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Physics or Computer Science?

  1. Nov 10, 2006 #1

    I'm currently in high school (11th grade) in India with Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Statistics as subjects. I just love Physics, and I also like computers.

    Physics is my favourite subject, I can hardly get enough of it. I'm a firm believer that Physics is locally isomorphic to mathematics, and I always prefer a mathematical and advanced way into physics rather than a pictorial and oversimplified one. I study beyond the level of my course in physics, and I love what quantum mechanics I've seen. I think minowski spaces and vector invariance provide a much better and understandable oath into relativity than the standard Einstein's postulates approach followed in textbooks. I'm easily the best physics student in my circle (that includes my school and my tutorial).

    I'm not one of those prodigies who are professional programmers by the age of 10, but I've completely self-taught everything I know about computer to the point where given an unfamiliar application I can read a few help files/online tutorials for a couple of hours and glean a working knowledge of it. I like C++ and hate Java and its derivatives like C#. Given time, I can tinker around to solve most minor software problems, though my aptitude and interest for the hardware part is remarkably poor. People around me usually turn to me as the first step in computer troubleshooting and doing tasks like image editing and DTP.

    I find the concepts and theory of math to be interesting (complex analysis and linear algebra being my favorite parts), but my computational skills are somewhat poor, and I can't do the convoluted manipulations that is the mainstay of exams here.

    I find physics to be more interesting than computer, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for the intensive and complicated math in modern research physics, because I don't usually make the top 10 in math in my class. Also, computer pays better than physics.

    Taking everything into account, would it be better for me to pursue a course in computer engineering or a physics honours? Of course a dual degree sounds good, but I'm not sure I can put in the extra work required to pursue two bachelors at once (I'm the super-dooper lazy type) and most places here probably won't allow it anyway (courses are not at all flexible here).

    Thanks for your help.

    Last edited: Nov 10, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 10, 2006 #2
    Hi loom91

    Check those old (about 2002) interesting quotes from a Slashdot thread that shocked me. Read them carefully and then decide. Hope it helps.

    My humble personal opinion: Do what you like most. You like physics, get into physics. Do not to go after thew bucks if possible.

    quote #1

    I'm someone with a lot of mathematical training (Ph.D. in Applied Math) but only a few courses in computer science. Somehow, I've managed to pick up a humungous amount of CS along the way, things like algorithm design and analysis, designing and coding industrial-strength C/C++ libraries and applications (yes I get paid for this), high-performance computing, OpenGL coding to roll my own volume visualization apps, doing all of my own unix system administration, setting up all of my own hardware...I've always thought that the best way to become really good at coding and software engineering is to first get a degree in mathematics. If you can do that, the rest is easy.

    (Okay, I am a bit biased; I'm a college math professor, and in addition I do a lot of research and consulting related to numerical computation).

    quote #2

    Your code may do the job, but does it do the job efficiently? And if it didn't, how would you know?

    I changed majors from CS to Mathematics halfway through because I realized that programming is easy; you can always learn a new language or a new technique by picking up the appropriate O'Reilly book on the subject. But writing good programs -- programs that are robust, that scale well, that do as much as possible as quickly as possible -- is really applied math. And math is hard.

    quote #3:

    Here's a free hint for code monkeys: If your only value to your employer is your skill at the currently trendy programming language, you can be replaced by a 16 year old, and probably will be when the programming language of the day changes. If you want to have some respect, and some security, become skilled in some field such as physics or engineering (or chemistry, or mathematical genetics, or anything which is HARD). Let the coding be the tool which lets you do what makes you valuable to your employer, rather than the only value you can provide.
  4. Nov 10, 2006 #3
    I would also say not to go after a job that you don't feel passionate about just because you like the looks of the expected salary. If you like computers and feel passionate about physics, you sound like a good fit for computer engineering. Although of course a good grasp on mathematics is needed for any physics oriented type course, I think that in the 1.5 yrs you have left before university, you could become very good at math.

    And if you truly are the "super-duper" lazy type, you should change that as you won't make it in any engineering/physics program. I think that the earlier you get used to working hard, the better.

    Also realize that you have a lot of time to make this decision. :)
  5. Nov 10, 2006 #4
    You can certainly combine the interests; computing is important in many fields of Physics (e.g. numerical relativity or numerical fluid dynamcis) though a Physics degree may not leave much time for getting deeply into computer science.
  6. Nov 11, 2006 #5
    I think I'm sure that I'm not cut out for a pure mathematics degree. If I tried hard I could probably pass respectably, but I wouldn't be very good at it. While I enjoy the theory, I don't usually like calculations. Incidentally, it surprises me that while I'm not good at math when it comes to doing math, I can do it a whole lot better when I'm doing math in physics or even statistics.

    I would not go for a career that I'm not at all interested in (say become a doctor, or a mechanical engineer), but I like computer and coding quite well, so I don't think it's a career I wouldn't enjoy. I may be more passionate about Physics, but I think a career in physics is too uncertain, and I'm not only talking about the money.

    Only a very small fraction of the physics doctorates churned out every year go onto doing something notable. I don't want to spend my years teaching at some university and writing applications for grants to do research on things nobody cares about and writing papers of which nobody bothers to read even the extracts.

    Even if I were to go for computer engineering, I would probably try to take up physics courses, but I don't think I could put in enough work to actually get two degrees simultaneously or that any university in India would offer the flexibility to select courses at will. Unlike in USA where you do a major and can change it, here we enroll for a particular course (Bachelor of Physics - Honours or Bachelor of Technology - Computer Engineering) and usually have to stick to a strict sequence of subjects. This is particularly true for undergrad courses, grad/masters courses offer some scope to select specialisations or optional modules).

    As for my laziness, I'm trying hard to get rid of it, but it's as difficult as hell. I now understand how addicted people can't give up even as they are inching towards death. However, all engineering students I know have told me that the maximum load of my educational life will be during the 11th and 12th grades, it tails off after that. Is this true?

    As for the money vs. enjoyment question, it's a burning question for all students. I'm personally of the opinion that being better paid will add to your enjoyment of your career, while being worked to death (as I probably will be if I go for computer) will subtract from it. Of course, I'll not have the opportunity to actually test out my theory until it's too late, that's why I'm looking for suggestions.
  7. Nov 11, 2006 #6


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    I think it depends on whether you try to take a holistic approach or not. You might think that you should get a skill to make you money, but having made money you should then seek enjoyment elsewhere. The money-skill will have no other purpose than to fund your ability to do what you want to do.

    On the other hand, you might take a holistic approach where your money skill is what you are passionate about and in executing it, you find your enjoyment. Perhaps you will work harder this way, but if you are working harder and enjoying it, it shouldn't be too much of an issue.

    If you are seeing a distinction between work and play, ask yourself if you can ever seeing work as being fulfilling. If you can, you should probably choose that work that would be fulfilling. If you can't, perhaps getting a money-skill is the thing to do.

    For me, I started out wanting to work in computer networking. It would be something I was really good at, a money skill (not that it would bring in much money but it would not be taxing). But in the process of trying to find work, I took a programming contract and found I enjoyed it very much, and so decided to develop software instead. It's not a money skill by any means and I'll need to expand my knowledge to stand out, but it is fulfilling and overall seems to have been worthwhile so far.
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2006
  8. Nov 11, 2006 #7


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    Lest I give the wrong impression, I believe now that I should have studied mathematics instead of what I did. I didn't know then what I know now. Being young does that to you. I am now trying to self-study mathematics and philosophy but it isn't easy.
  9. Nov 11, 2006 #8
    verty what type of math are you trying to figure out that is going to help you in programming? The only course I can see even relevant to programming is the course i'm in now, even though he skips all the sections that directly apply to programming but its descrete mathematics or number theory.

    It deals alot with sets, and permutations/combinations, its rough for me to grasp as well but it seems to build good problem solving skills. But other than that, Calc I-III did nothing, diff EQ nothing, Linear Algebra nothing that i know of yet.
  10. Nov 11, 2006 #9


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    Let's see, math useful for computer science. There are the obvious two you mentioned: discrete mathematics and number theory. More generally, combinatorics & graph theory are extremely useful/essential for algorithm design and analysis, category theory helps you understand the theory of OOP more deeply, some abstract algebra (e.g. theory of elliptic curves, field & galois theory) for cryptography, matrix theory for graphics, numerical analysis for a great deal of things (e.g. numerical computation, nuclear imaging, etc.), statistics for artificial intelligence, and the list goes on...
  11. Nov 11, 2006 #10


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    Mr Coffee, it's so much that I am only interested in what is directly applicable to programming. I want to get a feel for what is common between these different areas of knowledge. Software is a very flexible medium but as a medium that we shape, I think it is related to many other disciplines. Software is construction and all fields deal with some or other structure. If most fields are about discovering structure, software is about building structure, so it should subsume all discovery.

    Software is used in various ways, not always in a business context. Although it might be fortuitous for me to focus on applying software construction within a context, I want to know more about structure and construction itself. Perhaps it is not strictly necessary to know more than one need apply in some one context but I don't feel satisfied with that.

    I don't want to divert the point of the thread, so let this be all that is said on this.
  12. Nov 13, 2006 #11
    Hi there.

    I agree 100% with verty & morphism. It depends what kind of programming is your aim. For a batch payroll application almost no math at all is needed (knew lots of people doing this *without a degree*) The opposite side, a scientific / engineering application (e.g. simulation of heat flow in a nuclear reaction) lots of advanced math is a must, as well as physiscs knowledge.
    As for my personal experience, I did a career & work in IT, good money. Anyway, I regret (yes, I STILL REGRET) not having gone into engineering or physics. So, loom91, make up your mind and do what you love. Period.

    Good luck and make a smart choice. Hope it helps.
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