How to Think Like a Physicist (and Win at Life)

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 11/13/2015 1:04PM
Category: Learning

Did you know that physics teaches you how to think? More than complex equations and mountains of data, physics is really a workout for your brain. In the same way that brain training games like Sudoku and those created by Lumosity hone your critical thinking skills, physics uses higher-level math and problem sets to do the same. Better yet, says physicist Dr. Deborah Berebichez, critical thinking skills serve you well in all decision-related areas of your life, from grocery shopping to political elections. Best of all, Dr. Berebichez told us that training your brain to think like a physicist is as easy as these 3 simple steps. 

Step 1: Break it Down

Research out of Stanford shows that students required to analyze data and make corresponding decisions develop fantastic critical thinking skills. Emory University is convinced that increasingly interdisciplinary studies will require physics students to learn critical thinking skills in order to work with other scientists. So critical thinking skills -- NOT memorization of scientific facts -- are super important to the future of science education.** 

But what exactly is critical thinking?

Dr. Berebichez explains it as “the ability to abstract patterns from complex problems/ideas.” That may sound nebulous - and to many people it is. Especially high schoolers, according to this slide from physics and engineering teacher Alan Zollan:



But critical thinking doesn’t have to be this hard. In fact, in its basic form critical thinking is just problem solving. For example, in physics the problems are all about variables -- finding them, classifying them, and figuring out how they all work together. Identifying the variables is Step 1 in critical thinking because those variables are clues to solving the problem. Like this one:

An airplane accelerates down a runway at 3.20 m/s2 for 32.8 s until it finally lifts off of the ground. Determine the distance traveled before takeoff.

Don't panic! All you need to do in Step 1 is identify the information you've got. In this case, you've got the acceleration of the plane (3.20 m/s2).  and the amount of time it took to take off (32.8 seconds). If you weigh those clues against your knowledge of physics, you’ll figure out that you also need the acceleration of the plane to solve for the distance. And just like that, you figured out how to solve the problem. Kudos!

Here’s a non-physics problem:

Your date will arrive in 5 minutes. You have no idea what to wear, and only 2 bottoms and 3 tops are clean. They hate blue and 1 bottom and 2 tops are blue. What do you wear?

With that problem, you identify the variables that you know -- the time you’ve got (5 minutes), what clothes are clean (2 bottoms, 3 tops), and the fact that your date hates blue -- and come up with a solution to your problem. Same method, different application.

That ability to identify puzzle pieces is the core tenet of problem solving, and as you can see from these examples, it works in both physics and in life. 

Step 2: Spot the Patterns to See the Big Picture

After you’ve identified the puzzle pieces, Step 2 is figuring out how they work together. This is where your brain gets its biggest workout:



As you look at a problem and identify its variables in Step 1, what you’re really doing is “Reducing the problem to its basic question,” according to Dr. Berebichez. In identifying puzzle pieces in problems, you’re pushing your brain beyond simple memorization of facts. You’re pushing it one step further, running it through all of the actions in the slide above to locate and identify patterns. 

Patterns are templates with predictably repeating elements, and they’re how we make sense of the world around us. Patterns can be anything:



You recognize this as a pattern because the lines create the same shape, despite the differences in color. That’s how your brain recognizes patterns, by seeing images, breaking it down into its simplest components (line and shape) and identifying the similarities between them. Even better, once we’ve recognized a pattern our brains have the ability to transform it into concrete actionable steps.

Got that? You become smarter just by recognizing a pattern. And once you’ve done that, you’ve taught yourself how to learn. 

Step 3: Do it Again. And Again and Again.

This ability to recognize patterns allows us to “remove all the complexities in the problem and let [us] see its essence,” says Dr. Deborah Berebichez. Recognizing patterns allows us to see a problem from a larger perspective - and, once we’ve done that, we create a new pathway in our brain that makes solving that problem easier. In fact, recognizing patterns and identifying the larger perspective revealed by them levels up our intelligence. “Intelligence is really just a matter of being able to store more patterns than anyone else,” according to this Big Think piece.

But the key to that intelligence is practice, as Dr. Berebichez explains: 

With physics, because you have to solve so many problems, you start to get used to the way of thinking. You don’t get bogged down by problems and life in front of you - you start to look for commonality and patterns. Your brain recognizes that you’ve solved other problems like it, and the principles at work kick in. Physics is just a fast train.

Physics forces you to solve different kinds of problems so frequently that your brain gets a crash course in pattern analyzing. And that crash course forces your brain to learn and strengthen the methods it used to find those patterns, rather than just memorizing all of the variables. In short, in breaking down complex subjects into patterns and commonalities, your brain learns how to look at anything and identify what’s important about it -- and, more importantly, what isn’t important. Dr. Berebichez explains the difference with a comparison to coding: 

Coding is a language. If you learn a language without studying what you can do with it -- the culture, the philosophy -- you won’t benefit from all of its depths. The act of thinking through all of the data and figuring out which data is important cements your critical thinking skills. Without those skills, you won’t be able to solve problems. And that’ll keep you from getting anywhere in life.

Dr. Berebichez comes by her passion for critical thinking skills honestly. She grew up in Mexico City where she was actively discouraged from pursuing her passion for physics. “Don’t tell boys you like that!” her parents said. “They're never going to pay attention to you!” Physics was not a  viable career for a girl, and physics jobs were just for “boys and geniuses.” She decided to study philosophy instead, but her hunger and curiosity never went away. With the help of an amazing teaching assistant, she crammed 2 years worth of physics education into one summer to take her first physics class. “By this time I didn’t even remember algebra!” she says. She went on to become the first woman to earn a physics PhD from Stanford, and has since become a renowned data analyst, science communicator, and STEM advocate, especially for girls who were just as discouraged as she was.

Credit: Bruce F Press Photography


While perseverance and hard work helped her create the life she always wanted, it was physics that taught her how to get it. 

And if it worked for her, it can work for you, too. 

Dr. Berebichez loves talking about this! Reach out to her on Twitter @debbiebere if you need some encouragement.

Love science? Get involved at the ground floor of discovery and help make physics happen. Click here to explore science in the making.

Posted on: 11/13/15 1:04PM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
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#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

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Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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