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Any recommendtions for self-studying physics?

  1. Apr 22, 2014 #1
    I'm currently finishing my grade 11 year of high school and I have hopes of attending one of the prestigious schools in the US such as MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, etc. I would love to be able to study physics in university and, since my school's physics courses are lacking any significant difficulty, I've been taking it upon myself to learn physics. I have a very strong ability to do the necessary math and have taken university calculus courses to prepare.

    However, the field is brimming with a wealth of resources and I'm just not sure what to choose and was hoping you would be able to help me out a little.

    I currently own Stephen Hawking's books: The Grand Design, The Universe in a Nutshell, and A Brief History of Time. Now I know these are written without the technical aspects involved and more for the general public, but I'm sure they'd make great reads when I find time. However, I'm more looking into resources which actually teach the math and techniques behind the ideas.

    I've found countless courses on MIT OpenCourseware and other online course resources including Leonard Susskind's The Theoretical Minimum courses. As far as books go, I've been interested in Leonard Susskind's two Theoretical Minimum books. I've also taken a great interest in Richard Feynman's work and so I'm interested in purchasing the Feynman Lecture on Physics boxed set with the accompanying exercise book being published this summer.

    What I'm thinking of is reading through a university physics textbook I own called "Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics" written by Randall D. Knight and working through the exercises. Additionally, I could watch lectures from both MIT OCW courses and Susskind's courses. I would love to read the Feynman lectures as well as I go, but I'm still not sure about that.

    I would like to listen to any recommendations any of you may have as to which resources I should use to gain a good understanding of physics.

    Any advice would be very much appreciated!!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 22, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    You are basically doing the right things ... but you want some sort of guided approach to avoid having your brain just wander off in a hundred directions at once.

    Use the MIT Opencourseware you've found as a guide. Start with the beginning papers - they will recap everything secondary school should have taught you but very fast.

    Use the text books for problems and examples... which you plan to do. Knight's books seem to get good reviews so you have made a decent choice.

    Feynman's series are not normally that great for learning from until after you have finished the year-1 papers from the MIT set. Feynman lecture series is available online anyway: you don't need to spend all that much money on the boxed set. That's more for collectors.

    Keep us posted on how you get on :)
  4. Apr 22, 2014 #3
    Well that's reassuring! And that is exactly what I feel my brain doing every single day which is why I decided to ask around.

    By "papers", do you mean the notes that accompany the courses? I'm sorry, I wasn't sure what you meant by that.

    As for the Feynman Lectures, that is unfortunately what I've heard from many people and so I guess it will have to wait :(

    There's one more question I would like to ask. My parents are very supportive of my education and are willing to purchase resources for me as I see fit. It was recently my birthday and I was thinking of asking for them to buy the Feynman Lectures (I do consider myself a collector and love having physical copies) but have decided not to anymore. Instead, with roughly $200, what would you recommend purchasing in terms of learning materials that I would need the most right now? Whether it be a physics textbook by Landau or another famous one or a book to bring my math skills up to speed such as Gilbert Strang's Linear Algebra.

    Thanks again! :)
  5. Apr 22, 2014 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    University courses are called "papers" in many countries. The paper in question being the course notes: yes.

    I dunno - whatever lights you up I guess.

    My personal choice would be more towards physics equipment, so you can do the experiments.
  6. Apr 22, 2014 #5
    Thanks for the clarification!

    I think that would be a much better use of the money than the resources. I just have a tendency to want to have physical copies of textbooks instead of using the electronic versions freely available. I'll consider the options and I guess I'm the only one who can decide. Thanks :)
  7. Apr 23, 2014 #6
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  8. Apr 23, 2014 #7
    I'd have to agree with that although it definitely is always tempting to use the newest editions.

    I took a look at both of these and the reviews seem to be pretty good. Would you recommend these textbooks over the one written by Knight in terms of preparing for university?
  9. Apr 23, 2014 #8
    You are young. :-) Later on, you'll hopefully learn that sometimes newer does not necessarily means better. Sometimes there's no room for improvement: that's what makes a classic.

    Consider this: I regard myself as a Feynmaniac, and yet my last posts in this forum appears to be only about French. To make it short, while Feynman is the 'amazing magician', French is the 'gifted teacher'. French's first book of the MIT Introductory Physics Series (Newtonian Mechanics) is more than a collection of physical concepts and laws. It's a book about physics. Even more than that: IMBO it's a book about the love for physics.

    Do not be fooled by its age or by the fact that you won't find fancy graphics and colored pictures in it. It does not need them.
  10. Apr 23, 2014 #9
    I don't know the Knight text.
  11. Apr 23, 2014 #10
    Well this is the link the the third edition of his book.

    The link to the edition I have is here but there is no description. The text above should be pretty similar though.
  12. Apr 23, 2014 #11
    Well, I completely agree with that and understand that but the fact that I'm still new to it all draws me towards the newest editions for now. I've never learned things using old material but I'm sure I'll love it once I do.

    I must say, you're really encouraging me to purchase French's book! After how you've described it, I'm sure I'll love it. So I'll probably purchase that if it's not too expensive and also I was thinking of purchasing Gilbert Strang's Linear Algebra textbook in order to learn linear algebra from what seems to be the best! Thanks :)
  13. Apr 23, 2014 #12
    You should invest a few bucks in a bus ticket to the nearest public library with a copy of French's book. SO that you can see for yourself. If you don't dislike it (you'll like and love it afterward), I suggest you buy a used copy for 10-15 bucks. It's affordable and you won't lose anything: the newest Norton paperback looks like a badly xeroxed copy. So, the older your used copy is, the better it will be.

    But I also suggest you get a copy of a more 'conventional' textbook. I had a look at Knights a few years earlier and I did like the book. I prefer Knight's over Halliday & Resnick or Serway (but I understand it's a matter of own tastes, at any rate none of those are bad books). I also like Ohanian's Physics big tome in two volumes (I bought the 2nd edition -two volumes as one - for 3 bucks!). Well, I guess one of these will do (they are basically equivalent, so try to find them in a library or in a bookstore to make up your mind about which one better suits your tastes). For this, too, my advice is to get a cheap used copy (you can always buy a brand new copy later on, once you have grasped the basic concepts and your tastes have matured).

    I'd say that with French and one of this comprehensive tomes you will be set for the whole summer. I'd suggest you focus only on these two.
    The conventional textbook will give you a comprehensive description of physical phenomena, laws and concepts.
    French, on the other hand, will give you what elsewhere is 'written between the lines' (I hope it is clear what I mean with that).
    But start with French, it will point you in the right direction.

    Leave divulgative books alone, they are necessarily imprecise and, most importantly, if you have the real stuff to study you won't need them.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  14. Apr 25, 2014 #13
    Luckily, I've found that a university near me has North America's third largest academic library and I'm pretty excited to go there one day in the next couple of weeks. A quick catalogue search showed that they do in fact own French's book. I have also found a PDF and, after skimming through, it already seems very interesting. Where would one be sold at the price you mentioned?

    So far, Knight's seems pretty good for my tastes and I think I'll be using that as my "conventional" textbook alongside the online lectures as well as possibly French's book and/or Feynman's for supplement. I know exactly what you mean by "between the lines" and love reading books which describe concepts at that level of detail.

    Thanks again!
  15. Apr 27, 2014 #14
    On the amazon marketplace, at the link given by Daverz you can find an acceptable copy for $11.86 (+$3.99) and one like new at 16 (+4) bucks. From time to time, new bargains come up - and others disappear :-(.
    Since you happen to have a reading copy at your hands right now, you can decide wheter it's worth 16 or 20 bucks (including shipping).
    Sometimes it pays to have a look at others Amazons, but amazon.com usually has the most convenient prices.

    One last thing: it's good for you to study algebra and Lang is a very wise choice, but you might want to brush up your calculus instead. It's much more useful at this level: derivatives, power series, taylor series, integrals - you need to know at least the most important things. I cannot help you with choosing a book though, I haven't find any worth suggesting.

    (Last advice: give up on television and watch Walter Lewin's physics lectures on the MIT Open Course - he's another one of those truly gifted teachers a là French - God bless him).
  16. Apr 27, 2014 #15
    As a fellow self-studying student, I can give you some personal advice (some of which was probably already mentioned).

    I honestly can't endorse any of the more modern university physics books (Knight; Halliday, Resnick, Walker; Giancoli; Young, Freedman, Ford; Serway, Jewett; etc.). They all cover almost the same topics, and they're good if you want to learn physical concepts and formulas, but the books read almost like a laundry list of things to be learned. Motivation and intuitive thinking is lacking in comparison to the other books named here. Another book that I've heard good things about is Kleppner and Kolenkow (used at both MIT and Princeton); this is a first-year introduction to mechanics using nothing more than calculus, but it does use it very liberally, so make sure you know your calculus.

    As for math, you should focus more on developing a strong foundation and a good understanding of calculus. You'll have plenty of time to get ahead later. If you feel you need to work on high school algebra, try Algebra by Israeli Gelfand. For geometry, go with Kiselev's two-volume series on planimetry and stereometry. Personally, my favorite calculus books are either Thomas and Finney's Calculus with Analytic Geometry (blue cover with a lighthouse) and the book by Salas, Hille, and Etgen (uses more proofs). MIT OCW is also not a bad choice, especially the scholar's courses which are supposed to be self-contained. If you're comfortable with all of these, you may want to look at discrete math and probability to become more well-rounded.

    If there is a single truth, this is it.

    Add: I've heard many people refer to this website as "college algebra done right."
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  17. Apr 27, 2014 #16
    A lot has been said already, I'll try to expand on all of them a little bit.

    I know what you mean about the brain wandering thing. I have a tendency to want to learn everything, which can make it difficult to learn anything. At a school you're forced to focus on the courses that you are enrolled in for the semester/quarter, but when you are self-studying, it really takes some discipline and patience to be able to sit down and focus on one topic at a time. To make things worse, often you want to dive into a subject that you don't even meet the prerequisites for, which requires even more patience to get through the introductory material. For instance, I bought Shankar last summer and tried to learn quantum from it and actually got pretty far into the book even though I wasn't really absorbing all that much information. A year later I am going back through the book and now that I'm at a more appropriate level I'm actually understanding and enjoying it a lot. A similar scenario happened as a sophomore when I tried to teach myself linear algebra out of Shilov (I ended up setting it down for over a year and picking it back up when I was taking upper division linear algebra).

    When purchasing standard textbooks, old editions are your best friend (note, you may need the homework problems for courses, in which case you may need the newest edition, although usually libraries stock textbooks if you aren't opposed to doing all the homework there). One edition old can be the difference between $200 and $30; two editions old and most of your books will be under $10 (with shipping) on Amazon. If you haven't discovered Dover yet, they are a publishing company that publishes classic books that have gone public domain for very low prices. Most are fairly advanced texts that you may struggle with if you don't have much of a background in the field, but if you will want to pick up a few at some time or another (I own fifteen myself). Most (if not all) are available on Google books to preview, plus you can always post on here if you have questions about any.

    I like the university books primarily because of the large amounts of problems plus solutions available in them. At the very least, keep one around for the practice problems. In addition, Young & Freedman summarizes all the sections into a nice list of formulas and concepts at the end of each chapter and makes a great equation reference. Maybe stick with the university book to learn how to do the physics but supplement it to really learn the physics?
  18. Apr 28, 2014 #17
    That's exactly what I find myself doing all the time and there's very little leading me to focus on the subjects I want to learn since high school is far too basic to teach what I want to learn. Once I start with something, I'm usually fairly good at sticking with it. But starting something is pretty difficult.

    I have actually heard about Dover already and have purchased a few books from them, although none of them textbooks so far. I've been able to find nearly every book I've searched for in its entirety somewhere online in a full PDF version after searching around for a bit. But I always find that I can learn better and focus when I have a physical copy.

    As for your final suggestion, that is what I'm planning on doing in order to maximize and deepen my understanding of the material.

    Last edited: Apr 28, 2014
  19. Apr 28, 2014 #18
    I get the same feeling when I'm reading those types of books but I get the sense that they're necessary in order to score well on tests and be accepted into universities. I'm not a fan of this learning style which is why I'm trying to enhance my learning with other material.

    I've done quite a bit of calculus recently including my school's AP Calculus BC which I'll be writing the exam for next week. I've also taken "Calculus: Single Variable" from U of Penn which was amazing. I would like to learn linear algebra now and more advanced calculus. I've had an introduction to discrete calculus through my UofPenn course which dedicated an entire unit to it. Statistics is another thing I'm planning on taking soon.
  20. Apr 28, 2014 #19


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    Perhaps it is a good time to look back on what you have learned in school so far and fill in any gaps. I mean, it's nice to look at university work but perhaps there are questions you still have about normal school work. For example, you have taken AP Calculus, but do you know it as well as you know school math like geometry? What about calculating limits or the series/convergence material?

    Or with physics, how well do you know what you learned before? If there are areas that you know less well, take some time now to master them. Then you'll be ready for those laundry-list university books. Older editions are often available for not a lot. For example, https://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-lis...?ie=UTF8&condition=used&sr=8-1&qid=1398715740 is one of the most comprehensive available.

    I agree that so-called laundry-list books like this don't convey the excitement of discovery but that is not their purpose. I think there is excitement to be had if one has experienced a phenomenon before and then reads about it, or if one is excited by learning new things. But this excitement is not inherent because another person could find that same information boring depending on their experience or proclivities.

    Is reading about black holes or neutron stars exciting? But think about this: if one can read math like a language, what a textbook provides is pretty close to reading about interesting things. And is a neutron star really more interesting than a lens, for example? Would you rather learn about neutron stars or lenses?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
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