If Susan Can Learn Physics, So Can You

Here I am, getting ready to pull an all-nighter studying for my grad quantum mechanics and mathematical methods in physics finals. By anyone’s standards, I shouldn’t be here. In fact, I shouldn’t be studying physics at all.

Up until a year and a half ago, I had never studied physics. Ever. In addition, I had learned nothing beyond sixth grade math: no algebra, no trig, no geometry, no calculus – nothing. In fact, I didn’t even know what sine and cosine were! I had been lucky enough to be introduced to logic and some algebra and set theory in my logic and philosophy of math courses, but beyond that, I knew absolutely nothing.

You see, I had no formal education until I got to college aside from taking music classes at a local community college when  I was really young. I won’t get into the reasons for this, but they had to do with growing up in a poor home where paying your own way and being self-sufficient were more important than getting a normal education.

Like most of us, I had heard throughout my life that math and physics were really difficult. If you weren’t “smart”, you shouldn’t even bother trying to learn either, people would say.

That is one of the biggest, most hurtful, and most destructive lies anyone can perpetuate.

Anyone can learn physics. Anyone can learn math. Being “good at it” or “smart” is beside the point. If we enacted the same set of rules for being allowed to learn a topic to any other area of study, it would be disastrous: only a select few would be allowed to read Plato, we wouldn’t let people study a foreign language if they weren’t able to learn it in a few weeks, and people wouldn’t be allowed to play guitar unless they had a decent shot at being a famous musician. That is how ridiculous it is.

So here I was, at a state school in Arizona, learning philosophy. I had to take a science course, so I picked Astronomy. During the professor’s office hours, he asked me why I wasn’t studying physics. When I told him it was something I wanted to learn but didn’t think I’d be able to, he told me that I could and should, and said that I should read Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. This completely changed my life.

I transferred to Penn with the hope that I could keep studying philosophy and start learning some physics, and man, they were not very happy to let me take physics or math courses. I spent every minute of my days trying to learn everything I had never been able to learn from 6th-12th grade physics and math. I had the most difficult time possible taking intro physics and the beginning calculus courses. I kept going. I knew that if I was ever going to learn this stuff, I had to learn it now.

I didn’t have any desire to become a physicist at the time. I didn’t even think of it as a possibility. I was studying philosophy, and wanted to focus on philosophy of science, and so learning the physics and that math that went along with it was the primary drive. My undergrad thesis advisor encouraged me to keep studying, to keep trying to understand physics, and so I kept trying.

I started to understand things. After working through what seemed like a million problems, things were making sense. I was still miles behind on all of the basics, but I kept going. I made the mistake, however, of telling people that I was new to physics and math – people don’t like to hear this. By this time in a student’s life, it’s determined whether you are a “math” or “physics” person or a “humanities” person, and so I got a lot of crap from administrators, from professors, from fellow students – you name it!

It wasn’t until a year ago today that I realized I actually wanted to study physics for the rest of my life. Six months in, I decided to take a course on quantum field theory. Not to sound cheesy, but it was like the sky had opened up. I saw how beautiful and elegant physics was, and I realized how stupid and sad it was that only a select group of people who have been deemed “smart” were ever given the opportunity to learn about this. I decided that I would always study physics, regardless of where I found myself in life. Working retail, having an office job, teaching elementary school – no matter where I ended up in life, I knew I wanted to spend my free time studying physics for the rest of my life.

This past year, I’ve kept up with it. I’ve had a research job and am working on analyzing ATLAS data. I’m helping design electronics that will go in the ATLAS detector. This semester, I took four grad courses in physics. I have learned more than I ever thought I could. My hope is to go to grad school for physics, and continue to do physics for the rest of my life. I probably won’t get into grad school, because I don’t have the same lifelong track record in math and physics that all my peers do, but I am okay with that, because I know that no matter where I find myself in life, I can always pick up a textbook or a paper from the arXiv and learn more about the nature of the universe.

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.


  1. Very inspiring article. More people need to hear your message…

  2. What exactly did you do to catch up on middle and high school mathematics?

    Also, what drove your decision to transfer from Arizona to UPenn?

    I agree with Amitabba. Quite inspiring!

  3. dubatomic · · Reply

    Thanks Susan! I’m passing on your message. I was also disuaded from physics from counselors. did it anyway, as well.

  4. brian j. · · Reply

    Great article and important topic. We as a society are not encouraging enough people to go into fields like these. I wonder if the teachers/professors had more of an impact than the subject matter. I feel that good instructors can make any subject beautiful. Do any of yours stand out in your mind?

  5. As a nuclear physicist I support your message. :D

  6. Very interested in how you learned things, which books you’ve read, how you approach problems etc. Thanks for the inspiring post. Good luck on your finals. You’ve made me think twice. If you don’t mind I’d like to pick your brain about learning physics sometime bc I love physics and refuse to give up the dream. I have two daughters aged 11 and 7. I want both of them to learn to love science and mathematics (among other things of course…) My wife Jacqueline Tourville wrote a children’s book titled “Albie’s First Word” published by Random House next year 2014 about the childhood of Albert Einstein. Physics is a glorious subject and we are so fortunate to be living in these times. I’m so happy for your success learning physics. :)

  7. shannon goncalves · · Reply

    Hello, my name is Shannon and I am very touched by your story. One question: How did you go about learn grade6-12th grade math? How did you learn? Did you have a tutor? Take side courses? Teach yourself? IM very curious!

  8. This is inspiring! All the best in your studies!
    If you really want to go to grad school to research + study physics, don’t let your un-traditional track record stop you! There are TONS of schools (Some less competitive than others) and TONS of funding opportunities. You can start of at a smaller school for a MS and then transfer to a larger one for a PhD !! Focus on learning as much as you can and work with your advisers to write a bomb personal statement. Don’t lose your enthusiasm — it’ll take you places!!
    A senior physics major @ the University of Maryland

  9. Jason Davis · · Reply

    I wish I had read this 20 years ago when I was young enough to Mae a change. As it is, at 45, if I started back to school niw, I wouldn’t finish grad school till I was in my 50s and tgen looking for an entry-level position at that age and having to pay back student loans from that age aren’t something I’m interested in. So I, too, will study on my own for the love of it – not simply for the paycheck.

  10. Jorge · · Reply

    Your level, at least conceptually, seems to be way greather than that of the mean average undergrad physicist. I’m an undergrad physicist too, (switched to physics after three years of biology) finishing my studies (and doing my undergrad studies final project on properties of the Higgs Boson in the MSSM) and working at the same time as script writer for a quite large company in my country (Spain). I’m a very, very bad student, I’m quite lazy and the undergrad progamme does not motivate me. But I deeply love both physics and math, and I’ve found that one of the most rewarding things in life is study it, just for the fun, inspiration and fascination of it. Not make such a beautiful thing a repetitive task in the form of undergrad studes.

    Hope to read more from you soon

    Kind regards

  11. Your philosophy background was more helpful than you realize. I think it would be easier to learn the philosophy first and then the physics rather than the other way around as odd as it sounds. The critical thinking and analytical reasoning that you get from a philosophy education is comparable to that of a physics degree.

  12. Lauren · · Reply

    At 26 years old with an arts degree under my belt and an education history which is basically 100% arts based your posts give me hope that it’s not too late for me to dive in to math and physics. I found this site while googling for resources to begin my studying! Looking forward to reading your future posts.

  13. Christine · · Reply

    This is such an inspiring message, good luck with your future studies (with or without the support of a university advisor). Don’t be put off by negative comments, they are pretty much irrelevent.
    You might find the following interesting:


    Remember, if a Nobel prize winning physicist thinks you can do it, then who is a university administrator to stop you.

    Best of luck Susan,
    Christine (post doctoral physicist)

  14. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your next post thank yoou once again.

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