All through my formal education in Physics I have seen a lot of people, including myself at one point, embarking on a mission to self-study physics. It is indeed a mission and a strenuous one at that. Physics is one of the fastest developing fields today, and because it is the oldest and has been the fastest developing field all through history, the amount of knowledge a student of physics has to learn to be able to justifiably comprehend the frontiers of research is greater than in any other field. This, on the one hand makes learning physics quite an enjoyment and accomplishment, and on the other it makes the task daunting and, almost certainly at some point down the road, discouraging.
Longtime Physics Forums member, micromass, about a week ago, wrote an “insight” article on the forum about self-studying physics/mathematics. Since I am about to begin rigorous self-studying sessions myself for the rest of this year, I decided to compile everything of note mentioned in the article as well as the ensuing discussion elsewhere on the Forum for future reference and ease for everyone who finds themselves in this position. By the time I compiled the discussions, I had poked around the rest of the Forum as well as leafed through older resources I had saved years ago and here they are in one tidy package.
1. Pick a topic, learn the maths
Funnily enough the first point comes from a Physics Stack Exchange question and mentions, briefly, the barebones approach that every other tip or suggestion is an altered form of. There are five steps: cover the absolute basics, find something advanced that interests you, become competent in it, learn the mathematics associated with it, and solve problems.
2. Study in bits and pause to recall
An old pamphlet written around 1955 for physics students mentions, among several other useful pieces of advice, that it helps greatly to “finish a paragraph, think out its main idea… finish the page, ask yourself what was on the page”. This simple method of recalling what is studied in small chunks can prove to be helpful both understanding and remembering over the long term. Remembering, not memorising.
3. Do not just read it
Also from the same pamphlet: “… don’t just read it. Underline important points, put your own comments in the margin, etc.” This is true and I have experienced it. It can be easy to get carried away by lucid texts (think David Griffith’s Classical Electrodynamics) and read on and on for tens of pages before realising that all the progress you made was for nought because you thought you “understood” it all but in ernest you never really absorbed any of it well enough to really know the physics.
4. Work out problems
Physics is problem solving. “The best of the texts come with exercises.” Gerard ’t Hooft says in his guide to become a good theoretical physicist. “Do them. find out that you can understand everything.” But solving problems means actually solving them. Reading a question and looking up the answer may leave you with a great taste of the subject, but reading a solved answer unfortunately hides the thought process behind arriving at the solution. This is something that only comes of actually solving problems.
5. Slow down and persevere
In the “insight” article published on Physics Forums writes micromass — “In studying mathematics, it is very important to take it slow. Reading a fiction book of 1000 pages will be much quicker than reading an abstract math book of 50 pages.” I would put this alongside point 3 above. Reading physics or mathematics is not recommended; slow down, follow, bits of the topic being covered, take a moment to recall and work out problems. Do not read through the text like it is an English language course book or popular science writing. This slow pace may take its toll on your patience, and the slow to seemingly absent increase in your proficiency inn the subject can drive you away from it, but stay and persevere.
6. Standard texts are standard for a reason
Besides avoiding popular science (books that shy away from equations for a good reason — you are often not their target audience) picking standard text books is usually your best bet. They do not have to suit you, but they did suit a lot of people and the probability of you gravitating towards one of these texts is greater than if you picked stuff by poking around in the dark; this also ensures you can start learning soon instead of wasting time checking and warming up to book after book.
7. Pick an area of focus
Instead of trying to chomp an entire text, which can often be a Herculean task, Andrew Kirk recommends focusing on one major theorem or portion of the text as opposed to the whole thing, so as to make studying physics (and the textbook itself) less daunting. Unlike aiming to finish entire books, which can be tiresome and off-putting, going from theorem to theorem gives you more reasonable goals that can be accomplished in a day or two and which will in turn fuel your enthusiasm for studying further.
I can keep going on and on, but it is important to realise that one has to start somewhere and following these seven tips should take you a long way in self-studying (or, now that I look back, even in academically studying) physics. They are a condensation of my own experiences corroborate and supported by several other, more experienced physicists or students around the world. I will be putting these to the test myself, starting tomorrow, with a lengthy bout of self-study and will write a follow up article if possible by early next year.