Hey, thanks for visiting my site. I’m Jakob Schwichtenberg.
If you have any questions or found some error here or in one of my books please do not hesitate to contact me.
My mail address is jakobschwich (at) gmail.com or alternatively just leave a comment here.
I’m a physicist and I try to write down things during my own learning process.
In some sense, one of the biggest benefits I have over other people in physics is that I’m certainly not the smartest guy! I usually can’t grasp complex issues very easily. So I have to break down complex ideas into smaller chunks to understand it myself. This means, whenever I describe something to others, everyone understands, because it’s broken down into such simple terms.
Moreover, I’m by no means an expert in the subjects I’m writing about and I believe this is another huge advantage.
All this is perfectly summarized in the following two quotes:
The first one is from C. S. Lewis
“It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. […] The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”
and the second one is loosely paraphrased from Donald Knuth
With my posts, I’m not trying to be on top of things. Rather I try to get to the bottom of things. I try to learn certain areas of physics exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.
I authored a textbook called Physics from Symmetry and I’m currently working on my PhD thesis.
“Everyone sooner or later invents his story which later becomes his life”
– Max Frisch
So here’s mine
I was bad in school. Not so bad that I got into trouble, but still pretty bad. I was bored most of the time and only invested the minimal amount of time which was necessary to pass the exams. To give an example, in the 10th grade I got a 4, which is the German equivalent to an American D, in mathematics. This is exactly the grade you need to pass without getting into trouble.
A few years later I got mostly straight 1s in mathematics and started studying physics shortly after. To this day I spent most of my time thinking about mathematics and physics.
How did this change happen? How did I transform from a bad student into a passionately interested student with universally good grades?
This is what this story is about.
Looking back, I think my problem was that I never understood why I should care about the things the teacher talked about. While for many students getting good grades is motivation enough, this never worked for me. In some sense, I understood too early that grades don’t matter.
I remember asking my teachers several times, especially in mathematics, why we were taught certain topics. “What can we do with this? Why is this important?” I didn’t get satisfactory answers and was rewarded with bad oral grades.
Then something huge happened.
During this time I visited frequently flea markets with my parents. One day when I was 16 I bought at such a market a book titled Surely you’re joking Me Feynman. This was the best Euro I ever invested. This book turned my world upside down. Before reading it, I was mostly interested in computer games and soccer. But with Feynman’s help, I finally understood why people care about mathematics and physics. I started to understand that physics and mathematics aren’t the boring things, that the teacher presented. Instead, they are fun and important. In physics, you are trying to understand what makes nature tick at the most fundamental level. Mathematics is the language that you need to talk about physics. This was what I was craving all the time. I suddenly got interested in all those tricks that the math teacher presented because I was curious about how they can help to understand nature. Suddenly school was fun.
Needless to say, I was hooked afterward and read every book by Feynman I could get my hands on. Then every physics and mathematics book. I’m hooked to this day. However, there were few books that had such a big impact on me as this little book by Feynman.
A few years later I got really interested how this transformation happened. One day I was only interested in computer games and soccer, and only a few weeks later I was crazy about science and mathematics. In addition, all those things that didn’t make sense to me suddenly did.
My quest to understand this paved the way for the journey I’m still traveling.
Suddenly it was really easy to understand the things, for example, the math teacher talked about. What previously sounded like incomprehensible jibberish, was only a few weeks later completely logical and sensible stuff.
Needless to say, my grades got better. A lot.
What finally helped me to understand my own transformation, were two books:
- Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz (which I also bought at a flea market),
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (which I bought on a street market in Mumbai).
The main point I took from these two books, which I believe to this day, is that there is no such things as talent or intelligence.
While you can, of course, define these two words however you like, the important thing is that they aren’t useful concepts in any way.
Intelligence is what is measured by an intelligence test. You can train the riddles that you need to solve in an IQ test and this way you can increase your IQ. Is this meaningful? Of course not. This only means that you got better at solving these kinds of riddles and nothing else. There is no correlation between what is measured in an IQ test and any type of success in life. The biggest discoveries in science aren’t made by the smartest guys.
Talent is similar, but even more ominous, because there isn’t even a quantifiable notion like the IQ for intelligence.
So why are these notions so popular nevertheless? Because they are convenient. On the one hand, they are convenient to excuse why you aren’t able to do certain things.
“Well, I simply have no talent for mathematics.”
“I’m not smart enough.”
On the other hand, they are used to feel better than other people. Haha, look at these dumb people. Us vs. Them mentality is always powerful.
I would like to go even further and say that they are not only useless but actually harmful.
Most people never reach their potential, because they think they don’t have what it takes. This is incredibly harmful bullshit. As long as your body and brains work reasonably good, you can achieve whatever you want.
It makes actually no sense to believe in intelligence and talent. Even if I’m wrong and there is such a thing, talking and thinking will only have the effect that you start doubting and limiting yourself.
In addition, I learned from Maltz and Gladwell that the only things that matter are your self-image and motivation.
By reading Feynman’s little book I started to get interested in science. I got curious and motivated.
In addition, it transformed my self-image dramatically. Feynman’s IQ was only 125. Nevertheless, he was one of the most important scientists of the last century.
Motivated and with a transformed self-image I was as smart as the smartest guys and girls in my class.
To this day I’m convinced that everyone can understand any topic if he is sufficiently curious about it and reads an explanation that speaks a language he understands.
This is what motivates me to write.