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Is popular science important when studying Physics?

  1. Sep 13, 2015 #1
    Physics major in my country is often regarded worthless. Here we have exams before university people who get higher places mostly study medicine, engineering, law etc. I am someone who loves learning stuff and who wants to make a difference so I am studying physics this year (hopefully with a double major at math). (i am in top 100 out of 2million so my family and teachers got crazy when i decided to study physics-this is very rare) I met my friends and I realized that they are quite smart although they have bad scores and they seem to be in love with physics. They read books and watch documentaries all the time. I attended there with highest score but when compared to them I seem quite empty. (i have a strong theoratical knowledge i studied modern physics and multivariable calculus by myself but i don't know stuff about scientist's lives and experiments etc.) I don't really like popular science and don't have that strong feeling they seem to be having with physics? Is this such a big thing and if so what should I do to catch up with them?
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  3. Sep 13, 2015 #2
    No, it's not a big thing at all. Things like scientist's lives are pretty much irrelevant (but they can be fun to know). Scientist's experiments are important, but you'll learn about those in your courses. Knowledge about popular science books is really not much knowledge at all, it's actually pretty irrelevant for studying physics. It seems like you're doing very nice, so don't bother "catching up" to them. You're not missing anything important.
  4. Sep 13, 2015 #3


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    I'll disagree. I'd say if you are a smart as you say you could turn into what I'd call a supersmart technician if you follow the philistine course.

    I always hate it when I meet students dead scared they might learn something that is more than the minimum they need, anxious even to not-know things. It is always necessary to know more than the minimum you think you need. Anyway they are diminishing themselves through a silly model - of the brain like a tank of finite capacity to be selectively filled, whereas it is more like a muscle to be excercised - but then you wouldn't want to exercise only one muscle but the whole body.

    And then being smarter than the other guy in one thing - what is it for?

    I'd say the relation texbooks/Science is a bit like the relation instruction manuals/literature.

    And I'd say no you won't totally learn about the experiments in your courses, and without the history never will totally appreciate them, and won't truly understand the Science, though you'll have a working knowledge to get through it (though probably lacking a bit of critical sense about dodgy data and reasoning). And pop books will fill you in on some such things, of course there are good, bad and indifferent, but most are not bad.

    This has reminded me I must look up the stuff I promised on the Newton quiz. https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/the-issac-newton-quiz/
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2015
  5. Sep 13, 2015 #4
    Well first thanks and I am not saying that I am not interested in learning new things I am just saying I am not as passionate as my friends are about it. I like learning science like how the electron behaves and I like to think about why? I watched some documentaries and read two of Feynman's books. I like to talk about science but I don't consider it my life just yet. All my friends talk about is physics, is there something wrong with me or are they overly excited? (I failed the Newton quiz but I seriously doubt that knowing how young Newton was on his first portrait is something matters for a future physicist) (I most recently read A Brief History of Time, I didn't understand last chapters about imaginary time, wormholes and time travel. I guess I am not ready yet it feels more like science-fiction to me). Is there a book or anything you recommend?
  6. Sep 13, 2015 #5


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    It is sometimes difficult to consciously see that one has a certain bias or belief when asked about it directly, but it would reveal itself through a clever question.

    This is exactly what @epenguin was talking about.
  7. Sep 14, 2015 #6


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    In my experience there are scientists with varying levels of popular science knowledge.

    I can understand why someone interested in science may only be lukewarm to popular science. Often the popular science books will explain a given phenomenon using an analogy accessible to a layperson, but that is somewhat limiting in its actual description of the phenomenon. Hence as someone aspiring to learn about the actual phenomenon, you can feel unsatisfied. Or like your time might be better spent actually working on something rather than learning a few anecdotes.

    That said, I think there are good reasons to pay attention to popular science.
    1. As an aspiring scientist you need to derive your motivation from somewhere. It can be difficult studying only the assigned work in class and a lot of successful students get this motivation from reading up on popular material. Often, what happens is students or scientists start out reading the "popular" material, but then progress into more technical stuff as they understand more.
    2. Historical context can be important in understanding why we express things the way we do, and why certain problems were solves when they were. So all these anecdotes can give you important perspective.
    3. Sometimes you can generate your own ideas when reading the popular stuff. This partially goes back to motivation, but idea generation can be a little bit different. Sometimes if you read about an existing problem in a different field that's "dumbed down" so you can understand it, you might naturally try to think about how some of your own methods could be used to solve that problem.
    4. The popularity of a given topic can play a major role in what gets funded.
    5. Knowing a bunch of interesting anecdotes can make you a better teacher.
  8. Sep 14, 2015 #7


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    Personally, I see little reason for reading up on popular science. Maybe it works for some, but most of it is somewhere between plain wrong (especially popular science about quantum mechanics) or oversimplified or hyped beyond recognition (especially thing about string theory, astrophysics and co). Unfortunately, this seems to be what draws many people into physics... and more often than not it results in them being really, really disappointed when they start to realize how physics really works (e.g., that there are actual experiments! And that they are very very very important).

    I think Choppy made excellent points. But I'd like to make a comment: while some people draw motivation from the popular things, that is not essential, and can actually hurt. Also, at the start, getting to know the basics well (including its experimental foundations) is much more important than knowing what is popular or gets funded. This means things like classical mechanics & electrodynamics, experimental physics of all kind, etc. None of that is likely to be much covered in popular science (ever read a popular account of solid state physics or statistical physics? This is what 70% of physicists who end up working as physicists do). So to get your motivation, you'd better be interested in how the world around us works, and how physics works... and not the "I want to do superstrings parallel universes!"-type of "physics".

    Also.. in the end, motivation is not essential. As long as you work as much as you can, even when unmotivated.
  9. Sep 15, 2015 #8


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    No, it's not important at all. I never read or watched anything about popular science (except in school) and I went into theoretical physics. The people I know who watched that stuff for the most part didn't go into physics.

    I also don't like a lot of the popular science portrayed in the media because I think it can be very alienating for women (with the exception of books like the ones written by Lisa Randall). It makes it hard for them to picture themselves as physicists from what they observed in those programs.
  10. Sep 16, 2015 #9
    You'd be wise to learn things that aren't strictly within your curriculum, or even things that aren't completely science/math. Why try to learn the least amount possible in life? Do you wish to be a dull person when communicating with your physics coworkers? (hint it gets boring to talk about your field 100% of the time, other knowledge will add variety to your conversations).

    I think pop-science can be good if chosen wisely. If at any point you ever need to inspire a young aspiring physicist, good luck with showing them a proof lol.

    I'm an EE major, did that stop me from taking extra literature courses? No, did those extra literature courses prevent me from learning all the EE that I wanted? No. So what's the loss?
  11. Sep 16, 2015 #10
    That is a misleading question. Of course we should learn as much as we can. But there is so incredibly much to learn and so little time. If I had all the time in the world, I would read every pop-sci book multiple times. But I don't have that time. And I choose to read actual science books carefully, instead of pop-sci books which frustrate me and leave me with little (and often technically incorrect) knowledge. Pop-sci is good for motivation I guess, but I prefer to get my motivation somewhere else. There are many fairly rigorous science books which do include lots of motivation. For example, I'd rather read the Feynman lectures than some popular book by Kaku.

    So yeah, I guess "Why learn the minimum" is not accurate. You'll need to make a cost-benefit analysis. The cost of reading a book is of course time. The benefits are very personal. Personally, I see no benefit in reading pop-sci books. Other people do see that benefit. That's ok. But the only correct answer to the OP is that you can be a very good scientist without knowing the popular science theories or the scientist's biographies. Whether he sees a benefit in reading those over an actual science book is up to him. But let's not blame him for not seeing much benefit in those books. I would also not blame him if he does see a benefit in them though.
  12. Sep 16, 2015 #11
    I was generalizing beyond pop-sci to any material outside one's major's curriculum. Is the pop-science going to make him ace his physics class? No, but it can help in other ways (see trying to inspire a young-n with a proof). Part of being a good scientist imo is helping to inspire the next generation of scientists..which pop-sci could possibly help with.

    My last point was that you can make room for beyond-the-curriculum studies. I did, and plenty of others have without any deficiencies within their major. So if there's a cost it must not be significant, or maybe 15-20min a day is too much idk.

    Fine, focus all your efforts on physics. Just don't be surprised when you wind up a person who your coworkers/boss dread having lunch with because all (99%) you know is physics. I've been at an advantage numerous times speaking with professionals and professors for being an EE-student who can spout off more than KVL. Probably a contributing factor to me being on great terms with 99% of the faculty here.

    Of course you can be a good physicist without reading pop-science, to think otherwise is silly. There's much more to life than being a good physicist though. Likewise there's more to being a scientist than being good at science.

    I'm surprised it's the EE in the room saying to pursue knowledge for the sake of learning...
  13. Sep 16, 2015 #12
    Judging from the OP, he doesn't need to be inspired, he already is.

    I never said this.

    So you must pursue other knowledge to impress others?

    No, there is more to your life than being a good physicist (or EE). And there is more to my life than being a good scientist too, so I'm not arguing here. But everybody has different goals in life. If somebody absolutely loves physics and dreads learning anything else, who am I to tell him he absolutely needs to learn something else? It's his own choice on what to gain knowledge in. I see no inherent problem in only learning physics and nothing else.
  14. Sep 16, 2015 #13
    In the previous reply you was meant in the general sense, not you specifically.

    Where did you get the idea that it's to impress others? It's doing others a favor, your boss likely doesn't want to go on his lunch break and talk about work the whole time. This advice (to branch out your knowledge so you're not a one-track mind) was given to me by a retired physicist from Bell Labs. He advised me to read extra literature among other things (listening to classic music, experiencing other cultures in any way), I don't think his intentions were for me to impress others.

    If you see no inherent problem in learning physics and nothing else, then I feel bad for you. You must see how that is a bad way of thought and could possibly lead to a worse physicist? Great innovations in science and engineering were found through exploring other fields, and imo some of the best thinkers are the ones who can merge fields.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2015
  15. Sep 16, 2015 #14
    I'll tell you what. When I'm at work and we're having a lunch break, we talk about people their kids, people their vacations, music, etc. We don't make deep analyses of Shakespeare's work. Sure, there were some times that I had fun philosophical discussions with some people, but those were pretty rare. I think that if you're the guy who starts every lunch break with "What did you think about Dante's inferno?", then people will avoid you just as much as when you talk about physics all the time.

    In my family, there is almost nobody interested in science, math, literature, philosophy and whatever. And so those topics never come up. I don't think any less of them for not being able to talk about literature. I feel very fine in talking about who just won american idol.

    No, I don't see it. You only live once, so you have to select carefully in what to study and what to do. So in terms of knowledge, I feel that you must learn things that are either useful to you or that you enjoy very much. And unless you manage to give me another good reason, those are the only reasons one should pursue knowledge.
    I see no reason why I should learn biology for example. It will likely never come up as a useful skill in my life. I actually am studying biology because I deeply enjoy it. I see no other reason for learning it.

    I don't believe for a second you can actually provide evidence for that. Why would I be a better physicist if I have read Plato's Republic?

    And there are plenty of great thinkers who did not merge fields at all. So I think it's pretty irrelevant.
  16. Sep 16, 2015 #15
    I think I posted too early in the morning. If someone isn't interested in a topic then of course don't learn it. What I was trying to say (and I guess failed) was that try to not neglect things outside of your major, and try new things.

    Part of being a scientist is encouraging/inspiring the next generation when possible imo...if anything, maybe be familiar with the pop-science or the history just in case you may ever need a little story to get someone hooked. I frequently volunteer at events for kids interested in STEM (they build toy circuits and robots) so maybe that's why I think it's important.

    That prof's advice to me was likely in the context of a new graduate and why it's important to be varied/ have variety in your life and studies. A new graduate (if they've only been focusing on physics) may not have life/work experiences like you to draw upon in conversation. Not saying they should bring up plato, but something besides physics like music which you mentioned.

    Evidence? Genetic programming/evolutionary computation for one. Being able to use ideas from biology to do circuit design is amazing. Likewise I met an anthropologist using electrical circuit theory as a model for his research. I can PM you specific papers if you'd like, I'd rather not post them here as they're a little close to home.
  17. Sep 16, 2015 #16
    Than your perspective lacks breadth.
  18. Sep 16, 2015 #17
    Care to elaborate?

    Let me ask you this:
    1) If I study only physics and I am not interested in other things like literature, social science, you name it; what then do you think of me?

    2) If I am a professional musician who is not interested in science, literature, etc.; what then do you think of me?

    3) If I am a manual laborer who is not interested in science, literature, etc., and who just does his job, goes home, take good care of the kids and enjoys himself infront of the television; what then do you think of me?

    Somehow, I feel it is socially acceptable to call (1) a nerd or shallow, while nobody really dares to judge (2) and (3). So where's the difference?
  19. Sep 16, 2015 #18
    Your language implies that you think it's alright to learn physics and absolutely nothing else; but this is clearly naive even if one's interest is purely in being a professional physicist (in whatever capacity that is) because one will need to learn administrative duties such as but not limited to: advertisement (selling your work to funding sources); management (of a research team, or finances, or resources/equipment, or all of the above); social sciences (ie being aware of how culture has influences people you're interacting with and thus acquiring a sort of social common sense), history (ie motivation for certain discoveries or applications and what that might mean for your work, what historical events lead to the current political climate), economics/politics (ie what is causing the flow of money to ebb as it currently is and what can be done to change that in your favor) among others things which are not inherently part of physics. You'll note I never said one had to delve as deeply into other subjects as ones desired specialization, but the world is more complex than as to allow one lock themselves in an ivory tower and learning only one subject. So to answer your questions in that light; all three are basically willfully (or un-willfully) ignorant in their own ways but individual mileage varies.
  20. Sep 16, 2015 #19
    I guess you have a point. It is beneficial to learn other things that are useful to you. But I stand by my statement that you shouldn't be forced to learn things you don't want to. If somebody's goal is to be a professional physicist and if he doesn't want to spend time learning literature or anything else he finds useless, then I have absolutely no problem with that. One should only learn where your curiosity leads you, and thus you should gain knowledge because it is either useful or enjoyable. I don't feel the need to "broaden your horizons" for the sake of broadening your horizons.
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