How to Study Physics || Study Tips || Simon Clark

Sharing buttons:

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

understand it.

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

high gear?

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.

Definitely, yeah!

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.

Want to help us make more great videos?

Join the Socratica Team on Patreon!