Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Cultural Meaning of Physics

I was talking with an administrator the other day who was commenting that incoming students who tend to be more intellectual tend to put down physics as a potential major more than other natural sciences. I know it attracted me as well, even when I couldn't exactly say why. What is it about physics that has become iconic for smart? Is it that it was the field of study of Einstein who is our personification of smart? Is it that it asks the big questions, fundamental questions that seem as much philosophy as science? Is it that we use "rocket science" as the epitome? Is it that we brought in physicists for the atomic bomb and moon shot? Is it that physics classes in high school or college are harder than other classes? Ia it the role it has played historically in defining our place in the universe? Is it the way relativity and quantum theory are so tantalizingly absurd, yet universally successful? Why physics of all fields of study?