People are really impressed…

…every time I tell them I’m studying physics. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of my parents’ friends (and peripheries) this summer, since many of my friends aren’t in town. Inevitably, they ask me what I’m studying, and I tell them that I’m studying physics. They say something or other about how they never understood physics, about how it’s so impressive that I’m studying it, about how they wish so-and-so were here so we could talk about stuff they would never understand. Now, I’m human, so of course I like being told that I’m brilliant and fascinating and awesome, but I’ve started to dread the moment people ask me what I’m studying. Not that I’m not proud of studying physics; of course I am. Physics is hard and I have to work hard to be even passable at it. But I don’t want to come across as bragging, especially in such a first-impression-building situation.

Yes physics is hard, but it’s not that much harder than other disciplines, at least not on the college level. I know English majors and chemistry majors and art history majors who work just as hard as me and are as smart or smarter. So why are people so impressed? Maybe it’s because of the perception that all science students are socially-inept, painfully dorky, acne-ridden nerds. That’s certainly not true – I’m none of those things (except sometimes painfully dorky), and there are only a few physics majors that I know who are. Are people surprised because I am capable of both learning about the inner workings of the universe and also interacting with other human beings?

I think part of it is because I’m a girl, and physics is a field that appears to be dominated by men – I don’t think it is, but from the outside… Well, let’s just say that even I can only name a few lady physicists, and many more male ones.  Look at this super-famous picture of many of the most influential physicists of all time at the Solvay Conference in 1927… Notice anything?

physicistsmeetingNot a whole lot of women. I wouldn’t have even noticed Marie Curie in the first row if I hadn’t known she was in this picture. Anyway, the point is, I have never seen one of my male friends get this kind of “Oh, that’s so impressive/intimidating, I never understood/even tried to think about that, it’s so interesting but so hard, you must be brilliant!” reaction. Since this post was just a thought I had in the shower, I don’t have any other opinions yet. But I’m e-mailing a bunch of people now, and there will be a follow-up post for sure. If you have experiences or opinions, let me know! I’m reachable by comment, e-mail at cranel@carleton.edu, or twitter @DownHereonEarth.

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11 thoughts on “People are really impressed…

  1. I’m not going to lie – I think the study of Physics is very interesting – because it isn’t overly common. You know what I mean? I’m studying to be a nurse – and I get told I am entering a thankless job and that I must be a very strong individual. Well, no – I just like medicine and I am not smart enough to become a doctor. I have never met a person studying physics – I know a couple that study Mathematics. if I met a person studying physics, I would be impressed, and I would start a discussion with you about it, because I have not come into contact with a student of physics before.

    • Everyone is impressed because the nightsky the sun the moon and NASA. Humans naturally love nature and exploring new frontiers.

    • Thanks for your comment! First, nurses are super-important and just as necessary as doctors – I feel like everyone knows that, but probably just because my mom’s a doctor and that’s my private little world. Second, I definitely see your point – physics is interesting. But many people don’t start a discussion, choosing instead to just say “wow, I never could wrap my head around that” and then (more often than not) sit in awkward science while I try not to get too excited and pedantic about how awesome physics is and how everyone could understand it if it were better-communicated and not so intimidating.

    • Thanks for your comment (and for the twitter shoutouts). Y’know, from the responses I’m getting, it’s looking like it’s not actually a gender-specific problem… More on that soon!

  2. I’m a female engineering student (who also totally digs physics), and I get similar reactions at times.
    Not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. It bothers me more when people assume I’m the ditsy female who doesn’t belong than when they assume I’m a genius.

    • 1. I just looked at your blog and I think we should probably be friends please.
      2. Agreed, I’d definitely rather be impressive than a foolish outsider. Then again, even more than that I’d rather have an actual conversation than anxiety about the inevitable awkwardness when someone asks what I’m studying.

  3. Pingback: People Are Really Impressed… Responses | Down Here on Earth

  4. Pingback: People Are Really Impressed… Follow-up at Physicsfocus | Down Here on Earth

  5. Pingback: When you tell someone you're a physicist, explain what you actually do - physicsfocus.org

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