Physics is the scientific discipline that elucidates the physical properties of nature, in an attempt to find its truth, beauty, complexity, and simplicity. Physics searches for the hidden secrets from the tiniest of subatomic particles to the largest of astronomical bodies. The goal in physics is to search for the set of rules or laws that govern the physical properties of matter, using the language of physics - mathematics. The pursuit of physics equips a student with important skills like creative thinking, innovative problem solving and quantitative reasoning. Physics gives us insight into the universe and impacts the quality of life we enjoy today. The knowledge derived from its pursuit has enabled innovations in aeronautics, astronomy, space science, defense, semiconductors, computer technologies, engineering (electrical, chemical, nuclear and civil), medical instruments(lasers, MRI, etc.), and even the internet was started by Physicists. Physics careers are challenging and intellectually satisfying, and its applications can lead to developments that benefit mankind.
Physics as problem-solving
One thing that all physicists have in common is their ability to solve problems. There's no set method that always works so problem-solving is as much art as it is science. After you figure out what the problem actually is, you have to use a combination of intuition and experience to determine whether or not you have enough information to solve the problem at all. Once you decide it can be done, you "play" with the problem a bit to "get a feel" for it. Serious physics is much more than plugging in equations. Even introductory problems can sometimes challenge a professional physicist (if only briefly). This emphasis on problem-solving is the reason physicists are so versatile and can be found in virtually every technical field whether or not it involves physics per se.
Physics as applied math
Algebra and calculus were actually invented to do physics. Physicists tend to enjoy both using math and studying it for its own sake. Many physics majors also complete a math major and some of the world's greatest physicists are actually mathematicians in disguise who enjoy the beauty of pure math as much as any mathematician.
Physics as logic
Physicists love puzzles. Here's a favorite example: You are on a desert island and are dying of thirst. There are two people standing in front of you who know each other and know which of two trails leads to fresh water. You can ask one of them one question to find out where the water is. Unfortunately, one of them is from the tribe that always lies and one is from the tribe that always tells the truth. Being a newcomer, you can't tell the difference. What is your one question? Good luck and happy drinking! In a way, all physics problems are logic puzzles. Figuring them out requires cleverness, logic, and tenacity. Some physics majors also major in philosophy because philosophical discussions often contain a healthy dose of logical debate.
Physics as engineering
A lot of physics majors end up doing something very practical such as chemical, electrical, aerospace, or software engineering. You can move directly from a physics undergraduate degree to a master's program in engineering or to a job in engineering. Like most physics programs, ours emphasizes depth of understanding and this is important because the best engineers know that in the long run, understanding why something works is well worth the effort. All physics majors learn some electrical engineering and develop the ability to analyze and simulate experiments using the computer. Majors can also do internships at national labs or technology companies to get real experience even before they graduate.
Physics as physics
Of course, physics is interesting just for itself. In this past century, we've found out that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but it is stranger than we can imagine. Einstein's theory of relativity was just the beginning -- physicists found the idea that the universe has a built in speed limit to be so strange that they didn't believe it for 20 years. Just when we had accepted relativity, the startling success of quantum mechanics caused us to alter our perception of reality itself. Can a photon really be in two places at once? It was Max Planck who opened the Pandora's box that turned out to be quantum mechanics and he promptly declared his own theory too crazy and in need of replacement! The mysteries of the universe truly dwarf our ability to comprehend them and yet, as Einstein said, what little we do know is the most precious thing we have.
Who can major in physics
You should be pretty good at math, willing to work hard, and able to come up with good questions to ask. Otherwise, anyone is a good candidate for a physics major: You might simply be curious about the universe, or you might want to develop your problem-solving and mathematical skills, or you might like to play with high-tech toys, or maybe you just like puzzles.
Answer to puzzle
Ask either of them: "If I asked that guy right there (point to other guy) where the water is, which way would he point?" The truth-teller will point to the wrong trail since that is where the liar would point. The liar, knowing that the truth-teller would point to the right trail will also point to the wrong trail if you happen to ask him. Take the other trail and live to solve the next puzzle.
Revised February 2, 2006
Last Modified: February 2, 2006