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. 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.😀

  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. 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.

  15. Very Inspiring

  16. I am 23 and I have been trying to find my calling for a while now. for the past three years I have been absolutely obsessed with science and my thirst for more knowledge about it keeps growing by the day. I am ok at math but never took any science or anything except algebra in highschool and alot of people seem to think I am not going to make it if I try a physics degree. My main issue is that my job will barely let me take any days off for school and I am a single mom with a three year old so I can not move too far from his dad to go to a good schoo. (Plus my grades from a while back arent the best so the best of the best colleges probably wont let me in anyways.) I have been so discouraged that I doubt myself constantly and get scared that I wont make enough money for me and my kid doing physics and that I will not be smart enough to pass the classees but this article made me feel so much better. Thank you so much for sharing I hope more people like me find this and it helps them as much as it is helping me.

  17. Thank you, I needed to hear this.

  18. Curious · · Reply

    Susan, I am inspired. Reading everything of yours truly has inspired me. I am also a philosophy student trying to learn and understand physics, and being told “you better get back to your philosophy class” every step along the way. So, I will keep trying because you do. I will do a double major and get a dual degree.

    I am just hoping you can answer one question for me. I noted that you said you transferred to Penn, the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school with a 10% acceptance rate. I am a little disheartened by this. You transferred to an Ivy League school to study physics? It sounds like you must have an incredible aptitude that I wish I had:/ I am at a state school and maybe this is the reason you are able to do physics and “we” (the general public) may not be. Your sheer intellect and being able to transfer into the Ivy League may be what sets you apart mentally. I truly sometimes feel as average as possible, going to a school no one has heard of with a 70% acceptance rate. I am wondering if you can provide insight into why we down here might be able to understand physics the way you do.

  19. Thank you. At 25 I’ve spent 8 years studying social sciences (namely geography) and its dawned on me recently that I’ve left myself behind, as a teen I was deeply interested in the universe, but like yourself, was told, or decided – I am not sure which – that I am not a math person. I wish someone had explained that math is a matter of practice, not talent.

    While I must go to grad school for a subject that compliments my undergrad training, my plan is to after that – take up study in physics. As soon as I can risk a GPA drop I’ll enroll in math and physics. I don’t know when this will be – but I know I need to make it happen. Thank you for your inspiring story.

  20. Samantha · · Reply

    Reading your story had encouraged me greatly. Like you, I didn’t have formal schooling. If we’re going to be technical about it- I was pulled out in the fourth grade. My parents were religious and poor, so an education was not high up on the importance last. On top of everything, my family is vehemently anti-science on every level. I was very good with art growing up, so I cheated on my GED testing and ran away to art school. I failed miserably because I had no idea how to learn or discipline myself to get work done. Fast-forward 4 years. I’m 22 and I’ve found my true love in life: scientific photography (a la Bernice Abbot). Specifically in particle physics and astrophysics. I’m preparing myself for a year of intense self-learning to try and make up for the eight grades I missed. I know nobody will be happy about me being there, especially if my focus is still on photography. I plan to double major, and possibly go on to grad school. But right now, I’m poor, unlearned, and every odd is against me doing this. But you’ve inspired me heavily and I feel much better. Thank you.

  21. I’ve failed my physics 2 semester in a row. At some point I want to give up on physics. It sad to see my friends getting high marks but I am still at the bottom holding failed flag 😭

  22. Thank you for post, as someone who really wants to do physics but been told I shouldn’t bother because I’m not good at Math I’m glad to see that your educational background hasn’t stopped you reaching your goal. I’m going to apply and keep reading your posts for inspiration/courage.

  23. Dearest Susan,

    Oh my god. You must be some type of god-sent, and I don’t even believe in god. I am so happy I found this post (and this blog in general) that I could almost cry. What you have written is not only so inspirational, but it’s something, well, kind of life-changing for me, much like how Feyman’s Lectures on Physics proved to be for you (I love them too, btw!). I just finished an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, and a few lectures on an online MOOC made me realize that the love of my life was physics (I used to love it in high school, but then social pressure forced me to pursue engineering). I regret not pursuing it professionally, and the more I looked around, the more I seemed convinced that there was no way I was getting into grad school in physics: nevermind that, honestly, because I don’t think I am good enough for it anyway. But this also led to the painful realization that I wouldn’t ever be able to learn physics at the level I want to, by working hard and staying dedicated and studying on my own (folks doing it professionally would always know so much more).

    Well, your post has proved me all wrong. I don’t think anymore that any of this matters, and if I love it, I should damn well study it, and so long as I keep at it, I am sure avenues will somehow open themselves to keep on furthering my education – thank you internet!

    Completely unrelated, but I also notice we share quite a lot of common interests, especially when it comes to things like philosophy and metaphysics. But, if you’re a “fledgling physicist” I am a fledgling-fledgling at all of these things. We also have a mutual shared love for literature, though I am not quite as dedicated as you in terms of looking into it in their original languages (I read the usual spectrum of accessible contemporary classic literature, like Kafka, Mann, Dostoevsky, and so forth). Last but not the least, I also like to code, though am by no means too proficient at it (I have a working knowledge of C and MATLAB). Adventuring is right up my alley. In fact, the aforementioned disillusionment has caused me to take this year off to travel and also to learn the things I want to learn (read: physics and chemistry and math) so that I can appropriately decide what I want to do with my life exactly.

    Oh, and I write poetry too.

    You’ve mentioned in your “About Me” that you’re a shy person, so you don’t have to by any means feel compelled to reply to this. But I just wanted to thank you and let you know that you’re like an elder soul-sis. If at all possible I’d love to talk to you, but if I can’t that’s fine too. You have done a lot for me by just putting out here what you have.


    P.S. If it wasn’t evident, I agree with every single word of your post. Especially the parts about the horrible lies and prejudices in society perpetuated about learning. That stereotyping itself leads to bad conditioning and stymies a person’s potential greatly.

  24. I am so happy that I stumbled upon this wonderful and uplifting message! Thank you! I have struggled with any and all math my whole life. I am extremely interested in astrophysics. However I am horrible with math. You have given me inspiration to forge ahead and tackle my dream. Again, thank you for the support!

  25. This is so inspiring! When I tell people that I will take a grad course on physics I get all those strange faces and a lot of “why on universe you would you take such course!?”
    I’ve been working with IT since 96, yeah! it’s correct 96!. It is not an easy task though with family’s responsibilities, job, etc.
    That’s why it is so important sharing experiences and inspiring stories is so important. I will make this my desktop background and keep going on physics!
    Thank you so much for this!

    I which you all the success in your challenge!


  26. Reblogged this on An attempt to Understand and commented:

    One of the most beautiful posts I’ve read in a long time.

  27. Hi, Susan. I’m a frustrated chemical engineer. Frustrated because I graduated, but the job I had didn’t allow me to grow as a decent engineer. A job is not always as we dream of, not always help us develop as good professionals. Right now, I’m unemployed (things here in Brazil are tough…) and decided to do something I really like: learn. And I decided to learn Physics. People are trying to take this idea out of my mind, they say it’s difficult, that I’m old to start a new graduation (I’m 36), but your message inspired me more as I was afraid of not being able to learn something so complex, but also so interesting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and views. And I’m sure that, by now, you must have got into grad school. I’m curious🙂 Keep up with this spirit and will win the world. xoxo

  28. I am just now finding this article and I am almost in tears of joy from reading the article and the comments. I am 26 years old with a degree in Political Science, but my true love is, and always has been science. I am debating whether or not to go back to school for physics/astronomy. This article has given me some hope.

  29. Well I hope your right.i am 23 never studied physics before.i want to get into carnegie Mellon to study computer science.I found your blog because I was trying to decide if I should take physics in SAT or just go with a subject I am comfortable with(biology).i am gambling a lot trying to take a subject I was never taught it could jeopardise my admission.free advice on how to progress will be appreciated

  30. […] “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.” Susan Fowler – Software Engineer at Uber […]

  31. rsdgserg · · Reply

    Okay so I am going to play devil’s advocate. Firstly, when people say that you must be “math person” to learn math, they don’t mean that you can’t learn math. Of course not. Unless you are mentally retarded you can learn math. What they actually mean is that unless you are a “math person” it might take much much longer for you to learn math than it should. If you are not a “math person” it might take you 3 years to learn the same amount that a “math person” would in a year. This is VERY important factor. We are mortals. Time is limited resource. If I know that it will take me 30 years instead of 10 to get to the level I want, sorry but I will not even start! I rather do something else during those 30 years. So if you are not a “math person” you might expect to invest 2-4 times more time than a “math person” would.

    Secondly, math and physics indeed are relatively complex subjects. Not all subjects are equally hard. Some are easier, some are harder. If you went to high school, then you will know that vast majority of people struggle with math and physics. Now of course there are exceptions. I am speaking generally here. Generally, most people struggle with math and physics (in comparison with other subjects). Now why is that? Maybe because math and physics indeed are more complex?

    Thirdly, you said “Being “good at it” or “smart” is beside the point.”. No, it’s not! Now it might come as a surprise to you, but when most people start to learn something, they do it because they expect to get good at it. Desire to become good at it is one of MAIN REASONS why people start in first place. This brings us back to my first argument. If you are willing to invest more time in your studies as to compensate for you not being a “math person” then go for it. Most people will not be willing to spend 2-4 years instead of 1 simply to compensate for them not being good at it.

  32. Cormac Canales · · Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Susan. It’s very inspirational, as well as a testament to the notion that success comes through the application of knowledge and unrelenting effort more than anything else.

    I was in a similar situation as yours and, as a child, I was one of those who believed the STEM fields were reserved exclusively for prodigies (I guess this is a cultural thing in our society?). After high school I spent two years teaching myself intermediate Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Pre-Calculus in my spare time to ready myself for a STEM program. I won’t lie: It was an uphill battle, but today I have a B.A. in Mathematics.

    Needless to say, my whole outlook on the abilities of both myself and my fellow man has changed dramatically because of this experience.

  33. You have inspired me.I orderd Quantum Physics. For Dummies Work Book. Going to give it a shot.
    Thank you

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