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Physicist's block ? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

  1. Jul 24, 2008 #1
    "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    Firstly, I preface that I'm 18 and in my final year of high school, pending completion of my GCE A level courses in a couple of months. I've just read ZapperZ's introduction which only expanded my interest, but didn't address the high-school-side-of-things. Secondly, I'm sorry for the long first post... I originally wanted to ask a Matlab-related question on this forum but I figured it out (I think - can't be sure until I make it start solving), so I ended up with plenty of time. Take this as both an introduction and my first set of questions as a new member here.

    Now, I didn't know what I liked back then. I can safely say I used to be very good with both sciences; my teachers were frank with me that I was the top science student for year after year, but admittedly, I never saw that much beauty in them back then. I also had little drive to do anything beyond getting grades. I could have chosen to skip at least 2 grades, but instead stayed on the regular curriculum.

    But I was eventually prepared to throw myself into engineering because I had doubts that I'd do anything illustrious in physics. Reason being, on top of the mis-maneuver on the choice to skip grades, a particular year of very poor study habits and personal problems had landed me with average scores in both Physics and Math. And it never seemed to return to its original state after that. This in turn, led me to believe I have permanently lost my aptitude in them; I still have these doubts.

    Maybe it's this sudden loss of ability; maybe it was because I had to skip about 11 weeks of high school before I've come to fully appreciate both sciences. I chanced across a book on embedding a 4-manifold in 3 dimensions, which had an interesting literature but I couldn't understand the math; I also came across some perturbation related problems on QM (I don't recall exactly), which seemed elegant but made no sense to me; these two prompted me to return to school - I still hope to understand them. Despite my 11 week hiatus, they admitted me to the top high school over here based on my past records.

    Anyway, to make matters worse, engineering continued to entice me. I've been doing research on fluid dynamics, which seems to be the most interesting area for me presently. Though it's good that I have experience with solving PDEs/ODEs, multivariable/vector calculus etc. from this, though I won't say I'm good at them (in fact, they erode my confidence daily)...

    I also (accidentally) ordered Halliday-Resnick's and Serway-Faughn's, which I find easy, though I can't qualify my statement since I didn't finish reading the both.

    I know I've to undo the damage if I still intend to pursue physics. I'm now faring average amongst people, though to be fair to myself, have a little headstart. But everything's against me:
    - I'm 18, and I'm betting that's rather old compared to the rest of the people who're competing for my position in strong science colleges.
    - I was briefly on the school's mathematical olympiad team, only to realize that the national selections clashed with a science exchange in Switzerland...
    - I'm actively irresponsible (courtesy of von Neumann and Feynman), which means my testimonial is blank; I didn't bother listing any suggestions (mostly chess related, which amounts to little in my point of view) for my counselors to choose.
    - My science/math tutors don't know me well because I've been average in these through high school, which means I don't hope for anything with regards to the teacher evaluation for science. Strangely, my philosophy tutors have very good opinions of me because I figured out that I could totally neglect my humanities and superficially convert Banach-Tarski's paradox into an epistemic problem, skew a line or two between the EPR experiment and deduction, or mix particle accelerators with perception, induction, Hume etc. And apparently that always places me top 5 in the cohort... (the arts faculty guys must be clueless that I'm playing my own game) but I'm not banking hopes on an arts evaluation.

    In short,

    1) Aeronautical engineering or physics? I have difficulties assessing whether I am intuitively adept with physics/math. I'd rather do engineering if I'm certain that I'm not good with physics/maths. I'd like to hear your comments/high school experiences on how I stand since you guys have probably been there and done that. Have you guys had your "slumps"/"physicist's block" (in the sense of "writer's block") somewhere in your studies? Or is it expected of physicists-to-be to have good scores in physics/math all way through before college?

    2) Too late, or still early to give up on the top colleges? Should I pursue an undergraduate degree in a less competitive setting, and hope to make it to a good graduate program? There are a few things in college which I won't want to miss out on though - likelihood to find peers with similar interests, are good at the field I'm going into, and thus possible future colleagues/collaborators, quality of the physics departments at which, and the creative culture in the more attractive colleges? Is it too late for me to produce an application that could likely land me in one of these colleges?

    3) and if so, what I should do at this point in time to improve my chances.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 24, 2008 #2
    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    Where you go for undergrad does not matter if you plan on going to grad school.
  4. Jul 24, 2008 #3
    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    It matters, it's just not the be-all end-all. If an admin sees two applicants, one from Podunk, Arkansas, and the other from MIT, they'll likely pick the MIT guy unless the Podunk guys stands out via better grades + a lot more research experience + better GRE scores.

    So getting into a good school will definitely be worth it, but if you don't get into a top school, don't sweat it.
  5. Jul 24, 2008 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    Too late? No, but...

    ...is a big red flag. Until you gain responsibility and take responsibility (it's not too dead guys' fault that you are irresponsible) you will find it difficult to succeed in any field.
  6. Jul 24, 2008 #5
    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    Plus I think it's kind of silly to presume that two legendary, brilliant scientists were irresponsible simply because they had active senses of humor.

    When it came down to it, Feynman and von Neumann were both exceptionally serious about their studies - it's time for you to be, too.
  7. Jul 25, 2008 #6
    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    I think the irresponsibility part was misinterpreted. I didn't know how to describe it, so by courtesy: I meant courtesy of them for coming up with the amusing term rather than courtesy of them for inculcating an irresponsibility (in which case is the wrong term to use since they implied an irresponsibility towards politicized society, and because I've never heard of someone blaming them for anything before - not something which I'd want to be the first).

    And thanks for all the advice and critique. If not all was lost by your reckoning, seems like the most important point is that I get back to making sure I get into a strong physics program, being serious about it included: yep, will.c, I'm especially glad that you reminded me that they were serious with their studies - it wasn't something which crossed my mind whenever I approached school.
  8. Jul 25, 2008 #7


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    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    There are very few things that it's too late for when your 18 years old.

    Since you're still in high school, what you need to do is look at the admission requirements defined to get into the programs that you're interested in. Make sure you have the right courses and do what you can to make your marks as high as possible. In general, if you're struggling with a subject in high school, you will find it tough at the university level, because the subject matter doesn't get any easier.

    With regards to engineering vs physics, I think you'd be doing yourself a disservice to believe that you should opt for engineering as a result of poor math skills. At the undergraduate level, many of the courses for engineers and physics students are quite similar - especially in the first two years.

    If your passion is really philosophy, why would you not consider pursing that?

    I think its difficult to know really what you would enjoy studying based only on high school experience. You may want to look for a program that offers a general science first year program where you can take all the prerequisits necessary to pursue engineering if that's what you decide you want to do (or vice versa).
  9. Jul 25, 2008 #8
    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    It would have been easy if I have the least passion for philosophy, but unfortunately, I don't.

    I'm sorry if I got misunderstood, what I meant by "good with physics/math" was not as in whether I can cope with the subjects - which isn't the problem, my grades are mostly a personal problem: I was twice hospitalized and needed medication for neurological conditions on three occasions, and I missed a large part of school. That's why I'm asking if it's still too late to distinguish myself as a candidate to admissions officers (because I've never been serious about it prior to deciding that I really love physics) rather than if I could cope with the subjects in university.

    The problem of "good" is not one of whether I can "handle/cope". For instance, my research in fluid dynamics is at a level which, according to my mentor, "...even final year undergraduates would find difficult to handle," - and he takes mostly doctoral students. But that's only sufficient condition to expect that I know what I'm getting into in undergraduate engineering, it doesn't tell me whether I'll make a good physicist (especially at making theoretical findings), if you get my point. Which brings me to question if you guys ever had a period where you only fared average (for a benchmark, physics and mathematics faculties in my school average about 70-80% As in A levels for 500++ students sitting for the exam every year), to see if the experience is only limited to myself.

    Anyway, I got over the feeling that it's too late with everyone's encouragement. I've also gone through the admission requirements before, as advised. Thanks very much!
  10. Jul 29, 2008 #9
    Re: "Physicist's block"? Is it too late for me to pursue physics?

    yeah, i'm glad you've gotten over the "too old/no opportunity" thoughts. there are plenty of people much older than you whose light bulb for pursuing excellence have just turned on.

    while i'm not in the physics discipline, i believe this is a fairly broadly accurate statement that applies to many things - it's not about what you know, it's about who you know. cliche, ;] it is indeed but true. keep in touch with that mentor of yours. while restraining getting ahead of yourself, if you plan on doing grad studies at some point, a large factor will be who write your recommendation letters... hence, a good department has distinguished professors. getting a chance to do research with so and so... who knows which contact will lead to another. working in industry or academia is not so different in this respect.

    in any case, don't let up. when things pile up and you feel you could be experiencing some deja vu, get back on top and look forward not back. =p
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