Rants of a Physics undergrad

“Which major do you want to take?”

“Why, of course, Physics. I love Astronomy!”

“So, you have read A Brief History of time, right?”

“Yes, but how do you know?”

“How many times?”

“Three…each time I read I understand more and more.”

When I was having this conversation recently with a first ­year student, it seemed to me that I was talking to my younger self, whom I had left behind a long time ago. I used to spend long times star­-gazing and I felt proud about myself if I spotted Mars or Sirius. The twinkling stars did rub off on me. When I started my formal studies in physics, I had the same sparkle in my eyes as a teenager has when they get to meet their infatuation, the same odd mixture of excitement and nervousness. Fed on the stories of legends and their serendipitous discoveries from my childhood, I entered my college education, eagerly waiting for an apple to fall on my head.

However, when I got my hands dirty in the field, I realized most of these apples don’t fall so easily on your head. And worse, most of the time I found myself mundanely watering or pruning the apple trees planted by the giants. Often I was trying to debug someone else’s program that ran over hundred of lines. Or I was banging my head on following a few steps of a derivation in a research paper where author had provided me professional help with an extremely enlightening remark ‘It can be shown that …’. Apparently for everyone it was too trivial to waste time on it. Those excruciatingly long hours made me realize that one doesn’t always get to do the “real” physics. My formal training did teach me fairly advanced stuff like how to compute cross-­sections of particles colliding in Large Hadron Collider. But it left me high and dry when it came to quenching my younger self’s curiosity like why rainbow’s shape is a bow or when clothes are soaked in water, why their color turns darker or why do whirlpools in wash­basins always rotate in anti­clockwise direction. Further, simplicity might be the trademark of a good theory but working with spherical cow approximations doesn’t give satisfaction in the long run.

Many a times I asked myself where is the legendary musk for which I came looking for. I don’t think that hero­ worshiping is a sin. No, instead my concern is with being blindly romantic. This risk is quite high in physics (unlike mathematics) because here often only the glamorous side of the story is told. While recalling how Einstein solved splendidly the aether problem with his special theory of relativity in 1905, it is also important to stress contributions of Poincaré, Lorentz and others. History’s tendency to credit collective success to an individual does glamorize the story, but on the cost of sometimes giving an incorrect picture of what actually happened.

To conclude, there is no denying the fact that physics has its own rewards. My only hope is that when you find that research is not always a free ­flowing joy, when you find that you are stuck in a blind alley despite your best efforts, when you are desperate for some sign of physics to pop up in your lengthy calculations, then you would not complain that nobody told you so. Because I did.

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6 Comments

  1. 🙂 Good one

    Reply
  2. Vaibhav Karve

     /  March 16, 2015

    Nice article Mohit. Another reason why people in math don’t face this issue much is because mathematicians don’t take themselves too seriously. As a result, working on silly-looking puzzles, games and tricks and looking at the math they employ is still considered an acceptable use of a mathematician’s time.

    Reply
  3. A nice warning in disguise for people like me!! I would be more interested to know what your advise would be to those people out there who are in that position you were in long before.

    Reply
    • Be mentally prepared for the dirty part of research as well. It is important to realize that textbooks only contain the approach that succeeded, not the one that failed. My advice is do your summer projects seriously and solve as many textbook problem as possible. Thus, the essential thing is to you should romanticize but with caution.

      Reply

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