So you want to become a physicist, right? Problem is you don’t know much physics. Maybe you did some in high school. You might even have read a few physics blogs. But despite your enthusiasm, the road to the research frontier looks perilously long!
But I reckon it can be hiked in less than a year, just by dedicating a few hours of your weekend.
Thanks to the sterling work of Leonard Susskind, anybody can now learn enough physics to dive straight into research. In a series of video courses he explains the theoretical minimum you need to dive into modern research. There’s even an accompanying set of popular science books.
So challenge yourself to cover each of his core courses in a month. If you watch a lecture every Saturday and Sunday you’d manage it, more or less! Supplement your viewing with some problem questions and you’ll be well on the way to a firm foundation in the laws of nature.
Be warned – physics isn’t always easy to learn. Things can get tough, particularly when you’re studying on your own. But with the power of the internet, help is never far away. I suggest you hang out at Physics StackExchange. Asking and answering questions is the lifeblood of research culture, so don’t be shy!
Once you’ve burned through the core courses it’s time to step up a gear. Take a look at Susskind’s advanced courses. Although these are harder, there also infinitely more exciting! Plus, you can just pick and choose the ones you want to. Few research physicists start out with a encyclopaedic knowledge of every area.
If you keep up your twice a week lecture strategy, you’ll be equipped with the theoretical minimum within 9 months. Novice to expert in less time than it takes to train for a marathon! Sounds pretty good to me.
There’s one final step – read real life papers. This is pretty scary at first, so I usually start by browsing the introduction and conclusion. Once you’ve done this a few times you can take a deep breath and dive in properly. Remember to have a pen and paper handy – you’ll only learn by actively working out what’s going on!
Where to start? I think you could do worse than tackling the top 40 most cited papers of all time. Okay, this list is biased towards high-energy theory. But between you and me, that’s the coolest part of physics anyway!
Three months of reading real papers won’t give you enough time to get through all 40! But even if you just browse two or three, you’ll still be intellectually fraternising with the greatest academics of our generation. Your journey from layman to physicist will be complete.
So get inspired and give this project a go! I’ll be fascinated to hear from anybody who tries out some new physics, whether it’s for 24 hours or a whole year. I firmly believe that science should be available to everyone. Now more than ever before that opportunity is open to you!