What is physics? I mean, what is it all about? What is the big uber-goal that we are all working for? What are the really important directions of research these days?

If you ask a physicist any one of these questions, you will inevitably get the same kind answer. Every physicist will tell you “What I work on is really important and interesting. What I do is what physics is about.” (Here “I” means whoever you ask, not “Steve Simon”). And I think most physicists passionately believe this. If they didn’t believe it, they probably would have (or should have) switched fields long ago to work on what they think is truly important.

Just for example, if you ask “is physics an experimental science?” chances are if you ask an experimentalist they will say “Of course.” If you ask a string theorist, they might say “Er… not necessarily.”

I think this diversity of views of physics is a good thing. The only thing, we really all share, is the underlying belief (perhaps faith) that the world around us can somehow be understood. However, sometimes diversity of views causes some real problems. Obviously dividing up the limited funding pie is a seriously sore point for many people.

“Why should *THEY* get so much funding when what *I* do is so much more important and interesting.”

“Do we really need to hire another physicist who does X when Y is so exciting these days.”

Or conversely

“That stuff isn’t even physics! Why would we pay to have *that* in our department”

Here at Oxford this diversity of opinion rears its head in some interesting places. One point of conflict (that seems less prevalent in the states) is over the undergraduate syllabus. Here in the UK (indeed in much of the non-US world) the undergraduate syllabus is extremely constrained. This is quite a change from my undergraduate experience (Brown University) – which required only obtaining 28 passing grades for graduation, and had no further detailed requirements: every choice of what to study was left completely to the student. In Oxford, the students follow a very rigid path. [ There are obvious advantages to each system – to be discussed another time.]

So it seems that over here someone is always saying what a travesty it is that a student with an Oxford physics degree might graduate without any exposure to X, Y or Z. Typically the person stating this is someone who has particular interest in X, Y, or Z. Further, getting X,Y,Z into the curriculum boosts the status of those researchers who study X,Y, and Z in the department – as there will always be a need, thereafter, for people to teach the subject.

But do undergrads really need X,Y,Z? How much does it even matter what they learn? Is a college degree about learning a particular topic, or about learning how to learn – about stretching you brain on anything really hard.

I think both answers are valid, although I do have a bias. If you want to guess my bias… here is a hint: For the record, here is a list of courses that I did NOT have as an undergrad:

Statistical Mechanics
Solid State Physics
Electricity and Magnetism
(beyond the level of Purcell’s introductory book)
General Relativity
Astrophysics or Cosmology
Advanced/Relativistic Quantum Mechanics
Field Theory
Fluid Dynamics
Advanced Laboratory

[yes, I did realize upon graduation that I was woefully unprepared for grad school, so I finagled to take some extra courses for a year to make up some of the difference].


phelippe said...

I don't think one should be allowed to be called a "physicist" before taking Thermo., Stat. Mech., some Electrodynamics, and some General relativity.
Just my 2p.

Steve said...

OK, so maybe I was not a full fledged physicist when I graduated. But then again, who cares? I learned a lot of interesting math, chemistry, and biology in the place of the standard physics stuff.

And in my defense: I had a pretty good research experience which forced me to learn stat-mech and thermo pretty well on my own. GR, advanced quantum, and clasical field theory were among the topics I picked up in my extra year before starting grad school.


But even in grad school there were still plenty of topics that I managed to completely avoid and have never been all that much worse for the wear. And incidentally, I certainly took more physics grad classes than most: In fact, I think I actually held some sort of record for the student who managed to take the most physics grad classes -- at one point I think I tried to take 7 at one time -- not recommended.
But despite all these classes,I STILL managed to avoid Jackson, Optics, Fluid Dynamics, and a bunch of other "basic" stuff.