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Becoming a Physicist

  • Physics
  • Thread starter FreeRoger
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  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Hi - I'm a 13 year old and I am incredibly interested in theoretical physics.

I have studied physics since the first grade. I love math and physics to possibly a fault. However, I'm scared that I do not have what it takes to become a theoretical physicist. I have studied my way up to vector calculus, but I don't know if I could someday make an important discovery or write a Ph.D. thesis. I am currently rereading Fundamentals of Physics and An Introduction to Mechanics. I need a physics and mathematics mentor to teach me the things I need to know, like how to actually make a discovery, or teach me about QED. I was wondering if anyone has any advice for me?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #3
berkeman
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I need a physics and mathematics mentor to teach me the things I need to know, like how to actually make a discovery, or teach me about QED. I was wondering if anyone has any advice for me?
Welcome to the PF. :smile:

Does your school have a science club or a math club? Such clubs are great places to meet like-minded students and gain access to a Mentor (usually the teacher who sponsors/oversees the club). If there are no such clubs in your middle school, how about at the junior high or high school where you plan to go?

Does your school have a science fair each year? If so, that is another great opportunity to get more experience with science projects and presentations. And if you do well enough in your local science fairs, you might make it all the way up to the national competition:

https://www.societyforscience.org/isef/

(unfortunately it is canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but hopefully will be back on again next year. That gives you plenty of time to come up with ideas and start your project! :smile:
 
  • #4
Dr. Courtney
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Welcome to the PF. :smile:

Does your school have a science club or a math club? Such clubs are great places to meet like-minded students and gain access to a Mentor (usually the teacher who sponsors/oversees the club). If there are no such clubs in your middle school, how about at the junior high or high school where you plan to go?

Does your school have a science fair each year? If so, that is another great opportunity to get more experience with science projects and presentations. And if you do well enough in your local science fairs, you might make it all the way up to the national competition:

https://www.societyforscience.org/isef/

(unfortunately it is canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but hopefully will be back on again next year. That gives you plenty of time to come up with ideas and start your project! :smile:
Lots of the state science fairs simply went virtual this year. But science fair participation is a great idea, and we usually start working with students we mentor in March or April for projects competing the following year.

This article has a lot of suggestions:

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/secrets-successful-science-projects/

But most students your age need lots of local support from a parent or teacher. Start brainstorming about a project and talk to your parents and school teachers. If your science teacher this year seems uninterested, start talking to other science teachers at your school. You may also find support from a math teacher since math and physics have a lot of overlap.
 
  • #5
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Lots of good advice in the other responses.
teach me about QED
Get a copy of Richard Feynman's little book "QED." It won't teach you QED, it's to teach you about QED.
 
  • #6
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Get a copy of Richard Feynman's little book "QED." It won't teach you QED, it's to teach you about QED.
You stole my words! Yes, Feynman's QED is a very good book. If you ever ask me how I got interested in Quantum Mechanics, I will surely name that book.
 
  • #7
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And Freeman Dyson (RIP!) wrote and spoke well about QED. Sorry I don't have a reference off the top of my head....
 
  • #8
berkeman
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Speeking of famous Physicists, @FreeRoger -- you may enjoy reading the biographies and stories about some of them. I especially enjoyed the biography I read about Einstein way back in high school, and I read this classic about Richard Feynman when I was in undergrad:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BP0PB8A/?tag=pfamazon01-20

1585165972055.png


Maybe see if your school library has a copy (if not, maybe you can order it through them via an inter-library loan). :smile:
 
  • #9
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I'm already a huge fan of physicist and mathematician biographies! I have read many scientific biographies on people like Einstein,William Sidis, John Nash, and Ramanujan!
 
  • #10
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I was also wondering what tools can I use to learn more? I'm in an advanced math class at school, but it is pretty easy. I know multivariable calculus, but do you have any ideas for physics textbooks?
 
  • #11
Dr. Courtney
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I'm already a huge fan of physicist and mathematician biographies! I have read many scientific biographies on people like Einstein,William Sidis, John Nash, and Ramanujan!
I've raised a couple of physicists - at least they are successful so far in college. At one point they binged on a series by an author named Tiner, including bios on Kepler, Newton, and Boyle. You may be past that reading level now, but I thoroughly enjoyed the books reading them about the same time as my sons.

But their favorite book, by far, is "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. They have read it multiple times.

Another book treasured by our family is Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science by Rene Dubos. Most forget that he earned his PhD as a chemist studying the effect of certain compounds on the polarization of light. There is something about Pasteur's fundamental attitude and approach to science that I wish more 21st century physicists had. It's akin to not believing scientific accomplishments to be impossible, while at the same time searching for the down to earth, practical approach to do it. I've tried to have it, and I've tried to impart it to my sons and other scientists I've mentored. Many 21st century scientists wring their hands and are content with excuses why things can't be done. Pasteur will teach you that if you keep trying, you may often succeed.
 
  • #12
berkeman
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I'm already a huge fan of physicist and mathematician biographies! I have read many scientific biographies on people like Einstein,William Sidis, John Nash, and Ramanujan!
Yeah, but can those scientists fix radios by thinking? :smile:
See the Feynman book for the explanation of that anecdote. :smile:
 
  • #13
berkeman
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I was also wondering what tools can I use to learn more?
Have you worked with any programming languages yet? If so, what kinds of programs have you written so far?

How about learning LaTeX or another math publishing language? :smile:
 
  • #14
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I know a little about LaTeX, but nothing of programming yet.
 
  • #15
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I was also wondering about one more thing: How do theoretical physicists come up with research questions? Even if they are minor questions, I just want to learn how to actually come up with research questions that I could someday write up in a scientific journal.
 
  • #16
berkeman
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I was also wondering about one more thing: How do theoretical physicists come up with research questions? Even if they are minor questions, I just want to learn how to actually come up with research questions that I could someday write up in a scientific journal.
I obviously can't speak for Physicists, but a good start might be to read some current Physics journal articles. Hopefully your library can help you check out copies of the journals, or maybe you can find pre-prints of upcoming article publications in areas that you are interested in.

https://arxiv.org/
 
  • #17
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I was also wondering about one more thing: How do theoretical physicists come up with research questions? Even if they are minor questions, I just want to learn how to actually come up with research questions that I could someday write up in a scientific journal.
One of the prerequisites for this is to know that you have a new question that hasn't already been answered. When face with any question the most efficient way to get an answer is to research it first and get the result from someone else. This is in stark contrast to education, where you need to learn and practice solving things on your own, even if everyone else knows the answer.

So step one is having a great education so you learn all of the stuff someone else discovered. The truth is that most academics spend their time learning from others, and some of their time doing new work.
 
  • #18
Dr. Courtney
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I was also wondering about one more thing: How do theoretical physicists come up with research questions? Even if they are minor questions, I just want to learn how to actually come up with research questions that I could someday write up in a scientific journal.
I've mentored several scientists from middle or high school to publishing in a scientific journal.

It starts with learning the research process. First come up with an idea suitable for competition in a school science fair. Then a better idea the next year to give you a shot at competing at a higher level (regional, state). By the time you've been through this process a few times, you'll be a lot more ready to consider questions where good approaches may be appropriate for a scientific journal.

But, as mentioned above, acquiring some programming skills is another very tangible thing you can add to your toolbox now that will greatly expand your options when the time comes. Lack of programming skills is the most common impediment to otherwise solid students completing publishable research in theoretical physics.
 
  • #19
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Thank you for your answers, but what I meant was actually formulating the question itself. Again, even if it is minor, how do I get the idea for a research question?
 
  • #20
berkeman
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Thank you for your answers, but what I meant was actually formulating the question itself. Again, even if it is minor, how do I get the idea for a research question?
In engineering, we typically get our ideas that lead to patents and papers and new products from existing problems (often in the area that we work in daily). For example, one of my most creative patents came from the need for a low-cost graphics tablet for animation products at HP. We had a graphics tablet that sold for thousands of dollars, much like other graphics entry tablets that were available at the time.

But after thinking about the fundamental issues for a couple of months, I came up with a math solution to the position sensing problem that cut the cost of doing that sensing by an order of magnitude. That idea and patent resulted in a low-cost graphics tablet that was pretty successful for HP.

https://www.hpl.hp.com/hpjournal/pdfs/IssuePDFs/1987-06.pdf

I would imagine that such ideas for research and innovation happen similarly in Physics research -- There is an area of research that you are very familiar with, so you know what the current vexing problems are. And after thinking long and hard and creatively, you have the germ of an idea that you start to develop. Typically you will have a number of false starts, but you will get better and better at recognizing and rejecting false starts, and will develop a skill of recognizing promising avenues and will focus your time on those.

I agree with @Dr. Courtney that science fairs are a great avenue for you to pursue to help develop these creative and productive skills. Get to it! :smile:
 
  • #21
symbolipoint
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Thank you for your answers, but what I meant was actually formulating the question itself. Again, even if it is minor, how do I get the idea for a research question?
I am a bit confused here. Are you asking how to think, or are you asking how to use language for a thought?
 
  • #22
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I am a bit confused here. Are you asking how to think, or are you asking how to use language for a thought?
I'm asking how to come up with a research question.
 
  • #24
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I'm asking how to come up with a research question.
It can be very difficult!

It's easy to come up with questions, actually: just read a paper, pick out a sentence at random, and ask "why?". Done.

The hard part is formulating a full research project because while you can ask a million questions of one paper, most of those questions have very complicated answers, possibly many competing answers, and decades or millennia of dense research backing each one. Some questions are trivial to answer and others are so completely intractable that you shouldn't aim to answer them. A good research project starts from a question in the middle, where it's difficult enough to find an answer that you actually have work to do, but not so difficult as to be impossible. Remember that our careers depend on publishing, and we can't afford to spend 3 years on a project that gives absolutely zero results or is otherwise unpublishable at the end.

Finding projects that are achievable yet impactful is possibly the biggest challenge a researcher faces. Learning how to do this first requires you to know your field. You need to know what questions still remain and what has already been done if you want to add something new and interesting. You do this by reading papers, but talking to other researchers and to our colleagues/supervisors is also critical here, so I'd posit that you can't get to this stage of independence in research just by reading alone. Most people start to get to an early level of independence by the end of their PhD after reading, talking, and researching in the field (with support and guidance) for 3-8+ years, depending on where they're doing the PhD.

I'm at the start of my PhD so I have a fair bit of support. I'm still expected to read papers alone and come up with ideas alone, but my supervisor gives me feedback on those questions and helps mould them into something achievable/impactful. They will give lesser and lesser input as the months go by until I'm largely working independently in year 3.
 
  • #25
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Dang it! I just came up with an idea and saw that it had already been done!
 

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