Monthly Archives: April 2014

Getting Started in Physics – Prelude: Why You Can (and Should) Study Physics

“Anyone can learn physics.”
That’s one of the central statements in Susan Fowler’s most recent blog post which appeared in her blog “Fledgling Physicist”.

Making many good points, she correctly states that everybody already knows a great deal about physics since we all grow up in this (physical) world and, especially while still being kids, we observe our surroundings and often just try to figure out how things work. So despite of not always knowing the physical principles behind everyday phenomena, we are certainly aware of the phenomena themselves.

Many of us, then, keep asking the question “Why?” and are truly interested in answers. So they begin to search for them in various ways (by asking others or just talking to them about their matters of interest, opening books or Wikipedia, and so on…) And that’s essentially all you need to do physics – that is physics: Posing all kinds of questions about the nature of things and subsequently trying to answer them.


(Credit: xkcd)

Of course, if you want to do physics professionally, you have to bury yourself deeply in mathematics and physics and you will often have a hard time in doing so. This can indeed be discouraging.

But then Susan makes another important point: It’s hard to learn anything.
That’s absolutely true! If you want to be good at something – be it sports, playing an instrument, knowing lots of things about history, speaking a foreign language. and so on… – it takes time, several years minimum. Physics is just like that! I like to compare mathematics (which is an essential part of physics) to a foreign language…which it actually is, in some respects: It is able to express abstract things as well as specific ones in a most elegant way while maintaining a strict set of (grammar) rules. So if you want to be a good mathematician/physicist, you first have to learn to “speak” mathematics fluently. It is not surprising that this will take many years, is it?
However, after some years of putting a lot of effort into it, you will be able to see the world differently, through the eyes of a physicist – in a way many of your fellow humans can’t see it. And believe me: The world seems much more beautiful and amazing through physicist’s eyes (and to me, often even magical)!

Further, Susan means that everybody can learn physics.
I’m not sure whether I agree with her on that or not. The reason is that I don’t think that anyone can or will be good at physics – which is not a bad thing at all. It’s just like with other activities which can be pursued: Not every single person was born to be an outstanding football player, or a violinist second to none, etc… Different people are good at different things and it would be most desirable if everybody found his or her own passion and would be able to engage him-/herself in it. The same goes for physics: I think there are probably many people who just won’t be wrapped up in physics. These people should pursue something else.
But I’m confident about the following (and this is where Susan presumably agree with me again): There are tons of people who would be good at physics and would be able to be taken in by this enormously fascinating body of knowledge (or should I say “way of thinking”?), but who deem themselves “not smart enough for physics” or similar things. It’s these people to whom Susan’s message should go.

“You can fucking learn physics, and you should!”

So a good way of starting (or continuing) to think about physics might be to read Susan’s original article on this very topic.
Also, don’t forget to check back on her blog regularly since this is just the first part of an upcoming series on some of the key concepts of modern physics!

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