Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Study Physics - It's the Whole Enchilada

If you're gonna study something, you might as well study physics. At least that's what I used to tell my students when I taught at the University of Arizona. Physics is the heart of all, physics is the whole enchilada, physics is totality, physics is everything, physics is existence. Every morsel of our lives, every fabric of our being, every bit and piece of all that stuff that we see and don't see is driven by, exists because, and perhaps most importantly is a manifestation of physics. My God (pun totally and shamelessly intended): when you put it that way, why isn't everyone studying physics in school?

Oh yeah - it's hard stuff. Or at least that's what people sitting next to me on airplanes tell me. That is when they even know what the word "physics" means and to what it refers. I think most average Joes might have some idea that physics has to do with gravity, "particles" (whatever those are), levers, pulleys and fulcrums (whatever those are), light, time travel, space travel, Star Trek, and nuclear bombs.


But as physics aficionados know, and I count myself as one, physics is the whole schmear. Of course, since physics is everything, when you get right down to it, everyone is a physics aficionado whether they know it, and can spell it, or not. After all, football is physics, dance is physics, art is physics, The Simpsons is physics, and one could even make the argument that love is physics (what with the body's chemical reactions to an object of attraction and the brain's neurons firing, etc.).

And now for the truth - I myself don't have a degree in physics - Shocker! My degree is in math. I started off well-intended, trudging from the fields of New Jersey to the cacti of Arizona to become none other than a theoretical astrophysicist, dually prepared with an arsenal of physics jokes and Star Trek t-shirts. And as I started my studies as a then 17-year-old (we're talking back in the Mesozoic Era), I got a NASA Space Grant and commenced cosmology research with a world-famous astrophysicist at the University of Arizona, who curiously enough, had recently migrated from Princeton to Tucson just as I had.

But as I studied physics and astronomy that precarious freshman year, I realized that I enjoyed the language of physics more than the physics itself. Seduced by the Dark Side, I became a mathematics major.

But lo! I just could not stay out of the physics department. The attraction was too great (groan). And just like Michael Corleone said in the seminal cinematic gem "The Godfather III", "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," I too was sucked back though the worm hole to the world of physics by unseen forces and aromatic nerds.

So, I continued doing my physics research. I joined the Society of Physics Students and worked my way up to President. I performed physics outreach programs for kids. When I graduated, I found my first job as the department's Communications Director and I did PR for physics.

Slowly, relatively of course, I gained the thrill of seeing/feeling/knowing physics in action, be it in a laboratory, an accelerator, or anytime I used any of my senses. Physics is fascinating and as an old woman, I developed a more thorough appreciation of its true beauty, majesty and totality. It would appear that for me, wisdom came with age and experience.

Today, over a decade later, my career has been molded, guided, and carved by physics in every sense of the word. My profession consists of writing about physics and physicists for APS News and other publications, speaking about physics careers and physicists at conferences and universities, and advising physicists about professional development-related issues. I also do comedy, much of which revolves around physics humor. My greatest and most helpful mentors of yesteryear and today are physicists. I collect physicists' autographs.

Of course I also write and speak about other areas of science and math, but as Ernest Rutherford most accurately put it, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." I have no regrets about getting my degree in mathematics, as it prepared me well for my work. But for all the little children who read this blog, know this - since physics is everything and everywhere, even in alternate universes and other dimensions (although physics there might not be the same as our physics), having a background in the subject can only open doors for you. Studying physics enables you to learn other subjects with greater ease, and analyze and solve problems from other disciplines with more simplicity. Quite clearly, learning physics makes you smarter and more skillful in many other arenas, be it business, science, or other creative pursuits.

So the next time someone on an airplane shutters in horror at the thought of anyone studying such a hard subject, or looks at your resume and questions why you decided to study "psychics" in school, just flash a surreptitious smile, and know that you have the key to all that exists. And there is nothing more apposite than physics to use as launch pad for a career and a life.

By Alaina G. Levine

17 comments:

  1. I believe I've heard similar arguments from folks in the psychology department, the philosophy department, and the religion department. Equally pompous and vapid arguments, I might add.

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  2. I truly appreciate these words. I came to studying physics after studying philosophy then mysticism then biology and now it all comes back and unites in physics. Amen.

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  3. I agree with the first commenter. Vapid and inflated view of one's field and one's own importance. I could see many things being art, but not physics, which is the study of mostly inanimate, dead things for which physicists make strange theories in hopes we believe in their Godlike abilities.

    Never mind the expense (linear collider). If we can't afford health care reform or even going to space right now, forget physics.

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  4. If I never hear that line "All science is either physics or stamp collecting," again it'll still be too soon, and I like physics. It's things like that, and the attitude it reflects, that make it clear why so many people I meet hate physics and physicists.

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  5. It's not the attitude. Psych, philosophy, religion... all have their share of experts with pompus arguments with attitudes. It's much more clear than that. It's the math. For instance, the strange ideas of quantum mechanics can be cleverly described with poetic words and computer graphics. But to truly understand the concepts, you need to understand the mathematics. Ms. Levine mentioned this as the reason for changing her major. However, math is what causes the general public to shy away from or "hate" physics. Without knowing the mathematics, you really have no choice but to believe it and it will appear "Godlike".
    If you think the expense of funding physics is too high, then try to go a day without using a laser. No cell phone or internet(fiber optics), no shopping (barcode scanner), cd and dvd players... etc. The laser was a purely theoretical idea only 50 years ago and people at that time thought it would have no practical uses.
    By the way, there would not be any healthcare to fund without innovations that came from physics experiments and the mathematical foundations that explain them.
    I also can't help from mentioning that the internet was created at CERN and that linear colliders are used to treat brain tumors.

    Here is a humorous comic on this topic: xkcd.com/435

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  6. Anonymous 3:18: The Internet was not created at CERN. You're thinking of the World Wide Web.

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  7. "I believe I've heard similar arguments from folks in the psychology department, the philosophy department, and the religion department"

    Really? You've heard arguments that the motion of a football can be described by the psychology of the ball, or the balls philosophy or religion?
    I think you're just pulling that half-baked comment out of your butt, honestly...

    "I could see many things being art, but not physics"

    Again, half-baked and reactionary comment. Nothing more. Wouldn't doubt it if this was a sock puppet of the first poster.

    "which is the study of mostly inanimate, dead things for which physicists make strange theories in hopes we believe in their Godlike abilities."

    Lovely. Someone who hasn't the faintest clue what physicists do making pronouncements about what physics is. Unfortunately it's all too common for people to think their emotional reactions are a good replacement for actually knowing what they're talking about.

    "Never mind the expense (linear collider)."

    Just had to throw the short-sighted comment in for good measure. A lack of vision does seem to go along with being a dim-witted reactionary.
    I always wonder how the people who disparage the cost of basic research (in any scientific field) would like living as a stone age hunter-gatherer. Because that's where we would be without people with the vision to search for new ways of understanding (understanding always precedes practical application, you know).

    To James Maxwell in the 1800's: "What's with all the wasted time and money working on that obscure electricity stuff? It's not like that can actually help anyone."

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  8. "Really? You've heard arguments that the motion of a football can be described by the psychology of the ball, or the balls philosophy or religion?
    I think you're just pulling that half-baked comment out of your butt, honestly..."

    I can see the obvious stupid reply coming already - "Not football specifically, just similar arguments." Which, of course, would be letting the point whiz over your head by a mile, because the point is that none of the others mentioned has the power to describe things outside the realm of human activity.

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  9. It is more than hating math; the public hates the arrogance of the people teaching physics. Physicists don't want to interact with society, or take in the human element; they just want to be above the rest of us, as many of the answers to the first post show. Physics has nothing to do with basic science in the public mind; people like basic science because they see the human and other living elements.

    Further, football can be defined as sociology, psychology (Dallas is known to test players for that factor), chance, economics, art, emotion. Physics is rarely the core in defining human endeavors.

    Physics does seem alone in lack of inclusion (women and minorities; even police forces have more women, for example). And in not having a relationship with humans. Engineers make more sense to people. The linear collider does not help us at be better than hunter gathers. Sorry that's the way it is.

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  10. Thank you, Alaina, that was a very nice essay.

    If people hate Physics, that's their problem. People hate lots of things. Well done to the posters here who pointed out how much we would NOT have without Physics. It's not all about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    As a Mechanical Engineer, I didn't find the Mathematics of Quantum Mechanics difficult at all. I think the bigger cultural problem is a fear of Math in general. It tends to be taught very poorly. It's just a language, but it's the most important one. Takes a bit of work sure, but what worth doing doesn't?

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  11. I agree, it's more than math, or there would also be not enough CPAs and financial managers (and we know there's plenty of those.)

    Today, many people think physicists are way out there and off base. If modern physics presented itself as philosophy first, I think more people would be amenable to it. You often see physics in the Arts and Sciences Dept. and not the straight Science and Engineering Depts., which as a lay person, always struck me as strange.

    At some point, you really don't need to know every little thing of how something works, just that it does. Even though we are modern people, we still like to have God involved.

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  12. It's sad to see so many negative comments about Physics.

    Maybe Physics isn't taught too good in school or something, because I don't know how anyone can learn even a little and not see the art in it.

    Imagine being able see with more than just your eyes. I think understanding Physics actually adds artistic value.

    Someone else said 'inanimate and dead things'. WTH? Seriously?

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  13. "At some point, you really don't need to know every little thing of how something works, just that it does. Even though we are modern people, we still like to have God involved."

    Common ignorance typically associated with religious people.

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  14. ...Anyone who lives in a house, drives a car, or uses a cell phone and also suggests that physics is anything less than important is either an ignorant fool or completely out of his/her mind.

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  15. I have always thought it strange that otherwise well educated people are happy to admit being ignorant of physics. How can you understand the world you live in without physics ? It is fundamental to understanding why the sky is blue, the wind blows, an apple falls and why the sun shines.

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  16. I just cannot understand why some people are afraid of the "Physics" subject. After all what makes the world go round??

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