“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” -Oscar Wilde
As many of you know, last weekend I launched a suggestion box here on the site, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response: about fifty of you have sent something in to me in the first less-than-a-week of this alone!
So, let’s start answering them! There are more than enough excellent questions and suggestions to keep me busy for a long time, but with the new academic year starting up, one of them caught my eye in particular, from a high school student named James:
Dear Ethan, as a relatively young person (high school) who reads your blog and is interested in science I really would love you to write more about physics or science in general as a career path. I have read your previous blog post on this topic here. In it you mention not doing what university will eventually teach (as was my plan before reading your post), but by researching things which fascinate me now to develop imagination and ways of thinking. For me, that is reading blogs like yours, watching educational channels on YouTube such as sixtysymbols and reading books. However, I really would like more guidance on how at my age I can develop those skills or do things things to put me in the direction of scientist or physicist. In conclusion, my question/suggestion is can you give more guidance or resources to young people who are interested in science and want to pursue a career in it?
This is one of the toughest types of questions to answer, and I’ll explain why (before answering it).
There is this mistaken assumption that you — and I’m not picking on you, but speaking about all of us in general — are good at knowing exactly what narrow, specialized thing we want to do, and also that will be the thing we want to do for the rest of our lives. So let me tell you some things that may (or may not) surprise you.
1.) You will grow and change as you discover new things. This is not an admonishment of what you don’t yet know; this is a call for you to recognize that we are learning new things all the time, and that means that the thing you’d be most excited to do doesn’t exist right now. 60 years ago, there was no such thing as “planetary science,” because the science of other planets was a total unknown. 30 years ago, nanotechnology was a pipe dream. 20 years ago, were certain that there was no such thing as dark energy. And “junk DNA” might not be junk at all, as we’re only learning now.
Do any of these pique your interest? My point is that the career you might wind up having down the road may not even exist right now. Don’t try to prepare for the one thing you think you want more than anything else to the exclusion of everything else. Learn a variety of things; surely your love of learning isn’t limited to just one narrow thing.
2.) “Useless” skills are rarely useless. I remember my first year in graduate school; I was in my electromagnetism class, which consisted of a lot of finding solutions to partial differential equations. Here’s a funny set of facts for you:
- As an undergraduate, I was a B- student (at best) when it came to electromagnetism.
- I hated my undergraduate math courses (and the professor who taught them) that covered the techniques we were using now, in this class.
- And I had taken time off after college — against the advice of every physics professor — to teach high school before applying to graduate school.
Why is that funny? Because you might assume that these facts put me at a tremendous disadvantage. Well, they did. But there were components of those problems that I was actually better at than everyone else in my class; I had advantages too. Yes, in some ways my toolkit (of problem solving) was a little deficient, and I had to work harder than everyone else to shore up those weaknesses. But I also had skills and talents that no one else had, because I spent time honing them. I could do ridiculous combinatorics in my head; I could see integral solutions to certain types of problems before anyone else; I could decompose problems into spherical harmonics more quickly than I’d ever realized. Yes, these skills weren’t the things I was supposed to have learned, but I had them and others didn’t, and that made me uniquely valuable.
Which brings up another important point…
3.) You will get better at the things you put your effort into. Do you see what word I chose? Effort. Not, as people commonly assume, time. When you’re trying to acquire a new skill, trying to learn how to solve-and-attack a new class of problems, trying to learn a new technique, the amount of time it will take you to become competent at it will vary tremendously. But it’s always going to require effort, and a sustained effort, until you know it and are as adept with it as you want.
You develop those skills by doing whatever it is you’re trying to become good at. If you want to paint, you paint. And you paint progressively more intricate, difficult paintings. If you want to master a technique, you practice that technique, you apply it in as many ways as you can think of, and you learn it inside-and-out. And if you want to become good at an aspect of theoretical physics, you practice by solving problems. Don’t skimp on the hard ones; work up to them and don’t give up until you take them down! Which brings up another couple of points…
4.) If you don’t enjoy the work you do to gain these skills, you aren’t going to enjoy that work in the future. A lot of times, I’ve seen people take the mindset of, “well, I hate what I’m doing now, but if I just jump through these hoops, I’ll be able to do the things I want to do.” That’s all well-and-good, but are you sure that the “things you want to do” don’t involve just doing more of the work you hate?
You are constantly going to be using the skills you’ve acquired, and if you don’t love the day-to-day journey of doing that work, what makes you think that doing more of that work will be satisfying? Because it’s in the service of some greater problem that you are interested in? Not likely.
5.) Start thinking about the big questions now, but… It’s the big questions that lure us in. In biology, it’s often the evolution and origin of life; in cognitive science, it’s the question of consciousness and where it comes from; in physics, it’s pondering the fundamental nature of matter or spacetime or the fate of the Universe. You’ll read about then, you’ll listen to very smart people’s opinions about then, and you’ll develop ideas about them. But…
6.) Do not become too attached to these ideas! As you learn more, you will be required to revise your understanding of those ideas, because — and I guarantee you this — your ideas about what is already known are incomplete and flawed. This is not a knock at you; this happens to everyone. I hear stories all the time about a kid genius who’s doing incredible, advanced things, and to be honest, I find it tiresome. Yes, there are some teenagers who are presently at the level I was at when I was a graduate student, and that in itself is very impressive. But they’re not overthrowing relativity, they’re not solving string theory, and they’re not disproving quantum mechanics: no one is. They may be working on understanding those things, they may be learning about the limits of our understanding there, and — I’m not going to lie — that’s incredible stuff. But if they want to move forward, and if anyone studying these things wants to move forward, they’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that some of the details, ideas and conclusions that are in their head are wrong, and need to be replaced with what’s correct. Many scientific careers have ground to a screeching halt because one person was simply too arrogant to say, “oh, that’s evidence I can’t account for, and so my idea needs revising, reconsidering, or is just wrong.”
There’s no one, universal “oh, just do this and you’ll have a career doing what you want to do” piece of advice to give out. Learn what you love and love what you learn. Read a diversity of materials, but look out for self-promoters, quacks and charlatans. Practice working at the things you love, work to become at least competent in your areas of weakness. Solve problems; learn diverse techniques to do so. Get together in groups and present to each other; your first time teaching something offers you a greater learning opportunity than any of your students. And more generally…
Have a life beyond your work. Have some fun. Try new things. Get outside. Use your body. Take risks, get hurt, get better. Talk to people, and keep the interesting ones around. Be kind, be generous, and be open-minded. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Don’t become a one-dimensional caricature; you are not on the Big Bang Theory and you wouldn’t want to be. (The actual theory is far more interesting, I promise.)
And keep questioning, and keep learning. When you understand not just what we know but also how we know it, it’s among the best feelings in the world. Don’t forget to share it with those you encounter along the way. And most of all, be honest with yourself. Don’t wake up one day to discover that you’re old, and you didn’t live the life you wanted. In the immortal words of Frank Zappa,
“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”
It’s your one life here in this Universe with your brain, your body, your thoughts, your experiences, and your choices. If you need some more advice for down the road:
- For biology class,
- For teenagers in general,
- For aspiring teenage scientists,
- For hopeful astronomers,
- For those considering grad school,
- For those starting physics grad school,
- For those getting overworked in grad school,
- and for those writing their dissertation.
Now go get ‘em. And to everyone else who has a question or suggestion, drop me a line; I’ll try to do one every week!