Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What it Means to be a Physicist

I just graduated from the physics program a month ago, and as one of the top two students, I had to give a speech. That may sound pretty impressive, but when you consider that there were only thirteen of us, it's not too great an achievement. Regardless, I never actually wrote my speech down, and I'd like to before I forget it completely. I can think of no better place to do so than here, so here goes.

These speeches always have to have some kind of clear message with a big meaning, so I thought I'd try to tackle the biggest of them all: what it means to be a physicist. So I sat down and thought about what it really means, and I didn't come up with anything. I think I have it now, but I can't take credit for it myself. The credit actually goes to some girl whose name I can't even remember. Here's the story

Four years ago, back when I was a naive freshman, I was sitting in a classroom waiting for English class to start, and I was making small talk with the other students. Well, of course the subject of majors came up and I told this girl that I was a physics major (this was before I added microbiology. Her reply was,

"Oh. . . Why?

I didn't really have a good answer at the time. I just said something to the effect of "I dunno, I guess I'm good at math." But now I realize that she answered her own question. You know what that answer was? "Why?" It may sound odd that a question can serve as an answer, but it really is the best possible answer.


Ok, so it's not exactly complete, and it needs explanation, but that's what I'm here to do. What makes a person a physicist is that they never stop asking the question "why?" We're like those obnoxious kids that follow up every explanation you throw at them with "why?" but the only difference is that we never never grew out of it. That and we have made a few improvements on our attempts to get the answer.

To illustrate, let me give you a hypothetical progression into physicism. A child is out in the back yard at night and he sees a lightning bug. It sparks his curiosity so he asks his parents, "why does it glow like that?" His parents aren't sure why so the tell him "I dunno, go ask a biologist." So he asks a biologist, who gives the explanation, "certain enzymes and molecules interact with each other inside the bug's abdomen, and these interactions produce light." This satisfies the child for a little bit, but eventually, curiosity gets the better of him, so he asks, "Why do the enzymes and molecules interact like that?" So the biologist, not remembering his biochemistry very well says, "I dunno go ask a chemist."

So the kid goes to a chemist, whose reply is, "Well the molecules are made up of atoms and they are arranged in such a way that these parts are attracted to those parts, and when they get close to each other, energy is released in the form of photons." Again, this explanation is not entirely satisfying so the child asks, "Why are the parts attracted to each other, and why is energy released when they meet?" The chemist replies, "I dunno go ask a physicist."

So the kid goes to a physicist, who tells him, "Well some of the parts have a positive charge, and some of the parts have a negative charge and positive and negative charges attract each other." On a roll now, the child immediately asks, "Why do positive and negative attract?" To which the physicists says "I dunno." "That's all?" says the kid, "You're not going to refer me to anybody else?" The physicist tells him, "There isn't anybody else."

It is at this moment that the child knows he will become a physicist because he needs to find out the answer to this question, "Why?" and that is really the only way to do it. So that is how a physicist is made. It has nothing to do with being good at math (though that certainly helps!) or seeking the bragging rights of successfully completing a quantum mechanics course. It has only to do with relentlessly asking the question "Why?" and never settling for the explanation received.

Ok, so I have to admit, I wasn't nearly this eloquent at the podium. To be quite honest, I threw this together the day before, and I was pretty hungover when I gave it, but I felt like I owed it a good rehash. So consider yourselves lucky for getting the new and improved version.

Now, I just need to work on getting the degree that I'm actually going to use. . . I've only got one more semester left (and then, of course, 6 years of grad school)

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