How to major in physics

I got an e-mail from a fellow ’techer the other day because he saw my last post on his Plaxo Pulse.

It made me remember how I ended up in physics—the the real reason.


What’s on one of Andrei’s shirt always gives me a laugh

[Being a physics major after the jump.]

Caltech facts

There is two simple realities about Caltech that were true at the time I went there.

  1. 100% of Caltech students were in the top 10% of their high school class, 20% of which were valedictorians. And yet 50% of them would be, by definition, mediocre at the school.
  2. About half of the freshman my year said they were going to major in physics. The proportion of those graduating out of entire Physics, Math and Astronomy department was around 17%

I was no valedictorian. I never won a math olympics, or even participated in a science fair. I was the only student there who got rejected from the Pennsylvania Governer’s School for the Sciences. I even had a below (Caltech’s) average SAT score—and never met anyone there, even among the girls, with a score lower than mine in the Math part.

Things did not bode well.

More clouds on the horizon

My first quarter there, I finished all of my take-homes early—even before decompression—I spent most of finals week hanging around in the south houses flicking.

(“Flicking” is what ’techers call avoiding any meaningful work—and believe me, we did it a lot. In fact, so much so we call the period of time when you are supposed to be studying for your finals, “decompression” so we have an excuse to flick some more.)

One evening that week, people were talking about how stupid their high school science teachers were.

“Yeah, my AP Chemistry teacher didn’t know helium was still liquid at zero Kelvin?!!!”

Everyone laughed.

I let out a short delayed “heh.” But what was going on in my mind was, It is? That was soon followed by, I hope nobody noticed that I’m an idiot.

I swear, the only reason Caltech took me was because I was a legacy.

Being a legacy

Earlier, when my mom was at a conference in biophysics, she met a colleague who had gotten his Ph.D., and, when it became evident that there were no jobs, went back to school and tacked on an M.D.

When she found out his Ph.D. was in physics from Caltech, she said, “Really! My husband went to Caltech and got his degree in physics. And now my son is going to go to Caltech and he’s going to major in physics.”

The guy shook his head and mumbled to himself, “Some people never learn.”

How I never learned

It quickly become obvious that the only reason people say that they’re going to major in physics is because that was the hardest course they had in high school. And as I said, things didn’t bode well for me.

(My mom didn’t feel this way—that’s how mom’s are and why we love them.)

But we never have quite the confidence that our mother’s place in us. So I spent my freshman year denying the inevitability of my future failure—as evidenced by not knowing simple things like the lowest energy state of a bose condensate didn’t necessarily mean that everything had to be solid at zero kelvin—by saying I was undeclared.

That worked out very well until the end of freshman year when the Registrar demanded that all freshmen get an advisor in our major to sign off on our coursework.

I found a clever solution. Since the head of the physics department seemed always to be at Stanford Linear Accelerator, I would tell the registrar that I’m “declaring” in physics, go to the department on SLAC days, find out he’s not there to assign me an advisor, come back and say so, and get the Dean of Students to sign off on my course work instead.

This worked exceedingly well. All I had to do was pick the one day a quarter that the department head was most likely to not be there.

Then one day, at the end of my sophomore year, he was.

And that is how I became a physicist.

Finding my own kind

My freshman year roommate didn’t fare so well. I first met him taping up gorgeous pictures of the Flame Nebula and Rosette Nebula to our door, as he waxed on his love of astronomy and patiently explained to me a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t understand about the universe around me.

I remember I audited a class he was taking where various famous physicists would talk about their work to freshman physics majors. These nobelists and future nobelists learned from Feynman that you shouldn’t bother with details like making sure people actually understood what you were talking about, just as long as they could infer enough from the lecture that you were much smarter than them.

Five weeks later, somewhere between the time a Nobel Prize winning physicist was shouting at one student for not understand that the potential energy of a gravitational field was negative, and the time, later that lecture, when the physicist stood dumbfounded because another freshman didn’t understand the controversy on whether the dark matter in the universe was mostly made from baryons or not, my roomate realized that he should probably go into chemistry because physicists are such assholes. (And no, I wasn’t either student. I was still trying to understand why there was so much Barium in the universe.)

Well that and why the heck my Eastern European linear algebra professor was so obsessed with “mattresses”. (And yes, it did take me about two weeks to figure that one out.)

So it was, in a way, inevitable I’d find my own kind and major in physics. (And no, I don’t mean because “Willie” and I are from the same hometown.)

Don’t worry, I learned how to be an asshole

My junior year, when a graduate student asked whether “h bar=c=1” units were “in cgs” I quietly laughed and put a hash mark in the top right corner where I dutifully recorded “the number of dumb things said by someone else during the lecture”, right above where I recorded “the number of errors made on the chalkboard by the professor.”

And just so we can laugh at the poor grad student together, I will point out that the obvious conclusion from his question was that the speed of light was 1 cm/s.

[tags]physics, learning, bose condensates, helium, baryon, dark matter, gravitation potential energy, cgs, planck units, speed of light, Caltech, assholes, advisors, registrar, Pittsburgh[/tags]

9 thoughts on “How to major in physics

  1. You are SO coming to the next Geek Jeopardy I throw. Too bad I’m hosting it and not playing or else you would be on my team–although you might not want me to be on your team!

  2. Dear Physics majors,

    I, God, designed the universe. I wish to inform you of the fact that it is not mathematical in nature, nor can it be described by mathematics. You all have it wrong. The universe is a simulation. How do you think I created something from nothing?


  3. Hey, I’m going to be a Physics major in the fall. I can really understand where you’re coming from in this blog. The highest math I’ve taken so far is Alg. II and I’m already nervous about being out of my depth. I’m interested in Physics and science and how things work though. I just don’t want to flunk out horribly.

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