When people ask, "What's your degree in?"
And I say, "Physics."
They often pull back in shock, and then say,
"Wow. What do you do with that?"
Followed by, "Why aren't you still doing, you know, 'Physics Stuff'?"
And while I could do the philosophical (and slightly snarky)
"All things are Physics Things!", I instead think about
what I actually do with my wee physics degree,
now that it's been nearly 20 years since I got it stamped.
I spent 5 years getting a degree in Physics,
and what has stayed with me? Well. Let's see.
Shall we have some bullet points?
-How to roll with a 90% male class.
-How to deep breath through tests that are impossible to finish.
(This is a most useful skill, as Real Life has lots of tests
you can't finish or pass.)
-The power of a grading curve. (35% for a B! YES!)
-Faith in yourself really does count for a lot.
-A RPN calculator is a great ally.
-Write it all down. All of it. It might make sense later.
-Balance. (My minor was in Women's Studies. My classes
were either 90% testosterone or 90% estrogen.)
- Always have a back up pencil, and don't be afraid to lend it to someone in need.
-Take breaks, and walk.
-No one actually knows the answer. (Really. It's all open for debate.)
- When you hit a brick wall, wing it and keep going.
That winging it thing? What do I mean? I mean when
you have no inkling of what to do next, look at your tools
and try something else. I have vivid memories of staring
at pages of homework calculations and feeling lost,
and then starting again by making a list of "What I Know."
For example: I know the force of gravity G(m1)(m2)/r^2,
I know Force=(Mass)(Acceleration), etc.
Then I'd think about how I could use all of those elements
in a new way. "How does it look with the collar turned up?"*
With a list in hand, I'd start banging away at it again.
That "What do I know" re-hashing? I use it all the time in
math tutoring. When I see my students feeling lost,
I ask them to review what they know, what they
remember, and then ask them what new things they
could try using that. It is nice to be reminded that you
have tools at hand.
To me, physics is all about figuring out how to use what
you know to learn more things. It's a constant reassessing
of what knowledge you possess, or think you possess,
and then trying to fit it together into some else.
It's the ability to have a lego set, make the nifty thing
on the box, and then to tear it apart and make something
else. All the while knowing that you'll never make all the
things, and the creation you are working on might not
ever work. You will probably have to tear it apart again,
and start over.
And why don't I do physic-y physics? (IE why don't I have a
career in the field?) Well, the physics that I loved most,
we covered in the first two years of classes. The smaller
our physical scale became, the more theoretical the
classes, the less I loved it. There was too much "all in my
head" stuff, and not enough "LOOK" here it is! Also,
a bachelor's degree in physics is just the first step on a long
and difficult journey toward greater degrees (think Frodo
and Sam carrying the ring to Mordor. A BS is just getting
to Rivendell. I'm more of a Bilbo, let's settle here! type.)
*That quote is a insider reference to a family member who,
when faced with a new garment in the 1980's and 90's,
would ask, "But how does it look with the collar turned up?"
In other words, if I just tweak it a little, is it better? Worse?
Could this simple alteration be the Thing?