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Help! going back to school for Physics

  1. Feb 4, 2006 #1

    I am 29 years old, and I've decided to go back to college for Physics. I actually own my own business right now, but the beauty of Physics and knowing about everything going on in the universe and how it works has been a passion of mine since I was three. As I've gotten older I've realized that life is too short not to fill your life with something you love. Unfortunately, this is what I should have done when I was 17, not a 29 year old mother and wife. I did go to college for a few years for a fine arts degree, but I've basically been out of scool now for 12 years with anything that would have to do with Physics.

    I've been spending all my spare time trying to reteaching myslef algebra, trig, and calculus. I've also been reading anything I get my hands on regarding higher math and Physics. I really need a class, and the guidance of an actual teacher.

    What types of "refresher courses" should I take before I go back? I have time totake three courses unmatriculated this summer, and I figured some math courses would be a good idea to get everything fresh in my mind again. Does anybody have some suggestions about what I need to brush up on to make going back to school for Physics this fall easier? If it helps; at this point I am looking at Theoretical Physics.

    Please some give me some suggestions!:eek: :confused:
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 4, 2006 #2
    Definitely take classes on Algebra, Trig, Pre-Calc, and Calc. Algebra and Trig will probably be taught in the same course. So those are the three you should take this summer.

    Then you can start taking intro Physics classes. People mostly fail Physics because they are not prepared mathematically. Don't let this happen to you!

    Good luck.
  4. Feb 4, 2006 #3
    In the current world "theoretical physics" is synonymous with "mathematical physics" so keep that in mind.

    it's all about math
  5. Feb 4, 2006 #4
    i found myself in a somewhat similar situation. After 5 years of working in IT/finance (computer programmer), I decided to make a change.

    I came to the university with the toughest physics program in the state, and was in for quite a shocker.
    It'd been a very long time since I'd done any real math, and the last course I had taken was a multi-variable calc class.

    I started off by re-taking that course as a refresher, and thinking it'd be a blow-off class. It wasn't... i'd forgotten more math (if you don't use it, you lose it ;) than I care to admit. So starting a little "behind" was very beneficial.

    I came in as a junior (3rd year) with transfer credit, and still had 3 years (even with summer courses) to go due to all the prereqs I didn't have. At first this seemed a bit discouraging, but it has been very helpful, and very rewarding. Since then I also took courses in diff. eq., linear algebra, and physics math models.

    And it's only now, after all that math, that I'm beginning to fully understand and appreciate some of the upper level undergrad courses (electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, etc). Heck, I even understand physics 1 (newtonian mechanics) far more now than I did *while* I was in the course. You just can't fully appreciate and understand most things in physics without a lot of math.

    Sorry, that's a long-winded story with no real payoff. I guess based on my experience, the most helpful thing I can contribute is: spend all the time necessary to get an adequate background in mathematics. It will be far more rewarding if you do.
  6. Feb 5, 2006 #5
    This is not true.
  7. Feb 5, 2006 #6

    Dr Transport

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    I would not agree with that, I am a theoretical physicist not a mathematical physicist, there is a difference. Look on http://arxiv.org/ under the Mathematical Physics sections and any of the other sections like High Energy Physics. There may be some correleation, but the Mathematical Physics papers are more theorem, lemma oriented whereas a theoretical physics paper isn't.
  8. Feb 5, 2006 #7
    The mathematical physics papers are theorem oriented, and theoretical papers aren't theorem oriented?

    I don't really understand what you mean

    As a theoretical physicist you publish under the "theory" heading of your specific field I suppose. Besides where you publish though what are the specific differences? Are mathematical physicists generalists or something since apparently they don't publish papers relating to specific fields?
  9. Feb 6, 2006 #8
    I'm in a similar boat. I'm 27 years old and work for the government but am really not very happy with it. Because my degree is in a non-technical field, I am taking math classes (trig right now) at my local community college at night. As others have mentioned above, you need a solid foundation in mathematics in order to study phyiscs. Because its been a while since you've been out of school, I would recommend starting with the basics again, even if its only a refresher for you. I think its probably better to retake a few classes and make sure you're math skills are where they need to be as opposed to getting into a class only to find that your math abilities are not up to par. Good luck!
  10. Feb 6, 2006 #9


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    Mathematical physics is the study of the TOOLS specific to solving a particular type of problem. Theoretical physics is the study of a particular subject area in physics theoretically, i.e. not an experimental work. While theoretical physics involves mathematics, the mathematics and mathematical method isn't the focus of the study, whereas in mathematical physics, it is.

  11. Feb 6, 2006 #10

    Dr Transport

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    Well, put, exactly the point I was trying to get across.
  12. Feb 6, 2006 #11
    I wanted to thank everyone so much thus far for your suggestions and advice. It seems like it's pretty much what I thought: math. I've studied numerous Physics text books, read published research papers, mountains of information on the web, and countless books on Physics, but it seems like I understand only to a certain point without knowing the all the math.

    I myself am not yet a Theoretcial Physicist; I have years to go before I will be, but I know that the mathematics you must know deviates far from what most other people use in everyday life. It seems for me personally that my lack of math knowledge hinders a deeper understanding of some theoretical concepts; for example: I was just reading about research Brian Greene was doing regarding mirror symmetry in six dimensional Calabi-Yau space, and research on the physical properties of the universe for a Calabi-Yau shape after space-tearing flop transitions. I understood what was being said, I also understood what was being said about these particular issue's in Brian Greene's book "the Elegant Universe", but I wish I knew the math so that I could look at the actual equations and understand them. I definitely feel like I'm missing a large portion of what was being explained just because I don't know the math.

    To me it seems there is a definite need to know quite a lot of mathematics, but I don't think that math is focus of Theoretical Physics or most Physics. I beleive that this is the mistake people make, thinking that Physics = Math.

    I was pretty sure that the best place for me to start would be math courses, I've been brushing up myself starting with Algebra, then to trig, calculus and college algebra, but beyond that I definitely need to take some classes which I plan to do this summer. My problem is that I'm truly inbalanced; I hated math in highschool (I don't know why I did because I love it now), and I therefore I've retained very little but I loved Physics and actually took college level science classes. So far it seems that I should get myself up to speed on math before I even start school for Physics. At this point my plan was to take maybe three or four math course this summer, and then start college in the fall for physics. I hope this is a good way to go about it.
  13. Feb 6, 2006 #12
    The problem is that reading or hearing the words, but not being able to read and do the math is only a superficial understanding (more on this in a second).

    While it may be incorrect to say "physics is math," there is no stronger or more true statement on the subject than "mathematics is the language of physics."

    Somebody explaining in English that 'this or that is a result of blahblah, and we know yadda yadda because...' is almost always an interpretation that results after doing the math to realize it.

    While taking some of my first upper-division physics classes last year, I was still in the process of catching up on math. Throughout the semester I'd nod and say to myself "yea yea, that makes sense, I understand." I'd even manage to do good (not outstanding, but good) on exams.
    But I didn't truly understand it!

    It wasn't until over the summer while I was studying more math (finally catching up with everyone else), and going over the previous semester's physics classes that I began to really get it. And realizing that I missed out on a lot during those past semesters by not being able to fully go through all the steps of the various concepts and systems we covered.

    Anyhow, I'll just reiterate my suggestion to spend plenty of time to get up to speed first. It may put you behind, but it will pay off in the end. :smile:

    (Now exactly what "up to speed" entails depends on your school and its curriculum.)
  14. Feb 6, 2006 #13
    I would suggest reading up on higher dimensional physics, cosmology, quantum physics,
    Nuclear engineering, sub atomic physics, exobiology, the theory of 10-dimensional space, The theory of hyperspace, the M-theory, astrophysics, thermodynamics, and other sciences which follow in the same path.
  15. Feb 6, 2006 #14


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    I would have to disagree. Concentrate on understanding the basics first. Spend your time getting As in your 100 and 200 level physics courses. Work toward that goal before focusing on the high level topics. Fundamentals are important!

    Also, I agree that Physics=/= math but I do think that math is a very important tool used by physicists.

    Its like surgery, you can kinda understand how a coronary bypass is done easily, but you can never preform one yourself unless you know how to use a scapal. Same thing with physics. You can learn about physics very easily, but you'll never be able to do it yourself with knowing how to use math.

    Good luck to you!
  16. Feb 6, 2006 #15
  17. Feb 6, 2006 #16
    Physics is not like surgery...surgery follows a basic path of proven principles...

    the principles of physics on the other hand....theories are created last for a few years then, new more complete theories are created and then torn down by new theories.....this pattern has been a constant in the historical chronological basics of evolving physical evolution...

    Hence the official scientific name - (Theoretical physics)
  18. Feb 6, 2006 #17


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    I meant the surgery analogy to help explain how I thought math was an important tool for a physicist as a scapal is an important tool for the surgeon. That was as far as I meant the analogy to go. Of course physics is much different than surgery.
  19. Feb 6, 2006 #18
    I'm also going to have to post a resounding disagreement here.

    The things you're listing are upper-division undergraduate and graduate level studies. (To *really* learn, past the "use this formula and plug and chug" rote techniques. That is, to learn as physics students instead of engineering students (:wink: couldn't resist that jab))

    You're suggesting quantum mechanics?! :eek:
    Let's learn to walk before we run. :tongue2:
  20. Feb 6, 2006 #19


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    My point exactly.
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