What I love about physics

academics physics

What if I told you that there’s a way to describe the waves of the ocean, the winds in the skies, the motions of celestial bodies — almost everything around us — and harness that information to create great things? This tool does exist, and it’s a science so fundamental that its principles guide our understanding of everything from microbes to earthquakes! Welcome to the wonderful world of physics. 

Like any other science, physics is not a collection of homework problems solved with a fixed set of tools used on rotation. No, physics is a way of thinking, a method of actively studying the world, and the ultimate answer to the questions “Why?” and “How?”

An observant eye and awareness of the world around you are really all you need to become interested in physics. Why does a sealed bag of chips become so puffy at the top of the mountain when it looks normal at sea level? Why do we make wires out of copper instead of plastic? How can something as heavy as an airplane fly?

It was questions like these that drew me to physics. Unlike many of my peers in this field, I wasn’t interested in articles about black holes or documentaries about relativity (Those are cool, though!). Instead, I fell in love with the science that could explain everyday occurrences in one, smooth, efficient language. 

Of course, learning the language is a challenge. Most of physics is expressed in math, since both math and physics are logical studies. Starting from a known physical result (like Newton’s laws), you can translate logical thoughts into mathematical constraints and equations that describe the world. It’s beautiful to see how the theory of relativity, in its most basic form, can be derived just from assuming that the speed of light is always a constant. As difficult as the challenge may be at times, the satisfaction of crafting a description for the world makes it all worth it. 

To me, what’s even better than just describing or understanding one physical system or phenomenon, is the power to connect seemingly unrelated corners of the universe through the same language. For example, the description of an oscillating object, like a swinging pendulum (such as in grandfather clocks), is strikingly similar to the quantum field-theoretic description of a photon, the particle of light! The equation that describes diffusion, the process of something like a drop of ink spreading out in water, looks almost identical to the famous Schrodinger’s equation that describes the time-dependence of quantum states. In this way, physics is endlessly rewarding — the more you dig, the more times you ask “why,” the more you see. 

Even if you don’t plan to ever study physics, I encourage you to stay alert and observant as you go through your day. Take in the sights and sounds. Entertain the questions you may have stopped asking as you grew older and simply got used to “how things are.” Live actively, engage in the world around you, and you might just notice something new. 

Josephine double-majored in Physics and Mathematics at MIT. She's now an Applied Physics PhD candidate at Stanford University, where she hopes to uncover the mechanisms governing material properties.

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