Learn Physics or Get Bored Trying



I suppose the first question about this endeavor would be “Why?” Unfortunately, the answer “Just because” is—while disturbingly accurate—not terribly enlightening.

So I guess I’ll talk about two people, who have each, in some way, led me to where I am now. The first is Nobel Prize winner, Richard P. Feynman; the second is Sony Award nominated, BBC 6 Music Breakfast Show host, Shaun W. Keaveny.

From Feynman to… wait, Einstein?

I’m not sure where the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!” came from. Perhaps a foresighted Christmas present; perhaps it spontaneously manifested itself from the quantum vacuum. What I do know, though, is that it fascinated me; here was a guy who had maintained a highly successful academic career, simply by never quite growing up. He seemed to be tinkering with the fundamental theories of the Universe with the same sort of mindset that I used to play with folded paper and the like, growing up with the likes of Johnny Ball, Martin Gardner and their almost stealth-education works in (apologies if the phrase disturbs you) recreational maths. What’s more, he and I shared an enjoyment of bongo playing, so I knew he was a Good Guy.

Around this time, I’d just left University with 1 3/4 degrees in maths (ill-health cut my PhD short), and while I was keen to keep academic thoughts in my head, I wasn’t ready for much beyond “popular science” books. WIth this in mind, I went out and bought some of Feynman’s books; “Six Easy Pieces“, “Six Not-so-easy Pieces” and, crucially, “QED: The Strange Theory of Light And Matter“.

This last book I cannot recommend highly enough. With a title that might be daunting to many non-scientific people (QED stands for Quantum Electrodynamics, for those who didn’t know), I was in two minds as to whether I was kidding myself. But in it, from the outset, Feynman promises to say what he has to say in a language that expects no prior experience. And if you take him at his word, I think he achieved better in this book than anyone has ever managed, before or since, when describing advances in 20th Century physics to the layperson.

What thrilled me was that he’d found a way to actually explain techniques, such as predicting the path of beams of light meeting reflective/refractive surfaces, in such a way that I could go away and, using these techniques, apply them to other such problems. He does this by talking not in numbers and mathematical notation, but in images; for example asking readers to imagine a series of spinning (one-handed) clocks, and adding two clocks together by appending the base of the second clock-hand to the tip of the first. Now I can see he’s clearly talking about complex arithmetic here, while not really knowing why. But spinning clocks or integrals of e^{i\theta}, it doesn’t matter, he argues. Whatever mathematical notation and theory he and his students employ to speed up solution of a given problem, when it comes right down to it, they’re still adding together spinning clocks. It is for this remarkable approach that I would recommend the book equally to non-scientists, who want to know how mirages work or why CDs and holograms shine with rainbow colours when lit from certain angles, and practising scientists, who can probably learn a thing or two about communicating their own fields by following his example.

From this point, I tried more and more “popular science” books, but found myself frustrated that, just when we got to the good part, the authors start to get more and more sketchy and hand-wavy. But who can blame them? When told that each equation quoted in their books would halve the readership, the balance will always swing one way.

One day, while reading about the history of Relativity, I got to the point where it explained that it came about as a direct response to a problem with Maxwell’s equations, which predicted a constant speed of light (how can it be constant on an ever-moving planet? Moreover, how can it be constant and equal to observed values on an ever-moving planet?). Realising that I already had a reasonable understanding of what happened next, it became clear to me that all I needed to do was learn exactly how Maxwell’s equations made that prediction, and I could claim to have a basic understanding of some 20th Century physics. It was time to buy a proper textbook, for the first time since leaving University. My mission: to understand Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Fundamental of Physics“, by Halliday, Resnik and Walker occupied my spare time for a while after that, and I’m pleased to say I eventually got somewhere with it. Nothing major, but enough to keep me happy for a while. Unfortunately, a second bout of the previous illness meant difficulties with work, and a sharp drop in extra-curricular studies.

From Keaveny to Higgs (via Feynman)

Fast forward a couple of years, and with my health stabilizing I was back at work. I had also discovered the joys of BBC Radio 6 Music, which I was able to listen to while at work via my phone and a wireless network. It’s no exaggeration to say that it helped keep me sane through the early months of coming back to full-time employment. In particular, I was using a radio alarm clock to wake me up, tuned into Shaun Keaveny’s excellent Breakfast Show. I would often hear talk of Professor Brian Cox, who appeared regularly on the show to talk physics; this name stuck out, of course, as being the same as that of the famous actor. But since he was always on the show while I was driving to work, I never actually got round to hearing a word he had to say. Naturally, I suppose, I assumed he was an octogenarian egghead, 95% detached from reality (yes, even science nuts like myself are allowed to harbour wildly inaccurate presumptions).

Then a few months later, I see something called “Nerdstock” on the telly, and gather that Cox was to be speaking at it. I tune in for a giggle, if only through radio-loyalty. Got to admit I got a bit of a shock to see a man more-or-less my age (he’s actually 8 years older, the lucky bastard). But what struck me more was that, in presenting his turn, he wore a constant smile of joy and love for his subject. Oh yes, this guy’s got it bad.

I caught the first episode of his “Wonders of the Solar System“, and the same sense of awe and enjoyment saturated the entire episode (admittedly he was being jetted round to world to beautiful locations, and given a front-row seat at a total solar eclipse; did I mention he was a lucky bastard?).

Interestingly, a few days later, I tuned into a programme from the BBC’s flagship science documentary platform, Horizon. It was awful—50% content, the rest taken up with annoying (and irrelevant) visuals, repetition, and short soundbites glueing the rest together. I stopped watching, wrote an article about it and thought that’d be the end of it. As it turned out, I was some distance from alone in my opinions, with many more people praising programmes like Wonders, and criticizing those like that particular Horizon, and for the same reasons as me. I was starting to realize that, for whatever reason, people really were starting to take note of, and caring about, science. Well, some people. A few more than… er… before.

Perhaps this is in some way linked to events taking place at LHC; with the project being written about regularly for its (minor) setbacks and (major) successes, it is no stretch to imagine that sciences—particularly in areas around physics—will be getting boosts from this media attention.

Whatever the reason, the result has been a bumper crop of excellent science broadcasting: “Wonders of the Solar System“; “The Story of Science“; “Atom“; “Genius of Britain“. Each of these was presented with passion; was chock full of actual content, and contained little or none of the “Here’s what we’ll be doing later”, “Here’s us doing it” and “Here’s what we did before” that have plagued factual broadcasts in recent years (if you truly love your subject, there simply isn’t time for such distractions without having to leave something out, and that just isn’t an option).

It has also resulted in Cox becoming something of a celebrity, with appearances on shows such as Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and the Channel 4 alternative election. Through these, and his Twitter feed, I have learned a little more about him. What comes across immediately is that he’s not locked in the ivory towers of academia; he’s a pretty “normal” guy, with a healthy enjoyment of going out for beers, and a quite definitely unhealthy obsession with curry.  He also says “nobber”.  Quite a lot.

Being a professor of physics at 42 is also no mean feat when you consider that his academic progression was put on hold for a while, in his years as an international pop star (I am, of course, referring to his time in legendary rock band Dare). And I think this is probably what has spurred me into action most of all. I’m 34 now, and while I hold out no notions of making professor, his tale has made me wonder just how far I could get in the next 8 years. Of course, it’s possible (pretty damn certain) that he’s just flat out smarter than me, but I reasoned that if I’m not smart enough to learn physics, I’m also probably not smart enough to know I’m not smart enough, so that’s OK (stick that in your pipe and smoke it Bertrand Russel). To look at it another way, if all that I learn is that my quest is futile, I’ll at least have learned that.

And with the LHC project progressing so well (though not yet at full energy potential, nor due to be so for a couple of years as I understand it), it seems only a matter of time before the predicted Higgs Boson will be detected, slotting into the only place left in the current “standard model” of fundamental particles. Bottom line: just how damn cool would it be to read of that latest “one small step” while actually knowing what it all means?

Whatever the reason, I just knew I had to pick up the books again.

The story so far

My re-entry to the world of self-study physics began some months ago, and comprised largely of revising the stuff I did previously. At the time I hadn’t concocted this particular journey, I just figured I’d pick a subject and run with it. The first difficulty was that once you get to the end of a book like the aforementioned “Fundamentals”, knowing which way to tread next is difficult without the benefits afforded by a structured University degree programme. So I stuck a pin in the map and decided to see what Quantum Mechanics has to offer (with a view to revisiting Relativity, and the General Theory, later).

My thinking here was that by acquiring texts aimed at undergraduate courses, if I have the necessary background to follow it, great, if not I can always shelve the book and pursue the areas in which I am currently lacking. And indeed that has been the way things have started. I got a few chapters into my Quantum Mechanics text before accepting that my Vector Analysis needed work, so quickly devoured a book on this and went back to the Quantum Mechanics. In similar ways I have, since then, gone back to brush up on my Electromagnetics (beyond Maxwell’s equations), Differential Equations (Ordinary and Partial), and got part of the way through reading up on Fourier Analysis, with a view to gaining a better insight to solutions of the Schrödinger Equation with boundary conditions, when this little scheme formed in my mind.

That is the story so far; I may write more in the blog proper about some of the stages sketched in the previous paragraph, but for now I have a date with a Fourier Series…

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