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Theoretical Physics Facts

  1. Oct 15, 2011 #1
    Hello everybody,

    I am a high school student from Vietnam. I have been self-studying Physics for two years and I definitely want to study Theoretical Physics at university. However, most of my friends told me not to do Theoretical Physics. The reasons for this are: My view on Physics as a high school student (I am now 17 years old) is inexact, they told me that studying Theoretical Physics at universities will be totally different from what I now know. Moreover, Theoretical Physics is now up to a really high level and to be eligible for researching (and even earning money), I must be as good as Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, etc. which I do not think that I am (and before this even happens, I must attend a really good university, such as Caltech, MIT, Stanford, etc. so that I will have a good lecturer to move on). In other words, according to advice that I am given, studying Theoretical Physics is truly risky. However, I know that I do still love Physics. Can anyone please give me real facts about Theoretical Physics?

    I would be thankful for any advice.

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 15, 2011 #2
    Theoretical physics does not necessarily mean "string theory." You can do computational condensed matter physics, as one example. There's also plasma physics, optics, fluid dynamics, nuclear physics, atmospheric physics...
  4. Oct 16, 2011 #3
    @ Jack21222: Thank you for the reply. I mean the Bachelor degree of Theoretical Physics is almost useless in my country - Vietnam, especially when I want to research on things like string theory, multiverse, Quantum Physics, etc., it is extremely hard for me to find an appropriate job and even to earn money by researching.
  5. Oct 16, 2011 #4
    Quantum physics is far from useless. It's used often in condensed matter physics and material science.
  6. Oct 16, 2011 #5
    @Jack21222: Thank you for your information. The fact in Vietnam right now is that there are not many jobs for Quantum Physicists, as well as Theoretical Physicist. This is what I am worried about.
  7. Oct 16, 2011 #6
    If you study physics, you better drop the 'theoretical' thing.
    Most universities world wide at undergraduate level offer degrees in physics only, and those who like to use the 'theoretical' buzz word, it simply means you'll probably be doing some additional math/QFT.

    Also, be yourself and do your best, you need not be like Kaku or any other physics poetry authors.

    Another point which you fail to see is that you are trying to set your study/career path (e.g. what you want to do after finishing a first university degree) from now on, this is just plainly wrong, how do you know whether you like those fancy named topics (e.g. string theory) one you get to study them ? How do you know that you want to remain in the academia and not go for a much better paying job at a company ?

    Regarding research in your country, don't comment that there is no research or similar (e.g. 'useless') since you arejust an outsider who doesn't belong to the academia. You might be overlooking a lot of interesting research being done but with your current situation you simply fail to appreciate it.

    Concerning your self study, I really doubt that you have touched any realistic substance of the topics you mentioned (string theory and others), because if you did then you are unlikely to have understood much as they are graduate level topics.

    If you want to study physics, you should study it for its whole being and not for a specific subfield, and its not the end of world if you can't go to MIT or Caltech, many people doing their first degrees in their home counties and then proceed to do graduate study elsewhere.
  8. Oct 16, 2011 #7
    @LovePhys: I don't believe there are any universities in the world which offer a bachelor's degree in "Theoretical Physics". Most undergraduate programmes in Physics offer a degree in Physics only where you declare your major in the second or third year. Focus on the core sub-fields of Physics viz. classical mechanics, classical electrodynamics and quantum mechanics along with the prerequisite mathematics. Don't worry about specialising too early on or get carried away by popular science books, you never how interests can change along the way. Be realistic and stay focused.
  9. Oct 19, 2011 #8
    @physiker_192 and @Reshma: Thank you for all your responses, I appreciate them. The problem is that I do not have a teacher for Physics even though I am going to school (this is a complicated story), so I do not know whether what I know is right or wrong and I cannot study any further, what I know is very limited based on popular science books. I know my point of view is very short-sighted. I will keep studying Physics and see how I go with it.
  10. Oct 19, 2011 #9
    There most certainly are such degrees, but they tend to just auto fill your electives with more mathematically rigorous versions of classes you're already taking. They also replace undergrad lab sessions with these classes. The thing is, these degrees won't really give you any advantage when it comes to applying for postgrad, and may even place you at a disadvantage. Personally, I don't understand how somebody can know they will prefer to do theoretical over experimental before they have taken the classes in the first place. IMO it's best to treat physics undergrad as basic general training and then find a specific discipline at postgrad.
  11. Oct 19, 2011 #10


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    Hi LovePhys. You're not studying physics by reading pop science books.
    You must actually do exercises in order to learn some physics. I suggest you to get a textbook for that matter, rather than pop science book.
    If you know calculus, then pick a book like "Fundamentals of Physics" or "Physics" by Resnick/Halliday or a similar book - search in this forum, you'll see discussions about introductory physics books -
    If you don't know calculus, it might be the time to learn it. Again, with some textbook(s).
  12. Oct 19, 2011 #11
    Do what you love. However you are doing yourself no favours by talking about Kaku, Greene and Hawking with awe. Of these three, Hawking has the best claim to have worked on physics, at this stage, Greene and Kaku may have simply been mathematicians without the rigour and heavy physical bent. Physics always comes down to experiment, no matter how beautiful the theory. If you are intent on becoming a "theoretical" physicist, and ignoring your experimental counterparts you are doomed in your quest to model reality. String theory may be right, but experiment will make it right, not Kaku talking about how he is exploring "the mind of god" or some similar rot.

    I suggest you read some of the works by Richard Feynman, who may be able to convey the true essence of physics to you. Much of his work is geared towards undergrads and the public, it is quite easy to access.
  13. Oct 20, 2011 #12
    @odinsthunder: Thank you for your reply. You are right as we have some courses for the Bachelor degree in Theoretical Physics. To be honest, I want to do Theoretical Physics mainly because my Physics teacher advised me so. I hesitate to do it at university, as you said that it might be a disadvantage since my Maths is fine, but it is not outstanding. Also, I want to discover other fields to make an appropriate choice.

    @fluidistic: Thank you for your recommendation. Actually, I am using "Fundamental of Physics" for nearly 2 years, since I was in year 10. I use it mainly to get further information, to know why and how physicist discovered things and I enjoyed it, even though I did not study Calculus. At the moment, I am studying Calculus by myself ( I am using "Calculus made easy" by Thompson, and starting to get an idea of Calculus, but I am also afraid because my friend told me that it was best to start from "limit of sequences", I am thankful if you can give me an advice about what I am doing with Calculus) and I intend to use "Fundamental of Physics" as my textbook, . At the same time, I am studying Physics by myself using a non-calculus book: "Physics - Concepts & Connections". I actually do read popular science books by Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, etc. just to get an idea of string theory, the universe, etc. (very hard topics).

    @Functor97: Thank you for your recommendation, I appreciate it. I am reading "Physics for everyone" by L.D.Landau and I think it is also very good for a beginner like me to discover from the "root" of Physics. I agree that Greene and Kaku are a little bit boring in terms of painting Physics, but they are absolutely good in conducting researches. Personally, I enjoy Kaku's series of "Physics of the Impossible".
  14. Oct 20, 2011 #13
    Kaku is not what you should aspire to as a research scientist. "Physics of the impossible" and his talk of level 4 alien species, makes for interesting science fiction but it is totally meaningless within the wider realm of academic physics. If you want to be a physicist to talk about time travel machines and warp holes, you are in for a shock. Once more, i suggest you read up on some physicists who have made real contributions to the science. Look into some nobel prize winners...These are the guys who devote themselves to physics, not the popular authors who have more in kin with philosophers than fellow scientists.

    Also, if you were in year 10 two years ago, that would make you about 17 or 18? This means you well and truly need to get a grasp on calculus. Reading pop sci to get the "concepts" just won't cover it, infact you are not getting "concepts" you are getting dumbed down trash. What you need to do is LEARN THE MATHEMATICS. If you are almost 18 and have yet to start learning calculus you are fare behind in your aspirations to be a theoretical physics. You mentioned landau, who had mastered calculus by 12/13. Mathematics is the key to physics, not black hole pop sci books.

    Good luck.
  15. Oct 21, 2011 #14
    @ Functor97: Thank you for your advice. It is like waking up after a long dream, I floated around with Kaku's books for a long time without getting anything, I will try to study from "real" Physics books. You are right as I am now 17, the reason why I did not study Calculus is a long story, and at the moment, I do not have a teacher for Calculus, I am studying by myself, and I am very confused sometimes, Calculus is a brand new thing to me with different ideas. Do you think that it is fine to NOT to start with "limit of sequences"?
  16. Oct 21, 2011 #15
    It depends... I would recomend James Stewart's calculus textbook, if you need a book. It is important to get a teacher eventually though, so as to not to be set in your ways.
  17. Oct 22, 2011 #16
    @Functor97: Thank you. I tried Stewart's Calculus textbook, but it seems to be above my level. By the way, I cannot get a teacher.
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