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Can It Be Done?

  1. Dec 29, 2007 #1
    Hello f(r)iends! I'm new to the forum as you can no doubt tell, but hope to make this place my digital home for many hours if possible now and in the future, but I really need to get some feedback and help for the moment, here's my conundrum and background:

    You see, I am 17, in highschool, and am very much in love with the woman that is Physics. Ever since I was a little boy I was absolutely and completely fascinated with the world and how it worked; and that curiosity managed to be my partner in life up to this point (I'm more interested in theoretical than exerimental physics). I can, with reasonable certainly, say that I've read darn near every layman's book and slightly more technical book on physics there are (as long as the book doesn't apply Calculus); everything from classic Max Born in explaining Relativity to the supporter of the testless theory Brian Greene, to the physicist with a technological vision Michio Kaku, to the lover of black holes that now holds Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, you name it. However, I'm not sure I have the education needed to pursue physics and fulfill my dream of getting my PhD and a career in modern physics!

    I live in Missouri, attending a small rural school containing less than 400 students (that's K-12)! I am far from saying small schools are all complete garbage, but mine seems to have fallen prey to such a quality level. Our teachers of all subjects have left and been replaced numerous times, and most of the new teachers complain of the ignorance of the students and impedence of their ability to teach us their subject due to lack of knowledge building up to it ("You guys suck at Algebra II because your last teacher didn't teach you Algebra I right!"), so forth and so on. Attending this school my whole life, obviously I had been a victim to the horrid education there.

    Up until last year I thought myself horrible at mathematics, and could hardly do the simplest Algebra problems, and even hated fractions, probably due to the lack of my teachers ability to do his or her job. But my love for Physics persisted, and I decided to take on mathematics on my own, for the obvious connection beteen the two that would inevitably keep me from pursuing physics if I didn't learn the mathematical discipline -somehow.

    After much practice and trial and error trying to learn on my own, I managed to raise my mathematical ability tenfold, if such arbitrary values could express such an increase in know-how. I raised my previous Pre-ACT mathematics score from a horrid 19 to a 26 - and that was months ago; I've been plugging away ever since to better my ability. Whereas I hated mathematics and loathed that I had to learn it to pursue physics, I now have a profound respect and compassion for mathematics that I most certainly didn't get from any math teacher I had, and I seriously considered wanting to be a mathematician instead of a physicist for awhile!

    The majority of the physicists I see today, and read about from the previous generations of physicists back through Einstein, Newton, so on (and it doesn't have to be the giants) have all come from families who have provided them with the utmost care in education; providing the best available. And I have nothing of the sort, coming from a small school with horrid teachers, surrounded by (if you'll excuse my bluntness) ignorant rednecks who care nothing for their education and whose teachers most certainly don't provide competition to facilitate healthy academic motivation!

    Do you think I should discontinue pursuing a career in theoretical physics? Is it to strenuous an activity for someone like me who was raised with a horrible education? Is it too late for me to repair my disfunctional education no matter what strides I've made so far?

    It seems to me that, regardless of my deep passion for physics, I am faced with the daunting task of going through an academic journey far to epic for a young man without proper education, who will probably not have enough time to (if even possible) fix the broken shadow of an education he received in the past. Any opinions or comments are welcomed and very much appreciated.

    What do you guys think about the poor pre-college educational system, these days? Is there any solution? I should hate to think any child born into a bad educational system should have to go through the extra hardships I've already endured just to pursue their passion when the material could've been taught the correct way, once. Any opinions or comments are welcomed and very much appreciated. Thanks.

    -Daniel Y.

    P.S, as a recent annoyance, in our final in Math (Algebra II), the highest test score was a 45%...(at least, until I got back from getting my wisdom teeth removed to take it). And that was a *good* average for them.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 29, 2007 #2
    What more needs to be said?
  4. Dec 29, 2007 #3
    I used to feel like you do. Now I study math on my own and don't pay attention to my teachers... I don't know if I'll ever fulfill my dream of becoming a mathematician, but I sure have learned more and expanded my mind further than I ever would have having only paid attention to what I was "learning" in school. Look in some of the threads floating around here for book recommendations, buy some, and work at understanding and learning them.

    Anyway, my advice is only halfway qualified, since I've been in your position but I've never actually fulfilled my career goals (I'm only 18...). So someone else might respond, but I suspect he or she will agree with me.
  5. Dec 29, 2007 #4
    Seems like your story comes straight from the plot of that movie, 'October Sky'. Anyway,If you are truly passionate about physics, then I think you will become a physicist. Do not let a couple of scores on some standardized test determined whether or not you will be bad at math. I got a 510 on the math portion of my math SAT , and I'm a math/physics major and I gotten good grades in most of my math courses in college(with the exception of a few math courses). Also , don't ever let the location of a place determine your future. There are plenty , if not probably most physicists come from small towns , since most americans are from small towns.
  6. Dec 29, 2007 #5
    You seem unusually motivated and articulate for a 17 year old. I wish you the best of success in physics. I grew up in the bronx New York, and the scholastic evironment here was horrendous when i was in high school. Schools suffer from gang violence and indifferent faculty members. Learning physics made it all worth it. After all, its the hardships in life teach us the most.
  7. Dec 29, 2007 #6
    Forget about the negative.

    You are on the right track. Keep studying and take advantage of every opportunity to learn. Educate yourself like Abraham Lincoln, and Percy Julian, a chemist who overcame many educational obstacles. There was an excellent show about him on TV. Good luck.
  8. Dec 29, 2007 #7


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    Don't let yourself be put off with bad teachers. If you're not happy with the way they taught you, just do it yourself. It's a cliché but it's true: you're never to old to learn. There are some adults taking some of the courses I take, who certainly think it's not too late to learn physics... and you have doubts because you're "already" 17? :smile:

    Here's a story from another country than yours: when I entered University, the professors there also complained about the secondary schools, how they didn't teach those kids math anymore, etc. etc. and we basically spent the first 6 months just learning the math skills that were taught in secondary school 50 years ago but have been removed from the curriculum since. When I look back on that first semester now, I am surprised how many new things I learned then which I have used completely naturally ever since then. As long as you lay a solid foundation there is not much you can't do with a little effort and -- as a signature of one of our members so nicely puts it -- with a pen, paper and waste basket.

    If you want to pursue a career in mathematics or physics, don't let anything stop you... certainly not just a bad teacher or a bad school. So you have less knowledge than you should at this point, so what? I know of summer schools which try to make up for a lack of 6 years of knowledge in several weeks -- if you're really motivated then I'm sure you can do so much in just a year... think of it as your own summer school :smile:

    For some more motivating words and a list of subjects, books and resources, I would also like to direct you to this webpage.
  9. Dec 29, 2007 #8
    Thanks for the input, guys! I really appreciate it! I will definitely keep moving forward as best I can.

    As for the material I am using to learn (thanks for the website link, by the way), I was thinking of purchasing What is Mathematics? to facilitate further the 'why' behind mathematics rather than just the 'how to'? I was also going to get a problem solver, either The Art of Problem Solving, or How to Solve It Which would you guys suggest, or do you know of one better?
  10. Dec 29, 2007 #9
    All three books you listed are good books, although Art of Problem Solving is not at all similar to the other two. Art of Problem Solving is aimed specifically at people who are preparing for Middle School and/or High School Math Competitions (especially the AMC/AIME/USAMO series). The other two books are by top mathematicians and are not specifically related to math contests. Also, if you like the Art of Problem Solving book, www.artofproblemsolving.com is an excellent website made by the publishers.

    In terms of a career in math or physics, there are definitely pluses and minuses. Both are very good undergraduate majors which statistically are pretty likely to lead to a well paying job in the future. Beyond that, going for a PhD and such, both are economically risky moves. I would wait until your Junior or Senior year of college before making such a decision.

    You might also like the website www.ocw.mit.edu . There are a bunch of old MIT classes which posted their materials on the site. For you, I would say the prime attraction is probably the intro physics classes with Walter Lewin- there are videos of every lecture! He does use calculus though...
  11. Dec 29, 2007 #10
    Small School Guys do make it.

    In 1968 I taught in a very small school in a very small town.
    39 years later, one of my former 7th grade students contacted me.

    You just need to be heading in a positive direction and pursue what most interests you with a tremendous energy. The rest will take care of its self.

    Take a look for Joe Grief, architect based in Seattle.
    He designs houses internationally.

    Now see if you can find Cottonwood, Idaho.
    Joe spent his entire school career there prior to attending University of Idaho.
  12. Dec 31, 2007 #11
    Alright, I ordered the other problem solving book, since you seem to think it to be more general (I dont plan to enter competitions).

    Thanks for the help, guys.
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