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Beginning Physics Major, what could I stuyd/do over the summer?

  1. Mar 6, 2009 #1
    Hello again guys.

    The summer is coming up and for most of my friends this means sitting around and eating Haagen Das. For myself, though, I'd like to keep up with what I learned this year so I can avoid that really uncomfortable first two months of school where you're rushing to relearn everything you forgot. I'm a physics major and I actually start in on the backbone of my degree (mechanics) this fall and I just wanted to toy around with the subject over the next few months. It'll probably be best, since it gives me something to do during my job as a librarian :)

    I'm not sure if I should go full-out and start reading the textbook and doing problems, since I'll have to do that again in the fall anyhow. Someone suggested that I read some good nonfiction books on the subject to get some familiarity or go through the Feynman lectures. I'm not sure if either of these would be a good idea or if there's something that would be better, so I'd like you opinion.

    Bottom line; if you were a budding physics major and had a whole summer free to study the subject, how would you use it? Any particular books or materials that you would use?

    Once again, as always, thank you!
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 6, 2009 #2
    Feynman lectures aren't that great if you haven't already been exposed to the subject. I am roughly in the same position as you and I think I am just going to start going through my textbooks for the coming semester. I find that just having been exposed to something before you formally learn about it makes it that much easier as the ideas aren't entirely foreign to you.
  4. Mar 6, 2009 #3
    If you want to get a good start on understanding the subject matter and achieving high grades, there is no better way to do this than read your mechanics textbook now. If you manage to simply read the entire textbook leisurely and go through examples, you will have an incredible upper hand over the rest of the students. If you go a step further and read it over the summer and read the chapters again immediately before the lectures, I guarantee you will come out at the top of the class.

    Doing problems obviously will help as well, but I personally would probably refrain from this. A break between semesters of school should be used to relax and not strain yourself with problems you will spend many years doing.

    Alternatively, you can use this time to broaden your understanding of physics as a whole. Reading a mechanics textbook can be very bland, so chances are you'll get bored and quit 3 chapters into it. Picking up something like a modern physics textbook, or a popular book on modern physics will most likely spark your interest in physics even more than it already is, and build you up with motivation to take on the semester once it comes.

    Another possibility is to combine the two.
  5. Mar 6, 2009 #4
    I would talk to a faculty member at your university about possibly helping out with some research/lab work. That's what I did the summer after graduating high school. The work I did over the summer actually led to a publication in a refereed journal.
  6. Mar 6, 2009 #5
    You did that over the first summer with even taking university physics courses?
  7. Mar 7, 2009 #6
    I took calculus based AP physics in high school, so I was better prepared than most. My university awarded a scholarship to the top 10 entering freshmen, which stipulated that we do research with a faculty member over the summer. Regardless, many faculty members would be willing to work with an intelligent student who has some background in physics.
  8. Mar 7, 2009 #7


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    For mechanics, Kleppner and Kolenkow is very, very nice. I think it'd be fun to read side by side with Feynman. And do some problems too.
  9. Mar 7, 2009 #8
    Gee -- I'd want to try to take my summer-time trying to build something... learning some electronics, robotics, computer-interfacing, computer programming etc. With some experience like that under your belt, you'd be competitive for some type of lab-work (possibly an REU) next summer. When you're at the library, you can make plans and work on the programming aspects.

    That's just me. I think it'd be fun and different than pure text-book learning.
  10. Mar 7, 2009 #9
    Wow, thanks for all the replies guys.

    I agree that at least skimming the text would [probably be best. I was shying away from starting problems, but I can't see any harm in just reading the content. The research is tempting but I really need to get home this summer since I have a few prior commitments but next summer that's what I'm aiming to do :)

    Physics girl phd- that's a really interesting suggestion now that I think about it. I was planning on picking up some programming anyways but the others sound awesome. The only barrier would be that I have no idea where to even start on most of those suggestions. I'll ask around but if you have any last advice, I'd appreciate it greatly.
  11. Mar 8, 2009 #10
    I would just relax this summer if I were you...before the storm starts. Thats what I'm going to do.
  12. Mar 8, 2009 #11


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    If I had a whole summer off, I would learn a language. It's the only thing that I'd look back and change about my education to this point. Unfortunately, I don't have summers off anymore.

    I would advise against "skimming through" a text book, because not only will you likely not learn much, it may also put you off the subject, since you will skim over important details. If you choose to read your book, then focus on learning sections in detail as opposed to skimming the lot. Alternatively, I agree with others who suggest reading the off popular science bok.

    Still, I wouldn't brush off the Häagen Dazs option too quickly: it's good to have a break over the summer and spend it relaxing with friends.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2009
  13. Mar 8, 2009 #12
    Just via some quick "googling", this tutorial site seems pretty cool:
    http://www.societyofrobots.com/step_by_step_robot.shtml" [Broken]

    Some robots some of my friends built they programmed to sense and avoid barriers/walls (via photodetection) and collect data (via the turning of wheels that had "tick marks", etc). They could download and plot this data (to see where it had been going all day -- they used the freeware "Python" language). I guess the idea was kinda like a primitive "Roomba."

    I guess I had other friends build tesla coils and the like. I unfortunately never got into a direct project myself (always helping other people I guess...)... and in retrospect I wish I would have.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  14. Mar 8, 2009 #13
    What I always found helpful was boning up on the mathematics. Let me explain.

    Physics uses a lot of math... in fact, the majority of what you will be doing in theory (non-lab) courses is finding analytical solutions to problems using mathematics. Moreover, physics departments are notorious for not having the right prerequisites set up for their courses - when I was in undergrad, it was not uncommon for one of my physics classes to begin "A knowledge of fourier analysis, complex analysis, and linear algebra is assumed", when the prerequisite in the university bulletin read "Calculus I".

    If you're starting off with mechanics, it would really be a travesty, a shame, and a real pain in the neck not to have become very familiar (from a mathematical point of view, not necessarily a physical one) with the following subjects:

    1) You will need to know calculus. Specifically, you will need to know how to take derivatives of functions of an arbitrary number of variables, how to integrate functions, and how to work in various coordinate systems. Studying the equivalent of what many universities call Calculus III would be immensely helpful.

    2) You should know differential equations fairly well before this class. This is possibly the primary advantage you can have going into this subject. Almost everything you learn in mechanics will be phrased in terms of differential equations. The better you are at solving differential equations, the easier everything will be, and the more physics you will learn (no struggling with mathematics).

    3) When you cover the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms, you may or may not go in to the study of functional analysis. This is really a shame, since these subjects are interesting theoretically, and good to know if you're using them (which you will, perhaps indirectly, in physics).

    4) Linear algebra might also be nice to know, although I would certainly put this lower on the list for a mechanics course. When you do angular motion involving inertia, I imagine this will be a fairly good thing to know. For the most part, however, I would forget this for now (you should know this before Quantum Mechanics, regardless of whether or not you have had a course in the subject or not).

    I can try to find good, free, online sources of information, possibly free textbooks online, for any of these subjects. All you'd have to do is to work through some of them, doing a few problems and trying to understand the gist of it. You don't want to have to do this later, while you're taking the course.

    I can also give you a step-by-step study plan of things to know, and possibly provide problems as well (so you can test your understanding). It could be fun.

    Bottom line - the more comfortable you are with the mathematical machinery you'll be using, the easier your life as a physics major will be. I always found that a little independent study in mathematics - nothing too rigorous, mind you, just some casual study to familiarize myself with the concepts - made everything better.
  15. Mar 11, 2009 #14
    renod and cristo: Thank you but I really, really want to do something, anything academic this summer. I just get bored after sitting around doing nothing but shooting the breeze and working. I know that I probably won't accomplish great amounts of stuff since no one's going to be looking over my shoulder or anything, but I think it would be fun to try as long as I'm having fun :)

    physics girl phd: Oh fun! That's exactly the kind of link I was looking for. That looks like a fun project. I'll try to look for other, similar ones but you've given me a great starting idea. Thank you!

    csprof2000: No explanation necessary. I know math is probably the number one tool in a physicist's toolbox and it is important to have a solid grounding in the subject. The prereq mismatch is a bit alarming, to say the least but it's not bad news. I knew I would have to get to those subjects eventually anyhow :)

    Your list of topics to know is interesting and your reasons are convincing, my only doubt being that I could cover 2 semesters of college well math in a summer. I am currently finished with calculus and mechanics is in the fall. With enough work and motivation, anything is possible of course but my only fear with covering that much material that quickly is that my calculus knowledge would have holes or misunderstandings in it. If this is possible or advisable, I would do it. And thank you very much for your offer, I will take you up on it if you're still willing and I decide to go through with this.

    Thank you once again everyone! I knew there's a reason this is my very favorite forum on the web.
  16. Mar 12, 2009 #15
    definitely skim your math book and mechanics book... and start learning programming. there are a lot of references on the web for programming. you can start on something easy like python just to get the feel of programming.

    hope you do well this summer. i just wish i had the same advices you now have the summer before i went to study physics in college.

  17. Mar 13, 2009 #16
    Get your IQ tested and then determine if physics is a realistic option for a career.
  18. Mar 13, 2009 #17


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    For maths, one easy but very important thing one can learn is linear algebra. You won't need it for freshman mechanics, but it'll be indispensable for quantum mechanics. Seymour Lipschutz's book in the Schuam series is very good and quite cheap.

    An alternative is to get Misner, Thorne and Wheeler's masterpiece "Gravitation". Carry it when running off the Haagen Dazs pounds.:tongue2:
  19. Mar 13, 2009 #18


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    Just because most physicists do not have high IQ's, does not mean there should be maximum IQ for a physicist. It would be silly to make a major decision based on IQ anyway.
  20. Mar 13, 2009 #19
    How do you define physicist? I define it as one with a PhD from a reasonable school. And most have high IQ. I believe at around 120+. In undergrad, its definitely lower, but these are the people that "burn out" and "struggle with Cs", and are not competitive for graduate school.

    If you are considering a demanding field like physics, which is not particularly financially rewarding, it would be wise to make sure you possess the intellectual capacity. Only then can you realistically consider a discipline. I'm just helping the OP make a decision that will save him/her 4 years of wasted schooling. Advice I wish many students in my class got.
  21. Mar 13, 2009 #20
    "Just because most physicists do not have high IQ's, does not mean there should be maximum IQ for a physicist. It would be silly to make a major decision based on IQ anyway."

    I got the humor in that, lurflurf. It seems like so many people here don't get these sorts of jokes. Huh.
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