How to learn physics from scratch

Oscar Nieves
5 min readJul 13, 2021

And how far to go with it.

The quantum corral. Image courtesey of

Physics is a difficult thing to study. Not just because it requires a lot of mathematics, but also because it requires a lot of patience, dedication and time. Most people only learn physics in high school, and never touch on the subject again, perhaps they don’t need it, or they go into a profession which doesn’t require any knowledge of physics. Whichever the case may be, there are certainly wrong and right approaches to learning physics. In this short article, I will explain how to get the most out of your learning. This comes after almost 9 years of learning physics at university, from doing a Bachelor’s degree with honours research, to my most recent PhD in theoretical physics. I have made many mistakes in my own learning, but I have also learned many valuable lessons. Here is a summary of the right approach.

1. Set clear expectations from the start

If you want to learn and understand physics to the level of someone who learned it at university, or at least enough to understand what is going on in physics research at the moment and follow most research papers, you will need to dedicate at least 3 years of your time to studying this. It may not be pretty, but it’s important to set the right expectations before you begin. Having said that, here is the key thing: you don’t need to do a degree in physics to do physics. You just need to find the adequate resources and textbooks, and be consistent with your learning. Perhaps dedicating some 10–20 hours of study every week will suffice depending on your rate of learning. Remember the key aspect of physics: understanding, not memorization. A lot of people think physics, much like chemistry and biology, is about memorizing concepts and formulas. The truth is, if you don’t understand how to apply the concepts, laws and formulas to real problems, and you just know what they say or look like, then you are not really understanding physics.

2. You need to learn mathematics, first

The #1 thing that turns people away from learning physics in their own time is the fact that, unlike biology and chemistry; physics uses a ton of maths. And I mean: a ton. Quite surprisingly in my many years of university teaching I have found that students have more…

Oscar Nieves

I write stories about applied math, physics and engineering.