8/30/2006

Why I'm Glad I Majored in Physics

I almost majored in English. Or creative writing. I had all A's or passes in those classes. I got to do a student poetry reading twice. And I had fun.

Physics classes, by contrast, were brain-achers. It didn't help that I'd often show up to Friday morning lectures hung over or my ears ringing from seeing some punk band the night before at City Gardens in Trenton the night before. (Usually not both! I had some limits even then.)

Looking back, these were some of the tangible benefits:

> Appreciation for the complex order of the universe, as well as the chaos

> Appreciation for the scale of the universe, from the nanometer to the megaparsec.

> Appreciation for having majored in physics as I entered the job market. One of the reasons I stayed with the brain-aches rather than switching was because I figured physics would look more impressive on my resume than English. Crass, but true.

> Chance to study under a couple of Nobel Prize laureates (admittedly, one of them was at best "undistinguished" as a teacher), and other well-known physicists.

> Being able to say I could do quantum physics and vector calculus. (Not so true any more!!)

> I even had some peripheral contact with 1993 Nobelist and Quaker Joe Taylor! His Nobel autobiography is here, including the fact that he was raised Quaker and attended Moorestown Friends School and Haverford College.

Above all, working on problem sets with my friends Charles, Matt, Kevin and a few others. This experience taught me more about working together in a group than anything else I had ever done up to that point in my life. That experience has been enormously helpful in my life as a Quaker and in my professional life as an affordable housing advocate and fundraiser. I have been blessed abundantly. I am so grateful.

2 comments:

Jeanne said...

Hi Chris it's Liz O's partner, Jeanne. We met at Gathering this year as you were trying to figure out how to turn off the light in your room. Liz sent this post to me because she thought we had some things in common.

I majored in math and physics in college (the first time around) because both subjects were more challenging than writing and languages, which came easy to me.

I learned some of the same things.

I still listen to Science Friday because I love the complex order and chaos of the universe. (Though I never could appreciate quantum physics or abstract mathematics...I have to be able to visualize something to understand and appreciate it)

I learned to think through problems logically. I also learned to appreciate the beauty of logic, which sometimes gets demonized as being too neutral in our culture.

I, too, loved working with other students. In fact, I now know that I learn far more from other students and the process of solving problems than I do from lectures. I learn by doing.

I never finished that degree. I had to do some healing and figure myself out. Since leaving school, I've learned that I don't have to take the most challenging path before me because challenges will find me no matter where I go.

I've gone back to school, finally, to finish my undergraduate degree. This time, it's in creative writing. As Liz says, I spend all day at school or studying and come home happy.

These days, that's enough.

Chris M. said...

Jeanne: Thanks for writing! I remember you but had forgotten about the pesky light!

Ah, yes, coming home happy – perhaps I should have picked that road less traveled, eh? As you say, challenges will find us either way.

One of the things that really good physicists do is take the equations and abstractions and find ways to translate them into visualizations, and vice versa.

One of my favorite science anecdotes is about the person who first conceived of “spin” at the electron level. He was so overjoyed at his discovery that he went outside in the snow, where he imagined all the giga-illions of water molecules in the snow with their electrons spinning. Now that’s a mystical experience!

I realized I didn’t have the same ability to translate back and forth, and so I went into publishing after college rather than graduate school.

I did take the plain-vanilla GRE test, though not the subject one. I was amused to see that my “verbal” score was exactly the same as my SAT, while my “math” score actually went down by 10 points. Trivial, perhaps, but I thought it was indicative that I was correct not to pursue science further.