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How to think better as a physicist?

  1. May 14, 2013 #1

    I am a good A student, but not because I like to get good grades but I am willing to dig into the materials taught to me deeper on my own, especially for mathematics and mathemtaics (I am currently a graduating engineering student). In practice, I have often find that I make wrong assumptions, and sometimes I find the wrong idea about things, and sometimes I would even get worked up about very simple things (see my post about normal force) either for philosophical reason or I simply don't have very good intuition.

    I used to think, and sometimes still think that my scientific skills are higher than that of my peers engineers, My theoretical understanding in science are usually better than most of my classmates. But my wake up call was in one of the science class, I made a serious mistake in the "discussion" section in a lab report, I made a wrong assumption and I totally ruined the report by not examining the assumption and convinced myself into believing that wrong assumption, and so I went on to this adventure of crap in explaining the experimental results in my report. I was called out by my team members and I still hate myself for it.

    This made me wonder, just how skillful am I really am? or maybe I am not at all? I truly do not know, but what I do not is that I do not wish to repeat the same mistake again. Hence, I would like to know, what's the "right" way that I should train myself in thinking better as a physicist.

    Also, more importantly, how do I be careful about what I say? how do I examine my logic/thinking to ensure that I am not embarrassing science and myself?
    Last edited: May 14, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2013 #2


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    Gold Member

    Question everything. If someone tells you that the sky is blue, go outside and see for yourself. Take pictures too, so you can prove it later.
  4. May 14, 2013 #3
    You've already made the most important step: the realization that you need to be careful and examine your own logic and thinking. For the rest of it, all I can really tell you (from personal experience) is that it comes down to learning not to trust yourself.

    We all have our own blind spots, and they can be hard to identify. For me, it was about recognizing the unique mix of excitement and self-satisfaction that comes from an idea which sparks a chain of interesting speculation, and training myself to go back and reassess every link in that chain for flaws.
  5. May 14, 2013 #4
    By doing exactly what you are doing, as people on here have said. Labs in school are not new science, it is stuff that has already been worked out.

    Many people I know just google the labs and just copy answers. Mostly they get an extra point or two than I do because they "got it right." I tend to takes lab as a scientific exercise. IE; pretend this stuff hasn't been worked out and you have done this experiment and now you have to interpret it (obviously using your background of knowledge). I've made plenty of errors on the discussion part, but that is really part of the learning process. No serious teacher has ever killed my grade because I missed something in the discussion and I've gotten stuff waaaay wrong.

    That's the point though, isn't it? Reading through how modern ideas in science have come up, you often hear about lots of people who were wrong (aethers for EM propagation, proteins as the hereditary units in humans because DNA is too simple, all the whacky evolution ideas etc). But that's the way science is works, people constantly propose things and many turn out wrong but it leads to refinements of the models/ideas etc.

    In my opinion education has become so involved in "getting the grade," that we are all worse off for it. I have also surrendered multiple times to just learning the algorithms and such because my exam is in a week and I need to get good grades to get into good schools etc. Its really a shame, but its one of the hoops you have to jump through.

    Don't sweat man, that's the point of school. Think of it this way, if you expect yourself to know everything right away, why are you in school? We are in school to make those mistakes and learn from them. Otherwise why the hell do we even have schools if everyone is expected to know everything?
  6. May 14, 2013 #5

    I almost cried in tears of joy by your encouragement and enlightenment, thank you so much for your life tips.

    At the same I am also glad that there are people who thinks the same way I do, I have always work so hard in understanding things and asking questions that sometimes my peers and even professors(engineering professors) find annoying, especially I have sometimes say really stupid things and ask stupid questions (stuff like ( if a 3d printer filament is 4 mm , i said shuoldn't then we have 10.8 mm in our design for a 10 mm exact hole? )). I hate myself for it, I fear that I will never be the like of genius like newtons , Fourier or Bernoulli. I want to contribute to science and I really want to come up with something big before i die. But you are right, making mistakes is part of science, and sometimes saying the wrong thing can lead to enlightenment to others. I may not be able to be the genius kind of physicist, but as long as I can contribute, I am willing to be a physicist, and I will not stop thinking and continue to examine things i say as carefully as i can.

    I would quote one of my favorite song:

    "there is no sense crying over every mistakes, you just keep on trying til you run out of cake,And the Science gets done.
    And you make a neat gun.
    For the people who are still alive"
    Last edited: May 14, 2013
  7. May 14, 2013 #6

    Maybe I just need to do that more carefully, but methodically how can I improve my skills of checking my own work? I mean it's hard for one to check his/her own work sometimes, if I knew it was wrong I wouldn't put it down in the first place.
  8. May 14, 2013 #7
    I've seen the sky turn gray, pink, black and red.
  9. May 14, 2013 #8
    Do you have pictures
  10. May 15, 2013 #9
    Practice and habit. There's no easy answer here; actually, the search for the "easy answer" is part of what causes the problem.
  11. May 15, 2013 #10
    Hihiip, I guess you just thought you were "the one" when it came to physics, but found out that you aren't. Don't worry, it eventually happens to everybody.
  12. May 18, 2013 #11


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    Back to your original post:

    You can't embarrass science (which is not sentient) nor even other scientists. No one is that powerful. The worst that can happen is that you might to a tiny degree embarrass yourself in the eyes of some acquaintances. If they can't overlook that, dump 'em. The only time true embarrassment can occur is if your ego gets in the way of reality, as with those twits who through global media announced that they had created "cold fusion". That was an embarrassment. It's unlikely that you will suffer that fate, since you don't seem to have an ego.
    As for mistaken ideas, science conforms to Sturgeon's Law. Tonnes of years ago (yeah, I know; the units aren't compatible—shut up and let me finish) one of the truly iconic golden age science fiction writers named Theodore Sturgeon was at an SF convention and was asked what he thought about science fiction in general. He replied, "Ninety percent of it is crap." When the resultant uproar finally receded, he continued, "Ninety percent of everything is crap." The same thing applies to science. Most hypotheses are wrong, but that doesn't make them worthless. They serve as a stop sign along that particular road of investigation, and therefore save a lot of wasted effort by others who might be looking in the same direction.
    Also, there's no such thing as a stupid question—as long as it's one that you want an answer to.
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