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Calculus For Physics

  1. Aug 30, 2005 #1

    I will be taking General Physics I in the Fall, and there are no prerequisites for the course. How much, if any calculus is needed for this course? I will be taking Pre-Calculus concurrently with the course.

    I also plan to take General Physics II in the Spring, and take Calculus I concurrently with the course. How much calculus is necessary for this course?

    I've included the course topics for both courses below, so hopefully that will give you a good idea as to the scope of the courses.


    General Physics I
    • Composition of Vectors
    • Equilibrium
    • Moments
    • Newton’s Laws
    • Work and Energy

    General Physics II
    • Elasticity
    • Harmonic Motion
    • Wave Motion
    • The Laws of Thermodynamics
    • The Kinetic Theory
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2005
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2005 #2

    Physics classes are not standard everywhere in the world. What does the course description say about calculus? Have you contacted the Professor and asked the questions? How about other people who have taken the class or are in the physics department? All of these will most likely get your question answered far more thoroughly than any of us will be able to do.
    good luck
  4. Aug 30, 2005 #3
    Like Norman said, the class could be calculus or algebra based. If they're expecting you to take pre-calc concurrently I can't see how they could make it a calc based physics course.
  5. Aug 30, 2005 #4


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    Staff: Mentor

    At a U.S. college or university, if the official course description for General Physics (from the institution's catalog) does not explicitly state that calculus is a pre-requisite or co-requisite, it's safe to assume that the course doesn't require calculus, just algebra and some trigonometry.
  6. Aug 30, 2005 #5

    Sorry for not being clearer in my original post. My college offers two algebra based physics courses, and four calculus based physics courses. General Physics I and II are both considered calculus based courses. The course description in the college catalog states that Calculus I is a co-requisite for General Physics I, and that Calc I is a pre-requisite and Calc II is a co-requisite for General Physics II. However, they use a program called "WebAdvisor" at my college to register courses, and there are no pre-requisites listed for General Physics I, so it permitted me to register for the course.

    Basically what I'm asking, is in a Calc based General Physics I course, how much emphasis is placed on calculus? Likewise, must you have mastered Calc I and be enrolled in Calc II to understand a Calc based General Physics II course?

    I've already taken Calculus I twice, and understand the theory and calculus. However, I never successfully completed Pre-Calc, so my Pre-Calc background was very weak which destroyed me in the course. I had no problems grasping the Calculus based physics application problems in my calc courses, so perhaps I can make it through an actual physics course.

  7. Aug 30, 2005 #6
    Even within the category of a "calculus based General Physics I course," the amount of calculus used can vary GREATLY depending on the school and even perhaps on the class. The intro mechanics course I took last year (one designed to be more in depth than the basic calculus based physics course) even included not inconsequential chunks of basic multivariate calculus and differential equations, even though the basic requirements were only standard calculus. However, I suspect this was a bit more excessive on the math side than most intro mechanics courses.

    So we can't help you. You really need to ask the professor teaching the course or other professors in the physics department. While you may well get away with sneaking into a class without the required prerequisites, that strikes me as a really bad idea unless you're sure you can handle what you're getting into. So you certainly need to talk with faculty who would be familiar with it.

    I would suspect though, that the stuff you learn in pre-calculus that troubled you so much in Calc I is fairly essential for calculus based physics as well. All of that basic math stuff can be fairly essential, for calculations, approximations, other coordinate systems, algebra and the like, even without worrying about calculus, but once again this may be dependant on your specific course. Maybe if you could be more specific about your troubles in pre-calc we could help more, but understand that if you skirt pre- or co-requisites (that are there for your benefit) you will be taking the course at your own risk. I would highly recommend talking to the professor or at the least fellow students who have already taken the course, as Norman recommended.
  8. Aug 31, 2005 #7
    In my physics courses last year, we required calc for them, but we never did any. We were shown the proofs and such, but never tested on them or need to use calc but like twice during the whole course. It was simple "integrate this" stuff, too. Very basic integration.

  9. Aug 31, 2005 #8


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    Gold Member

    Based on the course description, I would say there are a couple of things you will use calc for. When you do moments, you will probably have to do integrals to find the center of mass of an object and things like this. When you do Newton's laws there may be derivatives and integrals in problems to find position, velocity and acceleration from one another. When you do work and energy, you will be doing mostly integrals since [itex]W=\int \vec{F}\cdot d\vec{s}[/itex].

    When you do physics II it looks like it will be helpful to know calc II. All the derivations in Harmonic motion are based on a differential equation. You probably will not do differential equations in calc II, though, but in a seperate differential equations course. I was taking a diff eq class at the same time as I was learning harmonic motion in physics and it helped me understand it a lot. All the derivations in wave motion are based on a partial differential equation. You need to take calc II to learn about partial derivatives, but really they are not much different from regular derivatives. Thermodynamics is all partial derivatives. Actually, I studied thermo in chemistry and in a seperate thermo course, so I don't know what thermo they teach in a physics class, but I still think it will be mostly partial derivatives. Make sure you understand the chain rule for many variables before you learn thermo, since it comes up about every two seconds.
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