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Should I major in physics?

  1. Jul 9, 2013 #1
    So far I have completed the freshman year of physics.
    I am kinda bipolar with physics. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, physics seems like it is the exact type of thing that I would want to study. I have always been fascinated by science and I have always wanted to know how the universe works. The idea of learning about the laws that govern reality sounds like the coolest thing in the world. I look at the things that physics covers and it all sounds awesome. Learning about light, matter, electricity, particles, etc. sounds like the exact thing I want to do.

    However sometimes I feel like physics is just learning a bunch of meaningless math. And the math often doesn’t really teach me anything. For example we spent so much time learning about the equations having to do with capacitors and inductors, but I still have no idea how capacitors and inductors really work. We spent a ton of time learning about the euations for potential energy and what not for electric fields, but all I really got out of that chunk of the course is that positive attracts negative, and like charges repel, which I already knew. And a lot of mechanics was like this too., things move when you push them, gravity pulls things down, etc.

    This is not to say I always feel this way. There are definitely a lot of times when I’m loving physics. Some things are more interesting than others. Optics, for example, was my favorite thing so far. I liked learning about how light is an oscillating electromagnetic wave and how exactly the electric field induces a magnetic field which reduces the electric field, etc. And I liked learning about how light behaved while passing through different mediums and lenses. That’s because this actually felt like I was learning about how things work. Gravitation and rotation of planets was also cool because again, that was actually explaining a phenomenon in the universe. Also, in some ways I like the mathy part of physics. I love how physics is all about critical thinking and problem solving. That was seriously a big draw for me. I hate reading and memorizing classes. Also I like how it makes you see the world differently, viewing everything with energy and forces. But again, I do want to focus on how things work rather than turning concepts into math. I am perfectly fine with math being a major component of physics, I just want it to feel like I am using math to understand the universe, not learning a bunch of random equations just for the sake of making things quantitative.

    So do you guys think I should continue majoring in physics? Or should I try out chemistry or biology? Chemistry might be good because it’s more conceptual, what do you guys think?
    Also, I’ve heard that upper level physics courses are more interesting. How so?
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  3. Jul 9, 2013 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    The upper level courses are more specific and tend to be as much about the tools of physics as they are about the phenomena under investigation. The sophmore level is mostly about making sure everyone has got what they were supposed to have learned in high school but probably forgot already.

    Do not mistake chemistry or biology as "more conceptual" - these are all empirical sciences: they have the same emphasis on quantitative investigation for example.

    What you are missing out on is the feel for what maths does in relation to science.
    Mathematics is the language of science ... you won't be able to understand how things work without doing the math. The math highlights the relationship between different phenomena.

    You certainly should not be memorizing classes and formulae. You should be remembering the relationships between things and learning how to describe those with math rather than English. Lots of the exercizes in sophmore physics are about getting you to turn English language statements into mathematical expressions that can be processed - the marker knows if you have been successful at this by examining your working.

    Don't get me wrong, you can get a long way by memorization - but it will probably lead you to more frustration in the long run. You have to get the relationships down - it's called "understanding the physics". This is where the higher levels are more rewarding - they reward understanding over rote memorization.

    This will be the same in any empirical science btw.
    You want to do science with minimum math, try the social sciences :) though, even there, there is a trend to quantitative, over qualitative, methods.
  4. Jul 9, 2013 #3
    Your upper level courses will have more math. Turning concepts into math is what physics is about. These concepts can be used to explain the behaviour of systems. Later on, when you study more complicated systems, you'll be using math just for the purpose of making approximations and making things look "nice" (which is important to know how to do). If you really feel this way about the use of math in physics, you should not continue studying physics.

    Just to emphasize: the math will let you visualize what is happening in a system. Many systems behave in a very non-intuitive way, so you'll need math to see what is going on. Approximation methods, numerical methods, etc. will be handy for the complicated stuff.
  5. Aug 29, 2013 #4
    Thanks for the responses guys

    and also, I don't mean to sound like I hate using math. It's more about the way math is used, not how much of it there is. If the math is helping me understand things and explaining the universe, then it's good.
  6. Aug 29, 2013 #5


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    Have you considered engineering?
  7. Aug 29, 2013 #6
    I hate to keep blowing horns on EE and software engineering as I was an EE. Physics and these two are very closely related, they enhance each other. In fact I cannot even imagine you go with one alone. I work with PHDs in physics, they all write their own programs, some design electronics because nobody has the time to do a little design for them. Same is true the other way. A lot of scientific programmers require advanced knowledge in physics and calculus. In EE, RF design all start with electromagnetics.....physics. So it is a big advantage to combine EE and programming with your physics.

    The other question is, what kind of jobs you can get in physics without a PHD degree? I don't know. I just know 80% of the analyst with in one of the company I worked for were PHDs. They mainly performed material analysis using various mass spectrometers for customers. I don't think I even want their job. Not all physicist are inventing, research things that change the world!!! Do research in what kind of jobs you can get with the level of education you are planning to achieve. Ask whether it's what you want.

    To answer some of your questions in your op, capacitors, inductors etc. are to get you familiar with electronics. Those are essential knowledge. Math/calculus is the language of science. It is like English for everything else. In one of the most difficult class of electromagnetics, book explain almost everything in calculus as there are no real good explanation of Maxwell's equations. If you are not sure what major you want to emphasize, study all the calculus, ODE, PDE and other applied math. You can't go wrong with math and let the other play themselves out. You can major in physics and minor in EE and software. Those are not as hard particular programming.
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2013
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