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Why Physics?

Physics is a major worth your consideration. Here are comments from our undergraduate students

    ``Professors' doors are always open.''
    ``[Physics] offers rigorous problem-solving training.''
    ``You don't have to regurgitate everything the professor tells you.''
    ``Physics teaches you to think.''
    ``The [small] class size is really nice.'
UCSD undergraduate working in biophysical laboratory of Professor D. Kleinfeld
    ``Physics broadens the mind.'' ``My best friends are physics majors.'' ``You meet wonderful, intelligent people in physics.'' ``You don't care if it blows up at infinity.''

[machining parts for an


Physics is the art of understanding. For millenia, people have wondered what makes stars bright, the earth solid, gold shiny. Now we know. Da Vinci sketched the turbulence of flowing water, which we now can explain, and fantastic flying machines, which now we can build. People dreamt of speaking across continents, of touching the moon, of looking inside the very atoms of matter. Now we can.

Even to live in the modern world, how can a citizen ignore the advances in computing made possible by solid-state physics? the promises and drawbacks of various forms of electrical generation, including nuclear and solar power? the hope of plasma fusion? The very words of physics abound in newspapers and literature: quantum jump, chaos, the Uncertainty Principle. What do they all mean? We are starting to keep a list of inspirational books describing more eloquently the deep attraction of physics and the experience of being a physicist.


[the spiral galaxy in Andromeda (NASA image)]

Useful Skills for a Variety of Careers

An undergraduate degree in physics tells prospective employers this person has what it takes to succeed. The physics major learns to start with an ill-posed problem, formulate it quantitatively, solve it, and communicate the results clearly. The skill transfers readily to many fields. Physicists go on to become lawyers, doctors, and engineers. We have come into considerable demand as investment bankers, particularly since it was realized that the Black-Scholes model for futures pricing is mathematically a diffusion equation.

Employment opportunities for people with training in physics are manifold. According to reports SDB95307 and SDB95308 (1992-1993) from the National Science Foundation, people with bachelors degrees in physical science have an unusually low unemployment rate, lower than the rate for people with bachelor's degrees in other sciences.


[cryogenics for thin-film work]

Practical Experience

  • ``Working closely with the faculty at UCSD and taking an active part in their research helped me to discover which fields of physics research I enjoy and what I do best.''

While not required, the physics major may choose to involve herself in research. An experimental physicist is more than just a scientist and scholar: she is also an electrical engineer, an electrician, a master machinist and mechanic, a plumber (more likely of liquid helium than of water), a carpenter, an expert computer programmer, a chemist, an inventer, a writer, and a tinkerer. An undergraduate in an experimental lab can expect to pick up several of these skills, taking Andy Pommer's machine-shop course, using the services of the helium facility, and learning electronic design and computer programming from the engineers and scientists supporting these services in the department.


[student working 
in laboratory of Professor Frances Hellman]

A physicist designed and built the first digital computer; Microsoft has run an advertisement for physicists as computer programmers because, they say, physicists program computers better than computer scientists do. Computers find use in laboratories for data acquisition and analysis as well as in numerical calculations, simulation, and visualization. Even where computers are not needed for a particular theoretical or experimental work, we use them in typesetting papers and preparing figures for publications and presentations.

To push beyond the envelope of past work, to make something colder or hotter or thinner or smaller than anyone else has done before, or to measure a property more accurately, experimental physics employs all the tools at its disposal. A single laboratory may use gold electrical contacts, silver thermal pipes, silk threads for insulation, diamond for generating high pressure, and ruby for detecting it. High-energy experimenters in the department head or participate in collaborations at particle accelerators near Geneva, Stanford, Ithaca, and Chicago; others use facilities at Mount Palomar, Rome, and the Mount Stromlo observatory in Australia. Theoretical research can mean one or two people scratching formulae on paper pads or half a dozen running codes on the San Diego Supercomputer Center's Cray T3D.


[convection rolls in binary fluid]

You will never get lost in the physics department

Actually, Mayer Hall's topology is rather weird, but we mean that you won't get lost in a crowd of a thousand other majors. We have a major-to-faculty ratio of only 1.3:1, so you can actually meet your professors. They'll even know your name. Our faculty care about students' progress and will work with them one-on-one. For students interested in research, many faculty provide opportunities: not washing test tubes, but meaningful participation.

A good place to start looking for information on joining a research group is the department's research page, where each faculty member describes his or her recent and ongoing work.

[biophysical microscopy]

What to do Next

If physics seems possibly interesting, you may wish to meet with one or more faculty members. The student-affairs office can make appointments for you, or you may contact the faculty directly. If you don't know whom to contact, send your comments to webstu@physics.ucsd.edu; a physicist will respond.

  • Perhaps not the most compelling reason to major in physics, but here goes anyway: Twentieth Century Insurance Company offers a substantial discount on automobile insurance for any scientist with a bachelor's degree in physics.