Is modern theoretical physics more than just solving word problems? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
Theoretical physics is not about solving word problems.
It is about understanding how Nature works.
Theoretical physics is about discovering the underlying principles, the logic if you wish, of how various phenomena in Nature are interconnected.
Experimental physics is about gathering evidence that can a) be used to improve theories or construct new ones, and b) to support or refute proposed theories.
But then you move on to applying what you learned. Applied physics, leading to engineering, is about solving real-world (that is 'world', with an L, not 'word') problems: building infrastructure, engines, telecommunication networks, microchips, satellites, automobiles, microwave ovens, you name it.
Simply put, the only reason we can build a microwave oven, construct a microchip capable of executing billions of instructions per second, or create a jet engine that works reliably at extreme pressures and temperatures is because someone worked out the theory; someone else conducted experiments and supplied high quality data to help find the right theory; and yet someone else took the theory, now validated by experiment, and translated its predictions into practical equations that engineers could use as they create those magnificent designs.
High school physics is about teaching you the basics. The idea that you can quantify Nature using numbers; that these numbers are connected by equations; and that you can use those equations to make predictions, which are more reliable, more accurate than the predictions of shamans and witch doctors from our prescientific past. Predictions that you can, ultimately, trust with your life as you board that airplane or lie down in an MRI machine at the hospital.
Even if you don’t plan to become a physicist or engineer, it doesn’t hurt to know the fundamentals of the science on which our modern life is based, sometimes in a very literal sense (e.g., when you are flying at 30,000 feet). In fact, I continue to be appalled by the fact that more than three centuries after Newton, in a world in which we are surrounded by machines of unimaginable complexity, to most people a simple differential equation like v = dx/dt is gobbledygook. Citizens who are ignorant of even the very fundamentals of the modern science on which our lives depend can’t form an informed electorate; rather, they risk becoming the victims or tools of demagogues and charlatans.
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