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Why do you want to be a theoretical physist?

  1. Oct 15, 2009 #1


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    A lot of people told me that theoretical physics is boring. But I love it. But if you ask me where is the fantasticality of theoretical physics, comparing to experimental physics or other science, I cannot answer. So can you give me your opinion? Why do you want to be a theoretical physicist?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 15, 2009 #2
    I like math and physics.
    And, to be honest, I like being boring too.
  4. Oct 15, 2009 #3


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    People telling you that are themselves boring.
  5. Oct 15, 2009 #4
    It depends. "Boring" can mean different things to different people.
  6. Oct 15, 2009 #5


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    When you look around you, you don't see all the stucture that there is. You don't see the cells that organisms are made of. You don't see the atoms and molecules. Similarly, there are more abstract structures that you don't see. For example, there is an intricate strcuture behind the phenomenon of motion. Spacetime itself has a structure. The study and discovery of such structures is what theoretical physicists do.

    So, if you find looking through a microscope or a telescope boring, you will find theoretical physics boring.
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2009
  7. Oct 16, 2009 #6
    I find looking through microscopes and telescopes extremely boring and I always have but I love theoretical physics.

    I like it since I like concepts, I like to understand why. That also makes me like deep psychology and other things that doesn't tell how but why.
  8. Oct 16, 2009 #7


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    Then I think you misunderstand theoretical physics. Do Newton's laws tell you why things move? No, they only tell you how they move. Does quantum mechanics tell you why atoms behave the way they do? No, it only tells you how they behave. Give me one example of a 'why' question that theoretical physics answers.
  9. Oct 16, 2009 #8
    I think that it is you who do not understand physics. Theoretical physics do not have "why" questions, no, but ultimately every other "why" question is answered through the laws taught and discovered in it and those are the driving force behind physics advancements. It is the subject most about "why" there is, there is no other reason for us to study big bang, or the stars, other than to answer the "why"'s.

    Like why a thrown object moves like it does, why our universe is shaped like it is, why molecules are structured like they are, why metals are better conductors than water, why iron is the most common of the heavier atoms, why we have more materia than anti materia, why mercury's perihelion don't fit the Newtonian model, why is it colder towards the poles of the earth, why do light bend like it does, why is the sky blue or why is water "colder" than air even though they have the same temperature.

    Physics is the result of man's attempts to explain every why you can possible imagine. Of course it is impossible to explain everything, but every time we get a new good developed theory we have some why's explained but even more unexplained why's are found.

    What you are talking about is applied/experimental physics. Theoretical do not try to explain "how" at all, only experiments do that, theoretical can only try to guess "why" and in the end these theories are just stating the "how's" already found. Often these new theories can give us suggestions on which experiments to do next. But experimental see how things behave, theoretical tries to explain why.
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2009
  10. Oct 16, 2009 #9
    Physics is almost like a puzzle. The answers are there and just waiting to be found. There will always be something we don't understand.
  11. Oct 16, 2009 #10


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    There is no difference between the type of questions physics answers and the type of questions any other science, like biology, answers. You said you find looking through a microscope boring, but theoretical physics interesting becase it answers the why questions. You are totally confused here. Once you discover the cellular structure of organisms by looking through a microscope, you can understand various 'why's based on this knowledge. All explanations of 'why's in physics are of exactly the same type: things are understood only in terms of other things. Newton's laws don't tell you why they are the way they are, but they can be shown to be related to some other aspects of nature that have been discovered, such as symmetries of space and time. Only in this sense are 'why' questions answered in physics, and all explanations in sciece of this same type in essence.

    Just take one of your examples, "why light behaves the way it does". The answer to this is the following: it has been found that there is a common structure behind the phenomena of electricity, magnetism and light. This structure is embodied in Maxwell's equations. They describe how light behaves. They don't tell you why it behaves like that. These equations are simply the expression of a pattern that has been extracted from nature by experiment and guesswork. Once we have done enough experiments to be fairly sure that this patterns holds quite exactly, we base explanations of observed phenomenon on the assumption that it holds. This is exactly analogous to every explanation in science, not just physics or theoretical physics.
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2009
  12. Oct 16, 2009 #11
    For the lulz.
  13. Oct 16, 2009 #12
    Well, there's much debate, but it seems Einstein wasn't too influenced by the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment when he thought up special relativity. For Einstein it was enough that the laws of EM required, in a sense, the invariance of the form of Maxwell's equations for all inertial observers. Einstein may have known about the M-M experiment, but it was purely theoretical considerations that propelled Einstein to SR.
    My two cents.
  14. Oct 16, 2009 #13
    While we don't know why light bends the way it does, we do know why the stars shift at night, why the sky appears blue...

    Physics may not have answers to the modern fundamental questions, but modern physics has supplied answers to a plethora of questions that we have had in the past... and one day I think we will get to the fundamentals.
  15. Oct 16, 2009 #14
    The difference is that physics is the last step on that ladder and that makes it unique among the natural sciences.
    You are looking at it from a very stiff viewpoint. The equations themselves are just describing the world, yes, but the theories behind the equations tries to answer why. Things falls towards earth since mass attracts each other. Why do mass attract? We don't know based on physics and you wont get an answer to that from any other source either. Physics answers as many why's as possible, you can't answer more which makes it the ultimate science if you like to know why.
  16. Oct 16, 2009 #15


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    If you had taken even a single course in electromagnetism, you would know that the equations are the theory. There is nothing more to Maxwell's theory than Maxwell's equations. All consequences of Maxwell's electrodynamics are logical deductions from the equations.
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2009
  17. Oct 16, 2009 #16
    I'm afraid he's not picking up on the nuances. Physics qualitatively and quantitatively describes the phenomena and interactions in the universe. We can only model and describe things ad infinitum. We can do this quantitatively using mathematics to give us more precise and accurate predictions. We cannot tell you why force equals the product of mass and acceleration and not the product of mass and velocity the next. Not to open a can of worms, but I believe the universe was established and made to be understandable and intelligible, a general revelation of a personal creator.
  18. Oct 17, 2009 #17
    Yeah, but as I said if you ask enough "why" you ultimately end up in physics but I agree that my last post was a little strange. Let me explain better this time:
    As I understand it, it just explains why cells behave as they do by showing you their structure, it doesn't explain why the cells are structured like they are so you have exactly the same "problem" as in physics except that these questions can be answered using physics while the questions you ultimately get in physics are either universal laws or unanswered until we get more experiments done. So if you follow that paths of why you always, always ends up in physics.

    And no, physics can't really answer the why's, I know that, but it gives the best approximation possible of the answer. The only way to get more answers is to start believing in irrational things like the poster before me but then you are deluding yourself rather than finding more answers.

    So, in short: I study physics since it is the best explanation of why everything looks and behaves like it does. Looking through a microscope/telescope tells me almost nothing in comparison to what we learn in physics tells me. I would say that theoretical physics is for those who don't get satisfied looking through a microscope/telescope, otherwise you should go for something less abstract.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2009
  19. Oct 17, 2009 #18


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    Look, you don't have to defend the fact that you like physics. All I'm saying is that the explanations in physics are no different than explanations in any other science. They don't give you 'why' answers any more than other sicences. The division of science into branches is only for convenience, not because they deal with qualitatively different things.
  20. Oct 17, 2009 #19
    I didn't say that they deal with qualitatively different things, it is just that theoretical chemistry is atomic physics and theoretical biology is biological chemistry. If you ask a question in biology, he will leave out details that you need chemistry to explain, which in turn will leave out things that you need a physicist to answer. It doesn't go in reverse, of course the physicist can't answer the first question at all, but in the end the laws of physics is what the universe is built upon, chemistry and biology and such are just generalisations of this.(Most topics in physics are just generalizations of this too, but they are in general the closest to it)

    And this thing started since you said that if you get bored of looking through microscopes and telescopes you wont like theoretical physics, which is in my opinion wrong since that statement fails on me. What I try to do is to put words on why I dislike that but still like theoretical physics.
  21. Oct 17, 2009 #20
    Subj: because it reveals the most fundamental mechanisms & because it finds connections between different phenomena.
  22. Oct 17, 2009 #21


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  23. Oct 17, 2009 #22
    Actually you ultimately end in pure math.
  24. Oct 17, 2009 #23

    Sciences are purely explanatory and descriptive. Applying Occham's razor we can cut out any 'Why' that might pop up by showing it to be equivalent to a combination of 'how's. 'Why does a cell have the structe it does' might dissolve to 'How do these subatomic particles interact?', and the answering of one may ultimately answer the other. On the other hand, when we look at physical laws at the very basic level we still see the same sort of question: "Why does a (insert subatomic particle or string ect here) behave this way?". This series of questioning continues ad infinitum, you cannot answer any 'why' totally because of this non canceling sequence of questioning; however, if we truncate the line of questioning to make it finite we are only left with a bunch of 'How's. Thus you are mistaken in thinking that science answers 'Why', nothing answers 'Why'.

    One way of thinking of science, however, is as a mechanism that progresses along the infinite line of questioning 'Why', at least insofar as it makes some sense to keep asking 'why'. So I will stick in this caveat: It is really only when we look back that we see that all of our 'Why's dissolve into 'How's and in fact; we still ask 'why' in practicality 'Why do these substances interact in this way?', 'Why does electricity behave like this?' ect. 'Why' is an important mechanism, as long as there is more to discover 'Why' will be in science and 'How' will be in its application either to more science or to engineering ect. So although 'Why' has no ultimate answer, it is still an infinite set of questions that in time reveal the answers to many 'How's to us so that we can better understand the world.
  25. Oct 17, 2009 #24
    Nope, I figured it out myself when I was 14. That comic usually takes up things that many ponders on, so I don't think that it is anything special. Also we aren't talking about "purity", just answering questions about the world.
    Maths is a language used to communicate ideas, it is not a natural science in itself. You can't describe anything in the world with pure maths, as soon as you start quantifying things it isn't pure maths any longer. Maths is the purest science, but it doesn't answer anything about the world, it just helps the other subjects with that. Like a catalyst.
    It depends on how you define "answer", how many steps etc. Of course I know that you can't answer those questions fully, who do you guys take me for... For the other of your things I basically already stated those although not in the same manner. It is just that in everyday speech you can answer a question starting with "why", even though technically it is impossible except if you are talking about maths since in maths you define everything yourself allowing you full control over the "why's", a luxury you don't have in any other subject.

    So, if I ask "why did the USA invade Iraq?" I do not want you to lie down the full theory behind the molucelar bindings governing the chemistry in the brains of everyone involved stating how this would effect the whole deal. Instead a "why" question is usually seen as answered if you go up a level or two in abstractions, you do not have to go the whole way for it to be considered answered. Instead you see the next steps as new questions usually.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2009
  26. Oct 17, 2009 #25
    I think I agree with Klockan3 for the most part. When I took chemistry there was a lot of memorization of things, which you were just supposed to accept without argument. This is one of the reasons I hated chemistry so much. Memorize this and memorize that, and if you wanted to know why one of these particular rules or equations was true you needed to learn physics.

    This sort of thing was the reason I started to hate physics as well. In the above paragraph you can replace the words "chemistry" with "physics" and "physics" with "math".

    I think this whole argument is basically on semantics. We all realize that nothing can ever completely answer 'Why?'. But, as far as natural sciences goes, theo physics gets the closest.
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