I almost gave up on a career in physics and astronomy. Several times. I had significant math blocks and I seemed to constantly struggle with higher concepts in physics.
All my life, and more than anything in the world, I wanted to be an astronomer, nothing else mattered to me, yet I didn’t seem to possess the skills necessary to actually do it. For example, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I could even begin to do the math required in first semester physics. I was starting to feel desperate and depressed that I just didn’t have what it took to do the thing I loved the most: astronomy.
I also grew up reading about amazing scientists who were essentially rock stars in astronomy and physics: Einstein, Feynman, Bohr, Bethe, and Hawking. Reading their biographies made things even worse.
i remember sitting in my second semester quantum class when the realization that I would never be the kind of scientist those men were hit me. I had struggled mightily throughout my physics education, spending 20 hours per week on the problem sets alone. Nothing came easily to me in physics, I had to work HARD.
Nevertheless, I graduated with a very good grade point average and consider myself very fluent in much of what I learned as an undergraduate physics major. I also left with a very well developed ability to solve problems. I seem to possess the very handy skill of breaking a problem down into a manner that makes logical sense, to cut through to the relevant details so that time and effort isn’t wasted dealing with extraneous and unnecessary concepts.
And none of that came from a natural ability, I had to develop it from scratch. The really weird thing is that I didn’t notice ANY of this while I was in school. I was too busy doing problem sets and being depressed about not being a genius in physics. All I could think about was that I wasn’t ever going to be Richard Feynman.
I kept at it though, I worked my ass off because this was all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. NOTHING else appealed to me. While everything was hard as hell, I was passionate about it and very interested in the ideas.
And not once did I ever meet another student who said physics was trivial or easy. Everyone I knew was working their asses off, just like me.
In fact, many, many people find this stuff hard. I’ve learned that very smart, intelligent and articulate people have to work mightily, just like I did, to understand and apply physics. I would even say that MOST people entering the field of astronomy find the work, the math, and the science non-trivial.
I’m so happy I kept at it and didn’t quit, even though I almost did several times. My perseverance has paid off in an ability to think critically, to practically and intelligently solve scientific questions (to know which questions to ask and answer), and an appreciation for the intricacies of doing science. By working hard, I have developed good work habits and attention to detail.
Another little factoid: most scientists are terrified of appearing stupid. Because of this, they don’t always understand what they think they understand. Much of the bad science I saw being done was built on assumptions founded on a lack of understanding of first principles.
I’m not afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions because I’ve learned that most of my colleagues would ask the same exact questions if they weren’t so terrified. I’m much more interested in understanding the details of someone’s research WAY more than I am about appearing stupid. The best scientists I’ve discovered, also approach understanding new ideas by examining first principles, then moving up from there.
You need a lot of confidence to approach other scientists and ask questions that may appear basic or stupid. The kind of confidence that comes from working in the trenches.
Hard work and diligence makes for a better scientist than genius. By working hard, you can make great contributions to science. You can train your brain to be smart. In fact, that’s what most of us have to do. There are very, very few natural-born geniuses in the world.
Yes, you have to be clever, but if you have good taste in problems, an ability to forge intellectual connections, an eye for untapped opportunities, drive, and yes, a willingness to work hard, you can have major impacts on the field.
Any and everyone considering a career in the sciences and whose ever felt completely NOT up to the task, needs to read this post immediately. I wish I had read this 10 years ago.
Doing good science is hard, but it is within the grasp of most thinking humans who want to do it badly enough. Most of us can’t just walk into a physics course and ace everything without working at it, but I’ve learned that’s a good thing.
Working hard on physics problems forces your brain to create new synapses all the while training it to break complex ideas and problems down into smaller, manageable ones. The unique approach that YOUR particular brain will take often leads to overlooked insights which sow the seeds for your particular contributions to the field.
Working hard on physics problems creates raw intelligence where none existed before. Keeping at it, working diligently, raises you IQ.
Working hard on physics problems makes you smarter just by being involved in the act of solving them.
Working hard on physics problems makes you smart period.
Everyone can become smart: train your brain, work at it, keep those synapses firing. Being smart is the best thing you can ever do for yourself.
Because when you’re smart, people need you.