A typical scene in a student party: one student asks the other what he/she studies, the other answers "physics" and a long uncomfortable silence sets in. As a physics student you can be sometimes confronted with people not understanding why you decided to study this subject. Contrary to other natural sciences, like chemistry and biology, physics is a subject that most people define as strange and extremely complicated. Not to mention that as a physics student you are immediately tagged as a nerd. The truth is, studying physics does not require any special skills and it is definitely not gender-specific. In our opinion, studying physics requires only curiosity and logical thinking.
In an interview to the media, the popular American theoretical physicist Michio Kaku once said that the desire to study a particular field of science usually comes from a delicate motivation involving either a person or a particular event typically at an age between ten to fourteen years old. For both of us, this was exactly the case. However, this is not the rule.
Andrea: The right physics teacher
Most people believe that I studied physics because my father is a physicist. Well that’s definitely not the reason. Maybe the fact that as a 4-year-old child I spent a few months running outside the laboratories of the Max Planck Institute for Solid-State Research in Stuttgart played a subconscious role too, but the person who encouraged me to study physics was my physics teacher in the seventh grade of primary school. He explained physics in a most interesting manner and started the first day of class saying: "physics is everywhere". And this, I believe, is true. Whatever we do can be explained by physics: each movement we make, each thing we see and even our bare existence. But let’s not get too philosophical. What I liked about my physics teacher was that he explained each physical law not as a formula but as a logical consequence.
Once, he gave us a small mother board, a light bulb and two switches. The task was to mimic the electrical circuit of a bedroom where you have one light-switch at the entrance and one next to your bed. The light bulb should go on with one switch and off with the other: A simple task that can only be solved if you think logically. I found this task fascinating as it was so simple and it had to do with our everyday life. Of course we can argue that this is more related to electronics than physics, but the main message is the solution of a logical problem. As homework he often had us solve simple physical tasks from the computer game "The Incredible Machine" (TIM). The exciting thing about the game is, that it does not only simulate the physical interactions between objects, but also ambient effects like varying air pressure and gravity, so that a solution requires not only logical thinking but basic knowledge of physics. That year, and with only 13 years old, I decided I wanted to become a physicist. And even though the basic research I do now is far from solving real-life problems, I must say I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.
Rajdeep: Hiroshima and the atomic bomb
I grew up in a small village in the eastern part of India, close to the city of Kolkata (Calcutta as it was known then). As a small child I was eager to become a locomotive driver. Until one rainy afternoon, when I was ten years old, I got a magazine in my hand. Amongst many short stories, there was a small article about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. I didn’t understand much of what it said, but the photograph of the mushroom cloud of the atomic weapon caught my attention. I wondered how big this “fire cracker” should be and how on earth it worked. Within a day or two, more intriguing questions popped up. At that time, there was neither Internet nor Google. So I dared to ask my teacher in science class: How does the boom of an atomic weapon sound like? My school teacher thought this was not the sort of question a first year middle school kid should ask, so I didn’t get an answer. Instead, I was asked to pay attention in class. I came home; more eager to know my answers and I asked my father, who was a language teacher, the same question. He promised me to find the right person, who would tell me all about the atomic weapon.
Few days later, he brought home his young colleague, the new physics teacher at his school. The young teacher asked me what I wanted to know. I replied full of enthusiasm: "everything about this thing called atomic bomb". I listened to him for the next two hours as he explained me all about the atom, Lord Rutherford, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, the Manhattan project, Fat Boy and off course, Einstein and his famous equation E = mc2. That day I knew I wanted to study physics and become a nuclear physicist.
By the time I got to University, physics was more than just a subject of study for me; it was slowly becoming a passion. During my doctoral studies, nuclear physics was no longer attractive to me, so I became an experimental condensed matter physicist specializing in spintronics and magnetism. Years have passed since that rainy afternoon, but that one photograph and the bunch of questions that followed, still helps me to continue asking myself new questions and looking for potential answers to them. Physics for me is philosophical, spiritual, romantic and, at times, erotic.
Physics as a study
We said that no special skills are required to study physics. However, one thing that one must keep in mind is that the representative language of physics is mathematics. So it is a great advantage not to be afraid of mathematics when studying physics. Not all physicists are experts in mathematics, but a basic knowledge and logical thinking is definitely required! The university studies of physics can be divided into two main topics: theoretical and applied physics. Particularly exciting is that physics can be combined with other natural sciences. For example, there is biophysics, where one studies the physics behind biological phenomena, like light adsorption of enzymes and DNA. Another one is medical physics, where the goal is to understand physical questions arising in medicine, like radiation safety and physics in forensics. And of course, there is physical chemistry or chemical physics. This branch deals with all phenomena that are at the border between the two sciences, this means it studies the physics of chemical phenomena and vice versa.
The Bachelor study in physics aims primarily at providing the students with the technical skills required to understand any physical problem by combining theoretical and practical courses. Officially, the Bachelor in physics curriculum takes six semesters. It is followed by a four semester Master study. So a minimum of five years are necessary for launching a career in physics – be it as a teacher, research scientist in academia or industry, or as an engineer. For the highest level of academia as a University professor, you will need at least another six to ten more years. During the Master studies one specializes in one particular subject, for example: nanoscience, nuclear physics, technical physics, medical physics, etc. After obtaining a Master’s Degree, one can immediately start looking for a job. In case that an academic career is envisaged, then the study of a PhD is required.
Where can one work with a degree in physics?
As mentioned in our first blog post, as a physicist you can work almost anywhere as was stated by many of the user’s comments. While we both work in the academic field, we know of many of our colleagues that have decided to work in the industry. In fact, all the students working in our group that recently finished their studies, either Masters or PhD, found a job in industry immediately. The greatest advantage is that with a degree in physics you have the technical and logical skills required for almost any job: quality management, research and development, process engineering, patent offices, etc.
A physicist friend, who works for a company that does research in the field of surface science for industrial partners, once said she was studying the roughness of bathroom tiles with optical spectroscopy. The goal was to understand which of the different coatings on the tiles was rough enough in the nanometer scale (1 nanometer = 0.0000001 cm) to avoid people from slipping on the wet tiles. So you see: physics is everywhere. One just needs to keep the eyes open and the curiosity alive. A piece of article, an image, a documentary or a movie is waiting to trigger your interest, curiosity and passion for the subject that explains everything: starting from the big bang, from the nucleus to the galaxies, from roller skaters to computers. That’s physics. (Andrea Navarro-Quezada, Rajdeep Adhikari, 20.9.2018)
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