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Ask Brian Greene: How Did You Become a Physicist?

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bg bwBrian Greene continues the WSF Live Forum all month long. Each day, he’ll answer one of your questions for this ongoing 2011 series that delves into the fundamental nature of space, time, and reality as we may or may not know it.

Brian, what was the driving force that made you who you are as a physicist? My intended major is physics, and it can become weird at times as much as I love it. What do you recommend me to do while I attend a community college? I really want to become a famous physicist like you with my passion for physics.
—Kenneth Rosario-Gonzalez, Tampa, Florida

There were two forces that drove me to physics. The first was a love of numbers. When early on my dad taught me the basics of arithmetic, I was amazed that with just paper and pencil you could endlessly do new things. I remember when I was about 5, I’d tape together many large sheets of construction paper on which I’d spend days multiplying two 30 digit numbers. I found it captivating to do a calculation that, more than likely, no one had ever done before. And with good reason—the calculation wasn’t particularly useful or interesting. But for a young kid, a calculation like that felt like a swashbuckling journey into the unknown. When years later, in high school, I learned that the mathematical games I’d been playing could be used, through physics, to describe things that happen in the real world—to determine the flight of a baseball, the spin of the Earth, the motion of the planets—I was hooked for good.

The second force came from the kinds of questions that most every kid (and adult) asks themselves at some point: Why am I here? Is there a purpose to life? What should I do with the short time I’m allotted? And so on. As I teenager I’d think about these questions, and realized that although generations upon generations had pondered them, there were no universally agreed-upon answers. Which meant that it was pretty unlikely that I’d find any answers either. So, rather than trying to answer them, I shifted my focus to trying to understand the questions themselves as deeply as possible—trying to understand the framework, the context within which the questions are asked. How did the universe come to be? Where did time come from? How do stars, galaxies, and planets form? What are the basic constituents of the universe and how do they interact? And these are the very kinds of central questions that are at the heart of research in fundamental physics.

As far as advice, the main thing I’d recommend is this: Read popular books and watch good science programs to get the big picture—to get a sense of the truly wondrous ideas being pursued and developed in many areas of science. Having that kind of inspired overview is vital. But, at the same time, work intensely to learn the basics, from Newton’s laws, to Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations, to quantum mechanics, to statistical mechanics, and so on. Forefront research relies on all the developments that have come before. To fully participate, you need to deeply grasp that foundational material. This is not always easy. Doing detailed calculations of the motion of spinning tops or the quantum mechanical spectra of hydrogen can be a slog. But only by immersing yourself in such details, only by sharpening both your physical intuition and calculations skills, will you be prepared to join the community of researchers pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

See other questions from this 2011 series

Brian Greene is co-founder of the World Science Festival and professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. His books include The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality. NOVA’s miniseries “The Fabric of the Cosmos” airs Wednesday nights on PBS.

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