The past days I’ve been following a course from the DLZA for the Dutch N-level radio amateur exam. So far, I’ve been dealing with a lot of the introductory topics; as it’s a comprehensive course for the general public, much of the initial focus is on basic physics (mostly electronics). I’ve had all of this in highschool, so all of it is quite familiar, particularly since I’ve been brushing up on some electronics for my other hobby.
One thing I had completely forgotten, though, is just how much I enjoy physics. Currently, a lot of this is simple arithmetic but I’d forgotten how much I just enjoy the chase of it. Simply seeing a problem, a little mini-puzzle, and working it out to find the right answer is enticing and alluring. I recall how I almost registered for a physics degree when I started uni. There were so many options: mathematics, English, psychology, physics, IT, philosophy – I had to pick just one (and ended up picking three over time, but that’s a whole different story).
At the start of my career, I had to spend time trying to translate my university experience to career actionable skills – what was the added value that I could sell to my potential employers? It was pretty tough, because in academia you do end up in a bubble. I always compared myself to the people around me, which meant that most of my skills seemed quite generic. After all, I’d surrounded myself with skilled and intelligent people who were all learning the same things I was. Once I joined the general labor market, however, I started seeing what my life path had really brought me: I really love problems.
For most of my colleagues, a problem is a worry that gives them headaches. Some panic when problems pop up while others try to ignore issues. For me, though, I can get bored if there’s nothing around to solve. I realized that this is exactly what my life has taught me so far: physics is filled with problems to solve. So is philosophy, and literary theory, and cultural analysis as well – each focuses on key problems that require you to solve them. I realized that in all my endeavors, I was always looking for the problem to solve.
For most of my career, these problems are abstract and high-level. If I implement this regulatory change or that process, perhaps half a year from now when that’s settled into the organization and students and staff are used to it, we may see a slow reduction in caseload over time for the year after that. I may have a student complaint where I have to weigh the costs and benefits of upholding the regulations versus individual justice and fairness for the student. All quite abstract, but whatever it is I do, the result is out of my sight.
However, now that I’m working with some elementary physics problems again, the focus of my problem solving is reduced to the very immediate. I need to know whether coil L in this schematic will cause the fuse to blow or not and, if so, what resistor I’d need to add to resolve it. Working it out involves drawing the schematic, doing some basic math drawn out right in front of me, and finally reaching a result that is consistent with the structure as a whole.
The regular enjoyment I get from solving problems is the joy of using my brain. The joy of knowing that I can understand complex issues, analyze them, and then make them understandable for others as well. The joy I find in physics is also a very elemental joy – I enjoy the physical act of doing it. Of writing down equations, working them out, and seeing the progress right there. It’s an almost child-like joy at how magical the natural world really is. A joy of seeing all these spell-like, almost alchemical formulas that are actually the most natural thing around.
Science is awesome, y’all.