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Algebra Based Physics vs. Calculus Based Physics

  1. Aug 20, 2013 #1
    When I entered college as a freshman, I was in a biotechnology major, which was one of the less rigorous science majors offered at the university. It required only algebra based physics. I took classical mechanics spring semester freshman year, and I took electricity, magnetism, light, and optics the fall semester of my sophomore year. I thought they were fairly easy and ended up getting A's in them. During my sophomore year I took organic chemistry and absolutely loved it while also retaining my passion for the cellular life sciences. During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I decided that I wanted to switch to biochemistry and molecular biology.
    The biochemistry and molecular biology major had two options, one that was a little more chemistry focused, and one that was a little more focused on molecular and cellular biology. I would have preferred entering the more chemistry focused one, but that one required calculus based physics, so I had to take the molecular and cellular biology option which only required algebra based physics.
    My plan is basically to fulfill the requirements for the molecular and cellular biology option while focusing my electives on the more quantitative chemistry courses.
    My plan after undergrad is to go into graduate school for biochemistry. Will the fact that I took algebra based physics haunt me through graduate school?
    I will be a junior this fall semester.
    Preferably I would like somebody who took both to comment on the real differences between algebra based and calculus based physics besides the math used.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2013 #2
    Don't everyone answer at once.
  4. Aug 21, 2013 #3


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    I'm going to go out on a limb and say, if you do later courses that use calculus, it shouldn't matter for you. But if you somehow skirt learning calculus or learn it but never use it, that could hurt later. But we have a policy here not to give advice that is of dubious quality. I think this is why no one has answered, we don't want to give you the wrong advice. I hope this is not dubious advice. If you can go to grad school having learned and used calculus, so that it is a skill you have, I see no reason why there should be a problem.
  5. Aug 21, 2013 #4
    I'm taking physical chemistry this fall semester, which is a calculus based course. I have taken calculus 1 and 2 and received A's in them both. Do you think this is enough?
  6. Aug 21, 2013 #5
    Not knowing that I was going to major in physics, I also took algebra-based introductory physics classes at a community college. I've since taken and done well in upper-level physics classes, however I've spent a lot of my free time going back and learning basic physics the proper way, illuminated by calculus. I didn't know it then, but looking back now I can see that algebra-based physics, largely by necessity, is a watered-down version of physics, often leaving out derivations and just presenting "the answer" or "the equation" or omitting entire concepts completely when there's no way to present them sensibly without calculus.

    Algebra-based physics really hurt me as a physics major, but you may fare better in biochemistry. I'm not familiar enough with that field to know how deep a knowledge of physics is required. You may be able to get by with just knowing the equations.
  7. Aug 21, 2013 #6
    Specifically which ideas and concepts in physics require calculus in order to gain a serious understanding?
    I wouldn't mind learning these concepts on my own next summer when I have free time.
  8. Aug 21, 2013 #7
    As far as introductory material goes, calculus is used somewhat for classical mechanics and optics/waves/thermo. In electricity and magnetism, calculus is used throughout the entire course. I'm not sure what an algebra-based course in E+M would cover due to the high importance of calculus in this area. I'd recommend getting a calculus based intro textbook from the library.
  9. Aug 21, 2013 #8
    It sounds like you know enough calculus to get through a calc based physics book.

    You can probably cover a fair amount of classical mechanics with algebra. You won't get into any of the fun stuff like Hamiltonians, but doing the basics is doable. Of course, the way acceleration, velocity, and position are all related is simply described with calculus, but you don't absolutely need it. That's a good start though - look at how acceleration and velocity are related via a derivative and go from there.

    As noted above, E&M needs calculus. I'm not even sure how you teach that subject without calculus. Maybe some simple things Ohm's law and what not, but any of the important stuff.

    Quantum and statistical mechanics both use calculus, but you probably don't really cover those topics very much in your courses.
  10. Aug 22, 2013 #9


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    I've had some similar questions lately. I'm taking the first course of a two course algebra based physics sequence this semester, and then starting the calc based physics sequence next semester. The algebra based course is a prerequisite for the calc based courses.

    I've been wondering if I would be at any kind of disadvantage because I won't be taking the second algebra based course before starting the calc courses, but after reading some of these comments I'm less concerned. The first course in the sequence is classical mechanics and thermodynamics, and the second course is E&M, relativity, and quantum. Would it even really be beneficial to have learned these subjects with algebra before taking them with calculus?
  11. Aug 22, 2013 #10
    I can't really answer your question for you, because all of us come prepared differently. So my story might not be helpful.

    I can tell you that I never was exposed algebra based physics other than a joke of a high school class that never got beyond basic mechanics of the balls colliding variety. In college, I started with calc-based physics for majors and never looked back, doing quite fine and getting my Ph.D. So it can be done.

    On the other hand, if all other things are equal (which they never are), more exposure to the same topics is usually a good thing.
  12. Aug 22, 2013 #11


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    I never understood what this "calculus free physics" is all about. It's way more complicated than using calculus. It's not by chance that calculus has been developed by Newton in connection with physical problems since it's the natural language to express the laws of nature. It's like an adequate language to talk about physics and nature. In "calculus free physics" they claim not to use calculus but then argue with "average velocities over a very short time interval", which is nothing else than the derivative of position with respect to time and so on.
  13. Aug 22, 2013 #12
    Yeah it's pretty silly, and if I would have known this, in hindsight I would have taken calculus-based physics, especially since I was really good at calculus.
  14. Aug 22, 2013 #13


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    For most science/engineering students, they must take calculus-based physics courses in US colleges for that course to count. Physics courses with no calculus are often courses offered to non-science students who wish to fulfill their physical science requirements, or students pre-med students who have to study for their MCAT. Most of these students have not had any calculus, so these are the courses designed for them.

    And certainly, I am of the agreement that, from my perspective, the subject will appear more disjointed without the use of any calculus. The often-used kinematic equations will seem to appear out of nowhere and would look like 3 different beasts.

  15. Aug 22, 2013 #14
    Correction: Algebra based physics is not meant for a gen-ed class, there are dumbed down versions of the standard algebra based physics courses meant to count towards gen-ed requirements for non-science or engineering majors.
    Algebra based physics is typically something meant for life science majors because algebra based physics generally only takes two semesters to complete as opposed to 3 for calculus based physics. I am guessing because the material is not as in-depth. This frees up room for another life science course.
    Algebra based physics is also what engineering technology majors take as well.
  16. Aug 22, 2013 #15
    I was a biochem major and I did whatever to avoid calculus. It was a big big mistake. Yes, I took the non calculus physics and I regret every bit of this. You don't know what career you end up, you'll be surprised how many people end up in career not in their field of study. Calculus is the language of science like English is language of everything else. Advanced physics and electromagnetics can only be explained by calculus. I ended up had to re-studied all the calculus. So bite the bullet and study it. Also, when you get to physical chemistry ( the most difficult one), you'll be glad you have the calculus background. I believe you only need Cal I and II, it's not that bad!!!

    FYI, I got my degree in biochem, end up choose EE and finished my 30 years career as an EE and manager of EE, never work a day in my major.
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