Scientific papers are pretty scary things when you are first starting your undergraduate degree. For one thing every other word seems to be in some strange secret language it is only possible to decipher if you have a genius-level intellect. Also, it can be very hard to see what it all has to do with the real world! What makes matters worse is the notation can vary hugely from one document to another, so as you are flicking through that paper you thought was on Brownian motion, none of the equations in the paper resemble anything in your A-level notes!
Often you will be encouraged to read around the subject and subscribe to academic journals, which is an excellent idea – however how on earth do you begin deciphering what each paper is actually saying? What’s more, when do you feel confident enough to make an informed decision about the viability of the paper and question the results? It certainly isn’t something that happens overnight; even at PhD level this is difficult so don’t worry if you are struggling now!
I was speaking to a current PhD student at the department today and they mentioned ‘Journal club’. This is a regular meeting held to discuss papers that have been published during the week and at each meeting you vote for the best. It sounds like a fantastic idea to me since by discussing the paper you automatically make it seem less daunting. Also by looking at papers regularly you will get better and better at picking up the salient points quickly and avoid spending your whole afternoon on the same paragraph! Even if the paper doesn’t make much sense you can always concentrate on the abstract and get an idea of the new research currently being undertaken. Maybe you could set something similar up with the other people in your Physics class?
However I still maintain at sixth form level the best way to read about Physics beyond your course syllabus is to read popular science books by the likes of Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Jeff Forshaw, Simon Singh, Brian Cox, Michio Kaku and so on. The books are written by authors with a working knowledge of physics and their enthusiasm for the subject is apparent in every line you read. Though (perhaps with the exception of Penrose) each book typically does not go into too much mathematical detail, the ideas they convey are up to masters level and beyond. Therefore they are a great way to get a glimpse of the material you will be studying later in your academic career.