Just forget the words and sing along

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why I Work in Radio

"Why do you work in radio when you have a physics degree?"  It's a question I get asked a lot.  I've considered taking my degree off my resume because I tire of the question coming up in job interviews.  And, as I've blogged before, in a society that loathes math and swears to their math teachers that they'll never, ever, ever need that stuff when they grow up, "Radio is more fun than math" is an answer that never satisfies.

And then, last week, I was surfing the Internet, and I found an online comic called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  And they had a comic strip there, called "How to Solve a Physics Problem," that summed up my reasons for choosing a career in radio quite nicely.

Here then, is "How to Solve a Physics Problem."

I think I'll starting handing this out, only crudely scribble out the final step and replace it with "become radio announcer."

In fact, reading this strip, it triggered a flashback, and I think I can now pinpoint the exact moment when I realized a career in the mathematical sciences wasn't for me.

So I was taking this one math course.  The problems in this course were so complicated that no mere calculator could solve them.  You had to write computer programs to solve them.  So the course was about 50% math and 50% computer programming.

I was down in the computer lab, working on the latest assignment.  My program just finished compiling, so I tested the program with a few problems I already knew the answer to.  The program spit out the correct answers, so the program was working.  I fed in the first problem.  Got the right answer.  I fed in the second problem.  Got the right answer.  I fed in the third problem.  And got a strange error message.

Obviously, I made a mistake writing my computer program.  So I looked over the code, spotted a few errors, corrected them, and went back to work.  And again, the third problem gave me a strange error message.

Again I checked over my code.  Again I rewrote my computer program.  And again, that third problem on the assignment gave me a weird error message.

I puzzled over this all week.  I'd go through the code, spot some supposed error and correct it, only for my program to keep giving me strange error messages for the third problem.  I couldn't take it anymore.  I gathered up my notes, and I fell back on the last (honest) refuge for a student who's stuck on an assignment:  I went to the professor for help. 

In the professor's office, I showed him my work.  I showed him how my program kept giving me the right answers for the first two problems, but always a strange error message appeared when it worked on the third problem.

After reviewing my work and listening to my concerns, my professor took a deep breath and said, "I'll let you in on a little secret, Mark.  You will always get an error message for the third problem."

I was silent for a moment while I processed this.  "What?" I asked.

"The third problem is an unsolvable problem in this field of mathematics," my professor elaborated.  "There is no known solution for it.  No matter what you do, you'll always get error messages.  It's like trying to divide by zero on your calculator."

"Why would you put such a problem on the assignment?" I asked. 

"Just to give you an example of the kinds of problems you'll run into in the real world," he said.

"So you're saying I've literally lost sleep over this assignment for nothing?"

"Welcome to the life of a mathematician, Mark."

Since my assignment was pretty much complete, then, I handed it in to my professor and went on my way.  I think that's when I realized the life of a mathematician wasn't for me.  Who wants to constantly lose sleep over problems with no solutions? 

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