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Book recommendations for becoming an amateur physicist?

  1. Jan 19, 2014 #1
    Book recommendations for becoming an "amateur physicist?"

    Hi all.

    Despite my lousy grades in physics in high school, it was always my secret love. Even when I was little I dreamed of being like those guys on TV explaining how the cosmos began. My first year of college I even came here to ask a few questions about becoming an engineer over at the "Should I be an engineer?" thread.

    If I were to do college over again I'd probably not be so lazy and switch to a physics major (so for any high schoolers reading this, don't be lazy in college). But alas, I was lazy after all, and a philosophy major I am. I like academics and want to be a professor, philosophy and theoretical physics are arguably similar in many ways, and don't get me wrong, I'm perfectly happy in my current field.

    Still though, I'm in my third year in college and I still wish I could be a physics major, and perhaps I could be suicidal and switch now and spend seemingly the rest of my life as an undergrad. That's okay though, I'll stick with my philosophy major in hopes to pursue a PhD and teach.

    Anyway, all this rambling is leading me here: the old saying goes "don't pay $100,000 for an education you can get at a library." Well there's both true and falsehood in that statement, but I do agree I could probably learn quite a bit outside of a classroom. I don't have a very strong math background (we were only required to go through algebra 2 in my high school when I was there, so that's all the further I went), but I am by no means bad at math (or really physics for that matter, was just lazy about homework). So, what books could PF recommend to me to start me on the path of becoming a so-called "amateur physicist?" I've always been hugely interested in theoretical physics, especially about things like black holes, dark matter and the like. So to gain a truly deep and working understanding of these higher-level topics, what path do you recommend I take?

    Sorry for the sort of vague question preceded by the lengthy ramblings. But thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 19, 2014 #2


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    Homework Helper

    read some first year undergraduate textbooks on maths and physics. I would not be surprised at all if you could learn quite a lot of undergraduate physics, even without doing a physics undergraduate degree. I would certainly be doing that if I had got a job at 18 instead of going to university. I believe physics would always have been a personal hobby of mine, even if I hadn't done a physics undergraduate degree. On the other hand, it does help a lot to be learning alongside other students doing the same thing, and having group work, and lectures.

    I'm not certain how it works in USA, since I'm from England. But here, there is school up to age 16, and then 'sixth form' until age 18 (and here, we learn some physics that is almost undergraduate-level standard already). And then the undergraduate degree itself is usually 3 years of just physics (no major or minor, or any of that stuff). So anyway, in the first year, in my experience, it is not a huge step-up from what I had learned before. there was a lot to learn, but my point is that I think I probably could have learned a lot from a first-year undergraduate textbook even if I hadn't gone to university to do physics. I'm not sure how different it is in USA... So I can't say for sure if it is exactly the same there.
  4. Jan 19, 2014 #3


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    In the USA, "third year of college" means he's probably going to finish a bachelor's degree next year. Looks like a BA in philosophy. His mathematics level is about 2 years behind a typical first-year undergraduate physics student.

    To start studying physics seriously, at the first-year undergraduate level, you need to know at least the basics of calculus. So the first thing to do is catch up on your math. Review and practice your algebra (you'll do a lot of it in physics!), then pre-calculus topics (back in my day it was called "trigonometry and analytic geometry"), and finally basic single-variable calculus (derivatives and integrals). That will put you in position for a typical calculus-based introductory physics textbook (Halliday/Resnick, Tipler/Mosca, Serway, Young/Freedman, etc. etc.)

    Most students don't work "seriously" with those topics until at least advanced undergraduate level, or even graduate school. So you've got a ways to go. After the first-year intro course, you typically take intermediate/advanced courses in broad areas like classical mechanics, electricity & magnetism, thermodynamics & statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics. Often there's an "introductory modern physics" course that gets you started with relativity and QM, and gives you a taste of application areas like atomic physics, nuclear physics, solid-state physics, and/or particle physics. Then you go into advanced courses on the application areas that you're interested in.

    Your university's physics major course sequence is probably fairly typical. Check it out to see what the prerequisites for various courses are.

    For discussion and recommendations on textbooks for specific topics, browse our "Science & Math Textbooks" forum, and ask questions there if necessary.
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2014
  5. Jan 19, 2014 #4
    Thanks to both of you for your replies. jtbell is correct, I'm in my third of four years as a BA in philosophy. I actually looked through the degree planner's "what if" feature just for kicks and realistically, I *could* switch to physics if I wanted to be here for two more years. Not terrible, but a huge switch. Still, I'd like to finish what I started first and maybe go for a second bachelors (after all, ultimately I love academia).

    I knew calculus was a must, and I have to admit I've always dreaded learning it. I think I'll be signing up for a calc course over at Coursera. Not a true college experience, but I'm sure I'll learn the basics to get me on my way. Luckily one of my best friends is an electrical and computer engineering double major and has to take a lot of physics classes, so he can always help me out.

    As I said I looked up the requirements for the major, essentially after a year's worth of calc and chemistry I can take the basic courses, after a second full year of calc and the two basic physics courses I can get into the core major requirements. Switching now wouldn't kill me, and not entirely unrealistic, but being three years into college, I don't want to essentially start over.
  6. Jan 19, 2014 #5
    Calculus is the easy part. If you're earnest about learning the physics on your own time, calculus will probably be the easiest of the math you'll need to learn. In all honesty, you should probably learn all the material covered in a standard three-course sequence in calculus before you learn any physics. I did this my freshman year and having the background in vector calc helped enormously in freshman E&M.

    Once you get through a freshman level book in physics, then the harder math comes in.
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