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Getting Started in Physics?

  1. Jun 26, 2014 #1
    Hi. I’m a freshman at a US high school. Recently, I took an introductory physics course, and it was by far my favorite class. I have a deep passion for science, and I am good at mathematics (I have really solid skills up to precalc). I’ve always liked being able to describe interactions using mathematics, and learning about the abstract concepts studied in physics. I know that I haven’t taken complex physics yet, but so far, I’ve really enjoyed learning about everything that I’ve encountered, and I think that I will want to pursue a career in physics based research.
    What should I be doing at this stage in my life to put myself in a good position to explore physics? Also, does anyone know of any opportunities available for high school students in the US to learn more about physics and/or talk with other people interested in physics or physics-associated fields? Any thoughtful advice would be really helpful.

    I really appreciate the help of people who have been in this situation.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 26, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    There's several possibilities based on your curiosity, drive and determination:

    Learn calculus
    Read the physics for IB Diploma book by tsokos (1st year undergrad level)
    Read the Feynman lectures


    Learn some programming in java with Eclipse or Netbeans
    Play with the Open Source Physics code at www.compadre.org to learn computational physics

    More advanced
    Learn Vector Calculus
    Read Goldstein Classical Mechanics (2nd/3rd year undergrad level)

    Lastly, look at t'Hooft's website


    There are also some good videos on physics at Khans academy and MIT online course ware or via iTunes U with Prof Susskind...
  4. Jun 26, 2014 #3
    Thanks for the suggestions! It's probably noteworthy to mention that I can program in Java already. I think that I'll learn calculus over the summer (only a week away for me!). Meanwhile, are there any topics in physics that I can learn about without knowledge of calculus that are beyond introductory coursework?
  5. Jun 26, 2014 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    since you know java but not calculus then I'd suggest the open source physics stuuf. Its a collection of programs that numerically integrate various common physics problems so in a sense you really learn about differential equations and how they work in physics.

    You really have to progress through the introductory material to make sure you understand it at a level where you can almost teach it to someone before jumping into more advanced stuff. Physics lives in a world of math with calculus leading the way.

    When I studied at my college, the progression was something like:

    semester 1 diff calc
    semester 2 integral calc + physics 1 (kinematics)
    semester 3 multi-variable calculus + physics 2 (introductory EM)
    semester 4 diff eqns + physics 3 (introductory QM and Special Relativity)
    semester 5 linear algebra + formal EM theory 1
    semester 6 advanced calculus + formal EM theory 2
    semester 7 Optics and Classical Mechanics
    semester 8 Boundary Value Problems and formal Quantum Mechanics

    or something like that it was a looooong time ago
  6. Jun 27, 2014 #5
    Okay. I'll focus all my energy on learning calculus. Thank you for all of your help. Clearly you know a good bit about this sort of thing, and I appreciate your guidance :)

    A friend of mine suggested learning about how physics engines work in computer simulations. I think that would be fun.
  7. Jun 27, 2014 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    The physics engines are the heart of the open source physics stuff. They use euler or some variant or runge-kutta to integrate and to display in 2D or 3D the physical system you're trying to study. You can write the code, run the code, step it iteration by iteration.

    Its quite cool and the coding is the foundation of a physics engine for games.
  8. Jun 27, 2014 #7


    Staff: Mentor

    I had another thought too:

    Susskind has two Theoretical Minimum books out now:
    - Classical Mechanics
    - Quantum Mechanics

    and Roger Penrose published his Road to Reality book a few years ago.

    These has more than just popularizations of physics, they have some depth and it would take some dedication (ie you'll need Calculus) to work through them and of course you can ask questions here to fill in the blank areas.

    Another resource I like a lot is the Processing.org IDE. We've used it for several projects for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android platforms. Its pretty cool comes with lots of graphics and makes it pretty easy to develop Android apps once setup correctly.
  9. Jun 27, 2014 #8


    User Avatar

    Consider trying to take an introductory calculus and/or physics class at a local college over the summer. It will be tough since you're still in school and most colleges have already finished their first set of summer classes, but you might find something nearby. What it would do for you most of all is introduce you to an actual physicist who might need some low-level help in their lab at some point. That would be a great experience (make sure the class is taught by a faculty member and not an adjunct or lecturer).
  10. Jun 27, 2014 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    Good point, also I found an online resource that is very good, devoted to math at community college level developed by community college instructor in 10 minute bite-size videos:

    Last edited: Jun 27, 2014
  11. Jul 2, 2014 #10
    Wow, you sound very professional compared to your age, which is a very good thing!

    I never had the option since I found my passion rather late, but here is the path I would have taken in your standing: Since you said you are well-versed till precalc, I would take AP calculus BC and AP physics C: mechanics this coming fall (would you be a sophomore then?). Then in the succeeding year, take AP physics C: electromagnetism, and since no higher math is provided by your high school, taking calc 3, possibly also differential equations, in a local community college should be the ideal path. In your junior and senior years, looking for research opportunities in your local flagship state universities is a good idea (many schools have it nowadays). If you were successful in AP calculus BC, both AP physics C's, calc 3, and differential equations, you may also follow up and get done with university physics 3 in your senior year.

    This week I answered a similar question in a similar fashion, so it would only make sense to also end it in a similar way: don't push your self too hard. You are already in an outstanding position so far, so try what I've suggested, and if you think the course load is too much, don't be afraid to drop them and prepare to take it next year. Most importantly, find the balance between working hard and enjoying the high school years. A time will naturally come when you'll be doing lab work and taking advanced classes (if they truly suit you)-- don't let it be now. And lastly, don't ever get discouraged by small and big failures.

    If you do in fact choose the such path of a scientist, please in the later stages let us know how you are doing. We (or at least I) will be very interested to hear your progress. Always come for more help of course :D
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