I remember how in my freshman year I was very curious as to how it would be focusing so much on physics. Now I have a much better idea since I’m in my second semester Junior year and well into my upper level engineering physics courses. So here are some of my general thoughts of what’s it like to spend most of your time working on physics problems.
One of the surprising things of higher level physics for me was the overarching interconnectedness of certain concepts. Every subject seems to have influence on every other; topics I’ve learned in one class will always come up sooner or later in another. In that sense everything I learn builds on itself and the more I learn, the more things come together and make sense. It gives me a sense of progress like I’m actually going somewhere that I find very satisfying.
Being good at physics is largely being good at problem solving. There is no grand methodology to just regurgitate everything into; you have to carefully think about how to approach the problem. Solving a physics problem for me goes like this: My problem gives me a certain situation and I want to find the value or more generally the relationships of a certain parameters. I need to ask myself, what equations are valid in this situation? Which ones are useful and relevant? Do I then have enough information to find what I’m looking for? Then I try to figure out how to use everything to solve the problem. Problems can require a lot of creativity to solve at times and have not so obvious solutions. Sometimes there are problems that just completely stump me and I stare at them for hours without making any progress. But I try to not let this discourage me, and do the best I can.
I like how in my classes there is little emphasis on memorization and number crunching. The way I figure it, computers are way better at memorizing and computing things than I am, so let them do it. Yes, understanding math is crucial in physics, but the really complicated things can just be thrown into a computer and solved numerically. I’ve never been expected to know how to do every integration under the sun, just the very basic ones. What’s important and difficult is how to set up that integral, not how to evaluate it. That work is conceptually very easy; what is conceptually very hard is finding the instructions you should tell the computer. There are, however, a certain few equations that are so basic and fundamental that you have to know them by heart. If you really know what you’re doing you should in principle be able to derive any other complicated equation you may need from these few basic fundamental ones.
I’ve gotten so overloaded with cool science work lately that I now call what I study super-science. Also, I’ve developed the problem of considering the word science to mean just physics. All other science seems to me to just be the application of physics on a specific subject. As Rutherford once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” I don’t want to belittle the awesomeness of other sciences, but that quote rather captures my biased view.
So despite all the pain and struggling of homework and all the stressing out about tests, I think that it’s worth it. What I walk away with from most of my classes is really cool and useful and I can’t picture myself in majors other than Physics or Engineering Physics (well, maybe CS too). Everything else seems like it’s either too arbitrary, too boring, too much grunt work, or not useful enough for me. I genuinely enjoy my work; I just hope I am able to be diligent enough to make it through all the way.
Picture is completely unrelated – it’s the zoomed out version of my current header image for anyone who’s interested.