On self-studying physics

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.

How to add an end mark to your articles on WordPress

END-MARKS ARE A typographical feature, most probably derived from the technology and computer-science industry, that employs a use of a symbol, text or icon to signal the end of a piece of text to the reader.

Personally, I am a great fan of end-marks, and I was using them in my first blog at WordPress.com but things changed later and, (unless I manually inserted them every time,) I had no way of fitting one into my articles… until now!

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As magazine features

If you have ever seen an end-mark before, it is probably in a magazine, at the end of every article (see picture below for examples.) Apart from being typographically good looking, these things serve to signal a more finished end to an article, much like a full stop does to a sentence. Once I managed to write a handful of code, I began employing end-marks on this website as my regular readers would probably have noticed.

Endmark examples

As I said already, manually inserting end-marks after every article is a tedious job; but, on the other hand, it cannot always be fully automated either. For instance, Colin Temple has a great endmark plugin that appends an end-mark of your choice to your articles.

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Endmark plugin

However, as I found out myself, if you have meddled with some of the code previously (or even if you have not, in some cases,) such as including certain sharing options after your blog post etc., the sharing buttons come wrapped into the main content division (they even do so native-ly on some themes) and you end up with an endmark after the sharing options, which can turn out to be awkward.

Colin’s plugin has some other features that need working, as he says on the website himself, but — if you care enough about your blog to remember adding an end-mark — I have a quick and foolproof solution for you with one of WordPress’ best introductions: shortcodes.

I have not come up with a method to fully automate it for the same reasons stated earlier, but if a code as simple as [x] is too hard to type in, then this exercise is not for you!

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What is a shortcode?

Ever since WordPress introduced shortcodes, the platform — and well neigh the blogosphere itself — has begun a sort of new era in that clients can do quite a bit of flexible work themselves now.

Basically, a shortcode is a small piece of text that signals the browser to do something a programmer has pre-programmed into your website. For instance, if I pre-programme a code into your website to print a red block every time you type in [red] then the code [red] is called a shortcode and you can use it without really knowing the original code that tells the browser to display the red block. (And you don’t have to call me up to find out how to do it either!)

In my solution, I decided to create a shortcode to my liking, and that is what I will show you now in as much step-by-step detail as possible.

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 Step #1:  Creating a shortcode

We will start by writing a small piece of code that does some simple things:

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  • It tells the browser to start executing the end-mark function
  • It tells the browser what the end-mark is, and
  • It tells the browser how to recognise your request to display the end-mark

I have already written the most basic structure of that code for you, so all you have to do is copy it and hold on to it for now. (Hover over the code and click the second icon that appears to copy it.)

If you’d like, you can paste it onto a text editor like Notepad and edit certain areas. First of all, change the  UniqueFunctionName , in the two places that it appears, to a name of your choice. You can call it anything you like, but avoid spaces and use under_scores instead.

Next change the text that says  end  to whatever you want the shortcode to be. In this case, calling [end] will get the browser to load your end-mark. You can change it to anything you like; for instance, I keep mine as [ vhb ] so I can sign off with it each time I finish an article and have the end-mark displayed. While making changes at these places, be careful not to alter inverted commas and other punctuation.

Once you are done with the changes, copy the altered code to your clipboard (i.e. Ctrl+C on your PC, or Cmd+C on your Mac.)

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 Step #2:  Adding the code to your theme and calling it

Our next step is to add this code to our theme. There are several ways to do this, but if you are not too good with code, it is better to make as little change as possible to the original files, so below is the method I suggest.

[hr_padding] [notice type=”blue”] The best way to edit a theme is to leave the original files alone and create a child theme instead, but I will not explain that here since it is a huge topic on it own!
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First go to your core files (your control panel/ftp area where your website files are stored) and create a new file; call it something like endmark.php. Of course, you can call it whatever you want, but this is the name I will be using in this tutorial.

Paste the code you copied (or the one you altered) in step #1 to the endmark.php file and save it.

Now we are going to make sure the lines of code that load your website onto a browser remember to call the new endmark.php file, else your shortcode will not work. Again, there are several ways to do this — including conditionally — but, since this code is light-weight and will hardly delay the page load time, we can afford to do it in a simple, straightforward manner.

Open your theme functions file (named functions.php) or a child-theme you have created and add the line of code that I have written below to it. If you do not know where exactly to add it, just make sure you put it before the  ?>  symbols at the very end.

Now, onto the next step!

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 Step #3:  Designing the end mark

By now I take it you have decided what your end-mark will be. Most prefer to use a small square block or an ancient, intricate glyph. I, for one, use my wordmark (see the end of this article.) If you have not, you have one more step before you start using the end mark, so start thinking!

In this step, we will make sure our end mark is displayed where we want it to. To start, open the endmark.php file.

If you have not made any alterations (except the ones stated in step #1) then, in the line 3, you should find this:  <p>fin</p> .

Alongside this I also suggest you open a new post editor on your WordPress dashboard, type in your endmark shortcode (in this case, [end]) and use the preview button to see how it is working out. The chances are you see the word fin at the end of the article, but it is on a new line. The reason for this is that html does not support multiple <p> tags on the same line. (One <p> tag is already being used by your body, and using a second one moves it to a new line — after all it is the paragraph tag!)

Now there are two things you might want to do here. You can either use this and, perhaps, center the end-mark on its own line; or you can push the end-mark to the same line as the last line of the article, like you see on this website.

Let us examine the first case: you can, of course, simply edit the  <p>’fin'</p>  tags in the endmark.php file to  

‘fin’

 , however, the align attribute of the paragraph tag is unsupported after HTML4.0 — in other words, you may not be able to do this successfully.

So our next solution is to use CSS, which does work. Simply change the line to something like  <p style=”text-align:center”>fin</p>  where the center attribute may be used as left also, to left-align the endmark.

The second case is if you do not want the end mark in a line of its own: edit line 3 to put the paragraph tags inside span tags like  <span><p>fin</p></span> . Preview your post now and, voila, you see the end mark in the same line as the last line of the paragraph.

[hr_padding] [notice type=”blue”] You might notice how I have a little space between the last full stop and the end mark on this website, but you cannot see so much space in your preview before the fin end mark we have added.

The trick is to use an HTML code called the non-breaking space (i.e. white space that the browser does not collapse.) You can do this by typing in  &nbsp;  where you need a space. Do it several times to leave lots of space.
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 Step #4:  Making the end-mark yours!

Who wants a lousy fin as their end mark? In this final step, we will make the end mark truly yours!

You have probably decided on what you want the end mark to be be now. Perhaps a square, or a circle, or a half-circle or a weird scribble, or an elvish initial, or maybe even your own signature like I used to use before. The simplest way to use this is to create an image; keep it within 10 – 14px in height, depending on your text, and making it square is always your best bet.

Upload the image somewhere — I strongly urge you to use your own website — and copy the image location. We will call this  http://mysite.com/location/of/my/image.jpg . JPG files are slimmest, and therefore the fastest to load, but you can use any common format you like.

All you have to do is replace the word  fin  in your endmark.php file with  <img src=”http://mysite.com/location/of/my/image.jpg”> . Replace our fake image location with yours and there you have it: your own unique end mark!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me with a comment here or simply by dropping me an email, and I will help you as best as I can. Have fun with your new end mark. [vhb]

I don’t feel like blogging

I picture three kinds of people online wanting to read this article: the curious, the think-alike and the sceptic.

The Visitors

How a curious person may have stumbled upon this article (especially if he is not one of my regular readers) is beyond me. But this title is a catchy one and nobody can blame themselves for wanting to get a taste of what it represents.

I would hardly expect the sceptic to read this article. Indeed I believe it is justified if they are turned off simply by the very title that appeared singular to the curious minds!

As for the think-alike, these are my number-one target audience as far as this post is concerned. Of the 168,284,105 odd public blogs in existence (as of 0600 hours today) the number updated on a regular basis happens to fall, unfortunately, in the thousands. I once co-wrote an ebook detailing why it is important to blog often, largely blaming one’s responsibility for having claimed a certain part of the worldwide virtual network. It worked, until the download link broke and I realised I had no copy of the (good) work offline.

We can safely say that over half-a-million people who call themselves bloggers actually fall into this category which chants, ‘I don’t feel like blogging today!’

So now what?

The way I see it, this is a situation of being incapable of getting the horse to drink water. But, in this scenario, we can tell the horse why it ought to drink water!

There is a reason why such a large number of people open blogs. Now, I was careful not to term it start blogs because a quarter of the blogs out there are started but not taken quite anywhere. And another quarter is filled with static webpages serving as cheap replacements for websites. A third quarter—much more appreciable than the last two—consists entirely of bloggers who opened their blogs with gusto and with a hope to go somewhere, but probably underestimated the efforts required to maintain one. Let us leave the remaining. Those are the good ones.

As it happens, the second quarter is what is playing spoilsport. While on the one hand blogging is arising as a unique art—a subset of writing, but with its own frills—on the other hand we have its pivotal spirit being doused by people taking the byway to moneymaking.

Remember when you started your blog?

I believe the best way to approach this daunting task is by thinking back to the day when you started a blog. How enthusiastic were you? What did you promise yourself?

You probably imagined a whole lot of stuff you had to share with the world, how you would do it and that you would sit down and pen something daily. With time, the enthusiasm dies away, does it not?

No. Other things overlap it and your desire to blog becomes less apparent to you! The point is that blogging has far more advantages than it would seem at first (and I do not speak of corporate blogs. In fact, I consider them an insult to the blogosphere although they are written with no less expertise.) The blog makes the man in such a subtle way that most people hardly notice it.

Perhaps the main reason one ought to blog daily (and there is no loosening of the strings here) is because it helps them sculpt out their daily schedule with ease. Think of blogging as your daily ablutions. You cannot go about the day without them. The reason why people fail to keep up to their schedule is because (to quote Dr Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory,) “We have to take in nourishment, expel waste and inhale enough oxygen to keep our cells from dying. Everything else is optional.”

Starting today, equate your blogging to your ablutions. Write something—even something vaguely meaningful will be a start—everyday without fail. Set your goal in chunks: first try to write daily for a week at a stretch. Then ease out for a week. Then write for two weeks and ease out for three days. Finally, write for a month and ease out a week. Then go for two months, ease out three days and three months. So, in six months, you should have you entire blogging routine settled like a charm.

The Out-of-Fuel theory

The method of approach I have stated above may work for those who are still (months or years after starting a blog) brimming with stuff to share. But quite a large number of bloggers out there would complain that they run out of stuff and that is why they do not blog (as opposed to not feeling like it—although, at some point, they co-incide!)

My own ideas of this are quite powerful, even if I say so myself. I have a simple but very valid reasoning for this: we have already found blogging to be a discipline unique from writing, say, magazine articles or books.

To elaborate, this distinction means that one cannot possibly run out of things to blog! Every instant of your fourteen hour day (even if we were to assume all of us were ten-hours-a-day sleepers!) would serve as a more than promising inspiration for a blog article, or post if you will.

The underlying principle here is that you may not always be able to take a minute incident and spew out books-full of stories from it. But a blog is (what Goldie Locks would perhaps describe as) just the right size. One can scribble away two or three responsible paragraphs, none of which would be hard to think of, given a small inspiring incident all through the day. At this rate, a blogger may write readable (and, with a little more effort, even likable) articles while adhering to his self-imposed write everyday rule.

Rewards programme

Perhaps the finest point I see in this regard—and once again distinguishing blogs from, say, books—is the immediate reward that a blogger gets from having completed a quick post.

There is the readership, a fairly good response even; and the comments and emails (I confess I seem to attract the latter more!) And, not to forget the satisfaction of having stuck to his write daily rule. The readership, no matter how small, is extremely valuable and humbling to a blogger.

I remember the days when I used to get a mere fifty readers a day when I very dedicatedly started a blog. And then started it again, and again, and again. This is my fifth and the monthly readership is somewhere in the larger thousands. Not bad, I would say, for a personal weblog. I also remember having said, myself, in one of my earlier articles that the most difficult genre of blog to nurture is the personal blog. Why?

Give me one good reason why I should want to dedicate my precious time to read you musings with interest?

Style does not matter

I confess that I have been advocating the habit of putting the right word in the right place in an article. I still am, but I have also decided to bend the rule for people new to/catapulting back to blogging, simply because it is important to get their content out there and think of wording it right when content publishing has become a part of their daily routine.

So sit before your computer (even if the world is doing your favourite thing) and blog. Think of the days when you first started. I know people who blogged ten posts in three days before their enthusiasm died out. It is time to revive that very feeling because your blog will help you, and others living their lives on the Web, in more ways than one.

And yet, one can take the horse to water but not make it drink.

Have I been successful in luring you back to blogging? When, then, can I see your next blog post?

The writing habit

In all the years that I have been writing, I have seen many achievements including getting a novel finished up to the very last chapter and then starting a new one, writing a short quick drama for kids (the topic is of everybody’s age, and I was actually commissioned to write it,) and writing a number of well-received short stories and to top it all, being nominated for an internationally recognised award in english writing after a tense ten day camp and having discussions with prominent authors in Delhi, India. And all this led me to formulate five very important points that I believe any writer should incorporate. Perhaps some have already done it, perhaps some have not and perhaps there are some like me who preach them all but practice little. And as I explain to you those four points, I shall learn alongside you and adopt them. There will be change, gradually; you will see it. Continue…