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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Life as a Physics Student

    Coming out of high school I wanted to be a physicist. I was ready to dye my hair grey and let it grow in an unkempt manner. I was ready to question the world under a tree and have a gravitational constant knock me on the head. I was ready to make my contribution to the physical world.

    When I stepped into my first college-level physics course, Classical Physics I Honors, at Stony Brook University, I was definitely knocked on the head, but not by the type of apple I expected.

    What hit me can be considered a sort of science, yet it had very little to do with actual major that I am studying. Instead of acquiring knowledge on electromagnetism, circuitry and relativity, I acquired knowledge on how to manipulate a laboratory experiment, a quiz, or even a syllabus so I would get a decent grade without actually understanding the material. To me, this has become the true science behind being a physics major.

    This plan of attack didn’t come to me overnight, nor was I its sole creator. Over my two year relationship with physics at a university where the graduate physics department was ranked 22nd in the country in a 2007 U.S. News ‘ World Report’s study, this plan of action blossomed. It was during this maturation that I realized I was merely being taught how to pass the courses, rather than how to investigate the world and the physical phenomena that describe its behaviors. As this understanding became clear, I realized that in order to survive this course of study I had to learn the science behind the science of physics.

    In the pursuit of a college education in physics, engineering or any of the other major sciences, students like me are becoming a rare species. We stay. We endure. But many others do not. In 2002, North American countries as a whole awarded 122,000 first engineering degrees, Asian countries awarded 636,000, and European countries awarded 370,000.

    While some students simply aren’t fit to study a science, many of the ones that are willing to dabble in the introductory courses are scared away because of the absurdity behind some of the course requirements.

    To pass my physics courses I’ve had to fulfill certain requirements. Three semesters ago my classmates and I were expected to complete weekly online quizzes that were meant to provide examples of the concepts the professor addressed during the lectures. These questions came with a component that allowed you to “guess” the answer ten times before marking it incorrect. Through basic algebraic manipulation of the numbers in the problem, any physics student who took a high school math course could solve the problem in about five “guesses.” There was no physics required.

    Most physics courses also come with a mandatory lab component. At first, the five-page lab manual, full of its complex calculus-based formula derivations and perplexing physics jargon, seemed overwhelming. However, after realizing that if my lab report followed a general format of abstract-procedure-data-analysis-conclusion, it became very possible for me to get an 8 out of 10 on the lab, while understanding virtually none of its central concepts.

    Another condition of this major is to simply complete the sequence of related calculus courses. For someone like me, who avidly enjoyed math in high school and completed a year of A.P. calculus, this should have been no problem. Yet, it was.

    To make up for their complexity, some of the courses allow you to blanket index cards with equations and relationships to use during exams. While on the surface this strategy might appear to be helpful, it actually removes the student’s need to comprehend the information on the test.

    Other calculus courses consist of questions that are so challenging that not only do students have to purchase the required textbook, which mirrors the Encyclopedia Britannica in size and content, they also have to purchase the solutions manual as well. This manual contains the exact derivation of every odd problem in the textbook, which equates more to copying the answers than to using them as a guide.

    In the midst of completing these requirements I realized that, for me, physics had lost its appeal. My one-time yearning to follow in the footsteps of Einstein and Newton has been buried beneath the plethora of puzzling Greek symbols and the weight of 1,000-page textbooks that can only be described as the world of undergraduate physics.

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