How I Became a Physicist

Originally posted 2011-12-13

Most of you know me as a chemist. I’ve previously spoken of my cowardice in exploring alternate fields. This is not to say I dislike chemistry - obviously, I like it very much. But, until now, I have been immobilized by sunken costs and a fear of failure. That has changed. Today, I am a physicist. This was not a hard decision to make. In fact, it wasn’t even really a decision. Over the past month, I started reading physics textbooks and I liked them, so I kept on reading them. That’s all it takes, really.

I have to thank my friend Jacob deeply for getting me to this point. I’ve had many interesting conversations with him on various topics in physics. He’s been feeding me interesting tidbits from physics which consistently blow my mind away. Even when we talked about chemistry, Jacob would point out that my search for underlying simplicity and self-consistency in chemistry meant that I was really a physicist or even a mathematician. Over the years, there have been other subtle hints that I should have been in physics.

As a junior at MIT, I took a fluid mechanics course in the Chemical Engineering department, and I loved it. At the time, I hilariously misinterpreted this signal. I thought to myself, “Maybe I should have majored in ChemE, since it seems that I like fluid mechanics so much”. Later, I took a course on reactor design, decided engineering actually wasn’t that interesting, and forgot about it. In retrospect, I completely misinterpreted that signal - what it actually meant was that I should have been a physics major. I later found out that fluid mechanics used to be standard in the physics undergrad curriculum until the recently discovered quantum mechanics kicked it out to make room for itself. Now, it has been relegated to the engineering departments for so long that you get books published like “Fluid Dynamics for Physicists”. For physicists? Well, who else would it be for?

There is also an interesting conspiracy of events that prevented me from finding physics earlier. My choice of chemistry seemed like my own volition at the time, but in retrospect, I realize that compared to my high school physics teachers, my chemistry teachers were much more inspiring. (True fact: my high school has sent perhaps ten times as many students to chemistry camp / IChO than to physics camp / IPhO.)

MIT also failed to pull me into physics. As a senior, I took 8.02 TEAL (E+M, with “Technology Enabled Active Learning”), found the first few classes interesting, and then got turned off by the utterly useless TEAL aspect of the class. I had known that TEAL was useless, but I had a scheduling conflict for 8.022, the better version of E+M. This scheduling conflict arose because I had been delayed until senior year because 8.01 (mechanics) was a prerequisite, and I had not managed to pass out of this class until junior year. It took me until junior year to pass out of 8.01 because I had missed the 8.01 advanced standing exam (ASE) my freshman year. I missed the 8.01 ASE freshman year because I had to instead take a make-up test for my writing placement, scheduled at the same time. And… I had to take the make-up test for my writing placement because during the original test, I was at the IChO. Chemistry, through a bizarre series of coincidences, conspired to keep me from physics.

All is forgiven, chemistry. I have found my home.