I'm a beginning graduate student, and I have 2 years before I have to pick a specialization. I would like to know which areas of physics call for the most intuition or physical insight. If this sounds like too vague a question, let me give an example.

See the problem below: "A rubber band with initial length L has one end tied to a wall. At t = 0, the other end is pulled away from the wall at speed V (assume that the rubber band stretches uniformly). At the same time, an ant located at the end not attached to the wall begins to crawl toward the wall, with speed u relative to the band. Will the ant reach the wall? If so, how much time will it take?"

I wasn't able to solve this problem completely, but I could get good qualitative insight into the behavior of the system simply by imagining a few things happening as the rubber band was stretched. Is this possible in just about any area of physics or are there specific areas which contain problems that can be tackled using pure intuition?

I really want to be in an area which I enjoy so your answers will be much appreciated.


With a lot of intuition you are well suited to all areas of physics.

I think this is from the educational and the applying side a key difference to a lot of other sciences. For biology, chemistry, medicine and other sciences that are more concerned with the macroscopics than with the small details learning lots of facts is unavoidable.

I don't think that there is any branch of physics where you can be successful by following a given path without a lot of intuition whether the idea might finally work or not. While you can ask yourself in which area your intuition is often the right answer a key point is: Intuition comes from doing it and thinking deeply about it.

A small remark to the last part of your question: There is hardly any problem that can be tackled by pure intuition. From my experience physicists with a very good intuition can pick the ten most likely ideas from a hundred possibilities, whereas the other ones have to try twenty or thirty ideas. Only a few gifted ones working in a specific field sometimes for decades might narrow it down to just a few from intuition and experience. In the end the intuitive idea still has to be proven by experiment, calculation or both; there is no shortcut around.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you Alexander. However, I'd like to know if there is a difference between fields like non-linear dynamics and theoretical particle or condensed matter physics with regard to the percentage of time spent "thinking" Vs "doing". For example, non-linear dynamics might involve a lot of time on the computer trying to make some code work. With the theoretical fields, you're not weighed down by things like that. Am I right? (I have a preference for using my critical thinking skills over my debugging skills) $\endgroup$ – Joebevo Mar 3 '12 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry Joebevo, you are always "weighed down by things like that". But maybe you brush off debugging skills to fast. Debbuging does not only mean getting the code to compile but also to think about boundary conditions and limitations of the underlying model. And this is nothing else but critical thinking. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 4 '12 at 0:48

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