Study Physics – It’s the Whole Enchilada

If you’re gonna study something, you might as well study physics. At least that’s what I used to tell my students when I taught at the University of Arizona. Physics is the heart of all, physics is the whole enchilada, physics is totality, physics is everything, physics is existence. Every morsel of our lives, every fabric of our being, every bit and piece of all that stuff that we see and don’t see is driven by, exists because, and perhaps most importantly is a manifestation of physics. My God (pun totally and shamelessly intended): when you put it that way, why isn’t everyone studying physics in school?

Oh yeah – it’s hard stuff. Or at least that’s what people sitting next to me on airplanes tell me. That is when they even know what the word “physics” means and to what it refers. I think most average Joes might have some idea that physics has to do with gravity, “particles” (whatever those are), levers, pulleys and fulcrums (whatever those are), light, time travel, space travel, Star Trek, and nuclear bombs.

But as physics aficionados know, and I count myself as one, physics is the whole schmear. Of course, since physics is everything, when you get right down to it, everyone is a physics aficionado whether they know it, and can spell it, or not. After all, football is physics, dance is physics, art is physics, The Simpsons is physics, and one could even make the argument that love is physics (what with the body’s chemical reactions to an object of attraction and the brain’s neurons firing, etc.).

And now for the truth – I myself don’t have a degree in physics – Shocker! My degree is in math. I started off well-intended, trudging from the fields of New Jersey to the cacti of Arizona to become none other than a theoretical astrophysicist, dually prepared with an arsenal of physics jokes and Star Trek t-shirts. And as I started my studies as a then 17-year-old (we’re talking back in the Mesozoic Era), I got a NASA Space Grant and commenced cosmology research with a world-famous astrophysicist at the University of Arizona, who curiously enough, had recently migrated from Princeton to Tucson just as I had.

But as I studied physics and astronomy that precarious freshman year, I realized that I enjoyed the language of physics more than the physics itself. Seduced by the Dark Side, I became a mathematics major.

But lo! I just could not stay out of the physics department. The attraction was too great (groan). And just like Michael Corleone said in the seminal cinematic gem “The Godfather III”, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” I too was sucked back though the worm hole to the world of physics by unseen forces and aromatic nerds.

So, I continued doing my physics research. I joined the Society of Physics Students and worked my way up to President. I performed physics outreach programs for kids. When I graduated, I found my first job as the department’s Communications Director and I did PR for physics.

Slowly, relatively of course, I gained the thrill of seeing/feeling/knowing physics in action, be it in a laboratory, an accelerator, or anytime I used any of my senses. Physics is fascinating and as an old woman, I developed a more thorough appreciation of its true beauty, majesty and totality. It would appear that for me, wisdom came with age and experience.

Today, over a decade later, my career has been molded, guided, and carved by physics in every sense of the word. My profession consists of writing about physics and physicists for APS News and other publications, speaking about physics careers and physicists at conferences and universities, and advising physicists about professional development-related issues. I also do comedy, much of which revolves around physics humor. My greatest and most helpful mentors of yesteryear and today are physicists. I collect physicists’ autographs.

Of course I also write and speak about other areas of science and math, but as Ernest Rutherford most accurately put it, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” I have no regrets about getting my degree in mathematics, as it prepared me well for my work. But for all the little children who read this blog, know this – since physics is everything and everywhere, even in alternate universes and other dimensions (although physics there might not be the same as our physics), having a background in the subject can only open doors for you. Studying physics enables you to learn other subjects with greater ease, and analyze and solve problems from other disciplines with more simplicity. Quite clearly, learning physics makes you smarter and more skillful in many other arenas, be it business, science, or other creative pursuits.

So the next time someone on an airplane shutters in horror at the thought of anyone studying such a hard subject, or looks at your resume and questions why you decided to study “psychics” in school, just flash a surreptitious smile, and know that you have the key to all that exists. And there is nothing more apposite than physics to use as launch pad for a career and a life.

By Alaina G. Levine

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