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Why do people prefer engineering/applied science over pure science?

  1. Sep 16, 2010 #1

    I am a physics undergraduate student, and was wondering why so many people would prefer to become an Electrical Engineer or Mechanical Engineer as opposed to a Theoretical Physicist or a Mathematician or a Biologist?

    What attracts you to the applied science fields so much (APART FROM THE MONEY). Do you not find it exciting to ask fundamental questions like "Where did the universe come from?" or "How does it all work?" or "Why does it all exist?" or "What new knowledge mathematics can produce?" or "How and why life evolved?" ?

    I know, working as an electronics engineer for example, can be exciting too, making new kinds of circuits that could possibly change current technologies and take our societies forward.
    But isn't that more close to "helping societies progress", or in other words "social service"?

    One can get great pleasure from serving the society at large and making a difference in world at a practical level. And so, the excitement that you may get from being an engineer or an applied scientist, isn't it basically the excitement that you get from serving the society at large?

    Because, according to my personal view, as far as the excitement of new knowledge is considered, the pure and fundamental sciences do a better job of giving that.

    For example, as an electrical engineer, you may create a great deal of circuits having varied applications, some or most of which would be responsible for bettering our lives. But in the end, whatever you may create or do, rests on the four equations of maxwell, and a bit of math.

    So in the process, you have produced applications, different ways of doing a thing, bettered the human life, but have essentially produced no new fundamental knowledge.

    Working on applications is important, else the world wouldn't be the way it is today, but as far as excitement and fulfillment is considered, I guess pure sciences do a better job at that.

    These were my opinions. I'd like to hear from all you students of engineering/applied science and applied scientists out there.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 16, 2010 #2
    I think it's mostly a case of preferring to be hands-on. I've known quite a few people who just don't derive satisfaction from working with problems on a purely theoretical level.
  4. Sep 16, 2010 #3
    I think it also has something to do with employability. Graduates from pure degrees tend to find it harder to find field-relevent jobs, as compared to graduates from applied degrees.
  5. Sep 16, 2010 #4


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    I also have an issue with spending a lifetime on a project with no guarantee it will go anywhere.
  6. Sep 16, 2010 #5
    Some people like to build stuff, while some people like to know stuff.
  7. Sep 16, 2010 #6
    Science will not answer these questions in the foreseeable future in a way which will satisfy me. It's just much more satisfying for me to work on things which have a direct impact on the real world.

    Also, the money.
  8. Sep 16, 2010 #7
  9. Sep 16, 2010 #8
    There are many different answers to this at different levels. Money is not irrelevant to the career choices people make, afterall prices can be seen as a probabilistic manner of communicating information about value and scarcity. Also my job satisfaction is partially measured in USD.

    In terms of what people like to do, it is not fun to do something that you are not good at. The level of intellectual ability and personal dedication required to become a successful theoretical physicist is probably 2 standard deviations above that required to become an electrical engineer. This means that many fewer people have the ability to be theoretical physicists than EEs. It should not be surprising that people don't want to do things they can't do well.

    As for fundamental knowledge, I'm not sure that science is really so good at that. They kinds of questions you posed are properly metaphysical questions rather than scientific ones. Like the computer in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the only answer science can give you to those questions is '42', because science is quantitative. Science depends upon philosophical assumptions that usually go unsaid, for the reason that they are so settled that everyone unconsciously relies on them. If they were spelled out you would just say, "Duh!".

    What the pure sciences do differently than the applied sciences is give more abstract answers, that apply over a broader range.
    Thus, it is true that those of us who are engineers rely upon pure science in our work, but it is not really true that everything we do is nothing but plugging the right numbers into already known equations. The known physical laws underdetermine the behavior of actually existing things. To make a math analogy, there are more unknowns than equations. The difference between engineering and math is that instead of ending up with a family of solutions you end up with one, unique object that you have to experiment on to figure out how it actually works, as opposed to how you think it is going to work. If you did the science right, then you have an idea, but you don't know all the answers yet.

    Put another way, when I design something, I am creating an object that has never before existed in the history of the universe. The behavior of that one thing is not necessarily going to change everything, but then again it may do something pretty cool that has never been done before. You could call this hands-on, but I prefer to think of it as bending matter to my will. Scientists generally attempt to let matter alone so you can see what it does when you aren't fiddling with it.
  10. Sep 16, 2010 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    I think you might have an inaccurate view of fundamental research. I do fundamental physics research and the sort of questions I ask most often are less along the lines of "why is there more matter than antimatter" and more along the lines of "who stole my screwdriver"?
  11. Sep 16, 2010 #10
    I wouldn't dispute that Vanadium.

    Also, Klockan3, that cartoon is awesome!
  12. Sep 16, 2010 #11

    Math Is Hard

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    I always saw you as more of a scotch and soda guy. :smile:
  13. Sep 16, 2010 #12
    You can easily flip this on its head. For someone in pure science you may (if you are very good and very lucky) find out something that answers some fundamental question. However, you have done nothing to better human life. Let's say that you go on to prove m-theory to be true. That's all fine and dandy and you will be immortalized in the physics community, but that really doesn't help the average joe. Most of America would rather have someone engineer a way to have clean, affordable than have someone have a big breakthrough on SUSY.

    In my personal opinion I see the value in both applied and pure sciences.
  14. Sep 17, 2010 #13
    Thank you all for the responses. I guess why people shun from doing pure science is 1.)huge amounts of dedication required, 2.)very small probability of success, 3.)and ofcourse the money.

    @phyisab**** and Vanadium 50,

    I'm still at an undegraduate level so I guess you guys know better. But I think the question of why or how the earth revolves around the sun was as fundamental and the answer to which was as unforseeable in the times of newton or galileo as the questions like "why the universe exists" are today.

    So I really don't think that science doesn't have the capacity to answer those questions. It might take time and it might be hard work but I don't think such questions will go unanswered.
  15. Sep 17, 2010 #14
    To me, no, those aren't the reasons - and they aren't the reasons that people have given. Why do you think that there's somehow less dedication involved in working outside a 'pure' topic? And it isn't the probability of success that is off-putting - for a lot of people (myself involved) going into applied science is more of a way of doing something actually useful for the world. For many years my interests were set in pure-research, and I love the stuff but I just felt that something else was missing. Being able to work on a project that could actually make a difference to peoples lives was a big pull for me.

    You should probably quickly get rid of the 'tier' mentality that is common among undergraduates. So-called 'pure' subjects are not at the top - there isn't one, and it just ends up snooty if you're confused as to why anyone would study anything other than what you, yourself, are interested in :smile:. Each discipline is valid and has it's own attractions for each individual.

    And I don't get paid any more than I would were I in a 'pure' subject.

    You problem might also be the overlap with questions that can have a physical answer and questions that are purely philosophical.
  16. Sep 17, 2010 #15


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    This may be slightly off-topic, but I think there is an opportunity here for me to once again correct a severe misconception about "theoretical physics" and "applied physics". Here's the bottom line:

    Theoretical physics and applied physics are NOT mutually exclusive!

    You can do theoretical physics in applied physics! Condensed matter physics, atomic physics, accelerator physics, etc.. are areas that often considered to be applied physics. Phil Anderson, Bob Laughlin, etc.. are all theoretical physicists in condensed matter, and they won the Nobel Prize as well! The physicist that I consider to be the most influential physicist of our time, John Bardeen, was a theorist, and the only person ever to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics twice! His first Nobel Prize also gave the clearest example of a theorist at work on an applied field - doing the necessary theoretical calculation on a solid-state transistor to aide its design Shockley and Brattain.

    So the first myth that needs to be destroyed here is that one cannot do theoretical physics in an applied area. This misconception needs to be buried for good.

    Secondly, the myth that doing "applied physics" doesn't address anything fundamental about the universe. This is severely shortsighted.

    One only needs to look at the hunt for the Higgs at the Tevatron and LHC. Everyone agrees that the Higgs physics is very fundamental, and part of what we call basic physics that addresses the Standard Model of elementary particles. Yet, look at where the Higgs mechanism came from! Would you believe that it was inspired by the same physics that was used to study superconductors? Phil Anderson's broken symmetry principle was a huge part of the development of the Higgs mechanism. Peter Higgs himself clearly stated this (see a http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/19750" [Broken]).

    In other words, you don't need to be in particle physics, string theory, etc.. etc. to study fundamental physics. If you have fallen asleep and missed all the brouhaha surrounding the recent discovery of the topological insulator, WAKE UP. This family of material has been viewed not only in the applied sense, but also in the fundamental sense, since many of basic, elementary particle physics physics might be exhibited in this family of material!

    So the second and final myth that needs to be destroyed here is that one cannot study anything fundamental or basic when doing applied physics. There are numerous examples to show that this is utterly false!

    Thus, this render the topic moot. You CAN do applied physics, and you CAN do theoretical applied physics, and you CAN do basic, fundamental research studying the deepest questions about the universe doing theoretical applied physics. And you can have your cake and eat it too!

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  17. Sep 17, 2010 #16

    I do understand that each field has its own attractions for different individuals. And that's what I wanted to know through this question, as to what are those things that would pull somebody in to the engineering/applied fields.
    I already mentioned 3 reasons in my previous post.

    I guess I missed an important one out there, as you pointed out.
    The pleasure of serving the society and producing something tangible.
    So I guess there are people out there, yourself included, who don't get the satisfaction unless they do "hands-on" or see their work affecting people at large, for good of course.

    And that's great I guess. But I would say that is closer to social service than producing fundamental knowledge. Not to say that serving the society is any less important than producing fundamental knowledge.

    But I get disappointed when I see people failing to appreciate the beauty of the universe. Humans are the only creation of nature, as far as we know, who can understand themselves and the world around them. It's sad to see people turning away such a marvellous opportunity nature has given us. And as einstein once said,

    "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."
    --"The World As I See It," originally published in FORUM AND CENTURY, 1931.



    Applied fields helping produce new knowledge in the pure fields may not be that rare, but that is not what the applied fields actually concern themselves with. In many cases, it might turn out that applied fields lead to new knowledge, but that is more of a coincidence or being lucky enough.

    To produce new knowledge is not the main concern of the applied fields, that's why they are called "applied". So I don't think, on the basis of just a few instances in the past where applied fields have helped the pure ones, one can say that applied fields do definitely produce fundamental knowledge.

    correct me if I have misunderstood anything.

  18. Sep 17, 2010 #17
    Well first off, I think that in order to answer some theoretical questions about applied science technology has to be made, so that's where I "apply" myself as an EE.

    Mostly, though, you can get the best of both worlds. As an EE I'm right now trying to understand the theory behind the memristor, arguably the fourth basic fundamental component of circuitry but at this point it's all theory of proving its existence, which is seen but rather unexplainable. I'm actually not quite sure, remember, I'm digging deeper?
  19. Sep 17, 2010 #18


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    It is a misunderstanding. While that may be true way back when, it is no longer true now. Certainly, many people, even outside of the so-called applied fields, have accepted that fact that these fields DO produce fundamental knowledge. See http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.1741" [Broken].

    The idea that fields such as condensed matter are only applied is outdated. This is what I'm trying to convey. Most theorists who go into this field will realize this extremely fast as they face the courses they take at the graduate level AND realize that many of them are in string, elementary particles/high energy, etc. And as they begin their research work, they'll realize it even more.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  20. Sep 17, 2010 #19
    Applied fields produce new knowledge all of the time. Transistors, computers, nuclear reactors, etc are all products of applied science. I believe that one would consider this new knowledge. And if you want to talk about knowledge by accident look no farther than Bohr. When he first came up with his model for the atom, he said that he believed that it would never have an applied purpose. It is now the basis of nuclear science. So in pure sciences people come up with things that have no use and then it is up to the applied scientists to actually find a use for it.
  21. Sep 17, 2010 #20

    Sorry for the use of bad language, but when I say new knowledge, I mean new "FUNDAMENTAL KNOWLEDGE". A transistor runs on principles of physics and the invention of a transistor hasn't produced a new understanding of how nature works.

    So yes, all the applied fields do produce knowledge, just like most other fields, but that's not fundamental in nature, that's all im tryin to say here.
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