Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Allure of Physics

I had always read a lot of science books growing up.  But the book that changed my life, at the age of 15, was Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time."  (For those of you who were asleep through the 90s or were too young to remember, Stephen Hawking is a British physicist in a wheelchair who became famous for his skill at explaining Einstein's theories to non-physicists.)

After reading this book, I became convinced that physics was the key to understanding The Big Picture.  What is this world all about?  Where did it come from?  Where is it going?  These were my favorite sorts of questions.  And since I was a smart kid and good at math, I decided that physics would be my career.  I even had the secret wish that I would one day solve the problem that had stumped Einstein and every physicist since:  Grand Unification.

In our society, physics is always shrouded in mystique.  Physicists throw around these mystical sounding terms, such as "The Theory of Everything," "Quantum Mechanics," "General Relativity," "Space-time," etc.  To make things worse, they use their theories to build atomic bombs, rocketships, lasers, and X-Ray machines.  Can you blame me, a 15-year-old boy, for getting mixed up with such riff-raff?

Perhaps now, 15 years later, I can give a more objective description of what physics is.

Let's stick to the basics.  Physics is a science.  Its area of interest is, roughly speaking, how things move.  The typical questions that physicists like to ask are "How does an electron move?" or "How does a planet move?" or "How does light move?" or "How does an X-Ray move?"

Surprisingly, for almost any practical question like this, physicists have discovered an equation that allows you to calculate a precise answer.  This is why, in beginners' physics, you always start out with dumb questions like, "Driving at 60 miles per hour for 5 hours, how far have you gone?" The point is to teach you to think about motion in terms of numbers.  The scope of physics is, to put it bluntly, very narrow.

But that wasn't how it was presented at all in the popular science books I read as a teenager.  Instead, it was all about faster-than-light spaceships, artificial intelligence, and using fusion to create energy for free out of water.  Most physicists seemed to think that science would soon solve all problems.  And not only were physicists supposedly the smartest people around, they had already done the most to create the wondrous technological world we now live in.  The future, it seemed, was physics.  And I was going to do everything I could to be part of it.

Four years later, I started my undergraduate career as a physics major at Caltech.

(Background story to be continued ...)

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