The point of physics

Something I lost sight of for a long time is the reason I study physics, or the reason I started studying it anyway. I got into it for no reason other than it was an exciting application of mathematics. I was in awe, not of science, but of the power of mathematics.

Now there are competing pressures. Sometimes I find myself “doing physics” for reasons that can only best be seen as practical. Fine—I’m a pragmatic person after all. But practicality here is often relative to a set of arbitrarily imposed constraints, such as requiring a CV full of publications in journals with the highest rank in order to be a good academic boi.

You may say that’s life. We all start with naive enthusiasm and end up doing monotonous things we don’t enjoy. But then we tell ourselves, and each other, lies about it being in service of some higher purpose. Scientists see it stated so often that they start to repeat it, and even start to believe it. I know I’ve written and repeated thoughtless platitudes about science many times. It’s almost necessary to convince yourself of these myths as you struggle through your school or your job. Why am I doing this, you wonder, because it certainly doesn’t feel rewarding in those moments.

On the other hand, many people are comfortable decoupling their passion from their job. Do the job to earn money which funds your true passions. Not all passions provide the immediate monetary returns one needs to live a comfortable life after all. So you can study science to learn the skills that someone will pay you to employ. There are many purely practical reasons to study physics, for example, which have nothing to do with answering to some higher calling. This certainly seems more honest than having to lie to yourself when expectations fail.

(I should point out that if you are one of those people currently struggling through graduate school, academia is not the only way—maybe not even the best way—to sate your hunger for knowledge, or just solve cool maths problems.)

A lot of scientists, teachers, and university recruiters get this wrong. There is a huge difference between being curious about nature and reality and suggesting it is morally good to devote one’s life to playing a small part in answering specific questions about such.

Einstein did not develop general relativity to usher in a new era of gravitational wave astronomy, as cool as that is. He did it because he was obsessed with answering his own questions driven by his insatiable imagination. Even the roots of the now enormous collaboration of scientists which detected gravitational waves started in a water cooler conversation among a few physicists, which is best summarized by this tweet:

In other words, we don’t actually do things through a consensual agreement about its potential value to a higher power called science. We think about doing certain things because we are curious, because we want to see what will happen, or because we can.

Like all other myths scientists and their adoring followers like to deride, science as a moral imperative is just that—a myth. Might we not get further with honesty, by telling ourselves and others that we are just people—people trying to do cool shit. The great things will come as they always have, emerging from complex interactions—not by everyone collectively following a blinding light at the end of tunnel, but by lighting the tunnel itself with millions of unique candles.

One thought on “The point of physics”

  1. Some things I love doing will never earn me anything other than, hopefully, a smarter and more creative brain to do things I love even better.


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