Why Physics? Exactly!
Why is the sky blue? Why do black holes exist, and what causes them? What’s the most likely explanation as to how the Pyramids were built? What math and science explains the underlying reasons about what happens in nature and the world around us? Physics. While other sciences explain how, physics is all about the “why.”
Do we promise you’ll find answers to all the whys? Nope. We do promise that by the time you get your Physics degree, you’ll be more intrigued by the whys than ever before. As a result, you’ll be the kind of thinker who can take on a wide variety of career challenges, including medicine, fusion, nuclear engineering, teaching, government policy, semiconductor research, science journalism, space and atmospheric research, acoustics, petroleum exploration, business, and—of course—physics.
Don’t believe us? Click on the tabs below to read the stories of real Physics students and the widely varied fields that they are entering, to learn more about careers in physics, or to take advantage of the services and events that we offer, so you can discover your place in physics.
"We’re not only looking for the answer.
We’re trying to understand what’s behind it.”
For Stephanie Brown, it started in engineering. Next came pre-med. Then there was physics, and it finally started to make sense. Now, physics is her training ground for a career in business. After all, solving a problem is solving a problem, regardless of the subject matter, right?
“I blame it on the way I was raised,” Brown, a 21-year-old senior, says. “My family raised me to love solving problems. It is a very rewarding experience.”
For as long as brown can remember, she worked logic problems alongside her mother. She always enjoyed the problems because they required a little extra magic and ingenuity. “I’m still an addict,” Brown admits.
But solving problems wasn’t enough. She wanted depth in her solution-seeking.
“In engineering classes, they didn’t care if you didn’t understand the problem, they just wanted to know if you could calculate to the right decimal place,” Brown says. “In physics, not only do we learn techniques for solving specific problems, but how to approach problems we have never encountered before. And this mindset is applicable to many different contexts.”
When Brown took her first Physics course at UT, she fell in love at the first challenging concept.
“That is part of the beauty,” she says. “In physics, I love the fact that what I am learning is not only applicable to everyday life, it also explains it. I love that when solving a problem, we are not only looking for the answer. We are trying to understand what’s behind it.”
During the summer of 2009, Brown worked for a Houston-based company that specializes in renewable energy and energy-efficient products. Her problem-solving skills helped her to tackle projects that focused on legal issues, operations, business development, and finance.
Ask Brown what field she’ll go into and she says she doesn’t know—and frankly, that doesn’t bother her. Ask her what job she wants, and she quickly answers, “I want to be the resident problem-solver.”
“If you look at Ph.D.s in neuroscience, biology, and engineering, a lot of them have Physics Ph.D.s.”
He remembers learning how friction affected the power transferred to the wheels. And when he applied the concept to his motorcycle, it didn’t turn out so well. “I read in different motorcycle magazines about how much power loss there is if the chain is not lubricated right,” Sevier, a 20-year-old junior, says. “So, I went to the store and read all the ingredients in all the different lubricants. I tried to make my own hybrid lubrication and mixed some together and ended up completely screwing up my motorcycle chain.”
Sevier says if you don’t believe that physics isn’t connected to other academic pursuits, take a look at your car, computer, or the roster of Ph.D.s in other math and science departments at UT. “A simple physics discovery got that bearing in the car the exact right way or increased the car’s mileage or helped with the electronics in a computer,” Sevier says. “If you look at Ph.D.s in neuroscience, biology, and engineering, a lot of them have Physics Ph.D.s. And it’s clear that a biologist with a Ph.D. in Physics is going to approach things differently than a biologist who was classically trained.”
Despite the training Physics gives Sevier in learning how to think, though, he’s leaving his motorcycle’s problems to his mechanic.
“Other disciplines don’t explain why things happen. Physics does.”
Leah had a bad case of physics envy. She was a symphony-caliber violinist with a Musicology degree, working for a non-profit. She was unhappy, and even more so when meeting a Physics major. “I would encounter someone in Physics and say, ‘Ohh, really? I wish I was doing that,’” Hesla, 33, says. “I was jealous of those who were in Physics and doing it.”
Hesla thought auditing Physics classes would be enough. But for her, physics was the potato chips of science: She couldn’t stop at one or two. At age 29, she was back in school, for a specific reason: “Other disciplines don’t explain why things happen,” Hesla says. “Physics does explain why.”
Hesla says it even explains the ‘why’ of things we think we understand. “There’s a YouTube video of a stream of shampoo pouring into a pool of shampoo,” Hesla says. “It goes in and bounces way up, and then goes in and bounces some more. And you wouldn’t expect a bouncing behavior from shampoo. But it does, and physics can explain that.”
Now Hesla’s off to John Hopkins to get a Master’s degree in Science Journalism. Why? Yes, it’s still about the ‘why.’ “I think I will find a lot of joy in giving the explanation about something in science to everyone else, so they can understand ‘why,’” Hesla says. “I might help discover something that influences government policy.”
“Most people think they understand a drinking straw. But if you ask how it works, they probably can’t explain why.”
Being a well-paid financial analyst didn’t add up for Andrew Perrone. Unsatisfied with his job, he took up physics as a hobby after reading some popular books on the subject. “In a nerdy sort of way, it was a fun way to pass the time,” Perrone says.
Perrone says he was driven by why the world works the way it does. He was so driven that even though he got his Economics degree at Texas A&M, he switched from the Hatfields to the McCoys.
While pursuing his Physics degree, Perrone found out it wasn’t enough to understand why; he wanted to explain it to others, too. And so Perrone has entered the UTeach program to become certified to teach high school physics. Perrone says he gets excited about the prospect of explaining things that appear at first blush to be simple. “Most people think they understand a drinking straw,” Perrone says. “But if you actually ask them how it works, they probably can’t explain why it works. And that’s an opportunity to talk about pressure and gases.”
Perrone says he can already see himself explaining things to students, like why the sky is blue, through physics. “I’m excited about the thought of explaining to someone something that I find interesting, and then seeing the look on their face when it finally all makes sense.”
“It’s fascinating to see something
and then see mathematically
why it happens the way it does.”
Most people working on a Trident submarine don’t feel obligated to figure out how it works. Brian Parks isn’t most people.
“When you’re working with nuclear power, you have to sample radioactivity in the water, and things happen in the water that are interesting,” says Parks, a 28-year-old who calls Austin home. “I got to see a lot of cool stuff happen, with no real understanding of why it was happening.”
But he was driven to find out. While on the Trident sub, he worked his way up from Electronics Officer to Nuclear Testing Officer to Tactical Weapons Officer. During that period, he was reading a quantum mechanics book in his spare time.
After leaving the military, Parks headed to UT to get a Physics degree, where he was exposed to both cause and effect. “I remember how a professor here polarized a coffee can and then used a wand to move it without touching it,” Parks says. “Then he went into a detailed, rigorous way of working through why that happened. It’s fascinating to see something like that and then see mathematically as to why it happens the way it does.”
Now Parks is off to UT graduate school to study nuclear engineering—this time, on land.
“What seventeen-year-old wouldn’t want to see a pumpkin fly across the football field and get smashed?”
Physics major Claire Austin doesn’t wear a pocket protector and she’d rather explain velocity by launching a pumpkin with a catapult, than discuss black holes in the abstract.
Like other Physics majors, Austin pursues the ‘why,’ but in a different way. By relating physics to more high school students in a meaningful way, Austin can create her own army of ‘why’ freedom fighters. How does she know? She’s already had a dry run via UTeach.
“We had the kids push each other down a hallway on a skateboard dropping bean bags every few seconds, and as they accelerated, the bean bags got farther apart,” Austin explains. “This was an inner-city school. These kids had some challenges. But to see their attitude and see them come together and participate—that was really awesome.”
By joining the UTeach program, Austin gets the best of both worlds. She gains experience in the classroom while earning her Physics degree and uses elective hours for education courses. When she graduates, she’ll be certified to teach. Now, Austin spends her time thinking about the hands-on projects she’ll conduct with her physics classes, ranging from rat-trap cars to mental puzzles to fruit and vegetable demolition.
“What seventeen-year-old wouldn’t want to see a pumpkin fly across a football field and get smashed?” says Austin, believing with great conviction that the answer is not a single one.
“I absolutely wanted to know the ‘why’ behind it. The strangeness of it, the peculiarity of it, was captivating.”
In seventh grade, Danny Miller was introduced to the idea of black holes. That led to a list of questions fueled by physics that grows longer for Miller, even at age 26.
“I remember black holes really rocking my world,” Miller says. “I absolutely wanted to know the ‘why’ behind it. The strangeness of it, the peculiarity of it, was captivating. It was so foreign to me that things like this can and do exist in our universe.”
Now, Miller enjoys the adventure of exploring the big questions.
“The big questions are ultimately what you are trying to figure out,” Miller says. “You are attempting to get into the mind of God. You are trying to determine the rules of the universe that we all play in. I ahve considered these things a lot in my life and it is very important to me, not in terms of anything I hold sacred, but rather because it’s just so important.”
The irony is that when he had the chance to study black holes in graduate school, he opted to work on fusion at MIT. “If we don’t come up with a unified theory of things, the public won’t mind,” Miller says. “If we don’t come up with a sustainable energy source, we’re screwed.”
Despite what you might have heard, you can do more with a Physics degree than teach at a college and conduct research. Physics teaches you to think. Thinking helps you to solve problems, regardless of the field. Think of Physics less as a career path and more as a skill set or toolkit. That’s why the careers below, and pretty much anything else you can think of, are possibilities.
MRIs, PET scans, and proton beam accelerators are all based on physics. The proton beam accelerator at M.D. Anderson in Houston is used to treat cancer patients.
Read about a UT Physics student who is now studying nuclear fusion energy at MIT.
Read about how a Naval nuclear engineer ended up studying physics.
Teaching (high school physics)
Think about the most earthshaking discovery you might make as a physicist. What if you could pass that knowledge and problem-solving skill to hundreds of students every year? And then they could make thousands of earthshaking discoveries. Explore UTeach to find out more. You can also read about two students, Claire and Andrew, who plan to teach high school physics, and why.
If the public doesn’t know about the importance of science in our daily lives, how will it receive the attention it deserves in our public policy-making? Read about a UT Physics student who is doing her graduate work in Science Journalism at Johns Hopkins University.
Imagine creating an MRI tool that is used to go into boreholes in oil fields. You have to make sure it works to 150° Celsius, and it must withstand 20,000 PSI. Once you do that, you’ll have to work as the go-between for the hardware and the software folks. And you’ll have to make sure that it works. So you’ll have to work with the manufacturing people and help create the process used to actually build the tool. You’ll also have to develop a way of calibrating the tool. When you get all that done, give us a call and let us know you’re finished, would you?
Physicists make excellent patent attorneys because not only do they udnerstand complicated processes related to science-based inventions, they can explain it to others.
Since physics is about discovering the “why” behind things, a Physics graduate is unexpectedly and uniquely qualified to tackle all sorts of business challenges. Read about a Physics student who will graduate in December and will most likely go to work for an alternative energy development company.
Physicists were asked to help with the placement of the new Yankee Stadium, taking into account how wind patterns might affect the flight of a baseball. Physicists are asked to work on cool problems like this all the time.
Well, maybe not. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.
Services & Events
These services and events are offered to help you find your place in physics.
Our Undergradate Coordinator is Kelly McCoy. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. Her office is RLM 5.216.
Associate Chair for Undergraduate Affairs
The Associate Chair for Undergraduate Affairs is Linda Reichl. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her office is RLM 7.222.
The Department has several faculty advisors who are available for advice about course work, research options, careers, or anything about UT. They are:
You can also visit the Math, Physics, and Astronomy Advising Office in RLM 4.101, or contact them via email at email@example.com.
These classes are offered as companion classes to certain introductory Physics classes. Recitation courses provide students the chance to get better at what they are doing in class, and professors often choose to go into homework in greater detail.
Design Class for Sophomores and Juniors
The task is to come up with an experiment that can be put on a satellite that will be launched into space.
Free Pizza Lunches with Physics Faculty
Tell the faculty what’s giving you the most trouble, and find out how they handled it. Ask the most thought-provoking physics questions that will put them on the spot; otherwise, we’ll make you pay for the pizza! Three or four times per semester.
Capable Physics students help students working in groups to keep from getting stuck. We will have learning assistants for all lower-division courses.
All the coffee you can drink. All the doughnuts and beignets you can eat. And you get to find out what “beignets” are. Learning assistants and at least one professor will be on hand, because even when you’re cramming, a little context can never hurt. Twice a semester.
Research Open House
To be successful with your Physics degree, you need to participate in research. Research Open Houses are held so you can be aware of all of the research done in our department.
Money, Money, Money
Also known as scholarships. Nearly 25% of upper-division Physics majors receive financial aid from the department. For more information, see the Application for Continuing Students.
For more information: Call (512) 471-8856, drop in at RLM 5.216, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.