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From DNA to the universe

Physics helps you explore fascinating realms — the tiniest of nanostructures and the vast, mysterious black holes

education Updated: Aug 03, 2011 11:09 IST
Amitabha Mukherjee

Ahundred years ago, there were no computers, artificial satellites, mobile phones, TV, microwave ovens… Life was indeed very different. The advent of modern technology, which is largely based on a foundation of physics, has changed our world beyond recognition. Yet when young students rush to study engineering, they rarely think of physics as an option.

Why should one study physics at the undergraduate level? I would like to offer four possible reasons. One of them is its role as a base for technology, mentioned above. Here are three more. Firstly, physics is, arguably, the most ‘basic’ of the sciences. It seeks to understand natural phenomena in a quantitative manner, and to answer some of the oldest and deepest questions human beings have been asking from times immemorial: What are things made of? How far away are the stars?

Secondly, physics is a model for other branches – both other natural sciences such as chemistry and life sciences, and social sciences like economics. Physics finds direct application in other sciences, as in physical chemistry and biophysics, and also provides a set of tools which can be applied in other fields such as economics.

Physics also plays an important role in training the mind. Those who study the subject undergo training in certain kinds of mental processes: logical thinking, quantitative argumentation, applying analytical tools developed in one domain to another, etc. Not that these processes are exclusive to physics, but the study of physics requires this. I have heard from contemporaries and students who have gone into fields very different from physics – administration, finance etc – that their initial training as physics students has stood them in good stead at the workplace.

A degree in physics thus can serve as an entry point for diverse careers. Among people who engaged with physics at an early point in their careers are John von Neumann, the founder of computer science, Paul Samuelson, winner of the first Nobel award in economics, and Francis Crick, who won the Nobel prize for the double-helix model of DNA.

After a first degree in physics, apart from the usual ‘general’ jobs available to all graduates, one can take up other branches of study. A variety of master’s and other programmes are available to a student who has taken a first degree in physics. Examples are mathematics and economics. Indeed, BSc (Hon) in physics is perhaps the most flexible undergraduate degree in terms of choices for a higher degree. A second degree, of course, opens up many more specialised careers.

Apart from these, there are less-known opportunities to branch off. Perhaps the widest set of openings, in the coming years, is likely to be in the life sciences.

Modern biology draws heavily on physics and chemistry. Fields like biophysics, bio-informatics and molecular biology are likely to draw people with a physics background. Indeed, many eminent biologists started off as students of physics.

For those who take up higher studies in physics, the sky is, literally, the limit. Fascinating fields such as astrophysics, cosmology, high-energy physics, nuclear physics, plasma physics, condensed matter physics and material science are open to them. Studying black holes, superconductors or nanostructures can engage one for a lifetime. There are also new and emerging areas of study such as nonlinear dynamics, complex systems and brain studies...

The author is professor at Delhi University’s dept of physics and astrophysics, and was director of its Centre for Science Education and Communication for nine years