Thanks for dropping by this physics advice 'brain dump' page, which will almost certainly evolve 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!
You might be a high school kid interested in physics, or a college student studying physics who is harboring some deeprooted questions, curiosities, or anxieties about whether to continue, or whether to instead explore a related field like engineering. Maybe you're later on in your career and curious about rekindling a dedication to physics and to the pursuit of truth and knowledge.
Here's my story: I got a bachelors degree in physics at Harvard. I didn't really follow the 'pile on as many hardcore physics courses as possible' path. Instead, I also took courses in computer science, hands-on engineering, philosophy of science, and language. My dedication to physics stemmed from a deeprooted commitment for as long as I can remember to the grandest question of all: "what is this?" - a question I've also approached from the lenses 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 wildly confused about how (and whether) to proceed. Not everyone studying physics shares in this anxiety, however. The 'shut up and calculate' mindset can be satisfying to some - it really comes down to your motivations for studying physics in the first place.
I am doing an engineering PhD now (a really a-typical one) (because I find hands-on building to be fun!) so 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 fundamental physics research. So, with this context in mind, here are some thoughts:
- I'll start with a quick one - 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, then an old fashioned magazine subscription to Physics Today is totally the way to go! 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've been gradually coming to understand two things:
So, if I first treat physics as a language and as a hands-on experience, all the other necessary aspects of physics (the deep math, problem solving, and technical creativity) becomes way more accessible.
(1) physics is a language just like any other spoken language. It is doused in vernacular concealing a hierarchy of concepts that are often reasonably straightforward to grasp if you can get passed the fancy vocabulary. Sure, scientists will often exclaim that math is the language of physics, and they are not wrong. However, in practice, just learning and sorting through the words, and eventually matching them to some first principles equations when appropriate, can be a better entrypoint.
(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.
Critical 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 heard this advice, yet had some trouble implementing it in the early days, because my draw towards physics was absolutely romantized 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 excrutiating 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 fluorish 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 what other existential qualms might be frequenting my mind.