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How intellectually rewarding is a career in Physics?

  1. Feb 4, 2016 #1
    Let me first start by saying I'm a junior student currently majoring in Economics, a field which (I know) has very little to do with Physics, if only for some math requirements. The reason I'm in this forum, asking this particular question, is that I've lately been reading Feynman's "Lectures ..." and it's sparked an interest in me for the subject.

    I should probably mention my high school experience with it was horrendous: I ended up hating the subject because I thought it had too many formulas and I couldn't really understand why all the laws worked the way they did. It's just I've always been incredibly curious about things, and that's partly the reason why I ended up going for Economics: it was (and is?) simple enough for me to grasp the theories in their complete dimensions. I can understand the reasoning behind their creation and even find their weak points.

    Now, for that very reason, I feel like the scientist in me is not content with Econ. Sometimes I just don't know what to believe, since it's a very political field and theories sort of lack good empirical evidence. And reading Feynman's book, I found out physics seems to be the fundamental science for satisfying a pursuit of knowledge about the world. Also, the topics seem to be presented very concisely, and through lovely analogies! I especially loved when he took the time to explain how we "know" atoms exist (something that was never explained to me in high school, so I just memorized atomic theory as the gospel). I would've loved if he delved even deeper into the whys of many other topics he covers, but so far I'm pretty satisfied.

    Anyway, my question is then the following: is physics that exciting to follow as a career path? Or would I be likely to encounter unexplained formulas and dire/uninteresting topics in a physics class in university, just like I did in high school? I've heard physicists and students go to Feynman's books in search for motivation, so maybe it's not always that intellectually stimulating. I'd love to hear your take on this guys. I don't want to know about jobs, I just want to know how fervently do you think it would fulfill my craving for scientific knowledge. Thanks in advance for reading through all this text!
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  3. Feb 4, 2016 #2
    The Feynman Lectures are incredibly thorough and incredibly expansive for a couple of introductory undergraduate lectures.

    I'm not a physicist. I'm an engineering student, but I can tell you that you will always have an explanation for a formula if you go deep enough. In particular, if you've learned calculus in college, you may have already realized that many concepts in physics become very clear in light of the knowledge you gain from calculus, and if you haven't taken calculus, just know that most of those basic formulas do indeed come intuitively after you've learned calculus.
  4. Feb 4, 2016 #3


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    Why don't you enroll in an undergraduate physics class and find out for yourself?
  5. Feb 5, 2016 #4
    Oh yes, I've realized a big part of the formulas in classical mechanics come from calculus! That's one of the reasons why I'm considering changing careers: before I thought I was too stupid to really understand basic physics, now I don't think it's that difficult at all! That's one of the good things about my economics background, I had both one-variable and multivariable calculus already.

    Though I imagine the math must get tougher and tougher, right? Do you think more advanced topics have harder formulas to grasp? I heard quantum mechanics is one of the most challenging areas to understand in the subject, but is it so because of the math?

    Thanks for the advice anyway :)
  6. Feb 5, 2016 #5
    Probably because I don't think I could cope with physics and econ at the same time :(

    I feel like enrolling in a physics class without dedicating completely to it will eventually make me feel overwhelmed by the subject. Don't you think so?
  7. Feb 5, 2016 #6


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    From what I understand, you are asking if physics is an intellectually stimulating field in general. That's not really a useful when question to ask. Physics is incredibly intellectually stimulating if it suits you. It's just like any other area of STEM, or really anything, some people find it interesting and some don't. I personally don't really appreciate Econ but that doesn't mean that it's not an interesting subject.

    If you like applying math to model or attempt to understand physical systems, you will pretty much be guaranteed like physics. If you want to be an experimentalist you should also like finding clever ways to be able to explore physical phenomena in the real world and possibly building such setups and analyzing data.
  8. Feb 5, 2016 #7
    I'm sorry, maybe I just wasn't clear enough in my question. What I would personally find intellectually stimulating is any body of knowledge that I can deeply understand its core formulations, that I can have "aha!" moments where a complex or unintuitive topic becomes second nature to me and I can firmly say "I know this and I believe this to be true" (let's leave philosophy of science aside for the moment).

    For those reasons, I'm not very interested in sciences like biology (too much classification and very little intuition to what you learn outside the lab), medicine/engineering (I prefer researching and developing theories rather than applying them, however useful that may be), or sociology (which is so theoretical that there are no real theories you can confidently assert). Economics is an exception among the social sciences in my opinion, as there is a huge amount of quantitative data available (although making sense of it to prove casual implications is a tough task in Econometrics). And among the natural sciences, Physics seems to me like the one with most "aha!" moments for unintuitive ideas (how crazy must the idea of gravity have been before Newton!), and it's the science that really tries to answer the most fundamental questions about the universe. So yeah, that's basically what I understand by "intellectually rewarding/stimulating".
  9. Feb 5, 2016 #8


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    Not really. You can dedicate yourself completely to the class that you take. You don't have to go all in for a major that you're unsure about. All physics degrees start with first year physics anyway. And it's a prerequisite for any advanced physics courses. So it's not like if you switch majors you would immediately enroll in five physics courses.

    You should have some electives in your economics degree. I would recommend using one or two of those to take a first year physics course and then you'll be in a much better positoin to decide whether it's the right degree for you.
  10. Feb 5, 2016 #9


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    Well yes there are definitely moments or periods of time like that. For example, I had always wondered about the motivation of string theory. When you watch science movies in elementary school they often begin with the Big Bang and say that the universe had ten dimensions and then reduced to four somehow (I have a lot of issues with this as they present it as a fact when string theory has never been proven and different string theories have different numbers of dimensions, like M theory actually has eleven). They give no motivation for this (which they can't since string theory is way to complicate for (most) elementary school kids, so I always wondered how the idea even came up and why.

    Over the past three or so years, as I have taken more advanced classes (I am a theorist but not a string theorists and most theorists even in particle physics don't know much string theory) I have started to appreciate where people got the idea of strings in the first place, why you need ten (or more dimensions) and why it is a good proposal for a grand unified theory. Strings have very nice properties in space time which resolve a lot of issues with quantum field theory and general relativity and also are quite nice to work with. The number of dimensions is fixed by certain symmetries/constraints you put on the theory to make it consistent.
  11. Feb 5, 2016 #10
    In my opinion, physics classes are not a good indicator of how intellectually rewarding a career in physics is.

    The only good way to figure that out is to spend time with a reasonable sample of people who work in it and see how interesting you find their work.
  12. Feb 5, 2016 #11


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    Agreed. But one of the best ways to get yourself into a position where you can meet such people is to take a first physics class.
  13. Feb 5, 2016 #12
    Fair point. I'll see what to do about it. It's just I'm afraid I'll regret it once I'm in, especially if the class is not as interesting as I imagine. Some professors have the ability to just rip the heart out of a subject.

    That sounds interesting! But at what point of your studies did you start to have those insights? Does physics in the first few years leave too many things unexplained?

    It's not a bad idea, but even if I met somebody who works in the field, I won't find out all the research topics and job opportunities at hand for a physicist (which I'm sure are many). So I don't know...
  14. Feb 5, 2016 #13
    The math nearly killed me, but Physics as a career is immensely rewarding.
  15. Feb 5, 2016 #14
    Ah, that's another one of my worries. Even with the right mindset and motivation, would the math be too hard to understand? I'm not a bad math student, but sometimes it takes me a lot of effort to completely understand why formulas/theorems/etc make sense (especially when the professors don't do their part and just teach the calculation).
  16. Feb 5, 2016 #15
    Just to add to this, I'm a kid who has found physics to be something that is so interesting to me, and I'm constantly researching it on my own. Like you I have found that some equations lack an explanation, and I feel like I am told "just trust it." Honestly, some equations can make sense with just some thought experiments, though often you have to look deeper to find the explanation to an equation. I generally go through a few articles on various websites to find the explanation I want, and many times I have to piece together parts of multiple articles. Posting a thread her always helps too. You can also answer the question in this thread by going through articles and finding these explanations, and even looking at new material. The amount you enjoy learning this stuff is an indicator (at least for me it is).
  17. Feb 5, 2016 #16
    I feel your pain. Read the linked article that I wrote that tells my story:

  18. Feb 7, 2016 #17
    Well said! I do similar things in Economics. Sometimes textbook just aren't clear or detailed enough, and the internet is the best tool to expand on what you read.

    The only downside to this is that it takes time, and that can be a drag when you have a close exam deadline.

    Interesting. I agree with you that on the whole, math skills can be acquired with dedication and perseverance. However, if math is taught in a very mechanical way (emphasizing the drills over the theory) then you're not really obtaining mathematical intuition, whatever your results in the class are. Learning calculus in high-school, I was an A+ student. Though I could easily solve most derivatives, I really had no idea what I was doing. I was partly responsible of course for not researching more about the concepts, but also my teacher spent very little time teaching us the intuition behind it and jumped straight into exercises. It was only until I took Calculus classes in the economics faculty that I finally understood what it was about (thus helping me apply calculus to solve problems).

    So what I was getting at is whether the math in physics is too complicated to understand it intuitively as you progress in your studies of the subject.
  19. Feb 7, 2016 #18
    This is a big weakness in many AP Calc courses as well as some dual enrollment type of offerings that hope for high AP test success rates and try and avoid criticisms when students get to downstream courses and cannot compute simple derivatives. It tends to be more common with 3-4 hour courses than 5 hour courses that include analytic geometry.

    It's not a disaster if some of the more intuitive meanings of differentiation and integration are not fully appreciated until later courses.
  20. Feb 7, 2016 #19


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    There will always be a lot that you won't understand the first time you see it. But from my undergrad experience, I never was taught to memorize formulas. The professor always gave physical explanations for things. However, they don't cover a lot of the subtleties right away. They may mention them but not fully describe them. I will provide some examples that might interest you.

    You learn in Newtonian mechanics that p=mv. But light has no mass, so how could it have any momentum? If you go to special relativity you find that the energy of a photon is actually proportional to its momentum. But what is its momentum? From quantum mechanics you learn from particle wave duality that a photon is a quantum of light so the momentum is related to its frequency times hbar. This implies that massless particles don't make sense without quantum mechanics. So you learned about electromagnetic waves in freshman E&M, but there are lot of inconsistencies you won't learn until later on. Another thing you learn is relativity is that particles can be created and destroyed since E is proportional to m. You learn in quantum field theory that this is indeed true, and not only is this true, this shows you that the electric charge you see is not constant, it depends on energy scale and gets stronger at higher energies. You will also learn why the strong force is the opposite, it gets weaker at high energies which is why we never see quarks alone.

    You also would think from Newtonian mechanics that light cannot be affected by gravity. But you will then learn in general relativity that gravity actually affects anything with energy, not just mass. You will also see that gravity is much different from other forces in the standard model. Gravity is literally geometry. Einstein's equation contains the metric of space time (what you are solving for) and how it evolves. You will then realize that gravity breaks down at high energies and that's why people are trying to find a grand unified theory.
  21. Feb 7, 2016 #20
    One of my physics professors told me that they never memorized equations; they memorized relationships.
  22. Feb 8, 2016 #21
    Well, I just used Calculus as an example of a subject where you can succeed without having deep insights in it. I think it's the same case with many other branches of math. Or at least I think that's the case because there are many basic topics in mathematics that I had to revisit in my adult life.

    I know it's not "a disaster" if you don't really get everything (sometimes you just need to spend more time with that topic to gain a better understanding) but it's not particularly enjoyable for some students (me included) to proceed when you have a superficial knowledge of the topic at hand. My question was basically pointing to this: I like going to the root of things, especially in math. Sometimes, since curriculums (both in high-school and college) are so packed that there's no time to spare on smaller details (how many high school teachers can take the time to derive the quadratic formula in class, for example?), I go to internet and most of the time I'm able to find an answer to the subtleties of my concerns. But a few other times the topic is so complicated (mainly when you need more advanced knowledge to understand proofs and stuff) that I have no other option except leaving the insights for other moments.

    So I basically wanted to know how many of those moments there are studying math in physics. Studying economics, I haven't had many of those issues in the few math courses I took, although in linear algebra there was a lot that went unexplained that I couldn't make sense of (matrices and subspaces... ew).

    Whoa I'm not really well versed in newtonian mechanics, so I couldn't follow you much haha. But I appreciate your taking the time for this, I'll revisit it if I happen to read about it in Feynman's book or in my future introductory physics class.

    I'm interested to know though, would you say the "physical" explanations your professores gave you were enough to remember the formulas at first? I don't need a super deep understanding from the get go, but I really value being able to grasp it well enough so as to avoid memorizing equations (my memory sucks).

    I'd be thrilled if this was the case with my future professors in college!
  23. Feb 8, 2016 #22


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    No, the provided basic "formulas" on the test like integrals, differential equation solutions, for E&M E and B fields for very basic charge distributions, Maxwell's equations, very general solutions. But if you didn't know what you were doing, the formulas wouldn't be of any use.

    You should know the core concepts so you could technically derive everything from scratch (given enough time). For example in mechanics you should look at the symmetries of a system to choose proper coordinates and implement constraints.

    If you just memorize things you will get the wrong answer if you do not use the same convention as the formula. Like if you had a different sign convention for the gravitational potential.
  24. Feb 10, 2016 #23
    I seem to be a little late to this thread, but since I was an Economics major who switched to Physics (and have since had a rewarding career, though not in Physics), maybe I can offer something...

    I received my undergraduate degree almost 15 years ago. I liked Physics more than the other sciences I studied (I took a lot of Chemistry too). Physics as a course of study is all about problem solving (at least that's how they taught us at my university). I don't think anyone ever asked us to memorize anything (unlike Chemistry, where we had to memorize nearly everything). On a lot of the exams we could go ahead and bring in our text books, graphing calculators, notes, or anything else. None of it would help if you didn't understand how to solve problems. The whole curriculum is sort of like solving increasingly complicated brain teasers. It's really, really fun if you're into brain teasers. They do get really hard the last couple of years, so brace yourself for some mind-boggling problems in your last couple years. That said, not everyone getting a Physics degree is a genius. I actually really struggled with some of the math. I always felt like I had to work at it a lot harder than some of my classmates, but just like anything else, it gets easier with practice.

    In the senior level classes we were encouraged to do our homework on computers rather than on paper. That way you could solve a problem for the general case, and plot all the possible solutions graphically. Definitely no one ever asked us to take anything on faith as they do in Economics. I still like to read about Economics a lot, and I heard an Econ grad student at a conference once make the statement, that macro economics, at it's core, always comes down to an ethical argument. I agree with that, and maybe that is the reason for the hesitation you feel toward Economics. There is definitely none of that in Physics. Everything is mathematically proven, and, ideally, verified with experiment.

    As far as a career goes, I ended up getting a job writing software, and later going to graduate school for software engineering. From what my professors said about research, I didn't think it was for me. Engineering probably isn't what you think about when you think about a rewarding career with a Physics degree, however it seems to be a popular choice for Physics majors. Right now there are about 30 engineers in the company I work for, and three of us have Physics degrees (I have worked with several others at other companies). One of us is a test engineer, I write firmware, and the other writes software. One of the guys has a graduate degree in astrophysics, and previously did research in that subject, but he didn't like it too much. I'm the only one of the three of us with formal software training. I'm not sure how many Physics majors end up in the tech industry vs doing research, but it is definitely something you can do if you decide to bail on research like I did (assuming you learn how to write software along the way). I also understand there are a lot of Physics majors working in the financial industry, but I think they are mostly writing software too.

    Long story short, getting a Physics degree potentially opens up several good career paths besides doing fundamental research. You might have to do a little extra work to be considered for those other careers, but they shouldn't be discounted as viable career options.

    Best of luck, and don't stress about about making the wrong decision. You seem like a thoughtful person, so I'm sure you'll do fine no matter what you decide.
  25. Feb 10, 2016 #24
    Wow, I can't even begin to tell you what this message means for me! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this out! It's so comforting to hear from somebody who has been down a similar road. Makes me feel a bit less alone!

    Indeed, I'm the sort of guy who likes brain teasers and problem solving. Though I wouldn't say I'm good at that, honestly. In fact, I think it takes me longer than the average person to find solutions to them. Yet for me, coming up first with the right answers is beside the point: I'm content just learning new things and understanding why they work! So if curiosity is the driving force for motivation in this career, then I think I'm in a pretty good place! I just hope the way the subject is taught at my university is much the same to yours. High-school physics still left me with a sour taste in my mouth. You still solved problems of course, but the means to do it were basically handed to you and without any explanation why that leads you to a correct solution.

    Regarding the math, I'm still sort of scared I won't be able to cope with it, but it's refreshing to hear from so many people in this forum that they didn't feel like experts in math either when they first started (or still now). Indeed, it's sometimes about practice and familiarity with the concepts. Luckily, the internet's a blessing for finding different explanations and different approaches to the concepts.

    It's also very nice to hear you still read economics. I feel like it affects our lives so much that it's not something that should be ignored! Though I agree that there are always ethical judgments behind the academic models and theories. To me, in economics it sometimes feels like you should first choose what you want to believe in, and then try to find data or logical arguments that seem to make sense from your worldview. For example, so many models in Micro start from unrealistic assumptions that it's hard to admit its conclusions as facts, at least not if you want to be intellectually honest. The same happens in Macro as you say, and not just because they work under the same assumptions, but also because some of the fundamental empirically "proven" relationships are questionable themselves (eg. money growth and inflation... is it a correlation or causality? Why is it we still don't see a big surge in inflation after more than half a decade of QE?).

    So I sort of feel like I can delude myself and trust all the (pseudo?)knowledge they teach me, or either continue being skeptical and get a degree having no freaking clue of what I believe is happening to the economy. And the reason I got into economics was a craving for (scientific, empirically "proven") knowledge about the way the world works, something I feel I haven't been getting. Maybe many would say I should've expected this, because after all, it's a social science. But I thought that having so much quantitative data available made things different when testing our knowledge about the economy. It turns out that may be impossible with so many possible variables influencing economic outcomes, I guess.

    Also, it's amazing that physics can open up so many job opportunities! I'm glad you found the right one for you. I think I'd like doing research (that's sort of like making science *on your own*, right?) but I still know very little about the subject to even consider what the most common research topics consist of. So I'd like to keep the doors open. I've always felt a slight attraction to programming, though it seems sort of daunting and I haven't had enough free time to dedicate to it.

    Anyway, thank you again for your kind words! I'm indeed trying to take it easy... actually, I wanted to tell everybody that I've already enrolled in a physics class for next semester! I will be combining it with other econ classes, just not to rush into anything yet. So thank you all in this thread for the support!
  26. Feb 10, 2016 #25
    Yeah, that's exactly what I'd like to be able to do! Knowing the concepts good enough that, with enough time, I can solve problems on my own. It's funny that you mention differential equations. We covered them in multi-variable calculus, but the professor just explained the different types and the steps to solve them, without deriving the solutions or analyzing why they made sense.
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