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Starting the Path to becoming a Theoretical/Astrophysicist from Middle School

  1. Aug 29, 2010 #1
    Hi all!
    For a year or two, I've been extremely interested in physics for the past two years.
    I've decided for sure that I want to be a Theoretical or Astrophysicist now.
    I'm currently in the first quarter of my Eighth Grade Year.
    All of middle school I've been an A/High B student in gifted classes for all four subjects.
    I am on the main team of my school's academic bowl team.
    I've taken the SAT with the Duke TIP program in the 7th grade, and got a 1790.
    I want to become a Ph.d in Physics at Stanford University
    I am a beginner in Java Programming, and am going to start (or try to start) C, and possibly FORTRAN
    I'm very interested in things like how the Universe was formed (Big Bang Theory) and other things like Quantam Mechanics and String Theory
    I'd like to ask you guys a few questions based on this information about me..

    -What should I start doing to prepare for a career in Physics?
    -What classes should I take in High School (A magnet school called GSMST)? (I'm aiming to have only AP/Accelerated/Honors Classes)
    -What are some good ways to catch the attention of colleges and get scholarships? (My ideal college would be Stanford University)
    -Do you have any suggestions to improve my chances for getting into better colleges, and improving my success in becoming a Physics Ph.d?

    Thank you for reading this and thanks in advance for your responses!
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 29, 2010 #2
    Im going to start my senior year in High School in a week and i share the same ambition to pursue the theoretical/astrophysics fields. I would recommend mathematics and science as being your primary academic subjects with English and a foreign language being your secondaries.

    To catch the attention of colleges and get access to scholarships, i would recommend taking the PSAT, SAT tests etc which are just general mathematics and english tests. Your senior year you will have alot of oppurtunities to get scholarships.

    As for the jobs, i can't say. I would recommend just concentrating on High School till you get through it. It's a bit too early for you to be worrying about colleges and jobs as is lol
  4. Aug 29, 2010 #3
    You seem to be doing pretty much everything that you need to.

    Science fairs and the Intel STS would be the direction to move in.

    The important thing is to calm down and don't be overcompetitive. The biggest thing that could permanently derail you is burn out.
  5. Aug 29, 2010 #4


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    Keep in mind you almost certainly won't do your bachelors and PhD at the same institution. That's uncommon and discouraged. I had the same big hopes at your age, and now I'm finishing my PhD in physics. Not at Harvard like I had hoped, but I still got a great postdoc offer anyway. Things don't always end up the way you hoped, but that doesn't mean you're finished. You'll also find out in 10 years when you're ready for grad school what's a good field to enter and what's not - string theory might be long dead by then.
  6. Aug 29, 2010 #5
    College's look for well rounded students so try to do some nonacademic activities too.
  7. Aug 30, 2010 #6
    I forgot to mention I'm pretty good at tennis, and I play viola in the school's orchestra, and am in Honor's Orchestra too.
  8. Aug 31, 2010 #7
    Does anyone else have any reccomendations?
  9. Sep 2, 2010 #8


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    Keep up the tennis and instrument.

    My sport and instrument are really helping me stay sane while in grad school! :)
  10. Sep 3, 2010 #9
    Alright, I'm not being mean or anything, but I seriously doubt you understand the fields of theoretical physics and astrophysics enough to know "for sure" that you are going to go into either of them. And I'm not singling you out, or saying you're stupid or anything. I think it's great that you're interested in physics. But there is a general sensationalization of physics, especially theoretical and astrophysics, and I think you may have some misconceptions about them. Not to say you that those fields are bad, but they're not as glamorous as the media portrays them. Basically, I think you're a little ahead of yourself. Don't lock yourself into one mindset and just try to do well in school in general. Also, don't lock yourself into wanting to go to stanford. There are many schools that are just as good as stanford, if not better, in some aspects.

    But as for your questions, pretty much everything that has been said here. Take the hardest courses your school offers, and be sure to do extracurriculars. Don't just do every single extracurricular out there just for the sake of taking a bunch of them. Make sure you're interested in them and that you're good at them. It's more important being really good at a few, say, science competitions, than to be just average at every single competition out there.
  11. Sep 3, 2010 #10
    Thanks, and it's not exactly the media which has inspired me..
    I think the media portrays physics as an extremely boring field.
    I'm extremely interested in physics.. because it just seems really interesting to me.
    I'll definitely keep up the viola and tennis too.
  12. Sep 3, 2010 #11
    Well yes, in general the media tends to portray the sciences as boring from the external point of view. But from the internal point of view, through science television shows and popular books, it tends to glamorize it. I would venture to say that most, if not all, of your exposure to theoretical physics and astrophysics has been sensationalized at least a little. I really don't mean to try to discourage your interest in physics. Quite the contrary. All I'm saying is that physics is much different than what is expressed publicly. I, like you, used to be interested in theoretical and astrophysics and thought that I was going to go into those fields, but as I grew older, I found out more about physics, and learned more about what physics really is, and found myself deeply interested in experimental physics, as well as theoretical. I'm still in college so I haven't quite figured out which field I want to go into, but what I can tell you is that my perception of physics is vastly different than I previously held.
  13. Sep 7, 2010 #12
    I honestly don't think my views on physics are that influenced by the media.
    And right now, I can't think of myself being anything but a physicist. It's my dream job.
  14. Sep 7, 2010 #13
    Oh, I also have another question.
    Should I do Junior Beta Club over Academic bowl?
    And also, What exactly is the Intel STS?
  15. Sep 7, 2010 #14


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    I don't have specific advice about the clubs, but Intel STS is a Science Talent Search - a research competition.

  16. Sep 8, 2010 #15
    Alright, let's agree to disagree. I'm not trying to discourage you or anything. All I'm saying is, you're young, and you have plenty of time to learn about different jobs and figure out what you want to do. You may love physics now, but maybe that's just because you haven't learned enough about some other science subject, or haven't learned enough about physics yet. The most important thing you should do while in school is keep an open mind, and I can see that you're kind of stuck in this one idea. Just take advantage of any opportunities you have, do well in academic competitions, and try to get some research down like in science fair.
  17. Sep 8, 2010 #16
    Wow, you sound like me at that age, on crack. Keep just doing what you're doing, and you'll be so far ahead of others it's insane. But don't forget to have some fun. You're young, and that is something you will never get back...not to sound dramatic or anything. But you can only make so much progress at that age, and you can have lots of fun. So balance things.

    Also, I'm not saying you won't be interested in it still by the time you go to college...but everything can change in highschool. So just keep that in mind and be flexible.

    Also, your idea of what physics is may be very different from what it actually is. That doesn't mean it's not great, but you should talk to a physics college student so they can show you what they do.
  18. Sep 8, 2010 #17
    Keep your mind open to other potential areas of study, since your interests your first year of college could be very different from now. I went from wanting to study English to history to biology to econ to physics my last two years of high school, so you would be far more prepared for your undergrad than I was.

    Make sure not to burn out. Have fun!!
  19. Sep 15, 2010 #18
    Thanks for the replies!
  20. Sep 16, 2010 #19
    Do not learn FORTRAN, it may have been applicable a few decades ago, but not now.
  21. Sep 16, 2010 #20
    Alright, thanks!
    What do you think replaced/will replace it?
  22. Sep 16, 2010 #21
    Why not pick up Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. I would also try out Serge Lang's "Basic Mathematics". If you have the discipline to work through it, it will easily put your mathematics skills at a highly competitive level for your age group.

    There is no reason why you shouldn't try to get a hold of a good book on calculus. Many people discover that they really like mathematics when they begin to learn calculus. You need to know basic algebra, be able to visualize equations as graphs and know some trigonometry, everything else you can pick up along the way.

    For an extremely gentle (and cheap) intro to calculus you could pick up Calculus and Pizza from Amazon. You might also try Morris Klein's, which I self studied from (so obviously some personal bias here). It's cheap and relatively inclusive.

    I'm not sure what physics books would be beneficial to you.
  23. Sep 16, 2010 #22
    C++ has replaced FORTRAN for most any new science code. I don't know of anyone that is starting a new project with FORTRAN.

    You will have to learn to read FORTRAN. But if you have decent C++ that shouldn't be difficult. Also computer languages aren't like human languages. If you are a good computer programmer, then you should be able to deal with *any* computer language that someone hands you. The question is what should you start first and I think C++ is the better language to start off with.

    If you are learning Java, that's good. Java isn't used very much in science code, but if you are good with Java, using C++ shouldn't be terribly difficult to pick up.
  24. Sep 18, 2010 #23
    I've just started learning the Quadratic Formula... do you think I could read and understand Calculus and Pizza (I'm in a gifted program, we are basically doing the 10th grade math course).. Same question for Basic Mathmatics.
    Also, is Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter at a simple enough level for me?
  25. Sep 18, 2010 #24
    Yea, I've actually asked my Mathematics teacher why we don't learn Calculus in grade 9. Calculus is rather simple, the difficulties only arise once you include Vector Calculus and Multi-dimensional Calculuis (Partial Derivatives, Surface Integrals, Line Integrals, Volume Integrals, and Riemann Sums). Basic Calculus should include taking limits and finding derivatives. Although since your only in grade 8 I would posit that you don't understand trigonometry. It's necessary to understand trigonometry and their functions also exponentials and logarithms. As for the Feynman books, Six easy Steps appears to be simplified and QED I believe is more complex. Ultimately you must learn the mathematics such as Calculus to fully understand what your being told in these books. Once you learn the math I would recommend The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose but this is a book developed at a fast pace without full explanation. For Instance in about 500 pages he covers Complex Analysis, Real Analysis, Hyper-Dimensional Numbers, Differential Geometry, and many other topics that are extremely difficult. The other 600 is purely devoted to abstract Physics.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2010
  26. Sep 18, 2010 #25
    Honestly I'd have to say chill out and try to be a well rounded kid. I mean this in the gentlest possible way, but you're still a kid. You are doing fine, just keep doing well in your classes. You don't know enough about quantum mechanics or string theory to really have any idea whether you really want to devote your life's work to such a specific field. Don't take that the wrong way, it's great that you have such enthusiasm.

    It's not what you do today that matters, it's the average of what you do over the next 20 years. Slow and steady wins the race (of course, not without exception).
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2010
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