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How are physicists sane?

  1. Oct 1, 2009 #1
    I'm a senior high school student, in my last year. Physics forums have helped me numerous times with any questions i have had. But i have noticed a lingering question of mine. In high school physics, (i hold a 98% Physics 12 mark at the moment), i have noticed there is very little to.. Build on. I don't understand how physicists explore theories or even come up with them. Everything i ask, already has some sort of answer. And no doubt, most likely due to my limited education on the topic. Why become a phyisicist? Or an engineer of a sort. I don't understand how it could be, fun. I liek physics, I enjoy doing it. But i dont understand how someone could pursue a theory and find an answer even though it has been done many, many times already. Mind you, i dont understand how I could. I enjoy what I'm learning, but i assume it will get boring as time goes by. My career path will most likely be in commerce, but I am still curious to my future. And, thats just one of many questions. It may appear to be a hazy question, but I'm having trouble exactly articulating what i have to say.

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 1, 2009 #2


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    Well, working as a practicing engineer or physicist implies that you are investigating or creating something new. (Otherwise, no one would pay for it!) I don't know why you think physicists just solve the same problems over and over.

    - Warren
  4. Oct 1, 2009 #3
    There are currently MANY questions left to be answered about the physical universe. Remember, the people who study these questions have another 10 years (approx) additional education than you currently have. You must build up physics as you learn it. You cannot move on to the really interesting stuff until you completely understand the mundane.
  5. Oct 1, 2009 #4
    One of the fun things about learning more is that the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. Once you have taken some more advanced physics courses, you will realize you could spend your entire life in school and learn only a fraction of everything there is to know about physics.

    Of course, this has the side effect that the more you learn, the less you feel like you know. We just try to ignore that feeling...
  6. Oct 1, 2009 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    That is it, exactly. Although, some of the most simple questions we can ask do not yet have definitive answers.

    You will find, should you dig deeper, that what we do know and understand is a vanishingly small fraction of what there is to study.
  7. Oct 1, 2009 #6
    Physicists most certainly do NOT solve solved problems. What would be the point of that? I'm sure you've noticed that technology progresses every day.
  8. Oct 1, 2009 #7


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    You ask the same question we probably all asked early in our academic lives. Yes, when you are in high school, and even through much of college, you will mostly be asking questions that have already been answered. By asking those questions, you will learn more and more about the subject. It really isn't until you go to graduate school that you get to the level of understanding of the subject that allows you to start asking the unanswered questions and gives you the skills to start looking for answers to them that are novel.

    When I was a student, I used to be in awe of my professors, and sometimes despaired that I would never know that much about any subject. MANY years later, I'm where they were, and I'm not even sure when or how I managed to get this much information stuffed into my brain, but it snuck in there with lots of studying and hard work.
  9. Oct 1, 2009 #8


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    Do you think physicists are just people with degrees in physics who spend their careers doing homework from text books and taking tests on that material ?

  10. Oct 1, 2009 #9
    I'm glad i entertained you. Honestly, i know that physicists dont just "do homework and tests." The question was I just didn't fully understand how they do what they do, and even how they do it. I'm sure there is a vast amount of unanswered questions. But how do you find one that you could possibly think to solve, how do you choose? The only question I asked that I didn't receive an answer for was in relation to newton's second law. As described it defined how acceleration is affected after a force has been applied to a mass. I asked what a force is, and apparently there is no definition to what a force is, because we don't know what they are. Just that they can be a push, pull, a frictional force, normal, etc. But at the same time it's an unanswered question that i don't ever see being solved. At least with the knowledge i have. I know there is much unanswered and a few who get lucky with discoveries but i dont understand how you'd find something worth researching that you know you'll progress.

    And in terms of repetitive calculations I'm talking about more of the engineering side of things, Nuclear engineers doing same old calculations etc.

    Again I am ignorant on the subject, or i believe a proper term is inexperienced.

    A totally unrelated bit:

    While typing this my girlfriend texted me...

    "Ask me a question"

    I asked her what a force is and she said a jedi... She's in arts.... not really that funny, but whatever. :)
  11. Oct 1, 2009 #10


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    In fact, whenever we DO see a problem that's already been solved, we don't waste our time solving it.

    Senjai, one thing you probably don't realize is every problem you've done is a MASSIVE MASSIVE approximation to reality. If you used what you knew as someone who is still in high school to do any actual work in reality, you would fail miserably if you needed any sort of accuracy. When I first realized this, it was quite a downer. However, as you continue your studies, you start unraveling the utter complexity of the world that you simply couldn't be told of in your younger years or you'd look at physics as impossibly hard and walk away.

    The most enlightening question you could ask on any problem is "what is this problem's limitations?" Most famous of all, I'd say, is that newtonian mechanics is a low speed approximation to reality.
  12. Oct 1, 2009 #11
    I suppose this is a result of being exposed only to the physics that you learn at the high school level. And I certainly don't mean that in a negative way. The truth is, physics has a very elegant formalism. People have spent centuries organizing physics into it's current form (OK, decades in the case of quantum) and coming up with notation that makes it easy to express physical ideas mathematically. If you've taken the standard high school physics curriculum, you've probably covered all the basics. But this is merely the framework in which we do physics research. The stuff you learn in high school and college is a box of tools. In the lab, we take those tools and use them to discover new things about the universe. In my research, for example, we look at gamma rays from space. We are able to detect the gamma rays because we know how they interact in the atmosphere, what decay products they produce, and what sort of signal we should see on the ground. This requires a pretty deep knowledge of electromagnetism and particle physics. But our end goal isn't to do electrodynamics problems. That is merely a means to the end of learning about how objects in space (e.g. active galaxies, supernova remnants, etc.) produce high energy radiation. There are a lot of open questions here. My research partly focues on active galactic nuclei, and we still don't know how they work. This is just one of the many unanswered questions in physics.

    Heh, you're asking the wrong guy. I'm actually planning on totally changing careers in just a few years...not because I dislike physics, but because it's next to impossible to get a permanent job. But barring the whole unemployment thing, someone might become a physicist because they have an insatiable urge to learn how the world around them works. As others have said correctly, we don't just sit around all day doing physics problems. In fact, I've never done a physics problem in the course of my research, except for one time when I had to use the quantization of light to figure out the photoelectric current caused by my laser (which was a 1 minute calculation). Being a physicist isn't for everyone. But you should know that we don't just sit around doing problems all day.

    Feel free to ask people here about their research and find out for yourself. There are a lot of professors and grad students around here, and we all love talking about what we do for a living.
  13. Oct 1, 2009 #12


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    What you do as an engineer varies widely depending on what type of engineering you go into. I don't know what exactly nuclear engineers do, but just as an example I am familiar with: Residential engineering. A residential engineer is someone who makes sure the structural integrity of houses is good.

    The job description on the surface is something like: Get schematic of proposed house. Calculate the weight on the cross beams. Decide if there are enough cross beams. In reality there's a far more complicated job to be accomplished; inspecting current structures to ensure they're strong enough, designing the structure of the house to accommodate what the owners want the house to be, designing the structure of additions to work with what exists already, etc. It's not "novel" per se, but it's a job, and it certainly isn't solving an equation over and over again. If it was that simple a computer would do it for you
  14. Oct 1, 2009 #13


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    Well, that's what your question implied. Please note: the only physicists you've met so far have been teachers and that is what teachers do. But they are the only scientists and engineers who spend most/all of their time doing the same problems over and over (though professors tend to do other things than just teach...).
    Someone intending to be a research physicist first spends years learning all they can learn about physics. In doing so, they learn where the "edge" is and once you knwo where the edge is, you can decide based on need and personal preference what part of that edge you want to try to push beyond.

    It's like what we tell crackpots here who say 'you have to think outside the box' - in order to properly do that, you have to learn where the box is. Real physicists spend years learning about the box before trying to push their way out of it.
    Actually, it just sounds to me like you have a physics teacher who doesn't have enough of a grasp of physics to answer questions beyond what the syllabus covers...

    That's a topic you should explore in the classical physics forum, though.
    Well for an engineer (I'm an engineer), the calculations done day to day are similar, but the particulars of each problem are different. For some people (I suspect for physicists...), that might seem too repetitive or limiting, but then there aren't a whole lot of jobs where every day is a completely different experience.
  15. Oct 1, 2009 #14
    Yes, unfortunately it's the way of the world is that if highschool teachers actually knew something about their subjects they'd be out there doing it and not teaching it (of course there are obvious exceptions. Some people just love to teach at the basic level). Most phys teachers will have maybe a 2nd year undergrad's knowledge (sufficient to make it a "teachable") and then teachers college. Hardly a PhD.
  16. Oct 2, 2009 #15

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    Newton's second law of motion defines "force" in terms of what it does (a force is something that makes an object accelerate), period. Newton's second law is silent on what a force is. Newton's law of gravity defines one kind of force, gravity, in mathematical terms. It does not say a thing about why masses couple to cause this force to arise. Coulomb's law similarly describes the electrostatic force in mathematical terms. It too is silent on why charges couple to create an electrostatic force between them.

    In classical physics, the normal force just is; empirical observation says you can't sink into the floor. Suppose you were alive 150 years ago and asked your teacher how the floor "knows" to exert an extra 9.8 newtons of normal force on your feet when you pick up a one kilogram book from the bookshelf. The answer: You do sink into the floor, by a tiny amount. That extra kilogram makes you sink in a tiny, tiny bit deeper. Ask why this happens, and the answer would have been the same one you got from your parents after asking to many "why" questions: "Just because."

    Modern physics pokes a bit deeper. Modern physics has a very good explanation of why you imperceptibly sink into the floor and what makes this stop. Modern physics also has a very good explanations for tension, pressure, static friction, and kinetic friction. However, ask enough "why" questions, and the same answer will come back: "Just because."

    It is those infuriating "just because" answers that motivates the little kid that remains inside every scientist.
  17. Oct 2, 2009 #16


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    I have to be a contrarian here. When I'm doing research, I like to understand the background material, and not just in words, but the mathematical framework too. I have no problem digging into the places between where my education left off and my research begins.
  18. Oct 2, 2009 #17


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    It takes many long years of studying the subject and a good research mentor or two or three who can guide you through this process by example. And, even then, yes there is some trial and error to it before someone finds a good question that leads to real progress. Not everyone who wants to reach that level is successful at it, mostly because they don't have the perseverance to get through the rough spots...failed experiments, wrong hypotheses, slow progress, etc.

    Just to help you conceptualize the process, think of how long it took from when you were learning your very first words as an infant until you were able to write long, coherent, original essays for your classes. The science you learn in high school is like learning those first words as a child, or maybe starting to string together simple sentences. You have a lot more ahead to learn, adding to your vocabulary, learning how to put together more complex ideas and to apply the rules, doing small supervised projects that help you learn how to use the vocabulary and rules, etc., before you are ready to come up with completely original, complete ideas that you can work on independently. If you stick with it, you will get there. Just like a kindergartener isn't going to have enough tools and skills to write a novel, neither is a high schooler going to have enough tools and skills to see how to develop an independent, novel research project. So, don't despair. If you think the subject is interesting, and you are fascinated by the idea of looking for answers to the unanswered questions, and are willing to have the patience it takes to get to the stage where you can do that, then keep working at it! That you already realize you don't have enough education in the subject to do what professional scientists do already puts you ahead of most high school students who think they are learning everything there is to know about a subject already.
  19. Oct 2, 2009 #18


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    I am not a physicist; my mother used to be a HS science teacher. Professors and grad students in universities are working on unsolved problems every day -- they are even coming up with problems that no one has even thought of before. Some of these people are future winners of the Nobel prize.

    A "solved problem" doesn't mean we know everything about specific applications of the problem. An example is the speed of electron. As far as I know, "in theory" electrons move at the speed of light. But "in reality" they are far slower because of imperfect conductivity of the medium they flow through. The next question is, how many different materials have been tested to measure the actual speed of electricity, and under what conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.)? Have the results of these experiments been reproduced by independent researchers? And, what are the practical uses of these results?

    Similar question for the speed of light. Light moves at "lightspeed" in a vacuum. But it moves slower through a liquid or a solid. How many different materials have been tested to measure the actual speed of light, and under what conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.)? Have the results of these experiments been reproduced by independent researchers? And, what are the practical uses of these results?
  20. Oct 3, 2009 #19
    This is all extremely enlightening. Thank you for everyone who has decided to take some time to explain some of my questions. It's a little easier to understand now.. I didn't even know there was a difference between modern and classical physics.. Well the difference being obvious, i didn't know that their was two different types in the first place. And thanks again Moonbear, common sense seems to be prevalent here :)
  21. Oct 4, 2009 #20
    I instantly thought of this:

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