Discovering Physics

Originally posted 2011-12-13

Most of you know me as a chemist. I’ve previously written 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 might enjoy physics and math. 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 misread this signal. I thought to myself, “Maybe I should have majored in ChemE, since it seems that I like fluid mechanics so much”. So I took a course on reactor design but found it boring, and forgot about the engineering path.

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?

I also accidentally dodged several other chances to discover physics. The summer before I entered MIT, I went to the IChO, which caused me to miss my mandatory placement exams for writing. I took the makeup writing test, which caused me to miss my physics advanced standing exams (ASE). That, in turn, caused me not to take physics classes my freshman year, because I was waiting until the next year to take the ASEs. As it turned out, I missed the test again, and so I ended up delaying my freshman level physics classes until junior year, when I finally took 8.02. That class was temporarily overrun by “Technology Enabled Active Learning”, an innovation where teachers award points towards your grade if you participate in impromptu multiple-choice quizzes. The higher class attendance numbers are then published as evidence that TEAL results in better educational outcomes. So I didn’t like physics very much from that encounter, either.

I’m enjoying physics quite a bit now. Better late than never!