Citizens Of Science

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Citizens Of Science

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Engineering or Physics? Advice for the Confused- Anand Hari Natarajan

Contents

MY STORY

Hello, everyone. This is my first post here, so I’ll first introduce myself. My name is Anand Natarajan, and I have a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering (2019 passed out) from SSN College of Engineering in Chennai, affiliated to Anna University.

I had discovered my passion for physics in the first year of college and, since then, lived a life full of ups and downs. Engineering was, well, I wouldn’t say it was boring; it was what it was: learning to build things using scientific principles (even though we hardly discussed what scientific principles were or where we were applying it). During my time as an engineering student, I felt I did not have a natural inclination towards building or innovating new technology for practical purposes. I felt my time was better spent on understanding the underlying laws of natural phenomena and approaching problems from new and exciting directions. So, while I was good at understanding things from ‘first principles’, I was never really interested in engineering as the ‘first principles’ approach was hardly used in design or building something.

As you all can imagine, I was an average student when it came to engineering. I was lucky to have some friends who included me in projects, so I did have something to put on my resume. But apart from that, life wasn’t all that great. Why? Well, it’s like I said earlier. Engineering is this weird discipline where we learn to build things using scientific principles, yet never discuss what scientific principles were, or how we were applying them. We learn to build something, without thinking about why we were making it. We design things without knowing why we have to develop them specifically in that way. We approximate without knowing why we have to approximate, and we never look at things from first principles, because we focus on making tiny improvements on existing technologies, not on making entirely new technologies.

And for those of us thinking that we wanted to know how something works from the foundational basics, this discipline just wasn’t satisfactory. We were left unfulfilled. We were in an unhappy marriage where we loved our partner but just weren’t in love with them.

So, we turned to physics. Why? Because physics is the mother of all science. Right?

Well, I’m here to tell you all that it’s not so black and white. Engineering is not just what you think it is, and neither is physics. And for those that already know all this, I’m happy for you, and I hope you still read this blog post to the end.

WHAT THE PROBLEM IS

So, I’ll jump straight to it. Society has preconceived notions of what engineering and physics are and tries to mold our thinking to fit those notions. When we start to feel empty on the inside, we try to search for something else to make ourselves happier, when the real solution is for us to break the labels that have been put on engineering and physics and pursue what interests us.
Engineering and physics are very interconnected. Engineering can not exist without physics, and physics can not live without engineering. “How is physics dependent on engineering?” you may ask. Well, it’s simple. Engineering doesn’t just make our lives easier but makes studying physics easier. Engineering paves the way for new technologies to make physics research much more comfortable to conduct. Physics is no longer the discipline where you sit in your workplace with a pen and paper and scribble convoluted mathematical equations trying to figure out something revolutionary. 
The problem with physics is, it needs better publicity. And the problem with engineering is, it’s misunderstood.

THEN WHAT IS ENGINEERING?

Engineering is not just about solving numerical problems with approximations or making small improvements on existing technologies. Engineering is about figuring out how to make things work. Even the act of conducting an experiment to do research is an act of engineering since we have to create an artificial environment to record data! So is creating more precise tools to fine-tune scientific observations! Yet we’re never taught engineering this way. Engineering is looking at the world as a clockwork and trying to fashion your own version of what the world could be. Engineering is about literally producing things we thought were magical or impossible in real life.

People may invent labels to call things by different names, but engineering is what it is.

So, simply put, engineering just wasn’t taught to many of you (including me). What we were taught was an empty shriveled up version of what it truly is.

NOW, WHAT?

Well, the solution to not being satisfied with engineering isn’t to run away from it. Don’t seek physics just because you think it’s the solution to the void in your heart. Instead, try to look within yourself to find out what you truly want to achieve in life. Apart from that, learn things using the internet. Learn what engineering and physics really are, so you may make better decisions on what to do next. It’s a lot of work, yes, I know, trust me. But, it’s necessary for you to sincerely be happy in life.
I realized the marvel of engineering a little too late. Ironically, only after spending four years studying it, and getting a degree in it, did I finally realize what engineering really is, and how beautiful it is. Sometimes, I wish that I knew the truth back then when I was studying it. But then I realized, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference if I had known what engineering really was back then, because, regardless of what I called it, engineering or physics, I studied what I liked to understand it better.

WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THIS POST?

Now, you may be thinking why I’m telling you all, all this mumbo jumbo about labels, engineering, society, and whatnot. It’s because, for a lot of people, studying physics means you end up teaching at schools, colleges, or universities, while doing some research on the side, and studying engineering means, you end up working in an office, factory or industry. 
That’s not all it is. The current scenario in universities (especially in the west, USA, for example) is an emphasis on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians, all work together in different areas of the same project, collaborating with each other to achieve a common goal. Most research fields in contemporary physics research, such as Atomic and Molecular Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, Biophysics, Quantum Computing, all have heavy interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary involvement. 
Apart from that, there are many cases of engineers entering physics, chemistry, or mathematics research, and many instances of physicists leaving academia for corporate jobs. In fact, there is a significant demand for physicists as technical and scientific consultants in many companies. Even investment banking companies love hiring physicists as consultants due to their powerful problem-solving abilities! Many physicists even start their own companies aimed at producing both research output as well as commercial products. I have also included a list below for your reference.
So, if you’re interested in doing research work in the frontier of science and technology, be it physics or engineering, please have a better understanding of what physics and engineering are. The border between both fields is not at all discrete, but very continuous. Be open to studying things outside your curricula, such as mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry, and keep up with the latest trends in research

CONCLUSION

We, engineers, are very much in demand in this day and age to help scientists. So, don’t be confused with the labels of engineering and physics, and what you need to be, or do. If you want to work on exciting areas in science and technology to advance civilization, then go with an open mind, and don’t worry. Greatness will come if you keep fighting, so don’t give up. Keep fighting.

LIST OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE SWITCHED FIELDS

  • Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot: We all know about the Carnot heat engine and Carnot cycle. This man is the father of Thermodynamics. But did you know that he was a mechanical engineer and military scientist?
  • Paul Dirac: One of the greatest physicists of all time and a Nobel Prize winner. He started off with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, then entered academia when he couldn’t get a job! He went on to get another bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and a Ph.D. in Physics, and then, you know, the rest is history.
  • Wilhelm Rontgen: Another great physicist. This man won the first Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering and detecting X-rays. He had earned his bachelor’s and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, but went on to change the world of physics!
  • Hugh Everett: Have you come across Multiverse Theory or the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics? Well, this man came up with it. He had a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, and got a Ph.D. in Physics and went on to create a popular physics theory! 
  • Gordon Moore: Have you come across Moore’s Law? Well, this man coined it. He’s also the co-founder and chairman of Intel Corporation! He did his Ph.D. in Chemistry, but went on to become an engineer and businessman!
  • Robert Noyce: He was the other co-founder of Intel Corporation. Nicknamed “the Mayor of Silicon Valley”, he is credited with the realization of the first monolithic integrated circuit or microchip. He was a physicist who became a businessman.
I will add more people as I get time. But rest assured, it’s very possible to get a graduate degree in physics after a bachelor’s in engineering. 
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