So you want to be a physicist? Hey, me too! While I don’t know everything there is to know about getting there, I might be farther along than you are, and have some wisdom that I’ve accrued along the way that I can impart to you, even though you never asked for it. Hence, this series of Unsolicited Advice. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the inspiration I got from Cosmic Variance. Plus I borrowed stole the name.)
Since this is Volume I, we’ll start early: before college.
Nurture Your Interest
If you’re reading this, and you’re not yet in college, then I’m willing to bet that you got interested in physics by reading one of the many popular books on physics. It’s a great way to get into physics (it’s the way I got into it all those years ago). You should continue to feed that interest in any way you can: read more books, watch tv specials, and discuss what you’ve learned with anyone who will listen.
Any book written for a popular audience is going to lose some accuracy and nuance, and some books are better than others. Some authors are good at drawing a distinction between established physics and speculative new developments, while others are not as good, or maybe don’t try as hard. Don’t let this concern you too much at this stage. Reading several books will help patch up your understanding. But the real goal here is just to get your feet wet and get you excited about the subject, rather than technical accuracy.
Figure Stuff Out
Reading is a good way to introduce yourself to the topics of physics, but how can you get some sort of idea of what it feels like to do physics? The answer is to practice figuring stuff out for yourself, and this doesn’t need to have anything to do with physics at all. Solve puzzles. Build a contraption of your own design. Try to come up with a new way to harness an energy source. The life of a physicist is all about trying to solve hard problems, whether they are theoretical solutions to a longstanding problem, or clever experimental ideas for testing a certain theory. Skill at solving difficult problems is good, but what you really want to know is if you enjoy it, and have the dedication to push toward a solution for as long as it takes.
Lots of people find the subject of physics interesting, and others are good at figuring things out. If both of these are true, then you just might like to be a physicist.
Now for the more mundane topic of what classes you should take in high school if you’re planning on pursuing physics.
Math is the language in which physics is written, so you should take as many math classes as you can. Make sure you master algebra. Trigonometry may seem arbitrary and useless, but developing an intuitive sense of sines and cosines is endlessly helpful in physics. I only wish I had gotten there sooner. To me, calculus and physics are almost inseparable, and my first calculus class introduced me to almost as many crucial concepts as my first physics class did. However, don’t worry if you’re not on track to take calculus in high school. The connections take a few years to fully sink in, anyway. But you should definitely be on track to take calculus your first year in college.
Take as many science classes as you can, and you will never go wrong. Specifically, chemistry is important because the atomic concepts are generally covered here, rather than in physics classes, at least at the high school level.
Finally, you should take a physics class when you’re ready for it. (Take it at as high of a level as you can; an AP class is great, if it’s well taught, but it’s by no means necessary.) Try not to be too disappointed by the seemingly mundane topics of falling balls and sliding blocks. They may not sound as exciting as what you’ve read in popular books, but a good knowledge of introductory topics is crucial for everything that comes later. Instead, focus on how amazing it is that you are beginning to unlock the secrets of how the universe works. The link between force and acceleration, conservation of energy and momentum — these are the most fundamental truths that we know. That alone can be awe-inspiring, if you simply allow yourself to be taken in.
That seems like enough Unsolicited Advice for now. Plus, it leaves me a good starting point for the next installment: choosing a college.