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Other Help designing self-taught astrophysics curriculum

  1. Jun 25, 2017 #1
    Hey everyone, I'm new here and I hope I can get some help with this! I recently decided to start the no doubt long and painful process of teaching myself physics in order to pursue a lifelong obsession of mine, that being outer space / planetary science. I don't seek a formal education in this, nor does the college I currently attend offer such a program, yet I truly have the curiosity and desire to learn as much as I can in this field. That being said, I have a few problems in getting started, which are:
    1) I've never been great at math. I was a year ahead in high school due to extreme effort on my part, but I struggled beyond compare at geometry and trigonometry, which is the highest level I took. That being said, I am decent at algebra (but I still have issues), and I exceled at statistics and probability.
    2) I am doing this in spare time without physical human aid, which creates a harder learning curve.
    3) I've got very little idea of what I'm really getting into with the mathematical side.

    The way I intend to teach myself all of this is via courses made available on MIT's OpenCourseWare site, and through supplemental articles/pages/etc I have found or may find along the way. I've found all relevant coursework on the OCW site and I've made a rough idea of a program of study, in what I'd assume would be a logical order. Bear in mind, I would like to really learn planetary science, how to identify exoplanets and the like, determining length of time for deep space travel, colonization efforts, etc etc. Below is the order I put together based on course prerequisites and descriptions on MIT's site:

    1) Physics 1 - 8.01
    2) The Solar System - 12.400
    3) Intro to Astronomy - 8.282[J]
    Hands on Astronomy - 12.409
    4) Geomorphology* - 12.163
    5) Physics II - 8.02
    6) Relativity - 8.033
    7) Differential Equations* - 18.03
    8) Intro to Geophysics & Planetary Science - 12.002
    9) Essentials of Global Geophysics* - 12.501
    10) Physics III - 8.03
    11) The Early Universe - 8.286
    12) Particle Physics of the Early Universe - 8.952
    13) Cosmology - 8.942
    14) Exploring Black Holes - 8.224
    15) Extrasolar Planets - 12.425[J]
    16) Building Earthlike Planets - 12.472
    17) Climate Science - 12.301
    18) Advanced Igneous Petrology - 12.486

    * - I'm only interested in the planetary unit of Geomorphology, and I am unsure if I should even bother with differential equations (are they necessary?) or essentials of geophysics (is a basic understanding from the intro course sufficient?)

    I would really appreciate any help in determining if this is a viable order of courses to study, what I might need to do before something else, etc. Any help is VERY MUCH APPRECIATED!


  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 26, 2017 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    I can't comment much about the course order but rather you will need to take math courses too that are commensurate with what is needed as prereqs for the listed courses.

    Khan Academy or MathIsPower4U.com can help bolster your math understanding? They both have courses that cover from Algebra to the math taught in first and second year of college (Calculus 1,2,3 Linear Algebra, Differential Equations and Statistics)
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2017
  4. Jun 26, 2017 #3
    Since you are attending college, what are you majoring in there? You said they don't offer "such a program" but surely they offer mathematics or physics classes.

    If you have trouble with math then self teaching is going to be pretty frustrating. It's going to be hard to motivate yourself when things get difficult and you will probably move very slowly.

    -Dave K
  5. Jun 26, 2017 #4
    So I have to learn those out of necessity, then? I would have assumed that the physics courses alone would cover the relevant mathematics, aside from the differentials and the other, more specific disciplines.

    I'm majoring in Criminal Justice with the intent to double minor in psychology and homeland security. I'm strongly considering going a fourth year for my masters; the university I attend runs a 5-year program for those seeking that degree in my subject area, and since I am entering as a sophomore, it is highly possible I can go the extra year and get it.

    The problem I run into is that while I'm sure I could consult physics or mathematics professors there, I can't take those kinds of courses due to the requirements of my major; should I NOT pursue a master's, I have to have all my requirements done in 3 years, which leaves me no room to pursue a one-off physics course, for example.

    As far as mathematics, I struggle simply from a lack of good teachers. I never had a good math teacher and they never helped me understand when I got lost, which made each level harder and harder. I probably have 4 or 5 math guidebooks from my time in high school that I read and learned from better than any teacher I ever had.
  6. Jun 26, 2017 #5
    Hey Brandon, I am currently pursuing the same sort of thing. Trying to learn more about Physics and Astronomy. I would love to join you on this journey if you're willing to want to work with me in the process. We could take the courses together and understand through each other what we are learning. If this is not something that you want to do, that is absolutely okay as well

  7. Jun 26, 2017 #6
    I'd definitely recommend learning the basics of calculus before jumping into differential equations or even physics one and two..physics two, assuming it's the introductory E&M one, relies heavily on integration, and you might not get what's going on if you don't know that concept.
  8. Jun 26, 2017 #7
    Physics courses will not only assume you already know the mathematics, but that you are fluent enough in math to be able to manipulate expressions to solve the problem you are working on.

    That's a pretty awesome combination of majors, but you're spread way too thin to be able to pursue math and physics while you are still studying your major. They are very time consuming endeavors which require a lot of focus. Graduate school in particular is very demanding in ANY subject. It's hard like "OMG this shouldn't be possible" hard. You really need to focus if you don't want to burn out.

    I believe you about the bad teachers. Not only didn't they help, but they didn't show you how beautiful math was and what you could do with it. [Disclaimer: I'm more of a math guy here than a physics guy.] Unfortunately you are simply not going to be able to pursue physics without the math background - and self teaching math and physics almost never works. People are always coming on this forum asking how to do this and you never see them again, or they come in to talk about how they figured out Einstein was wrong about somethng.

    However, if my physics friends won't mind me putting in a plug for quantitative literacy here, I would say that ANY major would benefit from a better math background.

    You probably won't like this advice...

    You said you were great at stats and probability - so you have something very valuable there. I would say just forget about physics for now, and start taking any math classes you can. Are you able to "start over" as it were in some pre-calculus type classes? In generally "non-quantitative" disciplines like criminal justice people are sort of aching to come across a student that can actually *think* and reason about things in a quantitative way. (Hey, look, if you put the word "quantitative" before any field, you get "quantitative [field]" i.e. Journal of Quantitative Criminology.")

    If you get solid in math and stats (and analyzing data and maybe a little programming) and if you can apply it to one subject area, then it's a lot easier to approach just about any subject you please including physics.

    -Dave K
  9. Jun 27, 2017 #8
    Hey man, I'd be game for that! I think it would be helpful to have another person to bounce ideas / questions off!

    Would there be any parts of calculus that I could possibly skip learning? I admit a degree of unfamiliarity with the exact mathematics required for the kind of study I wish to do; I know for sure the ability to calculate movement/speed/time/etc but I honestly don't know much else. That being said, if I could learn only what is explicitly relevant, I feel I'd probably be better off comprehension-wise, if only because I would be intimately familiar with the essentials rather than understanding the broad ideas while lacking understanding of specifics due to some more or less unrelated concepts I may not understand.

    Ah. See, in high school, I knew a few people who took physics and they hadn't gone farther in math than me, in fact a few struggled worse than I did, so I assumed it would be more of a learn-as-you-go discipline.

    As far as learning it, I'm comfortable if it takes me a few years, it's strictly a side interest for me; I see it as a hobby rather than a career or endgame. Where teachers are concerned... I got used to poor quality instruction after awhile, and I admit it turned me off of math in a big way, as I'm not a student who struggles in any other subject. Hell, I've got a near photographic memory for every subject but mathematics, I just gradually fell behind and stopped caring to a degree once I realized I wouldn't need it in my career path. I'm great at basic mathematics, finance, stats (from my only good math teacher ever), but as soon as I hit a certain level of complexity, my mind begins to fog up. Stats specifically I think come naturally to me because I have worked in a managerial position at a grocery store since I was 16 and became accustomed to dealing with sales figures/projections/improvement spreads/etc from that, and because I've already taken a number of sociology and criminology courses, which of course rely heavily on statistics in the overall discipline.
  10. Jun 27, 2017 #9
    You don't learn physics in "a few years" even if you are studying it full time. (i.e as your major). You get the very basics in a few years.

    And that is normal. What you do in that situation is go do something else, come back to it later, try again, repeat. Math is cognitively heavy and it's not something you just "get." That is why it takes a lot of time to lean, because there is a serious amount of "processing" time involved . Unfortunately nobody actually teaches this, and math classes tend to go by at a pace where you really can't appreciate anything.

    Well, then you have statistical evidence that you can succeed in some type of math. :D It sounds like you are just hitting a mental block with calculus and seeing if you can avoid it or parts of it somehow. And when I say "mental block" I don't mean that you can't understand the subject, but that you've somehow convinced yourself that you can't understand the subject. You need to look at that wall you have imagined for yourself and head straight into it.

    You might bee interested in this current thead:
  11. Jun 27, 2017 #10
    Awesome! Let me when when you want to contact each other and star! Can't wait!

    - Austin
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