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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.
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