Why study physics and is physics relevant?

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It is a fair assumption that the majority of physics students, both past and present, would agree that physics is one of the more difficult subjects studied in senior school. Indeed many students find it difficult to even define physics, let alone grasp the subtleties of all the formulas made up of strange looking symbols. Physics is the science that attempts to describe how nature works using the language of mathematics. It is often considered the most fundamental of all the natural sciences and its theories attempt to describe the behavior of the smallest building blocks of matter, light, the Universe and everything in between.

It is a fascinating subject and one would assume very useful to study. Yet statistics show that in the UK the number of entries to A-level examinations for physics has fallen steadily from 46 606 in 1985 to only 27 368 in 2006, this represents a 41% decrease (as shown in Figure 1). Meanwhile over the same time period the number of students entering A-level examinations for biology has increased by 36% and the number of students entering A-level examinations for chemistry has stayed relatively constant. This decreasing trend in the number of senior school physics students is echoed in many other countries around the world.

Perhaps it is the general lack of understanding of what physics is, combined with the subject’s inherent difficulty and reliance on mathematics, which tends to discourage a student from studying physics. If a student doesn’t understand what physics is they are unlikely to grasp the relevance of physics to society, and more importantly the relevance of physics to them. It is clearly important that students need to know why physics is important and what careers or other benefits may stem from studying physics.

    Fear and guilt

    The importance of physics to society today is most easily represented by our reliance on technology. Many of the technologies that that are continually transforming the world we live in can be directly traced back to important physics research. For example, research on the physics of semiconductors enabled the first transistor to be developed in 1947. This seemingly simple device is the key component in all of our electronic systems, including computers, and it is now considered one of the most important inventions in human history. Also it is the laws of optics describing the way light behaves that have lead to the development of the optical fiber networks that are beginning to crawl over the entire globe, drawing the world closer together.

    There are countless more examples of research in physics leading to the development of important technologies. It is hoped that today’s research on nanostructures (structures a billion times smaller than a meter), quantum information or photonics (basically electronics with light) will lead to the next generation of technologies including faster and more robust computers and communication systems.

    On a less tangible level physical theories have allowed us to obtain a greater grasp of the Universe we live in. It is the theories of physics that provide us with some of our deepest notions of Space, Time, Matter and Energy. Physical theories allow us to conceptualize the workings of the building blocks of all matter. These are things we would never be able to experience in everyday life. At the other extreme the theories of cosmology tell us how the Universe began and how it could possibly end. Again this is an example of physics going beyond the limits of our experience to describe the space we live in. Although there is varied opinion on the amount of trust we can place in the theories of physics, the fact remains that these are theories produced from a rigorous and systematic method and they are constantly tested against experimental evidence. As such physical theories give us relatively concrete conceptions of notions beyond our everyday experience.

    The study of physics in schools and universities is undoubtedly relevant to society today. However an individual deciding whether to study physics in senior school has to decide whether physics is relevant to them. The most obvious question to ask is what careers may stem from studying physics in high school and then university? Figure 2 shows the distribution of American physics graduates with a bachelor’s degree in 1995-1996 and 2002-2003. In all 4 years represented over half the graduates began working in the private sector.  The rest of the graduates are distributed amongst the education, university, government and military sectors.

    A physics student usually possesses excellent analytical, quantitative and problem solving skills. They have the ability to synthesize and analyze large quantities of data and present their analysis in an easily understandable form. When faced with a particular problem they are taught to systematically identify all factors contributing to the problem and work out how those factors interact in order to solve the problem. These are valuable skills that can be applied in a range of careers. More importantly an increasing number of employers are starting to realize this fact and are looking to hire physics graduates. An example of this is contained in an Australian job ad shown below in Figure 3.

    Perhaps the greatest skill a physics student develops is a sense of wonder about how things work. We are living in a technologically advanced age in which the average person relies on technology without understanding how that technology works. How many of us have looked at a DVD disc, and wondered how it can contain an entire film? Who has held an ipod and thought about how so many songs can be squeezed into a tiny space? Physics teaches us a method of systematic thinking and also the theories necessary to allow us to once again understand how the things we rely on actually work.

    There is no denying that physics is a difficult subject to study at high school. With the pressure many students feel to produce good grades it is understandable that many students will simply choose less challenging subjects at school. However it is important to remember that studying physics also has great rewards. For those with an ambition to be at the forefront of developing technologies and theories that describe our reality it is necessary to study physics at school and beyond. For students with ambitions in other areas such as business management or finance the study of physics during senior school is also important even if those students don’t intend to study physics or science at university. It demands respect from many employers and university administration officers as it provides students with excellent analytical, problem solving and quantitative skills.

    About the author - Dr. Rob Modini taught Physics and Chemistry at ITS Education Asia.



In physics, you don't have to go around making trouble for yourself - nature does it for you.
Frank Wilczek

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