Lessons from my physics degree that have nothing to do with physics

8 minute read

Most of my new acquaintances when trying to guess my degree, think that I am from the arts and humanities department. I mean look at my aesthetic:

Me in Borobudur Temple

my hair was always dyed, I talk like a politician, and I believe in fairies. Even my parents would never have had imagine me in a lab gown mixing glowing concoctions, wiring complex circuitry, aligning lasers and optical elements, or solving impossible equations in more than three dimensions.

I am not at all generalizing and stereotyping physics majors but there is a certain clique amongst us. Often, we are thought to be so preoccupied with our academics that we don’t even bother to care about everything else. But I also took my fair share of ‘geekiness’ at times. I often daze off quite often during class, solving equations on the board mentally like I’m in a trance or something.​

Physics is indeed a tough degree. Every start of my finals week, I am often reminded and faced with my crisis why I took physics in the first place. During late night reviews, I took some time off to curl up in the corner of my room and go over my life decisions.

But through it all, I am grateful because physics proved to be very versatile. I learned a lot of life skills (aside from math crunching and projectile gun shooting). Here are some of them.

1. You need friends, a lot of them.

In physics, experiments are of vital significance in proving physical and theoretical concepts. These experiments involve long arduous hours in the laboratory with tasks distributed among classmates. Most of these experiments can’t be done alone. Establishing a healthy friendship network with classmates helps a lot in the overall ease of completing class requirements. These classmate-turned-friends circle at times become a support group when everything gets rocky. I even had quirky moments were I begged some classmates to be my human alarm clock for the countless early morning exams.

There are times (very often), when I don’t have any idea at all on how to solve my problem sets. One time, I was solving a problem in quantum physics. Still clueless on the solution for about three days, I was about to give up but I remembered that I was not the only one dealing with this problem. Whenever faced with difficulties that I can’t handle on my own, I always call my friends.

These friends are not necessarily just classmates though, these can be your professors, kuya and ate guards, the admins. I still keep in touch with them visit and check them whenever I’m around campus. Honestly, these are the interactions that genuinely make me feel human, away from our two dimensional virtual worlds.

But remember not to make friendships for the sake of this give and take relationship. Make it real and genuine. Genuine friendships make life better.

2. Be innovative with what you have.

Physics is already a difficult degree as it is. Doing physics or science in general in the Philippines is a much greater feat. We are always faced with the scarcity of resources. There is always a missing color of LED, a missing resistor value, the radiation detector and equipments labeled ‘Not Working’, even as basic as AAA batteries for sampling devices are hard to find.

But things have to be done and reports must be submitted at the end of each lesson. We are forced every so often to innovate and be creative as mush as we can. It has become a no-brainer for us to combine weird resistor values as a substitute to a single piece. We use cheap colored plastic candy wrappers in replacement to light filters. What ever is available, it needs to be maximized.

Another thing that needs to be maximized is the creativity in tackling physics problems. There is always a most concise solution. Once a professor lectured in class: “Everybody is expected to be smart. A little pinch of creativity will not only give you extra credits, but also a new publication in a journal”. Don’t think out of the box, throw the freaking box.

3. Document as much as you can.

As human beings, we are only limited with our brain capacities. We can only retrieve some few bits of our memory, most of them figmented to fit our version of reality. I have valued this habit of mine, documenting and backing up almost every data that I generate. The photos I took, the reports I filed, the scripts and codes, the lecture notes and the problem sets. They might be handy in the future.

When I was doing my thesis, I needed to solve an integral. I remembered doing the same problem in a programming course where I used Runge-Kutta 4. Luckily, I had github and it saved me precious time while I was beating the deadlines.

Old lecture notes can be used as reference for reviews or teaching materials in lesson plans. In our ever advancing technology, data is power. There are lots of platform that offer virtually infinite storage spaces. Save them up to shy off any regrets in the future.

4. Patience and acceptance are necessary.

I have already pointed out a while ago that physics is indeed a difficult degree (about three times). There are a lot of problems that you can’t solve immediately when lacking familiarity. I have had some problems that I was solving for months to no avail. Most of them even haunt me during sleep. They took the form of snake-shaped hissing integrals, infinity ropes trying to asphyxiate me, or even black holes transporting me to other worldly universes without ice cream.

Patience is necessary. There is no point in comparing ourselves to the pace of others. There is what we call the law of uneven development. Some things naturally take time to process and to be understood. Tenacity is key. To not give up will eventually give you results.

There are also times when a problem will corner you on a dead end. You will eventually reach the end of Google results to no avail.​

It is ok to give up at times reconsidering your priorities. A negative result is also a result. Just charge it to experience, learn from it and move on.

5. Academics is just that, academics.

In college, we tend to neglect many aspects of life. At times we forget that we are also sons, brothers, and friends to others. I often question my self “What for? For whom do I do things”?

Life is multi-faceted. There are lots of purpose to live for. We are not defined by grades and numbers. We are made of living carbon not hard-wired metals.

Take a break at times, and have a life out of the academe. When stress gets the better of me, I go mountain trekking, jogging, or even diving. I meet with my family and friends to catch up. Or just do very long walks.

6. Learn things with your senses.

A professor in control systems told me once that the more senses you use in learning something, the more you will retain that knowledge or skill.

The next day I was so frantically associating a lot of my senses in everything I do. I was smelling the book that I’m reading, feeling the texture of the pages and tried licking some text only to see some smudges of ink on my tongue. I went I little overboard but it was effective for me.

Even when I’m not studying, I try to focus on certain senses just to keep me grounded. On my long walks, I don’t think of anything at all. I just process the stimuli around me. The smell of dried leaves, the chirping of birds and the roughness of the pavement.

This method also helps us to be mindful. It lessened my anxieties and over thinking as it made me feel the now and not do any multitasking. We are not multitasking beings after all.

7. Make some noise and drown from the chaos that surrounds you.

One thing I learned from chaos theory is that there is order in chaos. Seemingly random events, in the long run follow a certain recognizable pattern.

Our lives may look a bit disarrayed, but it only takes a new perspective, a different angle, or a new lens to look at it that we may find sense in what we are doing. Our present may be noisy, but even noise has pattern.

The point is, most of our struggles are not at all isolated. As C. Write Mills tells us about sociological imagination, our experiences are connected to the wider society. There exist a complex web of interactions of struggles that seem to be random, that seem to be mere noise, but there is a hidden structure.

Recognition of these structures is one goal of life. But recognition should not be the end goal. We are reminded by Karl Marx in his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

As a final word, my college education didn’t necessarily taught me physics. It however somewhat prepared me what to expect in life. It armed me with the skills not only to cope and survive but also make an impact in the society. I am still hoping to be that astronaut in the future, while in the process I need to do my fair share to make this world better for others.

Want to collaborate? Message me in LinkedIn.