to work as an applied physicist in R&D, as an IT security consultant, or as an engineer designing heat pump systems. If you solve real-live engineering or physics problems - not textbooks problems - you rely on software tools and perhaps write your own programs. Solving a problem still gives me that feeling you describe (in relation to textbook problems) - but the "pure" part of the problem is typically a small one. Much of the satisfaction comes from the feedback of clients asking for a pragmatic technical solution to an urgent issue.

    An example: I do simulations for heat pump systems; this requires a simulation of the temperature distribution in the heat source. Since it is a non-standard heat source, I have written the application myself as I cannot use standard software (Though as a pragmatic engineer you would always try to find standard software first). So the physics I need is the heat transfer equation, but in order to keep that rather simple I need to know which factors I might neglect (e.g. when to use an 1D version of the equation). I took a look some analytical solutions just get a feeling for what it would look like, but what I really need is a numerical solution based on real-live weather data. Perhaps 97% of the time spent on this was programming, organizing data and software versions, converting raw weather data, documenting results, exchanging ideas with other people, "project management", etc.

    Edit: I still enjoy reading textbooks in theoretical physics and doing problems - as a hobby and in order not to lose my mathematical abilities (though I know I will never use quantum physics on a daily basis - and the same is true for many sub-fields in classical physics). So I can relate to what you say. Nonetheless, it is very different from solving real-life problems.
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2014
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