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House of Math blog post authorEivind Garborg · 

Why Choose Physics in High School?

The equation of mass–energy equivalence on a blackboard

Many readers of this blog with an age 16-19 years will soon have a choice to make: should you go ahead with more advanced math curricula and possibly the physics subjects?

You may know that mathematics is an important tool in the scientific/technical domains. Equally important is the impact and use of mathematics in social sciences, when you use internet or mobile phone or you drive your car.

The same can be said about physics: progress in the branches of physics has a profound effect in the life of each of us and on the planet we live in.

Physics is the branch of science that defines the forces that act throughout the universe, how these forces interact such that they give rise to motion, exchange of energy, etc. The scale may be microscopic/atomic all the way to galactic.

With the help of mathematics, these processes can be described, understood and not the least: verified by experiments, observations and critical analysis.

Up to the 15th century physics was mostly a descriptive science.

Then followed some «revolutions»:

Revolution 1: Newton and Descartes 18th/19th century: Mathematics introduced as tool. Led to correct understanding of the Solar system and mechanics in general.

Revolution 2: Development of thermodynamics – industrial revolution 18th/19th century

Revolution 3: Development of electromagnetism – 20th-21th century

Revolution 4: Theory of relativity – 20th century

Revolution 5: Atomic physics: quantum mechanics; nuclear physics 21th century

The presentation here is short and concise, without much detail. But: physics is an "accumulating" science,  an introduction to physics often begins with a starting point that is the one that was established around the 17th century. If you want to read more about the different theories, we have a more in-depth article on the topic

Some other items: progress in semiconductor physics, material technology, radiation technology – and not the least: computer technology have given us the possibility to have advanced devices on our wrist, in our car; devices that were the subject of fundamental research 50 years ago.

Choosing the physics path will give you a solid introduction to the items 1-3 above, which are the most important to master and understand in terms of methods and problem solving, and the most relevant in daily life and in basic engineering disciplines.

Items 4 and 5 are treated in a more analytical/qualitative way, but to master them a good knowledge of items 1-3 is needed.

The most difficult is NOT the mathematics:

The big leap is often to get used to precise definitions of energy, heat, force, power, speed, acceleration etc., concepts that are frequently used arbitrarily in daily language, and to apply them strictly in the correct way.

Equally important is to build your ability for critical thinking: any physics theory is based on assumptions and simplifications (e.g. no friction, no air resistance), so being able to judge the validity of results is crucial. And the inverse is also true: by making right simplifications to equations which may be complicated, you can be able to solve the equations and get perfectly adequate results.

Example: representing the sun and the planets as point masses under the forces of gravity gives very good description of the solar system.

So, when can it be wise to choose physics?

It's very recommended if you want to continue with physics, chemistry, engineering subjects further on in your education.

An introductionary class to physics can give a good foundation in if you are interested in architecture, informatics or biology for example. Remember, it is also perfectly fine to choose physics without going these directions, maybe you are just curious about science?

More generally: the training you will get from the physics subjects when it comes to critical evaluation of assumptions, results and validity will be of great value in many domains.

So, what if you choose physics as your univeristy studies?

There will of course be possibilities within academia: PhD, research and teaching. The requirements for entry may be difficult to fullfill. Teaching in secondary school is also a possibility.

Likewise, phycisists are very attractive employees in most big corporations, thanks to broad background and versatility.

The writer of this article graduated in engineering physics from NTH (NTNU) in Norway in 1977. During 40 years, mostly in the oil industry, I have been able to use almost every chapter from the math- and physics books.

Among my class mates are researchers within medicine, material technology, as well as engineers working for Aker, Equinor and ministeries.

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