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still a physics major by Masha G. '24

against all odds

Last time I wrote a blog about my academic life, back in November, I was going through a major crisis – by which I mean a crisis about my major, not a major crisis necessarily, though it certainly is a question of great importance. I wrote:

I think my being a physics major has hinged on me really enjoying physics classes, and I’m just not sure how true that is anymore. I think, in a vacuum, I love physics. But I don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s stressful to waste energy and time on something that isn’t really important to me at the moment. Course 18C seems to be calling.

At the time, I was feeling incredibly stressed and lost in 8.033, Relativity, a notoriously difficult class.01 though most physics classes are notoriously difficult Not too long after writing that blog, though, I had a bit of a breakthrough in the class. Or, more accurately, we moved on from special relativity to general relativity, and all of a sudden I was reminded of just how incredibly cool physics can be. I distinctly remember telling anyone who would listen that I’m studying black holes in class, and we’re doing math, and there’s thing called a metric, and with a metric it’ll be like you have spacetime and then all of a sudden – bam! – there’s a black hole and it’s right there in my pset, how cool is that?? I just know my friends thought I had gone insane, when just a week beforehand I had been talking about how I’m set on switching majors.02 actually my friends are probably used to my love-hate relationship with physics by now

After the semester ended, I was left in an interesting place. I had taken one math, one physics, and one CS class ( 18.600,03 Probability and Random Variables 8.033, and 6.006,04 Intro to Algorithms respectively), and done relatively poorly in all of them. Part of this was because all three of the classes were difficult, but it mattered also that I couldn’t find the time to focus on three technicals at once. I want to commit to never again taking three such hard classes at once. This hurts, in itself, because there’s this common narrative at MIT that three technicals and a HASS is a standard schedule, and anything less is less rigorous than average. It hurts, also, because there are so many classes I’m curious and would like to take. A lot of these classes do fall within the realm of 18C.05 Mathematics with Computer Science, the other major I'm considering The truth is, though, that an undergrad plan studying all of the fields I’m interested in would be unsustainable. I need to choose something to focus on in order to not completely destroy my mental health; double-majoring is out of the question.

 

With all that in mind, I went into winter break and IAP knowing I needed to make a decision about which major I will pursue and stick with it. The title of the blog spoils it, but I chose to stay a physics major. Ultimately, it mostly came down to the difference in the sheer number of classes I would need to take to get an 18C degree as compared to a physics degree. This semester, I am taking 8.0406 Quantum Physics I and 8.226.07 '43 Orders of Magnitude' which is a sort of humanities-for-physicists class From here, there are only a couple more strict physics requirements left: 8.04408 Statistical Physics I and 8.13,09 Experimental Physics I, also known as junior lab plus any physics elective. This is so mind-bogglingly few classes that I realized it doesn’t make sense for me to not finish a physics major, especially in favor of a major where I have somewhere between 5 and 10 classes left to complete.

Of course, the number of classes needed isn’t everything, but a couple of other breakthroughs followed in succession. I realized over break that I couldn’t not take 8.04. It’s funny, really, but back in middle school, I used to read a lot of popular science books about cosmology, string theory, and the like. I was always left quite frustrated, however, because the books were never rigorous. I was entirely unconvinced of any of these wacky phenomena without seeing the math behind them, though, of course, I couldn’t have understood the math at the time. As a result, though, I feel an obligation of sorts to my middle-school self to at least attempt to learn quantum physics, and see the way that those laws emerge from our mathematical models.

Another breakthrough followed during registration week, when I met with the physics professor in charge of approving 8-Flex10 8-flex refers to the flexible physics major path that is most common in the department, and that I am also doing plans. The way that the flexible major works is that I have to declare a three-class elective concentration, which can be in a different department. Originally, I was planning on concentrating in CS, since I have already taken so many CS classes. As I was meeting with him, though, I found out that if I declared my concentration as “computational climate modeling” instead (encompassing classes like 12.003,11 Atmosphere, Ocean, and Climate Dynamics 6.036,12 Machine Learning and 8.29213 Fluid Physics , all of which I was planning on taking anyway), I would most likely be able to take 12.30714 Weather and Climate Laboratory to fulfill the course 8 experimental requirement, instead of 8.13, which I was dreading taking.

 

It’s worth remembering, at this point, that my biggest passion, currently, is something along the intersection of CS and weather/climate. Taking all these course 1215 Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science (EAPS) classes will make me happier than any advanced algorithms or math classes. If I feel like I need a stronger math or CS background, I can take specific classes that I want, rather than trying to fit them into the framework of 18C requirements. Most importantly, there aren’t actually that many more math classes that I want to take. Beyond 18.650,16 Statistics and Applications I don’t have any planned that I’m really interested in; and a math degree would inevitably involve many more math classes.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a question of which aspect of the weather/climate forecasting field I want to focus on more at the moment. 18C would represent a shift to focusing on the underlying math of forecasting techniques, whereas course 8 would allow me to explore the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere in more detail. Both of these fields are interesting to me, but I can’t do both right now. Ultimately, I have less of an idea as to what fluid dynamics is actually like; whereas I understand the basic principles of how forecasting techniques are developed. I want to at least get a sense for fluid physics, so that I can better decide on what I want to do later on.

 

For all these reasons, I’m sticking with course 8. Of course, physics is impractical, in a lot of ways. Things like black holes and quantum mechanics have little bearing on our day-to-day lives and the pressing problems of our time. But I’m not a terribly practical person, either. I enjoy reading about a variety of esoteric topics, not just limited to science. I like thinking about interesting things and big questions, and I like the feeling of challenging my brain in new ways. I’ve decided recently17 I'll write about this in detail in a future blog post that I definitely want to go to graduate school and get a PhD. There is simply too much that I want to learn, and I really enjoy research, so it’s a path that makes sense for me for the next five to ten years. Will I stay in academia in the long term? Who knows. But for now, I can afford to spend my energy on impractical subjects that feed my curiosity.

It’s still not as though I love quantum physics. I really don’t. The semester has just started, and I’m already struggling with the first 8.04 pset. I hate the idea of spending long hours each week poring over problems that I ultimately don’t care that much about. But it’s cool, on some level; and MIT was never meant to be easy. My goal is just to make my time here as manageable as possible, and course 8 seems to be the way to achieve that. Right now, this is the best path for me, and I’m excited to be able to spend more time focusing on my research and on EAPS classes in the next two years.

  1. though most physics classes are notoriously difficult back to text
  2. actually my friends are probably used to my love-hate relationship with physics by now back to text
  3. Probability and Random Variables back to text
  4. Intro to Algorithms back to text
  5. Mathematics with Computer Science, the other major I'm considering back to text
  6. Quantum Physics I back to text
  7. '43 Orders of Magnitude' which is a sort of humanities-for-physicists class back to text
  8. Statistical Physics I back to text
  9. Experimental Physics I, also known as junior lab back to text
  10. 8-flex refers to the flexible physics major path that is most common in the department, and that I am also doing back to text
  11. Atmosphere, Ocean, and Climate Dynamics back to text
  12. Machine Learning back to text
  13. Fluid Physics back to text
  14. Weather and Climate Laboratory back to text
  15. Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science (EAPS) back to text
  16. Statistics and Applications back to text
  17. I'll write about this in detail in a future blog post back to text