As summer fades to autumn, prospective grad students are eyeing applications. Professors are suggesting courses, and seniors are preparing for Graduate Record Exams (GREs). American physics programs  (and a few programs abroad) require or encourage applicants to take the Physics GRE. If you’ve sighted physics grad school in your crosshairs, consider adding Physics for Poets (PFP) to your course list. Many colleges develop this light-on-the-math tour of physics history for non-majors. But Physics for Poets can boost your Physics GRE score while reinforcing the knowledge gained from your physics major.

My senior spring in college, PFP manifested as “PHYS 001/002: Understanding the Universe: From Atoms to the Big Bang.” The tallness of this order failed to daunt Marcelo Gleiser, a cosmologist whose lectures swayed with a rhythm like a Foucault pendulum. From creation myths and Greek philosophers, we proceeded via Copernicus and Kepler to Newton and the Enlightenment, Maxwell and electromagnetism, the Industrial Revolution and thermodynamics, Einstein’s relativity, and WWII and the first quantum revolution, ending with particle physics and cosmology. The course provided a history credit I needed. It offered a breather from problem sets, sandwiching my biophysics and quantum-computation lectures. Pragmatism aside, PHYS 2 showcased the grandness of the physicist’s legacy—of my legacy. PHYS 2 sharpened my determination to do that legacy justice. To do it justice, most of us must pass tests. Here’s how PFP can help.

(1) A Foucault pendulum, invented during the 19th century to demonstrate that the Earth rotates. (2) An excuse to review noninertial reference frames.

Reviewing basic physics can improve GRE scores. If thermodynamics has faded from memory, good luck calculating a Carnot engine’s efficiency. Several guides (and I) recommend reviewing notes and textbooks, working practice problems, simulating exams, and discussing material with peers.

Taking PFP, you will review for the GRE. A list of the topics on the Physics GRE appears here. Of the 14 mechanics topics, eight surfaced in PHYS 2. Taking PFP will force you to review GRE topics that lack of time (or that procrastination) might force you to skip. Earning credit for GRE prep, you won’t have to shoehorn that prep into your schedule at the expense of research. The Physics GRE covers basic physics developed during the past 500 years; so do many PFP courses.

The GRE, you might protest, involves more math than PFP. But GRE questions probe less deeply, and PFP can galvanize more reviews of math, than you might expect. According to Stanford’s Society of Physics Students, “Each

[Physics GRE] question shouldn’t require much more than a minute’s worth of thought and computation.” Expect to use the Wave Equation and Maxwell’s Equations, not to derive the former from the latter. Some PFP instructors require students to memorize formulae needed on the GRE. PFP can verify whether your memory has interchanged the exponents in Kepler’s Third Law, or dropped the negative sign from the kinetic-energy term in Schrödinger’s Equation.

Even formulae excluded from PFP exams appear in PFP classes. In a PHYS 2 Powerpoint, Marcelo included Planck’s blackbody formula. Though he never asked me to regurgitate it, his review benefited me. Given such a Powerpoint, you can re-memorize the formula. Derive the Stefan-Boltzmann and Wien Displacement Laws. Do you remember how a blackbody’s energy density varies with frequency in the low-energy limit? PFP can catalyze your review of math used on the GRE.

xkcd - Science

Physics for Poets: It can work for applicants to physics grad programs.

While recapitulating basic physics, PFP can introduce “specialized” GRE topics. Examples include particle physics, astrophysics, and nuclear physics. Covered in advanced classes, these subjects might have evaded mention in your courses. Signing up for biophysics, I had to drop particle theory. PHYS 2 helped compensate for the drop. I learned enough about neutrinos and quarks to answer GRE questions about them. In addition to improving your score, surveying advanced topics in PFP can enhance your understanding of physics seminars and conversations. The tour can help you identify which research you should undertake. If you’ve tried condensed-matter and atmospheric research without finding your niche, tasting cosmology in PFP might point toward your next project. Sampling advanced topics in PFP, you can not only prepare for the GRE, but also enrich your research.

I am not encouraging you to replace advanced physics courses with PFP. I encourage you to complement advanced courses with PFP. If particle physics suits your schedule and intrigues you, enjoy. If you need to fulfill a history or social-sciences distribution requirement, check whether PFP can count. Consider PFP if you’ve committed to a thesis and three problem-set courses, you haven’t signed up for the minimum number of courses required by your college, and more problem sets would strangle you. Sleep deprivation improves neither exam scores nor understanding. Not that I sailed through PHYS 2 without working. I worked my rear off—fortunately for my science. Switching mindsets—pausing frustrating calculations to study Kepler—can refresh us. Stretch your calculational toolkit in advanced courses, and reinforce that toolkit with PFP.

In addition to reviewing basic physics and surveying specialized topics, you can seek study help from experts in PFP. When your questions about GRE topics overlap with PFP material, ask your instructor and TA. They’ll probably enjoy answering: Imagine teaching physics with little math, with one hand tied behind your back. Some students take your class not because they want to, but because they need science credits. Wouldn’t you enjoy directing a student who cares? While seeking answers, you can get to know your professor or TA. You can learn about his or her research. Maybe PFP will lead you to join that research. PFP not only may connect you to experts able to answer questions as no study guide can. PFP offers opportunities to enhance a course as few non-physics students can and to develop relationships with role models.

Science class

Instructors’ expertise has benefited science students throughout much of history.

Those relationships illustrate the benefits that PFP extends beyond GREs. As mentioned earlier, surveying advanced topics can diversify the research conversations you understand. The survey can direct you toward research you’ll pursue. Further exposure to research can follow from discussions with instructors. Intermissions from problem sets can promote efficiency. Other benefits of PFP include enhancement of explanatory skills and a bird’s-eye view of the scientific process to which you’re pledging several years. What a privilege we enjoy, PFP shows. We physicists explore questions asked for millennia. We wear mantles donned by Faraday, Bernoulli, and Pauli. When integrals pour out our ears and experiments break down, PFP can remind us why we bother. And that we’re in fine company.

Physics for Poets can improve your Physics GRE score and reinforce your physics major. Surveying basic physics, PFP will force you to review GRE topics. PFP may introduce specialized GRE topics absent from most physics majors. Opportunities abound to re-memorize equations and to complement lectures with math. Questioning instructors, you can deepen your understanding as with no study guide. Beyond boosting your GRE score, PFP can broaden your research repertoire, energize your calculations, improve your explanatory skills, and inspire.

Good luck with the academic year, and see you in grad school!