in Miscellaneous

One Thing You Must Understand About Studying Physics

As a beginner student it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed and stupid, because every page in the textbook you’re reading makes the question mark above your head bigger. It took me quite some time to realize that most textbooks aren’t written for the reader, but for the author. My realization started with a little sentence in a book about classical mechanics.

Many of the scientific treatises of today are formulated in a half-mystical language, as though to impress the reader with the uncomfortable feeling that he is in the permanent presence of a superman.

Lanczos: The Variational Principles of Mechanics


I mean, it’s understandable. Physics is like any scientific discipline about prestige. Writing a super-complicated treatise may help the author get recognized as super-smart, but surely isn’t very helpful for the reader. For a book every reader understands, the probability that someone criticizes your treatment is much higher as with a book nobody understands. There is a risk with every understandable sentence in a book.

It’s much safer to simply write down equation after equation without talking much about them. The equations can be checked and there is little room for criticism. But as soon as an author starts writing about the meaning of the equations, the why, the how, things get dangerous. Sentences that interpret things and put them into context are often the most valuable, but are in danger of being criticized.

There is no way to make them as bullet-proof as an equation. That’s why quite often the authors ego wins the fight and explanatory sentences are kept to a minimum. Always keep in mind that books that are hard to understand are written with the authors ego in mind and not the readers needs.

It’s the authors job to explain the subject to you. If you don’t understand it’s the authors fault, not yours. If you are reading a book that you find hard to understand, simply go to the library and get another book. Please don’t let yourself get demotivated by such books! You simple need to find a book that you understand. Physics is never really complicated, but only badly explained.

“Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”

Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle

So why do people read and recommend all these complicated books at all?

For the same reasons outlined above. Unfortunately most “standard books“ and books recommended by professors aren’t particular good for the reader. These books don’t have the best explanations, but are recommended because they are safe to recommend. There is little room for criticizing them, because the explanations and illuminating remarks are kept to a safe minimum.

In addition, recommending a book that is hard to understand is good for your ego. Indirectly you’re signalling this way: “Well, I understand and even enjoy this super-complicated stuff. I’m smart!“

A recommendation for a book that explains everything in great detail signals: “I needed such dummy treatment to understand the subject. I’m not particular smart.”

Be assured that if you read some treatment of the subject that was written with the readers needs in mind first and then read the super-complicated stuff, you will understand, too. Don’t panic, don’t feel stupid. It’s the same for everyone. Most of the time the recommendations of books that are hard to understand happen with no ill intent. Your professor learned the subject some decades ago, so he’s not the best person the get recommendations from.

“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.”

-C. S. Lewis, Introductory to Reflections on the Psalms


Most books are written by professors, not students. That’s what makes them hard to understand.

I mean it’s fine books exist that are regarded as the standard books, but they aren’t the best option to learn the subject from. Later, if you already learned and understood the subject, you’ll come back to these books. They are suited as references, they are suited to look things up like an equation if you’re writing a paper.

The message to take away is: Stop Reading Books you don’t understand immediately! There is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed or stupid. If you don’t understand something, simply search for another explanation that makes sense to you!

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve Jobs


This is especially true for physics.

P.S. I wrote a textbook which is in some sense the book I wished had existed when I started my journey in physics. It's called "Physics from Symmetry" and you can buy it, for example, at Amazon. And I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to get updates about what I'm recently up to.

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  1. I enjoyed the read! Can you ( or anyone ) recommend beginner physics books that are written in a noncomplicated and enjoyable manner?

  2. Sad but true. I remember my first college math class and I couldn’t get anything of what the teacher said, and watching other classmates to understand it somehow, made me feel even more inferior. Had I known I wasn’t a Down’s syndrome but just needed a proper framework for studying the matter in a way it made sense to me and not them, it’d have avoided me a worse inferiority complex. Thanks.