Hi Prof. - you'll learn as you go, just google whenever you're stuck . Well I must admit that I don't have an academic mind at all and you may want a more methodical approach and quick results :rolleyes: .
The trouble with Linux is that it's so fragmented with hundreds of so-called "distributions" to choose from. Everybody's talking about Windows vs. Linux vs. Mac, but there isn't "a" Linux available (Lindows was a wannabe, but got crushed hard by M$ :doh: ). So the first thing you have to do is pick a distribution and as a newbie you'll want one with an easy installer and the best possible hardware detection (cause manually setting things up is a pain). Look at DistroWatch as mentioned to get an idea of the most popular ones.
Now, since a couple of years, most distibutions have what is called a "Live" CD/DVD that you can download & burn and which lets you try them out without installing anything to your hard drive. If everything works to your liking, you can often do the actual installation to HD from that same CD/DVD as well. But since you'll have a dedicated laptop for experimenting, I'd go for the full install immediately (and if it doesn't work first time, try again - having a floppy that can wipe your HD is handy). The hardware requirements have been explained very well above.
What I did in the beginning was buy magazines with a CD/DVD. They give you step-by-step installation and configuration instructions. Now with broadband it's probably easier and cheaper to download, but the written instructions would still be useful.
As you'll see from the ranking, the distro-du-jour is Ubuntu. Being actively maintained and with a wide user-base annex forum, it is highly recommended for a first experience. My personal preference would go to Kubuntu since I've always worked with the Windows lookalike GUI called KDE (K Desktop Environment) and not with its more eccentric competitor Gnome. My own more permanent installation is an older SuSE 10.0 release. I started out with Mandrake as it had one of the first installers that hardly required any Linux knowledge to get up and running, but meanwhile they're all pretty good.
Hope this helps as some background to venture into the magical world of Linux.