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What is the best thing that a young scientist can do?

  • Thread starter Simfish
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  • #1
Simfish
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Hi,

I am only 14 years old, and am going into my freshman year in high school. I aspire to become a nuclear physicist when I grow older, which is certainly a job that requires a lot of experience in mathematics and physics. What do you think is the best thing that I can do through my high school years if I am to become a physicist? Should I study quite a lot of mathematics by myself, like what Feynman, Einstein, and many other great physicists did? Or is it acceptable for myself to study more about the physics if my school is going to teach me mathematics? (According to my education plan, I am going to learn Calculus (aka IB Math Methods II) in the 11th grade, and then I'll take IB Mathematics in the 12th grade. Is it adequate enough, or would I need to study more math at my age right now?

I do know that many physicists were Mathematics prodigies when they were young, and learned Calculus in their younger years. However, is it really necessary to learn Calculus at such young ages? Neumann learned Calculus at age 8 according to a biography I read about him, and I'm seriously not joking. A more reasonable age for learning Calculus would be set for Feynman at age 15; but I'll only learn Calculus when I'm 16 according to my education plan. Is that an adequate age to learn Calculus? Can I spend more time to the sciences that I enjoy and still become an effective physicist with (perhaps) a shot at the Nobel Prize?

Now, as for over the summer; I am studying some geometry and algebra concepts over the summer, and am planning on studying more mathemtatics as the school year starts, but I would really love to devote more time to what I enjoy: Science. Also, is it still important to take courses in the Humanities? Roald Hoffmann recommended that young scientists should take Humanities courses, but are they really necessary to become a good physicist? (After all, my communication skills are already complex enough to communicate ideas effectively, and I don't need to read all those novels if I aspire to become a physicst). ;)

Your advice would be grealtly appreciated!
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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Woah woah...! Steady on there....

Though no doubt we all would like to be Feynman etc.... I don't think you need to be in such a panic to follow in their footsteps. Despite the few highlighted figures, most great physicists were not totally psychotic, and their success came through as a function of talent, enthusiasm and pure luck. There is by no means a "right way" to be an ultimate scientist - each person has a way they are comfortable with. The purpose of physicists is really a matter of learning more, working towards a clearer vision of the truth - the fame, the money, the prizes are side factors, nice extras but not ultimately the point of the exercise.

So... what do you want? Do you see yourself persuing the more mathematical branches of theoretical physics? Or maybe looking into the experimental side? Or what? Some maths and skill at communication is obviously neccessary (you'll be hard pressed to name a vocation that doesn't need that), but you hardly need to take a set ration as part of a daily regime.... Proceed at your own rate.

Hey, don't be disheartened... You already seem to have probably the most important part of it all - a love a physics. And access to PF of course. If you want to study physics (albeit informally) in your own time, which I do recommend, be sure to ask questions! I'm sure folks here are all keen to help out with any queries. Dabble in some topics and I'm sure you'll learn a lot.
 
  • #3
Simfish
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Thanks for the advice! :) I don't see myself specifically aiming for either branch of physics; (experimental or theoretical) aiming for one of those would be something that I would see in the future. I just know that my future career aspiration would be in the field of physics, especially nuclear physics; since I really want to take part in the development of nuclear fusion power plants.

Of course; the area of physics doesn't require such a Spartan childhood; I've been known for pushing myself a bit too hard. There's then Faraday, who never knew more math than what I do know now; although it's harder to become a Faraday in these days of physics. But then of course, there were also physicists who didn't know all the fancy stuff early on in life.
 
  • #4
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Hi Simfishy,

For a research or academic post, a Ph.D. is most likely required and just a note: Most grad students head into grad school thinking that they are going to be the next Feynman or Einstein but realistically, you don't have to be the next Feynman or Einstein to have that job you want (although being like your heroes wouldn't hurt :smile:).

Don't put so much pressure on yourself. From personal experience, you'll end up doing more harm than good.

About the theoretical or experimental debate, it really depends on what you like about physics. Do you like to formulate mathematical theories or devise experiments? Or would you rather run the experiments themselves and interpret the data?
 
  • #5
Integral
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At your stage Math is much more important then Physics. Math is fundamental and with a good understanding of math the phyiscs (which is just applied math) will come easy. Concentrate on your basic math skills, Algebra must be 2nd nature, Calculus will become a tool on your belt but to use it you must also know Trig. I consider those 3, Algebra, Trig and Calculus the foundation of Physics, get comfortable with those at your age and you will do well.
Good luck, and ask lots of questions.
 
  • #6
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Integral made an important point but once you start with the physics, don't completetly neglect the qualitative portion (and yes, even Physics has qualitative stuff attached to it).
 
  • #7
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Get some nice black, greasy dirt under your fingernails, crack a few knuckles when wrenches slip or bolts break, singe your eyebrows, and otherwise familiarize yourself with the physics of the real world --- the number of degrees granted to people who've no idea which end of a screwdriver to use to pick their noses is disheartening --- and it is also reflected in the quality of their theoretical work.
 
  • #8
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Originally posted by Bystander
Get some nice black, greasy dirt under your fingernails, crack a few knuckles when wrenches slip or bolts break, singe your eyebrows, and otherwise familiarize yourself with the physics of the real world --- the number of degrees granted to people who've no idea which end of a screwdriver to use to pick their noses is disheartening --- and it is also reflected in the quality of their theoretical work.
Absolutely. These sorts of "real-world" skills are important, especially for experimental physics, a huge part of which is spent designing, assembling, tweaking, and improving experimental setups. In this sort of work, your ability to improvise and work with your hands is almost more important than being good at math, and is essential for a well-rounded physicist.
 
  • #9
Integral
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To listen to you guys some of the best physicists in the world just changed my oil.

:smile:
 
  • #10
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Originally posted by Integral
To listen to you guys some of the best physicists in the world just changed my oil.

:smile:
Heh, maybe not. But it's funny you should mention that. When I was applying for a job placement term during my undergrad, the prof in charge actually asked me what sort of "technical" skills I had that he could relate to possible companies, and changing the oil in my car was one example. You might be surprised how something so mundane can actually make you more appealing to some employers in an experimental setting. :wink:
 
  • #11
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Admittedly, the percentage of mechanics who understand torque and leverage in tensioning bolts is no greater than the percentage of physicists who are competent to work on motor vehicles; that said, the number of physicists breaking threaded fasteners is much greater than the number of mechanics breaking threaded fasteners, ruining tube fittings, twisting off valve stems, pinching tubes shut with O-ring seals, etc. --- which brings up the question in my mind, "which group IS more competent." I've seen far more hardware ruined by Ph.D.s than by techies --- I've seen techies do some stupid things, too, but for sheer dollar value of destruction, the degrees win every time (me included).

The remark was made as "free advice" to an aspiring physicist, and should be valued as highly as the price paid --- but, there are basic skills sets which can be far more widely applied than just as a "Mr. Goodwrench," village handyman, or jack-of-all-trades --- even for the theoretical types --- it's worth having some feeling, NOT intuition, for what one might theorize about.
 
  • #12
Dal
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Hi Simfishy. It’s very nice to see someone ambitious in such a young age. Just like to say that studying and improving your mathematical skill is a good thing but also give a little time for dreaming and imagination. Imagination is also important for those who want to distinguish from the crowd. (which means don't study like a robot.:smile: )
 
  • #13
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom, for me and you
Then I say to myself what a wonderful world.
What a wonderful world!

In this wonderful world, there's one thing that need to remember, Work Hard and Play Hard. One of the best things that a yong scientist can do is to manage your time well, leave some time to relax and leave some time to study.
 
  • #14
Simfish
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Thanks for the wonderful advice, everyone! :) I'm extremely left-brained, so I don't have much of an imagination; hmmm...

As for mathematics; is geometry also important to physics? How about proofs? I've never really enjoyed geometry myself; but find Algebra to be quite exciting. I haven't gone into advanced trigonometry...yet..

Would experimenting with LEGO Mindstorms as well as electronic kits help familiarize myself with real life physics of some sort? I know that Feynman fixed up electronic kits; and while I don't have to be like Feynman or the quintessential phyiicist; it still shows that experience with electronics could help me in the pursuit of physics. :)

All I know now is that I just have a knack for physics; deciding between experimental and theoretical physics would come later; since they are a bit interrelated. I haven't had much experience with either; as I don't know which one is funner; and having fun at a career is extremely important.

I won't forget to have some time to have fun; I enjoy playing a RTS like Age of Kings. :) Foruming, reading, and the pursuit of other academic subjects also intrigues me.
 
  • #15
selfAdjoint
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Kits are a great way to familiarize yourself with electronics. They are an alternative to the shade tree mechanics advice some of the others gave you. After you have gotten familiar with kits, branch out. Buy Popular Electronics magazine and try to do some of the projects. Try to visulaize what the electricity is doing in the circuits (great left brain imagination trainer). Why did they put that resistor there? Why is it the value they say? What if it was a different value?

Hey, don't neglect your bod either. Work out a little, try to keep healthy. Your brain is a big user of your body's energy, don't let it down.
 

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