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Physics and Theoretical Physics

  1. Oct 18, 2007 #1
    I am studying science, which includes physics, maths, and chemistry.

    I hope to get a degree in physics. What is the difference between physics and theoretical physics when it come options after a degree? I am very interested in new physics topics like string theory etc. Would I not be able to get involved in such topics if my degree is in physics, and not in theoretical physics? (they are offered as separate degrees)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2007 #2


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    Yes, you would, but someone holding a theoretical physics degree may well have some advantage. Theoretical physics is bound to be very maths heavy, and I presume will omit most/all of the labs. If you know you want to go into theoretical physics research, then it may be worth switching, if possible, but if you are not 100% sure then I'd stick with the physics degree. It should also be noted that many people entering the field of (especially) string theory hold mathematics degrees, since the area is more mathematical than physical than any other areas.
  4. Oct 18, 2007 #3
    I do not think I can switch.

    Would post graduate degree options be different as well?

    I guess if all comes to all, it would have to be an amateur interest. Wasn't that like Einstein?
  5. Oct 18, 2007 #4
    No ;)

    On the subject of your initial post, for most areas of physics the difference between a physics and theoretical physics undergraduate degree has little impact - most of what determines what you study happens in graduate school. Your area of interest may be different, however.

    See, due in part to a decade of outreach to the public, the number of people looking for jobs in quantum gravity theory significantly outnumbers the number of (marginally good) jobs available. You need an impeccable graduate and post-graduate record. I would highly advise against going into string theory unless you can do your graduate work at one of the absolute top schools with one of the top people. To do this you'll need an impeccable undergrad record as well. There is little room for leniency in this regard.
  6. Oct 18, 2007 #5
    wow i wish my school had a theo physics degree. i hate labs
  7. Oct 18, 2007 #6

    Dr Transport

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    Then you are missing out on some of the fundamental aspects of science. Labs are where you learn to be acute to your surroundings, make observations and put your theroretical background to application. I'm a trained theoretician, but right now I work in a lab part-time and my co-workers and contemporaries tell me that I have become a much better physicist since getting out of my cube and back into the lab.

    Let me give you a simple example, measure the reflection off of a thin film as a function of either angle or wavelength. The interference fringes pop out at you and when you can calculate the effect the "Ah ha" moment is great. Without seeing that you will never be the best physicist you can be.
  8. Oct 18, 2007 #7
    and if i don't care about thin film diffraction? or any of the other prehistoric experiments i'm made to perform?

    note i meant lab classes not laboratories
  9. Oct 19, 2007 #8

    Dr Transport

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    And where do you learn some of the techniques you need for other advanced laboratories.

    Those prehistoric experiments are designed to peak your couriosity and get you to look farther into your studies.
  10. Oct 19, 2007 #9
    Agreed. Also, not all lab classes are basic. For example, an upper level optics class is often considered one of the most complex (most interesting?). If you don't pay attention or attempt to gain any skills from the lower level lab classes, you may not do very well in the future. Even simple things like error propagation seem to be ignored by freshman/sophmore students. One should not be learning these concepts as a junior or senior.
  11. Oct 19, 2007 #10

    Dr Transport

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    My co-workers are struggling with that very problem right now. Error propagation and measurement uncertainty is a necessary evil in today's labs, even in industry. Right now I am sitting in on a course in electronics taught at my local universities physics department. The others in the class have not got a clue how to propagate an uncertainty thru a calculation and wonder why even though I am not getting the best data in lab, I am consistently out scoring them on the write-ups....The key is that I estimate the uncertainty and then work thru an uncertainty calculation on the supporting analysis. The only thing I screw up and forget to do is measure the various components for their exact resistances etc before I go home and write it up.

    I had to relearn these skills after I got my PhD, if I had learned them and practiced them while a student I may have done much better in my studies.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2007
  12. Oct 19, 2007 #11
    you might be right...
  13. Oct 20, 2007 #12
    I realize this has wandered off topic. . .

    But my experience puts me with ice109 on this. I'm an experimentalist. I work in a lab. I believe students need real lab experience. . .

    The operative word being "real." The undergraduate lab classes were a waste of my time. Obviously others have had other experiences. However, even if the class had been better done, I don't think century old experiments were going to pique my curiosity. I am interested in the history of physics, but I'm not interested in repeating it.
  14. Oct 20, 2007 #13
    Agreed that this topic sort of wandered heh... but this is also an important discussion.

    I think the bigger reason that old experiments are done are not to be interesting (neccessarily) but because the results are known and repeatable. This provides a way to compare results and show students how a better experimental technique could provide "better" results. It also provides a way to compare levels of instruction from class to class. If most classes do the experiment correctly and earn good grades on the reports but another one does not, they can see a TA might be having trouble.

    That said, I never want to repeat the Milikan Oil drop experiment ever again :)

    One thing that would be nice is if the lab courses could be waived if the student gets involved with research with a professor. It would certainly help promote undergrad research.

    For the OP, I would think you should be able to get involved in whatever field you want, regardless if you're in "physics" or "theoretical physics" for a degree. But, I'm guessing you're from Europe and I have little to no knowledge of how the education works there.

    Good luck!
  15. Oct 20, 2007 #14


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    I agree. This summer when I started my REU, I realized that I new NOTHING about what working in a lab was like.
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