Why Physics?

2018 article in the Chronicle: So What Are You Going to Do With That Degree?
American Institute of Physics’ state-by-state list of employers that have hired bachelor’s-degree recipients in physics.

What is physics and why study it?

Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? In seeking to understand natural phenomena as simply as possible, Physicists have made a remarkable discovery: whatever questions they ask, the answers ultimately involve the same elegant principles of energy and momentum, mass and charge. Physicists seek and study rhythms and patterns among natural phenomena, including those that are readily apparent (like the orbits of planets) and those that are apparent only to deep analysis and careful observation (like the quantum transitions of atoms). Abetted by the power of mathematics, they ultimately comprehend and express the fundamental regularities of the physical universe in uniquely human metaphors. In this way, the universe comes to know itself in human terms.

A Physics major provides a rigorous grounding in the scientific process and a firm scientific understanding of the world. It fosters critical thinking and provides broad practical training in science and technology. It can lead to graduate study and basic research (in a variety of disciplines), to stimulating jobs in industry, or to challenging and rewarding careers in teaching. Our faculty are engaged in original research and our students are drawn early into collaborative research projects with faculty. 

Physics is fundamental

Physics is essential to understanding the world around us, the world inside us, and the world beyond us. As the most basic science, it is the foundation of many other sciences, including chemistry, astronomy, oceanography, and seismology. Physics challenges our imaginations with concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics, and it leads to great discoveries, like computers and lasers, which transform our world.

Physics is practical

Physics undergirds many new technologies, such as the World Wide Web, cell phones, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which have revolutionized our lives. Many physicists work as engineers, and many engineers have physics degrees. In fact, the problem-solving abilities and analytical skills provided by a physics education equip us to work in diverse places — on school and college campuses, in industrial and government labs, in the astronaut corps, or even on Wall Street.

Physics is beautiful

Physicists love the elegance, simplicity, and universality they find in nature. They constantly strive to find simple solutions to complex problems. For example, physicists have discovered that all electromagnetic phenomena, from the deflection of a compass needle to the iridescence of peacock feathers, are concisely summarized by Maxwell’s equations, which fit comfortably on the T-shirts many of them often wear.

Physics is enriching

Physics enhances our appreciation of the world. Without any physics, we enjoy the beautiful colors of a rainbow. With physics, we also marvel at how raindrops disperse, refract, and maximally reflect sunlight at a 42° angle; we look for the faint secondary bow of reversed colors from double reflections inside the raindrops and the compensating dark band of unlit sky between the bows; we know that high above the ground pilots are treated to full, circular rainbows!

Physics is fun

Physicists play with cool toys. They use scanning probe microscopes to arrange individual atoms on substrates to spell out their school or company logos, a dozen atoms high. They modulate optical shutters in space and time to project laser beams that bend in air. They take X-ray photographs of their fingers by unpeeling Scotch tape in a vacuum. They build the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider, to recreate conditions that existed a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.