Are difficult textbook problems enough to "think like a physicist"?

  • Thread starter bpoloney1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

So I made a previous post regarding developing sufficient quantitative background to go into a field that's effectively applied physics (or "theoretical biophysics" but that just sounds a bit ridiculous).


I think I can rephrase my issue as not one of choosing a better major, but lacking a certain mental toolkit. While I got good enough grades in my Electrical Engineering program, I didn't truly engage with the material and flex the muscles necessary to really learn how to think like a physicist/engineer. Sure, I could probably get a job in industry somewhere, but I really want to have a successful academic career in biophysics, then I need a quantitative reasoning ability that's up there with the best in the field - or else I'll be yet another PhD without a good(ish) chance at Professorship.


I'm going to do a Masters in applied math and work in a biophysics lab, and during that whole time plow through all the additional foundational mathematics I need (laying a foundation for stat mech, nonlinear dynamics, differential geometry, and machine learning/mathematical statistics). During this time, I plan to do as many problems at the end of the chapter as I can, but is that enough? It might be necessary, but I'm not sure if it's sufficient...


What else can I do to develop that vague thing people refer to when they ask "how can I think like a physicist"?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Klystron
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Your additional math training sounds useful to meet your goals. Have you considered more hands-on electronics, even as a hobby? The extra hours I spent in electronics labs and with microwave transmitters and receivers really helped my understanding of physics and practical mathematics. Perhaps you can do similar lab work in biophysics.
 
  • #3
wukunlin
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Personal projects will help you go beyond the textbooks. You will come across problems you never expected, and may require a lot of research in different fields to solve them.

With regards to "think like a physicist," I'm not sure what that means. I thought I did but I gradually lost interest throughout my Bachelor and Masters. Eventually I figured out I am just interested in seeing how numbers add up in complicated problems. Which is why I ended up being a programmer.
 
  • #4
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So, it sounds like "thinking independently" beyond the text is important. This makes sense, as physics is a pretty creative subject once you get past the technical stuff
 
  • #5
Dr. Courtney
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Difficult textbook problems are a piece of the pie, but one must always remember that a physicist is a scientist and that difficult book problems are insufficient to think like a scientist. One can be a machine who can solve any and every physics book problem and not be much of a scientist.

Book problems are overwhelmingly dominated by fields of physics considered "settled" or well established. Most science is performed on the ever expanding boundary between well-established science and open questions. Thinking like a scientist means understanding the open questions and which tools are needed and available to address them. Thinking like a scientist means asking questions like, "What kind of experiment is needed to test this theoretical idea?" and "Which of these experiments are likely to be executable in a given time span?"

One does not learn how to work in the gap between established science and open questions by solving book problems. Experimental science and lab courses provide much greater opportunity by teaching one how to relate experimental results to theory, and hopefully, by providing hands-on recreations of experiments that have been important in the history of physics. Once one understands how the boundaries between well-established science and open questions has been pushed forward in the past, then one is better prepared to do it in the present.
 
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