Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What do I do with my Physics degree?

The oldest J8H2RHFW4BTK question in every individual's adult career, and one question that has no answer to satisfy the questioner. Almost every year, I man booths at the NUS Open House, answering questions to prospective students. And this question is by far the most common one I had to answer. It is also the one I always felt uncomfortable answering.

Academic Research
That is the most obvious career path for those choosing a degree in physics - to be a physicist. It quite an unusual choice in life, when compared to other "typical" careers, in terms of settling down, family and so on. But those interested in an academic career in science probably won't be demanding questions as to what other jobs there are for such an undergraduate degree. So I needn't elaborate much here.

"What can I do besides teaching?"
I think the problem stems common misconceptions about the physics discipline (one which I will talk more about later). One of the biggest problem I had about this is that the assumption that physics graduate all end up to be teachers ("and I don't want to teach!" says the student).

Well, firstly, (A) What's so bad about teaching? and (B) This assumption prevails because almost everyone has heard of story that "Mr. X graduated from physics and is now a teacher." However, nobody seems to notice that many people went into teaching because there is a demand for teachers. So naturally you'd expect people to go where the demand is.

Industrial and commercial RnD
Okay, if someone who doesn't want to teach, and doesn't want to do scientific research, but still wants to take a physics degree, usually may want to do RnD for tech companies. I almost got a job in a government research institute for my knowledge (which is actually not much) in computer simulation of molecular dynamics. The applications of which are on drug design and delivery. That is just one example, and there are many other similar ones. Another one that comes to mind is a radiation physicists, currently on demand at hospitals. Many medical equipment and procedures operate on advanced physical principles, for example the PET scan, CAT scan, MRI, radiation therapy and so on.

"What can I do besides research and teaching?
A bachelor's degree in science is a general degree. Whether you're majoring in physics, mathematics, chemistry or food science, you can use it to apply for many positions that only ask for a general degree. And if one is applying for administrative/corporate jobs (sales, HR, etc.) then the actual science major is probably irrelevant. Of course, if one is applying for a position in a pharmaceutical company, a chemistry major probably has a slight advantage over a physics major. But the point is, having a BSc. in chemistry doesn't make you a chemist, nor a BSc. in physics doesn't make you a physicists, because these are not professional degrees.

And, many people do not end up in the jobs they study for anyway. Your career path is determined by what you do when you work, and your undergraduate studies won't stop you. Of course, having a business degree makes it easier to get a corporate job, but that doesn't mean it is forbidden for a physics graduate to get the same job.

Sensationalism, Part II

Ready for more sensationalist news? They have changed the headlines from "spaceship" to "sibling of dinosaur killer"

Phil Plait was right, it was an asteroid collision. And now that we know more, those asteroids belong to the Flora family of asteroids.

Even when some media sources finally agree that it's an asteroid collision, they swing in a different direction and says that this is *drumroll* the BROTHER of the dinosaur killer *cue evil music, (maybe the Imperial March)*

News from io9

From Newsdaily

What does "related" in the headlines mean anyway? How many asteroids are actually in the Flora family? The asteroid is just a rock out of billions. I could equivalently post a news with the headlines: "Lim Yen Kheng is possibly related to Barack Obama. Possible tensions to US-Malaysia ties." Why? Because the odds of that are about the same as
P/2010 A2 being related to the "Dinosaur Killer"

Sensationalism in News

I came across a recent event that shows off the despicable media habit of over-dramatizing their "news". The event I'm talking about is a Hubble Space Telescope's picture of a suspected asteroid collision. By chance, I surfed to some other sites reporting the same event, but the headline said "spaceship-shaped object" So for the first time, I get to see contrasting behavior side by side, more or less supporting my suspicion. Firstly, here are links to sites containing ACCURATE information:, the headlines read:
Suspected Asteroid Collision Leaves Odd X-Pattern of Trailing Debris
Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer's own words on the event:
Hubble captures picture of asteroid collision!

Okay. So far so good, right? Here are the "news" reports:
Before It's News it's headlines read:
Hubble Detects Mysterious Spaceship-Shaped Object Traveling at 11,000MPH, same headlines, but with an interesting last paragraph:

"In other words: They have no clue about what this is, and they are still speculating about how this object was formed. Maybe it's time to call Dr. Zarkov."
By "they", they meant scientists. Yeah, right. The scientists have no clue at all, never mind the long blog post from Phil Plait explaining the physics of the event.

5 Questions Every Atheist MUST Answer: I answered all five of them. Does that make me an atheist?

Q1: Are you using "chance" in the same way in which you accuse Christians in using "God of the Gaps"?
I stumbled upon this video on YouTube, so I am not sure who the person in the video is. But it does not sound like he really understands the scientific process. In any case, no. The difference between using "chance" or "God of the Gaps" is that the latter is untestable, while the former is. Furthermore, he used the term "chance" in an overarching generalization; but let's assume the main statement he is making is about evolution. Evolution through random variation of individuals within a species is a mechanism that can be tested, and has been already (just Google and you'll find links to many.).

Q2: Why should there be something instead of nothing?
I don't know. At present, science did not claim to be able to answer that question. Perhaps it will be able to answer it in the future, but at present, not yet. So this probably brings to the natural counter argument, which is "Science does not give all the answers, so we must turn to God". If science does not give answers, doesn't mean turning to somewhere else will provide correct answers. Another way of putting it is this: just because we can't find an explanation doesn't mean we cop out to alternative explanations - we try harder.

A second way I might answer this question is with another question: "why should there be nothing instead of something"? Or, why is the burden of explanation lies on "something" rather than the "nothing" part of the question. It sounds a non-question that does not justify either side of the argument. Sure religion claims it can answer this question, but is their answer to the question true?

The person in the video goes on to say that the Earth seem to be fixed just exactly to make life possible (typical intelligent design argument). This one may appear very convincing at first, because Earth sits precisely at a very small range where liquid water can exist, and we are very lucky to happen to have such a planet. That is because life began on a planet with liquid water. Other (theoretically) possible forms of life can be silicon-based, or where the required chemical substrate is liquid ammonia. When life springs up there and they evolve intelligence, they will say "oh, my planet seemed fixed just exactly to make me possible! There must be an Intelligent Designer!!!"

Q3: Where do you get your morals from?
It appears that this person does not understand the evolutionary model of the origin of morals. If we use evolution to explain morals, the correct description is that we evolve our brain to consider "how we ought to behave" so that a stable society can exist. Evolution naturally selects individuals who think twice before stealing your friends' food, etc. Because chaotic society with no morals will not last very long in the wild.

Q4: How did morals evolve?
Huh? Wasn't that the third question? Well, in this part he did mention more about why do people feel guilty when doing something wrong (hence morals), which, could not have evolutionary advantage. Well, humans are social beings, if we do not feel guilty killing people, then our society will be in chaos and we will be long extinct. In any case, the true explanation of the origins of human morality is probably more complicated that that, I'm just using the above argument to refute his claims.

Q5: Can nature generate complex organisms when previously there was none?
I thought that has been covered elaborately by evolution. Otherwise in this question he seemed to be repeating the same argument about intelligent design, which can counter by the same argument.

I'm pretty sure this doesn't confirm me to be an atheist (yet), but merely attempted to refute his arguments. Of course, I readily admit my own arguments above are not well-posed or elaborated, because of space constraints (I'm keeping in mind that people probably won't like to read long-winded, talky blog posts, so I tried to be concise here). So I'll come back to these points again some time in the future.


Here are my thoughts on James Cameron's latest movie, "imported" from another forum

I saw the 3D version, which made me a little dizzy. Awesome special effects and beautiful sceneries and flora/fauna of Pandora. My jaw was dropped for most of the movie. I could take any random screenshot of the movie and made it my desktop wallpaper :o

The story, though was quite simple and cliche. Actually, it could have been set anywhere on Earth. One could imagine an identical story taking place 200 years in the past with British Imperialists. That was slightly disappointing for me, since I liked James Cameron movies for his great storytelling (Terminator, Alien2, Titanic). It appears like for this movie, he started with the "Avatar" concept and wrote a story to support it - instead of the other way around.

My favourite was Sigourney Weaver's scientist character. A strong female character capable of talking down a Marine Colonel (Actually that shouldn't be surprising since this is the same woman that fought Alien Queen). I think she portrays a scientist in a realistic (non-stereotype) manner. Her quote is added to my list of favourites: "must take samples". No spoilers - you'll need to see the movie to understand :P Ironically, all other characters seem stereotyped. A douchebag corporate executive, blood-thirsty marine colonel, good-hearted natives, etc.

Science-fiction wise, Avatar had many familiar ideas stitched together. Without spoiling, I'd say there was one concept suspiciously similar to a planet in Asimov's Foundation universe. Then there's the armor suit mecha from anime. Their helicopters look very similar to the HKs from the Terminator series (another Cameron movie).

io9 Assesses Bad Movie Physics

Here. Actually I think even this "report card" is not accurate. They claim that 2001: A Space Odyssey has "weird depictions of exposure to vacuum". I thought that 2001 gave the most accurate depiction among all movies so far; namely that you do not explode instantly when exposed in space, but one can survive for a few seconds.

And I also have no idea why Contact has "easy communications with aliens", since the content of Contact was accurately written by Carl Sagan, a pioneer of SETI, one of the few professional scientists seriously considering possible communications with extraterrestrial intelligence..

Do the makers of the report card seem to suffer the same misconceptions from bad movie physics?