Thanks for dropping by this physics advice 'brain dump' page, which regularly evolves with time. I'm using this space to offer some stream-of-consciousness reflections on the study of physics (and engineering) based on my experiences to date. I'll add bullets below as I'm reminded of them over time. Would love to hear feedback from any readers who stumble on this page!
During my undergraduate years in physics, I also took courses in computer science, hands-on engineering, philosophy of science, and language. My dedication to physics has always stemmed from a much broader commitment to the grandest of all questions: "what is all of this?!" - which I also grapple with through the lens of Zen, existentialism, and surrealism. I'm more of a philosopher in search of truth and drawn to physics for its empirical effectiveness, whereas some of my peers in college were more like mathematicians with a preference for equations that have some physical relevance.
The force driving someone towards physics matters a lot, as far as I can tell, but isn't often discussed. For instance, when it gradually became clear to me in late high school / early college that physics is a model approximating reality rather than some interpretive claim on reality itself, I felt deeply confused about how (and whether) to proceed. Not everyone studying physics shares in this anxiety, however. It really comes down to your motivations for studying physics in the first place.
I recently completed a very atypical engineering PhD (because I find hands-on building to be playful and fun!). So, I have not had the traditional physics PhD experience. Still, my commitment to fundamental physics remains strong - I'll be pursuing opportunities following my graduation to apply my engineering skillset in the context of fundamental physics research. So, bearing in mind this context, a few specific tips:
Good old fashioned magazine subscription to Physics Today. WHY? This monthly magazine worked wonders for me. It'll help you too if you have some technical background and are looking to get up to speed on the latest research in physics, and/or if you want to start piecing together key fundamental concepts, but don't presently have the bandwidth to pick up a textbook. It costs $25/year, and if you shoot me an email at CHERSTON[AT]MEDIA[DOT]MIT[DOT]EDU I will cover a year for you.
Physics is taught in very particular ways. Later in my twenties, I came to understand two things:
- (1) physics is a language just like any other spoken language. These words lightly conceal a hierarchy of concepts that are often reasonably straightforward to grasp if you can get past the fancy vocabulary. In practice, just learning and sorting through the words (and yes, eventually matching them to some first principles equations) can be a better entry point.
- (2) some people really benefit from hands-on experience with concepts. Laboratory courses help here, but there's more to it - if this might be you, then focus your energy on learning how to use tools and hardware since they help you to play around, build things, and see things for yourself! Prof. Melissa Franklin gave me really good advice in this area, which she was also quoted sharing with The Harvard Gazette in 2014: "I try to tell all the students to take all the classes that teach you how to do something: how to design electronics, how to program, a machine shop course. [...] If you've taken the course and you know how to do it, you've solved that problem [a lack of confidence] so easily. I remember when I got to graduate school everybody else knew how to do electronics. I wished I had taken a course. I thought they were so smart. And then later, when I taught the course here, I thought, 'Oh, that's it. You just had to have taken that course. They weren't any smarter at all.' So I think having the tools is really important."
Crucial advice from Brian Greene: "Very simple: Learn the BASICS of physics and mathematics inside out. You can read about and be inspired by work at the cutting edge. But if you don't learn the basics you will never reach your potential to contribute to our understanding. I encounter many kids who want to jump over the 'old' stuff and learn only about research at the frontier. That is a huge mistake. Take the time now to build a solid foundation."
- Commentary: I met Brian Greene as a college freshman and was definitely the target audience for this advice :) My draw towards physics was absolutely romanticized and irrevocably tethered to physics as portrayed in exciting articles. As I've gotten more serious about slowly digesting equations and technical concepts, it can be excruciating to imagine others somehow finding shortcuts. Take refuge in the knowledge that, sooner or later, these shortcuts lead either to romanticized dead ends or to the sorts of managerial roles that tend to frustrate a committed truth-seeker who has sidestepped learning things inside out.
A related follow-up quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don't give it opportunities."
- Commentary: There is some kind of truth or pattern out there that science is prodding at. For me, this 'essence' of reality can still be a grounding force.
Regardless of your stage of learning, it is crucially important to seize opportunities to teach others. Teaching is great - you solidify your knowledge when teaching it to someone else, you are reminded of all the ground you've covered, and you help others. On the flip side, it's possible to get stuck in teaching roles - they can be very time-consuming and can seem more immediately useful than an amorphous blob of research. So, be judicious about this balance.