When I meet new people at UNC and tell them I’m majoring in physics, I almost always get one of two reactions. The first, and probably most common, is a mixture of pity and disgust — a pained, “Ugh, I’m sorry.” The second is a sort of profound admiration, usually accompanied by a statement about how smart I must be because I study physics.
I realize, as a physics major, I represent a tiny minority of UNC students, but both of these reactions are totally misplaced. Sometimes I ask people who react this way why they feel physics seems so foreign and intimidating. They often say something like, “I’m just not a science person,” or, “I don’t have a mind for science at all.” I’d argue that these people are wrong, either about themselves or about science. At some level, everyone is a science person.
The most fundamental shared characteristic of scientists is (oddly enough) also one of the most basic traits of children, and to some degree, of all humans — curiosity. I’m certain that everyone, as a child, had a conversation at least once in which they repeatedly asked, “Why? …But why? … But why?” to the great annoyance of whomever they were talking to. As we know, when children do this, they’re unsatisfied with any explanation, and will never stop asking, “Why?”
Scientists are the exact same way. If you take a step back from the day-to-day life of, say, the average physicist and look at a broader outline of their goals, the physicist is simply a person whose career is to contribute to humanity’s constant question of, “Why?”
Imagine you are trying to explain to a child what a rainbow is. When sunlight hits water droplets, it splits into all the different colors of visible light.
Well, white light is just a mixture of all colors, and when different colors of light hit a water droplet, their trajectories bend different amounts.
Well, light itself is an electromagnetic wave, the behavior of which is described by Maxwell’s equations…
See, two “Why’s” in and I’m already reaching for my electromagnetism textbook. A couple more, and you’d need a Ph.D. just to understand the meaning of the question.
It really doesn’t take much asking at all to get to a point where, in fact, nobody knows the answer. So it’s not that I was magically blessed with the gift of being able to enjoy doing physics; it’s that, as my friends will probably tell you, I just never grew up.
Of course, many of us take things like rainbows for granted. There they are; it doesn’t matter why.
I challenge everyone to ask themselves these simple questions about nature and the universe we live in. Then dig as deeply as you possibly can. You might get overwhelmed, but there is a possibility that even the most “non-science” people out there will discover, like I did, that the answers are beautiful enough to suffer through a bunch of ridiculous classes to find. I’ll even give you a starting point.
Why is the sky blue?
Nick Mykins is the At-Large Columnist for The Daily Tar Heel. He us a senior Physics major from Raleigh. Email him nmykins@email.Unc.Edu.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.