The Condensed Guide to Learning Physics

The death of a sun-like star (Courtesy NASA, ESA, K. Noll)

Last year I accepted a job in my dream location. There was just a slight wrinkle–I was hired to write about the physical sciences, and high school was the last time I encountered vector problems. Well into my twenties, I couldn’t reliably remember the difference between protons and neutrons, much less more exotic particles. Even though I’d been trained to translate complex scientific topics into lay terms, I never dreamed those topics might be W and Z bosons.

I had to get up to speed on some of the big questions in physics (among other disciplines)–and fast. Compiled here are some of the resources, just a fraction of what’s out there, that have proven most useful in this ongoing quest.


If you want your physics straight from the scientists: Try In Our Time Science podcast, from BBC. Melvyn Bragg is delightfully British, his guests rank among the best in their fields, and the programs are timeless–because they’re determined by topic rather than by a news peg. Some of my favorite physics/space-related programs include: Graviton, Galaxies, The Neutrino, Antimatter, The Physics of Time, and The Age of the Universe.
If you want your physics with a dose of entertainment: Try StarTalk Radio, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. StarTalk targets the lay radio listener who might not otherwise seek out physics or science programming, so expect explorations of sci-fi/pop culture and a guest list that includes nonspecialists–comics, entertainers, and other public figures–to ask the questions scientists won’t. The live format can be a little messy, but I always enjoy the Cosmic Queries shows, in which Tyson answers great listener-submitted questions.


Books: The options are overwhelming, and dedicated readers might do well to just hunker down in front of their library’s 530s section. Frank Close has a series of engaging and short popular science accounts on sexy topics–I’ve enjoyed Antimatter and Neutrino. Symmetry has a nice list of non-technical books from the past five years.
Print magazines: Popular science articles are low-commitment, high-benefit, and require only a basic scientific vocabulary. I now relish features that I used to skip over. Some of my favorite pieces of recent months covered dark matter (Popular Science), supernovas and neutrinos (Scientific American), and gravity waves (Scientific American, preview only).
Online resources: Check out Symmetry Magazine, the classic Feynman Lectures online, and CERN‘s website.


Twitter: Governmental and university physics labs and particle accelerators, like @fermilab, @CERN, @ATLASexperiment, and @SLAClab, will keep you up to date on official events and results. For smart and informal commentary, follow the scientists themselves.
Reddit: If you don’t mind a little wading, /r/Science and /r/AskScience can be excellent resources for curated science news and oddly specific questions.


Coursera: Take full-length university courses for free. Some upcoming highlights include Galaxies and Cosmology at Caltech, Highlights of Modern Astronomy at the University of Rochester, and a mechanics course at UNSW Australia.
Academic Earth: Free lectures from top universities. Pick and choose topics you’re interested in or follow an entire course.


Last but not least, it always helps to know a physics guru who will answer your questions without judgement. You don’t need to knock on the door of a university professor–it’s likely you already know a friend or family member with the physics bug who will be happy to give you the lowdown on supersymmetry.

ERIN WEEKS is a science writer at Duke University.

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