Rumlily asked in Science & MathematicsPhysics · 1 decade ago

Astrophysics, theoretical physics, or quantum mechanics?

I'm a senior in high school, so I'm going to college next year. Which should I major in and why do you think that? I can't make up my mind.


I know I want to go into physics... but I just want to know what other people think.

14 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Best Answer

    Just to put in my 2 cents:

    1) I agree with Scyth above in as far as that one CANNOT in this day and age get a degree in theoretical physics without a firm grasp of quantum physics, and one also CANNOT get a degree in physics with only a grasp of quantum physics, so the two should not be distinct choices. Now, whether you want to focus your research on quantum physics is up to you.

    2) But I disagree with Scyth in the statement about the maths needed for a degree in theoretical physics. One does not need to master differential equations nor complex analysis. One merely needs to be comfortable with them. Of the mathematical tools used in modern theoretical physics, I think

    a) Quantum theory and derivatives (QED/QCD) tend to use more abstract algebra and operator theory from functional analysis (and as far as the latter goes, it is just memorizing a list of rules about what mathematical operations one is allowed to do, and not any actual deep understanding of the maths).

    b) String theory calls for really hard abstract algebra, algebraic and differential geometry, combinatorics and topology. This is the one that requires the most maths and the most esoteric combination of maths. (Complex analysis is implicitly contained as a subset of algebraic geometry.)

    c) Cosmology and general relativity needs an understanding of advanced calculus and Riemannian geometry.

    3) Differential equations are more necessary for the field which is called either phenomenology, applied theoretical physics, or applied mathematics. (I've heard all three used before.) The idea is basically that in this day and age, theorists just sit there and come up with rules on how the universe functions, and only checks that the theory agree with the empirical in the simplest of cases. The harder cases of checking whether experiments and experiences agree with the theory is left up to these people. From my friends who work in it, this is a rather small field that is unnoticed by the public at large yet takes a lot of pride in what they do.

    4) Since you are just a senior in high school, I don't really think you should make up your mind about what you want to major in just yet. Especially not in regards to which branch of theoretical physics you want to study. I am absolutely certain that you have not had exposure to all of the different fields in physics, and making up your mind now is unfair to both you and to the fields. It is a much better idea to go talk to various faculty members once you are in college to find out more about their research and to decide which line of research you wish to follow. Speaking from experience: when I was a high school senior, I wanted to major in computer science. After entering my freshman year in college, I switched to operations research. Sophomore year I decided that classes in operations research are too simple and boring so I became a physics major. And then I took some advanced maths classes and found my true calling after all. So my advice is to be not too stubborn about what you want to do.

    5) Also, in different schools, different departments may mean different things. For example, depending on which school you go to, the department of astrophysics may or may not contain a theory group. And even in the case that they do have a theory group, it is not the case that all theoretical astrophysics are necessarily done in the astrophysics department (thinking of my alma mater here... there is a cosmology group in both astrophysics and in physics).

    6) As far as a future career is concerned: I highly suggest getting a degree in theoretical physics and work in phenomenology. The way tihings are, with theoretical research at least 20 years ahead of experiments and bordering on the fantastic cough*stringtheory*cough, I see high energy physics as sort of a career deadend. But with the LHC up and running (fingers crossed), data should be coming in and with luck, something unexpected will happen. And then we will need people to interpret that data and decide which theory is right.

  • mensch
    Lv 4
    3 years ago

    Quantum Astrophysics

  • 1 decade ago

    While most undergraduate colleges don't distinguish between the three, some of the top universities do. In any case, because of electives, even if you just have a physics major, you may want to start specializing. But a few points should be made:

    1) You cannot really expect to "do theoretical physics" without also mastering quantum mechanics, just like you'd expect to master differential equations and complex analysis. You can't really expect to specialize in quantum mechanics much (as distinct from theoretical physics) until graduate school.

    2) Theoretical physics is the hardest to make a career out of, because of the difficultiy of it (you'd need to be a top ranked mathematican-physicist to be able to pull this off). Yet, at the same time, most of your chances of actually making money at it would be funded by government, not in the private sector. Thus, you'd be limited to professorship or working on big physics projects such as CERN or LIGO.

    3) Astrophysics is an exploding field, since not only technological advances in astronomy is making possible for many more different avenues of study (detection of hydrocarbons in extrasolar planets? geology of large Kuiper belt objects? magnetic lines of influence in supernova remnants? the list goes on), space exploration seems to be now enjoying a much brighter future than it has been in the last few moribund decades. Your services would be in need, even in the private sector.

    4) What was once an esosteric subject of relatively little commerical use, quantum mechanics is rapidly gaining prominence in the private sector, as nanotechnology or quantum computing is being driven faster than ever. Quantum mechanics is the only effective way to "do engineering" at those levels, so masters in that field can expect to be in high demand. Of the three, this would probably be your best chance of commanding the best salaries.

    So, there you have it, it depends on what kind of life you really want---the life of a deep thinker, very hard and unfortunately not likely to succeed in making any profound breakthroughs in the field, or the life of a more hands-on astro-scientist with a much better chance of making significant contributions to your field as part of your career, or the life of an industry-driven and highly paid quantum technocrat.

  • Donna
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    For the best answers, search on this site

    Big Four are: Classical Mechanics Quantum Mechanics Electricity and Magnetism Statistical Mechanics & astrophysics particle physics Each can be broken down further Quantum optics, for example/atomic/

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  • 1 decade ago

    A HS senior contemplating Millennium problem material like Poincare's Conjecture is intellectually gifted. If you comprehend it, you're six sigma. Respectfully, your primary concern is not physics versus astrophysics. The overlap is about 80% at the undergrad level and there is no law against a mid-course correction to another major. Your concern at this juncture is acquiring the pedigree for future entry into graduate school at Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Cambridge, and so on... It's unfair and prejudicial, but the reality is that those ivy diplomas open doors. Moreover, you may be capable of a major breakthrough and in that case you want access to the handful of people who can help you achieve it.

    Long answer short, invest your time in picking the school and choose the science major staffed by their most prestigious academics from whom a recommendation won't be taken lightly.

  • JCS
    Lv 5
    1 decade ago

    You are narrowing your choices too much and too soon. It's not unusual that, after starting attending college, many people find that their dream courses are not that appealing after all, either because they simply don't like after all (in any scientific field, the views from the intside and outside are very different) or because they find another field that they didn't know anything about before, but now interests them more.

    That happened to me: before university, I thought electronics was my dream, but I end up finding certain parts of Mathematics much more interesting while, at the same time, the real enginnering work and courses started to seem dull (they were based mostly in rule-of-thumb thinking). This was, for me, a serious matter: I live in a country that doesn't give much opportunities to Science, and an engineering degree was (and is) the gateway to find a job; so I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself that I liked engineering, and I eventually got my degree in it (and notice that, at the time, engineering degrees here followed the US model for Law and Medicine: three years of basic science, plus another three of specific technological courses and internships), but then I had the opportunity to return and study Mathematics, where my interests in foundational problems grew and I'm there since then. But this was a spell of good luck: looking back, I find that I missed a fate of ending up as a manager in some factory by an hairbreadth and the fine for time lost is hefty.

    What I'm trying to tell you is this: it's useless to worry now about those choices above (and not only because you can't really opt between those three, physics is not organized that way); when you start studying physics, if you qare good at it, then your taste and abilities for specific problems will arise naturally. It may be that your instincts are correct now and you end up specializing in one of those, but it's also possible that you find problems in, say, statistical physics, condensed matter, biophysics or even applied areas more interesting. If that happens then think hard for a while about your motives (after all, we are merely human, and I've seen students changing fields because they had difficulties understanding some particular points, or because they tought the work was too hard for them, and it's very easy to rationalize that, after all, you like other things better, and then repeat the pattern all over again) and, if you find that it's not a solvable, temporary problem that it's causing you to doubt your initial choices, then you should consider changing.

  • 1 decade ago

    At Illinois State University there is just Physics and Physics Education. Some schools may have more specialized undergraduate programs, but the specifics for some schools might not become distinct until graduate school which you will no doubt have to complete.

  • 1 decade ago

    Generally as an undergraduate you get a broad spectrum of physics if that is what you major in. I was an honors student at university and they still recommended that I take all the courses that other physics majors take even though in theory I wasn't required to do so. You can favor certain subjects as an undergraduate but it is really when you go to graduate school that you specialize. Likewise with astronomy. At the school I went to they taught astrophysics at the undergraduate level but again it was part of a more general study of astronomy. You can of course take graduate courses as an undergraduate, which I did in astronomy since I was a physics major. I also took courses in atmospheric sciences. Again, as an undergraduate you are expected to get a general education even in the subject you major in. In graduate school you specialize. But that does not mean you can not take courses in the subject you want to specialize in.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Consider a double-major in Physics and Mathematics. That will give you the background to pursue any further study in Physics.

    Source(s): B.A. Physics & Mathematics M.A. Mathematics
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Those weren't individual majors at my school (I went to a state school...if you're going to MIT or something, I suppose it could be different). Sounds like you want to do either a double major in Physics and Astronomy (I know a few people who did this) or major in one and minor in the other.

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