PAIGI: Resources For The Citizen Scientist

So in my last PAIGI (Physics As I See It) post, I mentioned a bad experience at my campus engineering library. I found that not every librarian in a STEM-specific library is trained to find field-specific resources. I took a question about Richard Feynman’s QED lectures to the reference desk and walked away unsatisfied but also curious about how that interaction could have gone differently. If she had, say, looked in a database or a STEM-specific resource instead of Googling, would we have found what I was looking for? Was training to blame, or a lack of intuitive knowledge about physics?

So instead of going in on this young lady who probably is not a library science student and probably never heard of Feynman in her life, I’ll share with everyone some of the resources I have used to find physics and STEM-related information. Most of them are online, since students often spend the majority of time in front of a computer. Some of it may seem obvious or just intuitive, but in the interest of transparency, I’ll be sharing them all.

  • College textbooks. Or even high school level textbooks. It’s all about recognizing what level of information experience you are at, and what you are willing to teach or reteach yourself in order to get the right answer. I have some college-level physics textbooks, but I also recognize that I will need to brush up on my calculus and college algebra, which may been starting in a 12th grade math book to remind myself of the basics. Check your local library for older editions of textbooks; they may not be up to date, but they will still have the essentials. The only downside is that often times the online accompanying material is no longer accessible, especially if you don’t buy the book yourself and lack any access codes.
  • Wikipedia. Wait, what? Believe it or not, I’ve found that Wikipedia articles are good places for introductions to STEM ideas and themes, as well as explaining complicated formulas and diagrams. As an example, let’s look at the page for Feynman diagrams; there are, naturally, lots of diagrams, and explanations of those diagrams, references and notes that are accessible online, and links to definitions of various vocabulary terms used whose meaning may not be obvious in context. I would not use Wikipedia as my primary source of information for a particular idea, but it’s a great starting point.
  • Academic Databases. This will depend on your level of access. If you are a college student and your college gives you access to lots of databases, this is a great deal. A public library might give you less access to less databases, but they should have access to a goodly amount regardless. My current fave is Engineering Village, which searches across a wide berth of STEM databases, including GEOBASE (earth science) and Inspec (engineering/math/computer science). When in doubt, call your favored library and ask what databases your membership gives you access to.
  • YouTube. Video tutorials are pretty much one of the best resources I have found, especially as someone who learns complicated ideas best by having them explained visually. There are so many channels on YouTube dedicated to science lessons and experiments, from unis to amateur scientists, that one can easily spend days watching science videos on YT. The best way I’ve navigated YouTube’s massive library is to simply focus on a particular aspect of physics I am interested in learning about that day, and let the search guide my viewing. Your local college’s engineering and math departments might also have their own channel on YouTube, so be sure to look for those and check their videos out.
  • Twitter. The scientist community on Twitter is amazing. There really is no limit to what they will be talking about in a given week. The best account to follow for STEM facts and news is @realscientists, in which every week a different scientist takes over the account and talks about their field and what they do. There’s been a focus on biology and climate science recently, but that could easily change! From there, you can find out where scientists in your field of interest are, follow them, see who they retweet, and fill up your feed with science stuff.

Have any online resources you swear by? Think I’m leaving an essential out? Talk about it in the comments!

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