by Andre on 18 December 2005
When I started my undergraduate degree I was planning on doing biochemistry. My switch was the result of two things: a good physics course and a good biochemistry course. I enjoyed a lab-based physics course that made me finally realize that you don’t need to be a super genius to excel in physics and that there’s a lot more to physics than high energy theory and cosmology*. Ironically, the good biochemistry course did even more to turn me to physics than the physics course did. People often complain that survey courses cover too much material in a superficial way and therefore lead to some memorized facts but no real understanding, but the intro biochemistry course that I took covered a lot of ground and answered many of the questions about how life works that I was really interested in. I finally new what life was made of, how proteins were put together using the information in a sequence of DNA, and some of the ways that these parts work together to keep us going. It was one of the more satisfying courses I’ve taken and at the end I decided that I didn’t want to take more courses that would just be variations on the same theme with more details and chemical names to remember. So I switched to physics.
I never lost my interest in biology though. You see, I like things that do things. Crystals, stars, and charges in potentials are all very interesting, but they just don’t excite me the same way that tiny self-assembling molecular machines do. A cell is vastly more interesting than a computer. I like math and I’m constantly awed by nature, so why not use the most fascinating tools and models from physics to study the universe’s most intricate machines?
*Now that I’ve done more physics I find it almost crazy that that’s how I thought about the field. From the inside I’m much more aware of the diversity of opportunities for physicists even within academics (that’s not to say you can get a job, I just mean that there is a wide variety of interesting things that happen in physics departments). My earlier ideas highlight a failure of popularization in my opinion.