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How to become a top physicist in college?

  1. Oct 4, 2012 #1
    I want to become an extraordinary physicist.

    (I wrote top physicist because it's easier to understand, not for competitive reasons. My goal is to contribute as much as possible to physics, not to specifically be the top physicist)

    However, I find many obstructions to my goal such as having to take courses in the humanities, lots of time-consuming homework which doesn't make me more valuable and also having no choice but to take like 6 courses which I've already self studied (I'm on quarter system, I already self-studied single variable calculus and Introductory Physics: Mechanics, E&M and quantum&optic but have to take the courses anyway)

    I can't take credit for those courses: CLEP, APs,credit by examination or asking special permission don't work.

    I wonder how Olympiad participants tackle college: from their experience, what is a set of strategies used to tackle college? I mention Olympiad because these people know a whole lot of college stuff and I'm guessing they have to take those courses anyway.

    I have read lots on stuff, basically the only stuff I can relate is Terence Tao and Feynman. I have no idea how Terence Tao zipped through college: I know it's kind of impossible for me because of all the mandatory stuff getting in my way.

    What I hate is that I'm forced to do so many time consuming things in college which don't make me more valuable as a physicist. How do I get around this problem?

    I probably want to ask this question to a professor at my college in the future, but I hope that the answers here would help me. Thanks!

    I find it scary to simply 'not do homework because it's low percentage' because it's graded on a curve.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 4, 2012 #2
    Are you the next T. Tao or R. Feynman? Do you know how many people think that?

    As for why humanities is important: I've seen enough incomprehensible lab reports to know that humanities is amazingly important.

    If not then be regular. If you are, then take 6 classes at a time, get straight A's on all the lower level stuff in a year and then move on.
  4. Oct 4, 2012 #3
    I found my humanities courses to be very relaxing and entertaining...
    It honestly sounds like you've got very little standing in your way, try working 30 hours a week
    just to keep a roof over your head while in full time classes.

    If the biggest obstruction in your path are a few semesters worth of the basics and a few literature courses, then you've got it pretty easy. Unless you've only got 10 years to live or something, a semeter or so worth of review isn't going to be the end of you, heh.
  5. Oct 4, 2012 #4
    I think the introductory physics classes are good for a couple of reasons... Even if you THINK you already know it all. First, they will ensure that there are virtually no small holes in your foundational knowledge. Second, it is when you can compare yourself to other students who also think they are the Feynman. This will give you a better idea of your own abilities relative to others and who knows you may be shocked. And third, you will learn how to study before getting to the upper level classes. It takes some people a little time to figure out what works for them and how to prepare for exams.
    Just my 2 cents
  6. Oct 4, 2012 #5


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    I agree that the humanities requirements for physics majors are a complete and utter waste of time and bore me to death but you have to put up with it because that is the system here; there is nothing you can do about it really. If you find intro physics boring maybe you should have taken an honors section.
  7. Oct 4, 2012 #6
    My friend, before you become a top physicist, it would benefit you to realize that there are other modes of obtaining knowledge and modeling the world other than physics(or science in general). Those are valid models by the way.
  8. Oct 4, 2012 #7
    You'll be doing great if you are an average physicist. For that matter, among the 20 or some Ph.d.'s that were issued in string theory last year, someone has to be the worst of the lot.

    Have a better appreciation for the arts and humanities. I don't know if there is a correlation, but every great physicist that I've had the pleasure of knowing has also been a connoisseur of the fine arts. Maybe its a coincidence, but there is an artistic element to physics and you can often get poetic inspiration by art and literature.

    Now, it is true that college courses can suck the life out of anything, so it will take some effort to actually learn something useful. But that's true for physics too.

    The other thing is that it's a long road ahead, and there is no point in hurrying. Reading some literature and art will keep your soul refreshed so that you don't burn out.
  9. Oct 4, 2012 #8
    Not sure what T. Tao's interests are, but Richard Feymann was a bongo player. He was also an *amazingly* good writer, and master showman (i.e. what he did at the Challenger hearings). If you want to be like Feymann, I think you need more humanities, not less. You just need to make sure that the class doesn't suck the life out of it.

    One reason why Tao and Feymann are so well known is that they are excellent writers that can present complex ideas to popular audiences. There are a lot of physicists and mathematicians that are as smart or smarter, but few with the ability to write and explain.

    And the stakes for lab reports are really low. You are going to *constantly* be writing essays entitled "Why you should keep paying my salary and not fire me" Also, at some point you are going to be wondering "so why am I doing this physics thing anyway?" and learning a bit of art and history will help you figure that out.
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2012
  10. Oct 4, 2012 #9
    Watching Feynman: the pleasure of finding things out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgaw9qe7DEE&feature=player_embedded&noredirect=1#at=174
    pressurized me to hate the humanities.

    This (truth) just makes me demotivated. I plan to take honors. (but since I'd need to do more humanities courses [I think so, in UCLA] so it would be a temporary thing, like 3 quarters)

    Yeah I self studied intro physics by rote review and doing exercises. (which is bad)

    According to the guides I hear humanities is easy& science is hard so I plan to just spread out the humanities to make my life not impossible.

    I am inspired to think that way because of T. Tao's writing about genius. http://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/does-one-have-to-be-a-genius-to-do-maths/ and also basically mathematicians say hard work is important

    The strange thing is, in my life environment, nearly everyone thinks it is impossible to be the next T. Tao/ R. Feynman and this makes me demotivated. They imply that no matter how hard one works, one can never achieve anything significant.

    It really hurts me when someone says something which sound to me like
    "Haha, you're just wasting your time. You're never going to do anything useful."

    But my goal is to make significant contributions: not to simply be the top, but to contribute.

    great... I hope to be able to put in lots of Physics time.

    This is amazing: I didn't think that writing contributed that significantly to their career. I mean, Terry Tao's blog has lots of math stuff which we don't understand, and he got Fields medal and solved lots of advanced math problem which popular audience don't relate to which I thought were the contributors to his career.

    I asked Cal Newport and he gave a very different answer:
    see Question 2: Impact Instinct and Becoming a Superstar
    http://eraserboxtips.blogspot.com/2012/09/cal-newport-answers-some-questions.html [Broken]

    You might notice Cal Newport says(corrected version) "Most of us don't have that willingness or that time!"

    This also pressured me to hate the humanities.

    Basically, I guess I have to
    -enroll in honors (temporarily and see how it goes)
    -choose humanities which improve my writing
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  11. Oct 4, 2012 #10
    Its just about whether or not what you Like to do can earn you a living that can keep you alive to keep on doing it! :D
  12. Oct 5, 2012 #11


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    If you want to learn to write, then just write but write in a wide range of contexts.

    Do speeches for wide varieties of groups (academics, laymen, etc), speak to different people, read a lot of different kinds of writing styles, follow different mediums and just hone the skills.

    You can go to Toastmasters and get this experience for almost nothing, and you'll get critiqued (and it will be really good if you have experienced and knowledgable members).

    Writing essays in humanities subjects IMO will be useless in comparison to the real world experience that you can get by working with other experienced people.

    If you can find any opportunity where you have to take the most complex problems and break it down for any audience while making the whole package enjoyable, then you will be a great communicator and if you can do it for both the written and the oral/other kinds of presentations, then that's even better.
  13. Oct 5, 2012 #12
    If you can write humanities essays then you can, in a written report, skillfully use words to make your idea sound interesting and applicable, instead of boring and totally theoretical.

    How else do you explain some of the research that gets funded?
  14. Oct 5, 2012 #13


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    Not true in general.

    Speaking to academics and speaking to different groups like lay-people, blue-collar, people with very specific interests (i.e. special interest groups) are very different.

    The humanities are really a joke: just like Will Hunting said in his famous scene in the movie Good Will Hunting.

    If you want to become a good communicator, then get out there and communicate to a wide and diverse audience and get feedback: writing a few essays in humanities classes doesn't cut it and isn't necessary.

    Research doesn't just get funded for the content and construction of the words on a page: there's a whole list of intricacies involved that include (but are not limited to), political, social, and other mechanisms.

    It's the same reason why people protect their buddies and give them "contracts" and why "boys clubs" protect their own, and why sometimes the "best idea" just doesn't compare with the "best buddy".

    The other thing is who you are dealing with: sometimes an "interesting" abstract is totally useless and if that someone is switched on, they'll see it's just a bunch of waffle BS.

    Also being too creative with your "prose" can be detrimental if the other person is expecting a very boring straight to the point kind of response and gets some really long lengthy response that is just completely un-necessary and padded with more euphemisms than the daily limit of a politicians word count.

    Being a good communicator means knowing these things, and knowing these things means like all things, getting experience communicating in a wide range of situations and not doing a few BS essays to talk about crap that pretty much no-one relatively speaking cares about or wants to know about and this is one of the reasons why it is so hard to be a good communicator in the first place.
  15. Oct 5, 2012 #14
    There's a difference between hating humanities classes and hating humanities. Badly taught college courses have a habit of making anything exciting and interesting into something dreadful.

    One thing about the humanities is that it includes things like current televisions shows, comic books, and other parts of pop culture.

    Again, don't confuse humanities classes with humanities.

    The things that makes science messy is that you have to learn another language. For example, take any "easy" class that you are planning on taking. Now imagine that the class will be taught in Armenian or some language you know nothing about. The class then becomes extremely difficult.

    Also lots of humanities involves coming up with some skill. Learning to play a violin is non-trivial.

    As long as you have a few people that believe in you then no one else matters.

    Also, just to compare notes, I came from the opposite environment. Pretty much everyone I met up to age 25 or so expected to me to be a physics superstar. That can create as many problems.

    Define useful. If you spend an hour, and you figured out how to solve a problem, that's "useful." This is one reason to study the humanities. One thing that you learn when you study history and sociology is why people think certain things are "useful."

    The other thing is that we all are going to be dead anyone. I at least managed to figure out how convection doesn't work, because I croak.

    The fact that most of physics involves "grunt work" turns out to be a *good* thing. If you log off right now, find some undergraduate research to do, and then spend months trying to reduce data or debug code, that's contributing.

    Also there's a difference between "being at the top" and "contributing." Take the 20 or so Ph.D.'s in string theory. Mathematically, one of them has to be a bottom performer, but even the bottom has to do something original.

    One thing that you quickly realize is that research doesn't involve a few geniuses coming up with ideas. It involves a large number of reasonably intelligent people doing a lot of grunt work.

    There are a number of physicists that are as smart or smarter than Feymann, and while Terry Tao is brilliant, he isn't the only brilliant mathematician out there. The reason that Feymann and Tao are both superstars is that they can *write*. The outstanding thing about both Feymann and Tao isn't that they are brilliant (they both are), but that they can write very well and communicate with a popular audience.

  16. Oct 5, 2012 #15
    Writing humanities essays is required in university. Since it is required, there's no opportunity cost. You have to do it anyways. It also trains your brain. That's what my physics professors always tell me. Will I ever use my grad level mathematical physics class or grad level QM class? maybe in EM or as background for solid state. But directly, probably not.

    Yes, a humanities degree is not so useful. Anyone can see that. However the value of being forced to take their classes is not so obviously useless.

    Can you distinguish between the usefulness of being able to write a good English essay and the value of say, real analysis? What can I apply real analysis to that will make me money? If the answer is "nothing" then how does that compare with writing a good English essay that might train my brain to write a memo to my boss saying "I beg you don't fire me"?

    If nothing else, it trains you to learn to read emotions. I got my first lesson in the art of communication when I got a C in writing because of, I suspect, a very different opinion from the professor. From then on, I learned to write and say what people wanted to hear, and that has been extremely important for me.
  17. Oct 5, 2012 #16


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    One thing I should have mentioned is that I am colored by my experiences since I have done quite a few speeches and evaluations in my local Toastmasters club over the years.

    Interestingly enough, I think the best experience that I got when it comes to communication in public was when I did a practicum for high school mathematics: I did this for 10 days for many lessons each day.

    This was a great experience because I really screwed up: there are so many things I screwed up on because I never had that kind of experience before. This is even wildly different from the atmosphere of a ToastMaster speech or another public presentation like a speech in a lecture hall or in front of other colleagues which also made it invaluable.

    I have a feeling that a lot of the STEM majors do this kind of thing by default, but again I'm not quite the same and when I see (from other people) the stuff they have to write about, I just shake my head.
  18. Oct 5, 2012 #17
    Agree on all points. The topic isn't important though, even if it is useless, it is training, just as QM is training. It is not directly useful but it serves as the foundation for useful, directly applicable fields of study like semiconductor devices, solid state physics and molecular spectroscopy.

    Likewise, if you can write about the implications of English literature in the 19th century, you can also, with proper technical training, write about science.
  19. Oct 5, 2012 #18
    To the OP, I know exactly how you feel, but I also believe most of your views are out of touch with reality.
    I used to be like you (Even though I would say we are both around the same age as you are in your first year of college), and I just want to point out that you will never be the next feynman or the next Tao, you will be the next you.

    If you want to contribute to physics, stop worrying about it and go and do physics. You probably won't come up with something like relativity or Quantum Chromodynamics, but you will be doing what you claim to love, so who cares?

    If you read some of Twofish Quant's other posts you will realise the odds are against you becoming a professor let alone a nobel prize winner. Just enjoy what you are doing for its own sake.

    Also, don't try and rush through university. Terry Tao went to university at the age of 12/13 and the normal time in his undergraduate studies. The guy probably knew most of it before going and yet he still did not finish in two years and rush off to princeton. The chances are you are nowhere near as talented as Terry Tao (He was doing calculus at age 6) and you should not aim to follow his accomplishments. Instead you should learn as much as you can in your undergraduate classes. Although I am a first year university student, I am taking third year mathematics and physics courses and may I say that the pace is very fast and you have little time to do extra problems and get a solid grounding in the axioms or fundementals of the subjects before you are expected to prove and do some very non trivial things. I wish I had not rushed and I would advise you not to try it either.
  20. Oct 8, 2012 #19
    I've concluded that
    -we're forced to take the humanities, so we just have to try to benefit from it
    -writing helps in career to fund research and become popular
    -non-geniuses contribute grunt work
    -"Trying to be a superstar adds all sorts of unnecessary complications."quoted from twofish-quant from "How to become a top physicist in college? ." Physics Help and Math Help - Physics Forums . N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2012. <https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=641070>.

    I plan to
    -keep my high ambition (of becoming a superstar, without high ambition life would be boring ...)
    -work on improving my writing through humanities courses

    Also, I plan to create a work/education system where humanities aren’t compulsory and ideas are more important than buddies. Would you guys actually like this work/education system replacing the current one?
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2012
  21. Oct 8, 2012 #20
    Humanities depends largely on the professor and on the books that you are doing. In high school I had to read Huckleberry Finn, which I found to be a waste of time. I bulled some essays about Huck Finn and his pet slave Jim. I wasted at least 1000 hours of my time on high school English. If I had done further mathematics in place of those English classes, I would have completed differential equations by the end of high school. My writing skill would be a bit worse, but I would know more math than 99% of college applicants. Also, I don't think I learned any writing skills in that class. Frankly, I don't think I learned anything. High school English is a waste of time.

    In university, my humanities class involves reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It made me a more optimistic, happier human being, simply because of Homer's humanism. It was refreshing and took the heat off my other engineering/math classes. For my final prokect, we are looking for possible anachronisms in the text. This combines the skills of history, data collection, data organization and interpretation of data.

    I am learning a lot more about engineering from this class than I did in my engineering class.

    True story. Don't know if it has happened to anyone here. But my professor was just awesome, and humanities in my school is geared towards engineering since I go to an engineering school.

    It all depends on what books you read, and whether you think you will enjoy them. Also the professor matters a lot for humanities.

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