What attracts smart and curious young people to physics? Should this be encouraged?

post by VipulNaik · 2014-03-13T17:22:15.090Z · score: 9 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 37 comments

Many of the high school students who sought advice from Cognito Mentoring were interested in mathematics, computer science, and physics. This both makes sense and is valuable. Mathematics has many benefits: it underpins a lot of quantitative analysis, and helps us understand the world. Computer science is also quite important for obvious reasons: programming in particular is directly and indirectly useful, and a deeper understanding of algorithms and the theory of computation can help with algorithms.

Physics, however, is a little different. There are some benefits of learning physics. In particular, classical mechanics is often people's first exposure to using mathematical structure in a nontrivial way to understand and model situations pertaining to the real world. Nonetheless, unlike mathematics or computer science, the benefits of physics for people who are not in science or engineering careers are fairly low. I find myself using high school-level mathematical intuition on a regular basis (for instance, understanding the growth trajectories of various things, or interpreting graphs), and I find myself using basic programming-like intuition quite often. But I rarely find myself using my physics intuition in the real world. Moreover, I think physics quickly hits diminishing returns in terms of teaching people about mathematical modeling: I'd say that the returns from physics beyond classical mechanics, DC circuits, and basic thermodynamics are near-zero. For instance, I'd say it's more beneficial to learn microeconomics rather than electromagnetism, even though the latter is often considered more prestigious by smart people. Similarly, I think that behavioral economics is more valuable than quantum mechanics.

It's also not clear that learning physics beyond the basics suggested above (classical mechanics, thermodynamics, DC circuits) passes a cost-benefit analysis for people in the vast majority of science-based and engineering-based careers. Even the extent to which they crucially rely on these basics is questionable, given that most people don't learn the basics well and still manage to go on to do decent jobs. I'd like to hear any opinions on this. On a related note, I recently asked on Quora the question In what ways is knowledge of Newtonian classical mechanics helpful to people pursuing biomedical research? and there were a few interesting answers.

So my question: what attracts smart and curious young people to physics? Are the smartest people too attracted by physics, relative to its real-world applicability? Does the intellectual stimulation provided by physics justify the attraction? Is there some sort of mood affiliation going on here, where the smartest people are pulled to physics to distinguish themselves from the crowd, insofar as physics is more difficult and repels the crowd? To the extent that people overvalue physics, does it make sense to push them at the margin away from physics and in the direction of computer science or economics or some other subject? Or should their interest in physics be encouraged?

Thoughts on your personal experience, as well as thoughts on the general points about the usefulness and attractiveness of learning physics, would be appreciated.

PS: In a video, Eric Mazur describes research related to the Force Concept Inventory: people often learn how to solve complicated mechanics problems by pattern-matching but fail to demonstrate clear understanding of Newton's Third Law. Similarly, people can predict potential differences and current flows in complicated circuits using Kirchhoff's laws, yet fail to predict that if you short a circuit, all the current will flow through the short. (The latter failure of prediction occurred in an end-of-course examination co-taught by Mazur to Harvard University first-year students, many of whom were planning to go on to medical school.

PS2: My collaborator Jonah Sinick's Quora post (no login needed to view) titled Is math privileged for gifted children is somewhat related.

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comment by ahbwramc · 2014-03-13T20:02:21.744Z · score: 21 (21 votes) · LW · GW

So, as a grad student in physics I had a bunch of reactions to this post, most of which aren't particularly coherent or well thought out. A few thoughts:

-As much as I don't want to admit it, physics being at least somewhat overvalued among smart students seems plausible to me. To the extent that it is, my gut tells me it would mostly be due to intelligence signalling reasons, as you mentioned.

-What drives smart and curious students to physics? My initial reaction was to blink, and say "Why wouldn't smart and curious students want to go into physics? Physics is awesome!" I suspect that most people who end up going into physics would have a similar reaction. They (we) just find it...sort of intrinsically interesting. In a more general sense though, what curious people end up curious about is probably a complicated function of their brain wiring and upbringing and whatnot, but it seems like a very common flavour for curiosity to take on is an interest in the fundamental. If you're curious you want to understand how the world really works at the bottom level. Obviously people have different feelings on what the most "fundamental" field is (plausible cases can be made for math, philosophy, and computer science, I would say), but a significant number of people (including myself) would single out physics.

-Aren't you cherry picking a bit with your math and computer science examples? What about a math student who focuses on differential geometry or number theory, or a CS major who focuses on computational complexity theory? Are they going to get many real-world skills out of their degree? They'll get the basics in their first couple years, sure, but if that's your criteria then I think physics is at least comparable - certainly you'll learn just as much if not more in terms of applied math skills. I guess what I'm saying is, as long as you're granting that abstract-seeming degrees can have value due to a) some base level of directly applicable skills you learn and b) intangible benefits from improved thinking, then it seems like physics would qualify just as much as Math/CS. All three can veer off into the wildly esoteric.

-On that note, I think you might be underestimating the degree to which physics teaches math skills. In physics we took a number of upper year math courses, which of course had a good number of math majors enrolled as well. Generally speaking, the physicists did just as well as the math majors, and in most cases noticeably better. An example: everyone I knew in physics found the 3rd year differential equations course to be a joke compared to our other courses. At the end of the year we were all surprised to learn that the class average was a mere C+. I can't imagine that the average among physics majors was less than an A- (maybe B+). The pattern seemed to hold for all the of the applied math courses we took (naturally, the math majors seemed to outperform physicists in more traditionally "mathy" courses that I took, like analysis and advanced linear algebra). Based on my experience I don't think physics hits diminishing returns on teaching mathematical modelling any more than math itself does (maybe Econ is better than both, I don't know).

-Finally, I guess I should say that I personally feel like I got huge value out of my degree (my undergrad anyway - grad school, much less so). This I think is due to two main reasons. The first is just that physics is an incredibly intense and difficult degree - it's like a boot camp for your brain. Four years of physics rewired my thinking and made me an immensely better problem solver. However, to the extent that that's true, I think you could get similar benefits from another abstract degree, as long as it's just as intensive. The second and more important reason is that physics hugely expanded my mental vocabulary of analogies, and ways of thinking about things. You saying that you don't use physics intuitions in day-to-day life just seems bizarre to me - I use them all the time! I find it noticeably easier to talk to other physicists about complicated things, even if they're not physics related, just because we have such a rich set of mutually understood analogies to draw on. So my subjective impressions differ from yours in this case.

On a more meta note: I hadn't realized quite how much of my identity is tied up with being a physicist. Reading this post felt almost like an attack to me. I should probably try to get better at noticing that "under attack" feeling when it happens, and use it as a warning flag for identity politics being at play.

comment by VipulNaik · 2014-03-14T01:08:40.744Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for your response.

I agree that the general criticisms that I made of physics can also be leveled against most upper-division undergraduate mathematics courses (i.e., stuff that is generally taken only by math majors). That's a topic that I plan to take up some other time. (As a math Ph.D., I certainly enjoyed a lot of upper-division mathematics).

What I think distinguishes physics from mathematics is that the diminishing returns from physics start setting in earlier than they do for mathematics, and the extent of applicability of physics is more limited (for instance, classical mechanics is somewhat useful, but not as much as calculus -- and both are done at roughly the same educational stage).

Your answer, however, is an update in favor of physics having value.

comment by Adele_L · 2014-03-14T06:07:19.523Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What I think distinguishes physics from mathematics is that the diminishing returns from physics start setting in earlier than they do for mathematics, and the extent of applicability of physics is more limited (for instance, classical mechanics is somewhat useful, but not as much as calculus -- and both are done at roughly the same educational stage).

This doesn't seem obviously true to me. It seems like learning to model actual systems with differential equations and the like would be much more applicable than most upper level mathematics. And the math stuff that is more generally useful, like linear algebra, gets adequately covered in physics. (For what it's worth, I'm a number theory grad student, and I minored in physics as an undergrad).

comment by jbash · 2014-03-13T18:00:12.017Z · score: 14 (16 votes) · LW · GW

I personally find physics attractive because it's as close as you can get to a fundamental, first-principles understanding of how the Universe works. That feels like a terminal goal. Maybe it's secretly a social prestige goal, but it doesn't feel that way.

It seems kind of dark-artsish to try to change people's terminal goals for your own reasons I'm not saying that's never right, just that it seems like something to perk up and be suspicious of.

And you actually haven't even said what your reason actually are. Do you want better allocation of human resources for social goals, or something like that? Then who gets to pick the social goals? Why should anybody have to "justify the attraction" to anybody else?

Or is it individual? Do you think that studying physics will make people less happy than studying economics because they'll get more chances to apply economics?

... and what's this "real world" you're talking about? I get a nervous feeling like there's something coiled up inside that concept waiting to strike.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-13T23:05:19.044Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

A lot of students pick their university degree by looking at the topics they enjoyed in school. If they enjoyed physics classes the most, they think that studying physics is their path.

But I rarely find myself using my physics intuition in the real world.

I think it's pretty hard to say when I use my physics intuition because it provides some very basic beliefs about the universe. During a presentation on the history of the atomic bomb one of my teachers ask a fellow student for the basic elements of which things are made. She answered: Water, Fire, Earth and Air.

It wasn't that she was stupid. She was quite good at humanities but she never learned really got the mental model of atoms.

Having a strong physics or chemistry education makes ideas like homeopathy seems strange which wouldn't look as strange if you would have just had math and computer science classes in school.

On a related note, I recently asked on Quora the question In what ways is knowledge of Newtonian classical mechanics helpful to people pursuing biomedical research?

I'm studying bioinformatics.

Take learning Ohm's law. That means you learn what resistance means. If you are in biomedical research that helps you to understand blood flow because you can model the resistance that slows down how much blood flows in certain tissues with the same formula.

If you read papers about Monta Carlo simulation you find words like temperature and talk about changing the temperature of the simulation. Thermodynamics gets used as analogy.

Physics has the advantage that a lot of people spent a lot of work into developing vocabulary, formula and proof things around the formula. If you can say that your biochemical problem can be roughly approximated with something that physics people already studied than you can just copy their formula.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-03-13T19:40:25.504Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

So my question: what attracts smart and curious young people to physics?

One of the reasons I went into physics (for undergrad, at least) instead of biology or chemistry was that my comparative advantage was higher at physics. There was very little memorization involved- learn the laws, apply the laws, and you're done. If you're clever and good at algebraic manipulation, it doesn't require that much work, whereas biology of chemistry have massive amount of facts that must be stored somehow.

That doesn't explain the preference over computer science or math- neither of those seem memorization intensive- but might explain why you're looking at that set of three, instead of a set of five.

Is there some sort of mood affiliation going on here, where the smartest people are pulled to physics to distinguish themselves from the crowd, insofar as physics is more difficult and repels the crowd?

Quite possibly. I would suggest to any smart young person that if they're going to college, they should try for an undergrad degree in physics, primarily because of the high-quality classmates (and the intellectual training is nice too). With AP exams, double majors are fairly easy to do, and so doing both physics and whatever you find interesting seems like a strong option.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-03-14T09:48:47.775Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

what attracts smart and curious young people to physics?

It is about the real world (unlike math). But without politics (unlike psychology or economics).

comment by Stabilizer · 2014-03-13T19:12:18.880Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If I want to be perfectly honest with myself, the reason that I was initially attracted to physics was simply because it was hard: for me and for others. At the level of the high-school, it was harder than math and programming; doing good math and programming didn't feel like an art (at higher levels of course, all three become an art). But physics required both math skills and a sort of heuristic/visual thinking that math and programming didn't have. The hardness fed into my desire to appear smart.

Of course, later on, the motivations to do physics changed as I became more appreciative of the beauty and power of physics.

Added Later: In popular culture, the exemplars of 'genius' are usually physicists: Einstein, Newton, Hawking, Feynman, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger. Thus, students know that being a physicist means you'll be identified as a smart person: simply by association with the famous names. In contrast, I think far fewer people know about Euler, Gauss, von Neumann, Grothendieck, Babbage, McCarthy, Knuth.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-03-13T19:42:11.786Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

von Neumann

Well, I'd count him as a physicist.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2014-03-14T06:11:42.915Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Damn these polymaths who are not easily pigeonholed!

comment by Desrtopa · 2014-03-15T03:38:07.906Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But I rarely find myself using my physics intuition in the real world.

Really? I quite often find myself evaluating claims and arguments from others in terms of physics intuition.

But this certainly doesn't require specialist level physics knowledge. Speaking as someone who spent many years of my youth dreaming of being a physicist, and eventually changed my mind, I'd say that some of the motivations involved were

*Attraction of an archetype. If you identify as an intelligent, intellectually curious person, being a physicist is an obvious and available career path, because so many of our archetypical examples of intelligent, intellectually curious people are physicists.

*Intellectual status. This ties into the first concern; because physicists are some of the first people that most people think of when considering archetypes for intelligence, being a physicist has a great deal of signaling value. Also, on some level, studying the most fundamental workings of the universe simply sounds more impressive than studying things several steps up the chain.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-03-14T17:29:37.189Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Physics is around 10% fundamental rules and 90% the art of the approximation - knowing good ones for various cases, and knowing their limits. Both of these skills are very useful in real life.

As for why physics, it was because I wanted to see what was possible, and make more things possible. Star Trek inspired me when I was a kid. I knew we weren't going to get there literally, but I still want to see how far we can get.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-14T00:37:45.582Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A big risk from learning physics is physics envy, in which the techniques and methodologies that effective to do good physical science, and the notions of elegance and simplicity from physics, are tacitly assumed to be good in domains in which they are not good.

Psychology being the paradigmatic example. Minsky being the main broadcaster of the problem of physics envy.

Statistical large N psychology is bound not to solve intelligence. Assuming homeomorphism and monotonicity is bound to let go of much of what matters in psychology. For all that, and the things in my other comment, we should save people from physics.

And I didn't even begin to mention the main classic argument that the money went to physics because of the atom bomb and space wars, which are not justifiable expenditures anymore. EDIT: Actuallt, the space wars costs that are related with colonizing other planets are THE most justified thing we are aware of, in X-risk terms. Everything except that is not justified. Effective Space Colonization should be the new Effective Altruism,and may Elon Musk be with us.

More money into psychology, more people into personal psychology, more interaction between neuro, psycho and AI theorists. That is my prognosis to solve the part that I can understand of the current scientific crisis.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-03-14T10:30:59.294Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Musk, who I agree merits listening to, says here that one of the three biggest obstacles ahead is religious fundamentalism - arguably a psychology problem. It is most unfortunate psychologists shun religious topics.

The third he mentions is unfriendly AI, BTW.

comment by leplen · 2014-03-17T01:44:43.761Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think your question here can be decomposed into several different questions. When asking why people choose something, you have to compare that choice to the alternatives. You posit that the alternatives to physics are math and computer science. I don't see that. The more common alternatives for physics are biology and chemistry. In highschool I have to take one science course each year and one math course each year. I could choose between physics, chemistry, and biology. Those were the options. If someone grows up thinking they want to be a scientist, they major disciplines of science are typically considered physics, chemistry, biology, medicine. Why physics as opposed to biology is a very different question than why physics as opposed to math.

"Why physics?" is a question people will tend to have their own answers to, but I've watched a fair number of undergraduates, and a lot of the time it's possible to identify the ones that will become physics majors, at least as opposed to majoring in chemistry/biology/premed. It's harder to pick between physics majors and math majors. Lots of physics majors double major in math. Many computational physicists have degree in physics and computer science. Picking which students will becomes physicists versus chemists or doctors is relatively easy though, and it's not a matter of intelligence. It is about attitude. Part of the physics attitude is summed up in the Feynman quote, "I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."

In most subjects, especially in biology and chemistry, the names of things are very important. A lot of work goes into learning the names of things, and those names stay pretty consistent. In physics that isn't true. The letter V may be voltage in this problem, or velocity, or mass. It doesn't matter. There are lots of students who if I write that a block 1 has a mass V1=5 kg will absolutely refuse to go any further. They can't handle that. To me, and to many of the people that go on to study physics, that was a breath of fresh air. Finally, we're learning ABOUT something, rather than just learning the name of something.

Physics allows you to make predictions about the world. How fast does something fall? Which parts of this socket can I safely stick my fingers into? Math doesn't give you that. Computer science only allows you to predict how human created systems work. Physics allows me to understand the world, rigorously. I still remember learning that starfish are in phylum echinodermata. Maybe that's a useful fact, but it doesn't feel nearly as good as understanding that the frequency of a pendulum has to be sqrt(g/l) and not sqrt(l/g), because that's the only way the units make sense.

I think you're also underrating how useful studying physics is. Math is in general pretty difficult for me to learn. It's abstract, and it isn't always obvious to me where the rules are coming from. Almost all of the math I know more complicated than calculus I learned in physics classes. Even if I took a math class on a subject, it typically wasn't until i covered in it a physics class that I really understood the concept. I may not use very many of the results of quantum mechanics on a day to day basis, but QM gave me a firm grounding in probability theory and in abstract vector spaces, and those are both useful concepts. I would probably disagree with your claim that thermodynamics (which I consider a chemistry course) is more useful than the more physics-oriented equivalent: statistical mechanics, since the latter covers not only heat engines, but also is a good introduction to both statistics and information theory. As a result of my physics education I can look at almost any object or machine and I have a pretty good guess as to how it works, from maglev trains to GPS satellites to MRI machines. That's a pretty useful skill. I'm also really good at estimating the order of magnitude of numbers. That comes in handy too.

I don't know anything about studying physics to signal intelligence, or studying physics because that's where the smart people were. Until my social circle became predominantly comprised of physicists, the smartest people I knew were never physicists, and were never that impressed that I was studying physics. People who don't consider themselves highly-intelligent who I meet in casual conversation do occasionally make the comment, "You study physics, you must be really smart." but saying I look at models of phenomenon X in department Y, trying to predict Z is probably enough to get you branded as "really-smart" by most people.

Your P.S. is completely unsuprising. Premeds are in general terrible physics students. They're very clever at patten matching and faking it, but you can trip them up with the most minor disruptions to the pattern, like using h as the variable for velocity instead of v. They're like neural networks really. They interpolate really well, but they couldn't extrapolate themselves out of an open paper bag.

No one pushed me into physics. No one suggested I study it. I studied history, philosophy, evolutionary biology, theology. I have an undergraduate degree in English, which a focus on poetry writing. But my graduate education is primarily in physics, with a hint of computer science. I'm haven't been exposed to a strong social pressure towards physics, and I haven't seen anything that would lead me to believe that people overvalue physics.

Math and computer science aren't regarded as science. There's no Bill Nye the Math Guy. Smart kids want to be scientists. Once you've decided to be a scientist, physics is a pretty natural choice.

comment by BenLowell · 2014-03-15T09:08:54.877Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For me, it seemed like it was the natural result of wanting to know 'why'.

I started college thinking I wanted to do biochemical engineering and study molecular biology without knowing much about it other than I liked the sound of it. For most of my life I had been interested in nature/biology. However, I decided that biology classes seemed like just reading books and repeating the information, and I was interested in learning how the chemicals worked, so I continued to take more chemistry, and changed my major to chemistry. In organic chemistry I was upset that the rules I learned seemed vague and handwavy, and when I asked more about them, the professor said to take physical chemistry and learn quantum mechanics. So I took physical chemistry, and changed my major to physics. Now in physics, I find myself drawn to particle physics and phenomenology. I don't have any direct memories of asking or wanting to know why as with my other switches, but I do have a distinct feeling of discomfort knowing that there is an underlying lower level reason for why something works, and ignoring it.

I've found that my tendency to go to the bottom occurs pretty much whenever I try to learn something new---when I learned programming, I ended up wanting to learn about computer architecture, and when I let myself past that, I still often ended up learning about little bits and pieces in far more detail then was necessary.

It seems to me that this pattern is what happens when I want to learn how things work and reduce uncertainty in a reductionist fashion, and don't have outside goals I am applying my learning to. If I am trying to solve an engineering or research problem, create something, or get a certain grade I can (depending) skip over things that I don't need to know or worry about. If I don't set a goal like that, and just decide to "learn stuff" then the easiest question is to ask why, which gives me a goal.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-14T00:31:07.928Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've discussed this issue here: http://lesswrong.com/lw/h3f/drowning_in_an_information_ocean/

most relevant part:

Then there are the nagging exact sciences people. They come to you at night, haunt you in your dreams, telling you how much you should study math, how math is important for this, for that, and for that. Most disagree which branches of math are important, stats being the most universal like. If I were to learn to all the math I was told to learn, that would be at least 3 years more. Scott Young can do an entire university course (CS) in one year, Nick Bostrom kept that pace for 6 or 7 years. Most people don't get the mix of time, luck, capacity, resources and most importantly, motivation, to pursue such Homeric tasks.

I've never doubted Math is awesome. What I did doubt, and to this day I have seen few who doubt with me, but good examples being Peter Thiel, more strongly, and Jared Diamond and Dan Dennett, less strongly, is that so many young talents should be drawn into physics and math (and chess). Why should we make people who are really smart do the things in which it is easier to detect being smart? Companies don't ask their best employees to devise ever better and more complicated IQ tests just because IQ tests are good predictors of how good a worker will be. The goal is not to costly signal being near the upper bound in intelligence. The goal is using your intelligence to pursue your goals. Sure, lots of it will be signalling instrumentally, but once the dust settles, don't get fixed in proving the constructibility of enormously large polygons, or beating Kasparov.

So far I've tried to make two cases: Even with prima facie narrow interests, anyone is bound to be drowning in an ocean of information, and the interconnectedness and requirements to understand narrow interests may be much larger than one's initial expectancy. Secondly the main modulator of what to do with intelligence (your own, or someone else's) should be to tune it with goals and interests, not with easy detectability.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2014-03-14T06:04:42.695Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The goal is not to costly signal being near the upper bound in intelligence.

Not for a human, but in terms of Azathoth this perhaps is the reason for intelligence.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-03-13T19:19:29.851Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Physics teaches science. It doesn't just discuss formal models for the world, but teaches testing of models. It emphasizes the importance of finding and knowing the limits of models. Unfortunately, no other major teaches science. A great illustration of this is your recommendation of microeconomics.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-13T22:04:29.427Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It doesn't just discuss formal models for the world, but teaches testing of models.

How much of an undergraduate physics degree is actually honest testing of models?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-03-14T13:03:38.465Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not much of an undergraduate physics degree is honest experimental testing for fundamental models against reality. Possibly the answer is none except at good schools, but even at good schools the amount in other fields is zero. But a large part of the physics curriculum is about understanding the limits of approximations, testing them against mathematical models that are assumed to be true.

comment by Baughn · 2014-03-14T14:33:48.199Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would say "Except for Computer Science", where testing theories is practically half your job. There are probably other exceptions, but that's the one I'm familiar with.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-03-14T15:40:25.792Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

CS teaches a very different skill and it teaches it very badly.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-14T13:36:38.491Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think bioinformatics provides a better introduction to science. We did experiments that produces results that didn't match the book results and saw how hard it is to get experiments to reproduce.

We also had more statistics classes the the average physics course.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-03-13T18:24:55.119Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When I was choosing between math and physics as a kid, I felt that they are similar in the way that matters, which is having exact results that stay true everywhere and for all time. And they felt similar in terms of mental effort and enjoyment as well. Mostly I just wanted to do something I would like, I didn't care about applicability, and understood that there wouldn't be much applicability either way. I ended up choosing math, my brother and my parents went into physics, and we all sort of gravitated toward computers eventually.

It's true that ideas from physics seem less applicable to everyday life than ideas from math, but IMO the important part is the style of thinking, not the ideas themselves. Seeing how many physics graduates go to finance, it seems that physics is at least as good a "mental sport" as math.

comment by EHeller · 2014-04-10T00:51:03.777Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First, I think you are making an unfair comparison- sure, upper level physics classes like quantum mechanics are unlikely to help in your everyday life. However, upper level mathematics are similarly useless. Quantum mechanics is as good a place as any to cement the concepts of linear function spaces. General relativity is as good a place as any to learn differential geometry, etc. If you stop at undergrad, the mathematician and the physicists have basically overlapping skillsets (often physics majors double major in math because its so few additional courses).

The same idea (intro is useful, beyond that diminishing returns) is true of almost any discipline. Intro microeconomics is fairly useful,but DSGE modeling is essentially useless outside of specialized career tracks.

I work as a data scientist/statistician, and have a phd in theoretical physics. I would say that physicists seem much more capable of handling actual data and making interesting statements about it than mathematicians, at least at the post-phd level. I would say the generalized skill of "engaging with data" is the single most useful skill my phd left me with, but thats at least in part because of my work life.

Also, I've found that if you build things, physics insight is absolutely invaluable, and I think that many smart people have an interest in building cool things. I recently designed and built a stirling engine to turn my window fan. Previous projects include a small zip gun (to settle an argument with a guy about how useless current 3d printing is), three go carts armed with nerf-projectiles that temporarily deactivate your enemies go-cart when struck, a small programmable mouse for my cat to play with, a lighted "dancing" fountain for the backyard. For the fountain, I designed a small solenoid valve. None of this required anything beyond a good intuition for classical physics (em, thermo, etc), but I've found that intuition for classical physics invaluable.

comment by lukstafi · 2014-03-16T11:46:26.997Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

At high-school level, physics has perhaps the richest tightly-knit concept structures.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-03-14T04:56:49.705Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Have you collected data on family occupational backgrounds?

Speculation: There's some dynamic where the children of professionals are drawn to the same occupational area as their parents, but don't want to follow the same path directly. I'd expect the children of engineers to be particularly likely to express an interest in physics.

EDIT because I can't resist: Many of my friends who were the children of lawyers studied philosophy, explicitly disavowed law...and then went to law school.

comment by XiXiDu · 2014-03-13T17:52:42.908Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For someone to decide between either studying mathematics or physics, an important question seems to be how quickly a trained mathematician could learn any relevant physics, once it becomes necessary for them to do so.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-03-13T19:44:48.076Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My impression is that a primary difference between the two is that the mathematician learns to be picky, and the physicist learns to not be picky (at least, when it comes to applying mathematical structure to reality). In physics, you learn lots of sophisticated mathematics which you apply without fully checking that it can apply, or learning the underlying assumptions for, because reality does actually exist, which is convenient.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-13T19:58:57.978Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

reality does actually exist, which is convenient

Sometimes it's convenient. Sometimes it's highly inconvenient :-D

comment by gjm · 2014-03-13T23:52:38.800Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

And also: how quickly a trained physicist could learn any relevant mathematics, once it becomes necessary for them to do so.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-01-18T20:00:05.713Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That was a very interesting post, doubly so with discussion, and yet I got a feeling that somewhere along the way the discussion got sidetracked, or at least narrowed in focus. I would like to hear your thoughts on the question like 'why aren't more smart young people attracted to physics', if your personal experience makes it the obvious choice.

(My own choosing biology had more to do with the way it was taught in high school. Yes, there was lots of stuff to memorize, but after the lessons ended for the day, people who wanted more could go to our teacher and spend hours discussing it and just socializing. He let us feed his snakes and keep 'records of their lives' - and we felt more like real scientists than when we had to do some lab work in physics class, where you have limited time and your results matter for your grades...but aren't immediately useful, not in such engaging way. We talked about decaying and mummifying, and it was grounded in physics and organic chemistry. We talked about social insects, and it was (sci-fi) testable - so much more than measuring things we learned about in physics. We counted white blood cells on slides and worried about seeing too many eosinophiles, because it was his blood... The rest of our teachers could not achieve that level of awesome.)

Than again, we were not the smartest kids in school, just some of the smarter ones.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-01-18T19:20:24.862Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That was a very interesting post, doubly so with discussion, and yet I got a feeling that somewhere along the way the discussion got sidetracked, or at least narrowed in focus. I would like to hear your thoughts on the question like 'why aren't more smart young people attracted to physics', if your personal experience makes it the obvious choice.

(My own choosing biology had more to do with the way it was taught in high school. Yes, there was lots of stuff to memorize, but after the lessons ended for the day, people who wanted more could go to our teacher and spend hours discussing it and just socializing. He let us feed his snakes and keep 'records of their lives' - and we felt more like real scientists than when we had to do some lab work in physics class, where you have limited time and your results matter for your grades...but aren't immediately useful, not in such engaging way. We talked about decaying and mummifying, and it was grounded in physics and organic chemistry. We talked about social insects, and it was (sci-fi) testable - so much more than measuring things we learned about in physics. We counted white blood cells on slides and worried about seeing too many eosinophiles, because it was his blood... The rest of our teachers could not achieve that level of awesome.)

Than again, we were not the smartest kids in school, just some of the smarter ones.

comment by Jinoc · 2014-03-15T23:34:52.757Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In my personal experience, it was because physics makes for the best kids' magazine. Few things beat reading about astrophysics, especially in a highly illustrated science for kids magazine.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2014-03-14T19:38:44.117Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We spend a lo of time interacting with physical objects. Interacting with things you don't understand is terrifying and painful. It has nothing to do with being fun nor any practical benefits other than not spending all your time filled with dread and paranoia.

Edit: discovered blatant typical mind fallacy. Leaving it here anyway only with this disclaimer.

comment by shminux · 2014-03-13T19:59:50.724Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure about those "smart and curious young people", but what attracted me to physics was that it made sense intuitively. I didn't have to work hard at it at all. I loved popular physics books since I was 10 or 12, the subject felt fascinating in high school, despite having the most awful teacher for the first couple of years (but the best ever later on). I ended up doing comp eng for undergrad, and working in programming later on, but I missed learning more physics badly, so I went back to school for grad studies in physics.

In retrospect, I was only just above average in programming, nowhere near the google level, but I was probably better than 99.9% of my peers in physics. Funnily enough, while being 1 in 1000 is not a good enough level for an academic career in physics, being in the top quartile in programming is enough for a well-paying job.