Ploughing Through Theoretical Physics Textbooks Is Therapeutic

And finally science confirms it, in a sense.

Again and again, I’ve harped on this pet theory of mine – on this blog and elsewhere on the web: At the peak of my immersion in the so-called corporate world, as a super-busy bonus miles-collecting consultant, I turned to the only solace: Getting up (even) earlier, and starting to re-read all my old mathematics and physics textbooks and lecture notes.

The effect was two-fold: It made me more detached, perhaps more Stoic when facing the seemingly urgent challenges of the accelerated world. Maybe it already prepared me for a long and gradual withdrawal from that biosphere. But surprisingly, I felt it also made my work results (even ;-)) better: I clearly remember compiling documentation I wrote after setting up some security infrastructure with a client. Writing precise documentation was again more like casting scientific research results into stone, carefully picking each term and trying to be as succinct as possible.

As anybody else I enjoy reading about psychological research that confirms my biases one-datapoint-based research – and here it finally is. Thanks to Professor Gary for sharing it. Science says that Corporate-Speak Makes You Stupid. Haven’t we – Dilbert fans – always felt that this has to be true?

… I’ve met otherwise intelligent people, after working with management consultant, are convinced that infinitely-malleable concepts like “disruptive innovation,” “business ecosystem,” and “collaborative culture” have objective value.

In my post In Praise of Textbooks with Tons of Formulas I focused on possible positive explanations, like speeding up your rational System 2 ((c) Daniel Kahneman) – by getting accustomed to mathematics again. By training yourself to recognize patterns and to think out of the box when trying to find the clever twist to solve a physics problem. Re-reading this, I cringe though: Thinking out of the box has entered the corporate vocabulary already. Disclaimer: I am talking about ways to pick a mathematical approach, by drawing on other, slightly related problems intuitively – in the way Kahneman explains the so-called intuition of experts as pattern recognition.

But perhaps the explanation is really as simple as that we just need to shield ourselves from negative effects of certain ecosystems and cultures that are particularly intrusive and mind-bending. So this is my advice to physics and math graduates: Do not rely on your infamous analytical skills forever. First, using that phrase in a job application sounds like phony hollow BS (as unfortunately any self-advertising of social skills does). Second, these skills are real, but they will decay exponentially if you don’t hone them.

6 volumes on all of Theoretical Physics - 1960s self-consistent series by my late professor Wilhelm Macke

12 thoughts on “Ploughing Through Theoretical Physics Textbooks Is Therapeutic

  1. Hello Elke, I totally get that 🙂 I just recently embarked on a new programming journey, and I can feel my processors rearing up after a long time of stagnation. As a side effect, my overall problem solving capacity has drastically increased – or returned to previous levels – because I am again getting used to applying the abstract to the concrete

  2. Awesome advice! I have spent way to many years in the corporate “Disneyland” with its lingo and dumb theories such that like you, I find self-preservation in reading books with lots of formulas. I find it hard to be told by the next “awesome kid” that you have to be disruptive. What we used to call out-of-the-box, innovation, invention and before that R&D is the same but now meaningless. The worst part is that half the trick in management consulting is to tell the old story using the new nouns. My younger colleagues tell me: wow, you are so, like, YOUNG because you DISRUPT. Duh.
    I just enrolled for a course in machine learning with plenty of maths. Can’t wait to brush up on tensors. I will then write an AI to do my job so I can retire to a beach to finish the work of Einstein.

    • I am not really fully involved in corporate projects anymore – I just support some long-term clients now and then, mainly remotely. This remaining work in a corporate setting is as least ‘disruptive’ as it can get. I am more of a system archaeologist – helping hands-on tech guys with so-called legacy stuff that does not want to die. I always introduce myself with: I am like the Cobol programmers in the year 2000.

  3. Great post. (Thanks for claiming I provided inspiration.) I have saved and shelved my favorite math texts from college as well as some history of math books… maybe I should brave the dust and take a couple off the shelf!

  4. Nicely done. Is there a stress behind this post that motivated its writing? For me, there is some connections in that I’ve been engaged in an on-going debate about whether reading (more than a minimum) textbooks is helpful or harmful. This is to say, do we get stuck in a knowledge-seeking trap, or do we spend our time doing things with what we learn as we learn? I feel there is a lot of value in continued reading, such as you say, stress relief, absorption of the language and communication structures of a discipline, and honing of pattern-recognition. I also think that when faced with a problem to solve one of the challenges is to choose a way to approach it, and reading can help break this process down into manageable size. Picking a singular process to start, from the many possibilities, seems a bit easier when reading, perhaps we recognize the writer’s process of prioritizing and choosing, and creating a pathway through an idea which helps us to do the same. I really like mathematical writing for this. One of my instructors this term suggested I try Tom Apostol’s introductory books, and even after all the years I spent in the writing and literary world, I feel I have only just now begun to discover writing that I feel is truly beautiful, like a poetry of structure in every sentence.

    By the way, how are the seedlings? Tomatoes and eggplants again this year? (That was a lovely plant shelf you previously posted on. I still haven’t had a chance to go back and write a comment, but soon!)

    • Hi Michelle! Stress? No, no – rather the contrary 🙂 Everything is very well in the Combining Anything Universe 🙂 – I’m doing heat pumps & security & physics – all at the right pace and it a very rewarding way! I am happy to do some real physics even in engineering projects. It was the article shared by Gary that triggered this post! I was happy to have an excuse for reviging one of my favorite topics again.

      What I like about reading different textbooks is that I believe it is the essence of ‘physicist’s thinking’ to be able to see a phenomenon or problem from different perspectives, and to know how to solve things both exactly, if needed, but also to see an equation an make educated guesses about the solution because you know what to neglect, how to simplify, and how this fits into the Big Picture of all theories in physics.
      As an old-school dinosaur I do also like to really know things by heart and ‘see’ all those perpectives and patterns at the same time without ‘having to look up and google’ … totally against the mantra of You Just Need to Know Where to Search For Something. My heroes are Russion physicists of the last century who were masters of solving things ‘in their heads’ – for the lack of computing power and other resources. Using different textbooks helps to finally make all the approaches, proofs, and ideas ‘stick’.

      The seedlings are fine – fortunately. We had an unusually cold night in late April that caused existential issues for local farmers and wine makers: They have again – after a similarly unusual event last year – to deal with losing a substantial part of their crop.
      Our potatoes were also frozen but have recovered now, and we’ve just planted out the tomato seedlings. Onions, garlic, radishes, carrots, and our special ‘wild’ Gartenmelde (red orach – hope this is the right translation) have been doing fine early. Some of our cabbages have even suvived the record-breaking cold in January, and we could harvest them in Februrary. Eggplants, peppers, chilis, and one new type of kale are still waiting on that special shelf and still ‘sleep inhouse’. The Chief Engineer has also built one more work of art from old wood, copper tubes, and strings – for the climbers: cucumbers, zucchini, beans, and pumpkins. We sowed them in the garden in April and had already given up hope that those will ever sprout – but today we spotted the first seedlings.
      I tried cilantro for the first time – great herb, sprouts much faster than parsley. Our rosemary died last winter (having survived the previous ones), but thyme seems hardy, so I am just growing more of it from cuttings. Basil seems to grow better on my desktop than in the wild – we had basil all winter.
      BTW I’ve uncovered the secret why some of the plants were so miserable and small last year – it was not our process of growing them inhouse, but the so-called biodegradable pots simply did not degrade so the roots could never grow. Now we use nursery pots from old newspapers (‘origami-style’) and those work great.

      But we ‘miss’ the slimey aliens,the slugs ;-> so far. Seems this coldest January since 30 years has frozen all their eggs! Also the white kale-loving butterfly is truly missed 😉

      How’s life as a math student? Looking forward to your next update in your new blog ;-)!

      • Great to hear everything! I haven’t really been out to our garden yet this year. We had snow just a week or two ago (can’t remember exactly, but it was very chilly) and suddenly, two days of great heat. The fruit trees are bursting into flowers this morning.

        Life as a math student is good. I love this discipline, although I am feeling wedged in that struggle between introductory courses of first year and the more interesting ones of third year. The real work of this year has been in trying to communicate in a new field. This past week I’ve also been typing a paper into LaTex, and the file is now deciding it doesn’t want to execute. But despite all the work and the continuous problem solving (or maybe because of it) all is well. Maybe I shouldn’t risk saying this too soon, but there’s some reasons to think that I’ve found my area already, and I like the “settling” feeling that is coming with that.

        My oldest daughter, with one year of high school left, has taken a very serious (and excited) interest in mathematics. She’s also looking at biophysics and computing as possible post-secondary programs. There is a subtle but persistent bias in our communities here that girls are not suited to hard science, and she’s always felt the pressure of this as very distressing, especially as she’s been pushed toward literature and music by some of her teachers (as I was when I was her age). She’s doing a better job resisting this now that I am also resisting it, and is much happier. For this reason alone I would be glad to be back in school, but it’s been good for me, too. (My other daughter, however, is leaning to the social sciences! But I think it will be a good fit for her, and it is exciting to see her as joyful and optimistic about her future as her sister is.)

        I think I will have a short break in a couple of weeks, and I hope to get onto the blog and write something.

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