Hello my Socratica friends! We're here to help you be a great student. In this
series, we've been offering you lots of general advice about studying - how to
take notes, how to memorize, how to get more out of what you read - now we'd like
to also offer you some specific advice about how to study certain subjects.
Because Socratica focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics), we
will start with that most fundamental of the sciences: physics. Believe it or not,
if you're a scientist of any kind, you probably want to be studying some
physics. It's going to help you understand the underlying behavior of
matter, of electricity, of gravity, magnetism... all kinds of fields...
Okay I'm not a physics major. I've read a little.
I'm working my way through the Feynman
lectures, as you do. But we at Socratica want to make sure you get the best
advice from people who really know what they're talking about. So today, we have a
guest star! Our friend Simon, who earned his Masters in physics at Oxford and
just defended his PhD in physics from the University of Exeter. He knows a
little bit about the subject.
Hi Simon! Hello Socratica! Glad to be here!
What time is it in LA?
I have no idea anymore.
So I understand that you want to know
more about how to study physics. Well, I actually have a whole YouTube channel
dedicated to this idea... and the great thing about it is that physics is one of
these subjects that anybody can learn. It doesn't matter what your background is,
who you are, where you came from - anybody can learn physics with the right instruction.
It's very democratic!
Oh, I knew you were the right person to talk to!
So... where to start? how did you get started in physics?
Was it your first physics class, or...?
Okay, so my first experience with physics would have been
when I was about 10. I remember we were doing experiment in primary school where
we were rolling toy cars down slopes that made of different materials. So one
was made of carpet, one was made of hardwood, one was made of foam... and we
were asked to make a prediction about which car would reach the ground first, on which surface.
I remember thinking about the sort of properties of the
materials, and sort of weighing up with how gravity was gonna
them down the slope. And I guess it made me realize that there was like a kind of
magic quality to physics. That if you understood those rules, you understood
how the world worked, you can make a prediction about something that was
gonna happen in the future! And so I guess that gave me a glimpse into the
real power of physics.
Looking back over your early experience in physics, what
technique helped you the most?
So when I started learning physics, a lot of the
teaching was done in a very conceptual way. It would be talking about energy
we're going to talk about space it wasn't anything that you could really
kind of bite your teeth into in a quantitative way. So I think that the key
thing was when it started becoming quantitative and you started putting
maths into the equation so to speak :) and in that case the most important
technique was definitely repeated exercise. So for example, a lot of physics
is calculus, basically: derivatives, integrals... That's something that gets
introduced in high school but goes you know right the way through to my PhD. And
so when learning that, the only way that I was really able to learn that stuff
both in maths classes and in science classes, was to do exercise after
exercise after exercise and I really do think that's the best way to learn
quantitative skills. To get the concept in your head, but then to do practice
problems. And you know, calculus, I think, was a particular example of that where
you just drill integral after integral after integral until you really
You've mentioned calculus a few times... what about other math classes?
Well maths is basically the language of
the universe, which means it's the language of physics. You have to
understand maths in order to understand physics for any serious level of study.
You know often, in problems, you're looking at the rate of change of a
variable or you're summing other variable over an area, and of course,
that's calculus. In other things, like, for example, Newtonian mechanics, or what I
did my PhD on which was fluid mechanics on the Earth, vectors are super important.
Actually, make that vectors and matrices are important.
They're tied up in the field of linear algebra, you know and that becomes
important as you go into higher levels of physics and other fields, as does for
example, group theory. But if you're going to go for a more fundamental aspect of
maths I definitely say that algebra is a super important one to understand,
because that's the way in which most physical laws are expressed. You know you
you have to nail those early maths classes, and I think algebra in
particular, to stand much of a chance of really engaging with physics.
What about probability and statistics?
Oh yeah,absolutely! another really important
course and particularly if you're interested in going into research.
I suppose the takeaway is, basically, you should be
taking all of your maths classes seriously. Some people complain that you
have to do so much maths in order to do physics, when the fact of the matter is,
if you don't like doing maths, you're not gonna like doing physics.
That's way harsh, Simon. No, I'm just kidding. We love math here at Socratica.
And in an upcoming episode, we'll talk about how to study math. But for now back to physics!
Physics is basically maths! A physics degree is, effectively, a maths
degree just with a lot of applications.
Can you remember a particular course you
took or a book you read that took your passion for physics and kicked it into
Yeah, definitely. I think like a lot of people, I remember when I first
read something by Richard Feynman I actually have my copy here this is "Six
Easy Pieces." I was given this at a summer school I went to at Oxford University and I
just remember reading this everywhere like this copy is so battered because I
read this when I was hiking in the Pyrenees, I read it in bed, all over the
country on trains, and in particular there was an excerpt of this - so this is
excerpts from his lectures on physics, and part of the lecture that he did on
quantum mechanics where he's talking about the double slit experiment and how
the Heisenberg uncertainty relation just kind of falls out about experiment - I
just remember reading that and I kind of wanted to tell everybody I knew about
that I just thought that was so cool and I think that was when it clicked for me,
that like this is something I'm really passionate about, like this is something
that I want to study. So you know, it's definitely it's one of those books that
really kicked what I got out of physics into high gear.
It sounds like you can get a lot out of self-study in physics.
I remember looking at physics books in a bookstore when I was a kid and there was the
"Tao of Physics," and not much else. But there are SO many books now that are accessible to the layperson.
I mean I've actually been thinking a lot
about the books which I read when getting into physics, and then also
during my degree in my PhD, and I made this video about which books you should
read if you want to study physics, which you can see over on my channel.
Ooh! I'm going to wash that right now!
Oh great! Thank you!
Well, not RIGHT now... we still have to finish our video, Simon.
oh yeah sure
but you will, right?
Absolutely! Love me some Simon Clark videos.
Lets me live vicariously through your PhD adventures!
Now I know this is a tall order, but
briefly - what are the different areas of physics you can study?
Ooooph big question! so
there's this video actually there's this video called the map of physics by
Dominic Walliman, and in it he breaks down physics into
three branches so I'm gonna I'm gonna crib from him, because it's quite a good description.
The three branches are classical physics, quantum mechanics, and relativity.
So classical physics is basically physics before the 20th
century. It's stuff like Newtonian mechanics. If I was to throw a ball up in
the air and catch it that would be well described by classical physics. But what
we realized in the 20th century was that if you take that theory to extremes - to
really small things or really big things - it kind of breaks down, and its predictions
don't match up with the universe. So quantum mechanics is what happens if you
zoom in on tiny scales and atoms and subatomic scales and you have to account
for the fact that energy only comes in discrete chunks, in packets, or "quanta."
That's where we get the name "quantum mechanics."
That has really really big implications. And at the other end of the scale, if you
blow classical physics up to gigantic scales, like a galaxy, or the universe, you
have to start using relativity, which basically accounts for the fact that you
can't go faster than the speed of light, and that distorts classical physics in
other ways, which have, again, very big implications.
And out of all of that, how did you pick what you wanted to focus on?
So the way that the physics course
Oxford is structured, is for the first three years of your degree,
you only take maths and physics modules, and in those modules you do every form
of physics. So I did classical mechanics. I did fluid mechanics. I did quantum
mechanics. I did special and general relativity. Condensed matter physics,
optics, electromagnetism, circuits, condensed matter physics... so I was
basically exposed to the whole spectrum. And in one course in particular, which
was on geophysical fluid dynamics, which is how fluids like air and water move on
the surface of a rotating planet like the Earth, that course was like a
thunderbolt moment. The idea of describing a continuous system like a
fluid like water with a couple of equations?! That was so cool! I just knew
that I wanted to do that. So in my fourth year, where I could choose my courses, I
went for that, and then I followed that through into my PhD. I was basically just
following what I thought was cool.
But I will say, to be honest, that while I got
my core physics knowledge from those classes, the way that I think as a
physicist I think owes more to activities outside of the classroom.
So things like going to talks, reading research papers, doing research, and
writing my PhD thesis... you know, your education in physics might start in the
classroom, but it doesn't end there. It goes out into the rest of the world and
it carries on for the rest of your career.
So let's say we have an idea which area of physics to study what next?
So if there's a particular area that you're interested in, I think the
best thing you can do is to get some first-hand experience with that field. So
if you're at university, ask academics if they're after a summer intern or if they
have a little research project they'd like doing. It really doesn't have to be much,
but you'll get a lot out of just seeing how they work in a research environment.
Plus, it also looks great on your CV when you're applying for future research
positions and degrees. But what the academic can also do, is give you a list
of the key research papers in your field, and so that will give you a really
detailed grounding in the background of your particular field. That's actually
exactly how I got started in my field of stratospheric dynamics, when I did a
research project on the subject in my third year at Oxford
What else should our Socratica friends be thinking about, if they want to study physics? Are there
certain programming languages you would recommend?
I started in C, which is notoriously one of the most hardcore languages, but I
wound up using Python for most of my PhD work, and I think if I was to do it all
over again I probably would recommend starting with Python. There is something
to be said for starting with a simpler language, and then if you want to learn a
second or third or fourth, you can pick up the complexity and draw on your
experience and how well you understand a relatively simple one. By this point, I
feel like if I wanted to pick up another language, I could do so with how I
understand how Python works.
Simon I have to thank you I feel like in the last 10
minutes, I've learned a lot from you about how to study physics. What should
we do if we want to follow you and your career?
Well, you can follow me on my youtube channel, which is just my name Simon Clark. And you can also follow me
on Twitter at Simonoxfphys.
Any last words of advice for our Socratica friends
who want to be great physics students?
My big takeaway would be that physics is work.
You can't just wake up one day and say
"I'm gonna be great at physics!"
It doesn't work like that. You've got to put the
time in. I know that Kimberly talks about how you have to do about a thousand
problems and any given subject, before you know it well enough to recognize all
the types of problems that can come up, and recognize what tools you
need to solve them, and those problem solver books are fantastic for that. Just
putting the time in before you level up.
And if you do that, then you've really
gotten to know the subject. You're genuinely a physics student.
And what you say is true for many subjects.
Absolutely! Yeah, this doesn't just apply to physics.
The growth mindset is so key. By watching these videos, you are getting into that
mindset that you CAN be a better student. You're studying HOW to study. You're
investing time in improving yourself, and you're making it more likely that you're
gonna find the winning strategy for you. So based on these videos, try some of
the techniques: try the Cornell notes method, try flashcards with spaced
repetition, try the Feynman technique. That worked great for me!
Thanks for talking with us Simon!
It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Getting advice from subject experts? it's all part of being a great student.
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