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Calculus based physics Vs. algebra based physics

  1. Jul 22, 2015 #1
    I haven't gotten any knowledge of physics. I didn't have the opportunity to take it during my high school due to the biology state exam. Will it hurt to take it this semester? Will the calculus based physics be taught the same as general physics (non-calculus based)? If this isn't a good idea, I could just take a social science class. My physics classes are taught different. I need calculus 1 to take engineer physics, but unfortunately I have to wait until spring of 2017 to take the course . I'm applying to Penn State this fall as a transfer applicant. My goal is to transfer and take the calculus- based physics at penn state that way I don't have to wait a year to just take one course.

    General Physics This non-calculus Physics course for technology, business administration, computer science, and liberal arts and sciences students covers topics in mechanics, wave motion, and heat.

    Engineer physics: This is a calculus-based physics course for mathematics, physics, and engineering students. Topics include translational motion, particle dynamics, work and energy, momentum and impulse, rotational kinematics, rigid body motion, gravitation, vibrational motion, wave motion, and acoustics.
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  3. Jul 22, 2015 #2
    If you're in physics or engineering, it would be a waste of time to take algebra-based physics. Take something else towards your degree instead and take calculus-based physics when you can.

    They're essentially the same course, but the calculus-based course has more depth, and more derivations for the formulas. I took physics in high school, but I couldn't have answered a single physics question before I took calc-based physics in college (my high school teacher wasn't very good). It didn't really hold me back.
  4. Jul 22, 2015 #3
    I'm a prospective meteorology student, so I need engineer physics. Should I just forgo general physics, and take the other physics at Penn State?
  5. Jul 22, 2015 #4
    If the school you wish to attend requires you to take calc-based physics to get your degree, then it's not worth it to take algebra-based physics.
  6. Jul 22, 2015 #5
    But as a student who never has taken physics, know what he'll understand?
  7. Jul 22, 2015 #6
    I knew nothing about physics when I took my first calc-based physics and ended up with an A. Just make sure you're comfortable with algebra (and calculus) and ask questions when you don't understand.
  8. Jul 22, 2015 #7
    Calc based physics is much more fun than algebra based physics, and it is (in my opinion) much easier since you don't need to memorize a lot of formulas without knowing where they come from. I recall having to memorize up to 10 formulas for describing free fall. With calculus, you don't need to memorize any of those, you can very easily derive them.
  9. Jul 22, 2015 #8
    Even if you start with Algebra based physics you're probably going to have to/want to take Calc based Physics, so I don't see why you'd take algebra based. Make sure you're good on your calculus before signing up, and you'll do great. And don't worry that you're not jumping in immediately, the majority of STEM students do the exact same thing. Maybe take some of your humanities classes on the side while you learn calc, but make sure you don't do all of them immediately because, at least in my opinion, you need something different every once in a while to take a break when you get to harder subjects.
  10. Jul 22, 2015 #9
    I wish they had introduction to physics.
    I'm taking introduction to chemistry for a half semester so i can understand the material, before I take general chemistry 1
  11. Jul 22, 2015 #10

    If you do well in calculus, you'll probably do well in calculus-based physics. Algebra-based physics is nothing but memorization as micromass said. It doesn't even give you a "feel" for physics; perhaps that's subjective though. If you want to learn physics the way it was intended to be learned, take calculus-based phyics. Just make you do well in calculus as well.
  12. Jul 23, 2015 #11


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    I agree with micromass. calculus is a more powerful tool than algebra and hence it makes doing physics easier. As an extreme example, Galileo began the study of motion of projectiles and falling bodies using only geometry, not even algebra. It took him about 100 pages to give the formula for the motion of a falling body and deduce that a projectile moves in a parabola, all of which takes probably less than one page using calculus. Moreover, physics is not only easier to understand with calculus, but calculus is easier to understand when presented together with physics. They grew up together and they belong together.
  13. Jul 23, 2015 #12


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    In most introductory mechanics courses the level of calculus involved is negligible. That said, you seem less concerned about the math and more concerned about the physics. Algebra based physics and calculus based physics are built on identical physical concepts, so there is no real difference in the courses- aside from what has already been mentioned about derivations. Take the calculus based course and focus on the concepts, that's the most important part of any physics course, and you'll have a better understanding through those derivations Micromass mentions.

    Take a look at the homework help section at some of the mechanics problems and you'll see what I mean.The math is always secondary in understanding what's going on.
  14. Jul 24, 2015 #13


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    Good points. One thing that always confused me and apparently others is that the words in physics have special meanings that you need to memorize, just like in math. e.g. people sometimes think that because they get tired carrying a log on their shoulder across a level stretch of land that they must have done some "work" (against gravity). So the concept of work done against a force field like that of gravity has to be carefully defined to answer such questions. The same goes in math where people think the common sense meaning of a word like "continuous" forces the intermediate value theorem to be true trivially. But they have not learned the precise technical meaning of the word continuous in math. So one needs to try to understand the concepts.
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