Physicist: “I used to suck at math. Like really, really, suck.”

A new post has been long overdue, but I managed to stumble upon a very nice and helpful physicist. I first heard him speak during a livestreamed debate between him and a pseudo-scientist. His cogent and impressive debating skill impressed me enough to contact him and ask for pointers on improving in discourse. While I was at it I couldn’t let the chance slip to find out if he knew any late bloomers. Here is his reply:

Re: Late Bloomers
What I wanted to ask, do you have any examples of late bloomers who became scientists, chessmasters, engineers, etc., only later in life? More specific, people who were considered average, or ‘stupid’, but overcame their problems and succeeded anyway through a lot of struggle?

“Well, I can speak to my own experience here. I used to suck at math. Like really, really, suck. I took the bare minimum in high school and never had a strong intuition for mathematical problem solving. During my undergrad education, as I began to grow fonder of physics, I quickly understood that to be good at physics is to be adept at mathematical problem solving. I had to train myself to become much better at math. What types of math? You name it; Calculus, differential equations, vector calculus, linear algebra, complex analysis, tensors, etc. It seems daunting looking from the outside in. It can be hard work, but I found that you tend to pick it up as you go. Now, to the average person I seem like someone who is very proficient at mathematics. It’s funny because I sure as hell don’t feel that way when I look around at my colleagues and classmates. Imposter syndrome can be a real bitch, but you learn to get over it. I think it helps once you start publishing and realize, “Hey, I’m publishing and people are citing me. I’m having useful conversations with other professionals in the field and they’re interested in the next thing I have to say.” I think that’s a goal for any scientist, and it helps to get that type of validation rather than constantly comparing your perceived aptitude for physical problem solving to that of your friends and colleagues.

I also knew a guy who was doing his Ph.D. in physics in his late 40s, maybe early 50s? I’m not a big fan of the “it’s never too late” cliché, but it certainly rings true for some people. I wish I had more examples of famous scientists throughout history that fit the description you’re looking for, but I’m drawing a blank. It’s seems like you already know of a few and it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find a few more.

You’re 26? I’m 24 and had the same worries you did. You have plenty of time to achieve whatever academic goals you want. The age thing actually reminds me of something I should be ashamed to have forgotten…My undergraduate advisor (who I still collaborate with regularly) was a pretty late bloomer. I wish I could remember exact numbers but he started off as a marine biology major but never finished his degree (I myself completed a biology degree before getting my degree in physics). He traveled, did some soul-searching, and figured out what he really wanted to do; kind of like you did. He went back to school for physics, graduated, went to grad school and completed his Ph.D. in physics much later in life than the other people who follow the more standard academic track. He is now an accomplished scientist, snagged a tenure track position at a good university, and has a family.”

As you can imagine, I was pretty thrilled to have found yet another example of a late bloomer. Moreover, some weeks later he sent me the following out of the blue.

Hey, just saw this blog post and our conversation came to mind. I figured you might be interested in reading it to add to your list of examples.

I already came across that blog post by Susan Fowler, also a physicist, but shame on me for forgetting to mention it here. Better late than never though. Here is an excerpt, but you might as well read the whole thing.

So here I am, studying for finals, and I’m actually angry. Really, truly angry. Because there are so many people out there, like me, who were told at some point that they weren’t a math person, people who never had the opportunity to learn math or physics, and they are missing out on so much. Hell, I’m still told that!

If I can sit here and calculate the Debye temperature, you can too. If I can sit here and find Green’s functions, by god, you can too. If I can bang my head against my desk in frustration because I can’t figure out how to solve some crazy stat mech problem, you can too. If I can stay awake at night freaking out about the EPR paradox and the foundations of quantum mechanics, you damn well can too. Seriously. Instead of watching an extra hour of TV, go pick up a calculus textbook, or a book about the standard model – anything!

It’s no different than picking up a work of literature. It’s nothing more than trying to understand the world around you, learning to see it in new and different (and beautiful) ways. If I can learn physics, then so can you.

What are you waiting for! Go! Do!

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