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Help me find beauty in physics

  1. Oct 29, 2008 #1
    I took physics with really bad teachers in high school. Now I am a math major but I need science credits, so I am really willing to give physics another shot.

    In high school, all we did was memorize equations and ways to apply them. Things like, here is a projectile moving at ... or here is a circuit find the voltage. It was all so contrived, is undergraduate physics like this? How different is learning quantum physics?
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  3. Oct 29, 2008 #2
    Any subject can seem miserable when it is being delivered by a miserable teacher. Upper devision courses in electromagnetism and introdcutory quantum mechanics can, in the hands of a good teacher, give you the flavor of the beauty that is found throughout higher physics.
  4. Oct 29, 2008 #3


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    If you're a math major, you could definitely handle a physics course that does more than just push memorizing of equations...physics makes a LOT more sense and is much more enjoyable when you learn how to derive the equations for yourself and then appreciate better how and why they are used rather than just plugging and chugging.
  5. Oct 29, 2008 #4
    Physics is the way math is expressed fundamentally in the real world. I had a reverse problem (liking physics but not math in HS) and have recently discovered a joy in math. Physics would a be great science for any math major, but make sure you enroll in the highest division class you can (advanced intro maybe), as they will be more intensive and creative with the math, rather than simply giving you only problems which basic physical equations can solve.
  6. Oct 30, 2008 #5
    Also, my advice is, if you're finding yourself doing too much plug/chug work in the physics class, pick up an advanced text from the library and challenge yourself to learn where it came from.

    There's lots of beautiful, rather formal math at higher levels of physics, esp. relativity and quantum mechanics (linear algebra, differential geometry, analysis, topology). Also, lots of probability in various areas (quantum, stat mech). I also enjoyed advanced EM, though it's not mathematically as formal as some others (mostly linear algebra there, from my courses).
  7. Oct 30, 2008 #6


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    You should just pick up and read books written by the best people, since these are the people that really appreciate the beauty of physics. A few suggestions, that I thought were particular good at showing the beauty and depth of various ideas in physics:


    Feynman's Lectures on Physics - Richard Feynman
    Relativity - Albert Einstein
    Spacetime Physics - John Wheeler


    Spacetime, Geometry, Cosmology - William Burke
    Thermodynamics - Fermi
    Landau's Course of Theoretical Physics - Lev Landau

    None of these books are easy, but they are worth working through, and you will be greatly rewarded.
  8. Oct 31, 2008 #7
    I think it depends where you go to school. At least for the first few courses. Where I am our calculus based physics is basically the equivalent of an algebra based. Here are a bunch of equations. Where did that negative come from? Oh don't worry about it just remember that there should be a negative there. Now here are a bunch of problems, solve them.

    You can go through a whole chapter without even understanding anything. You don't know what the symbols are or why they are there, but you usually have all but 2 symbols and 2 equations, solve for one of the symbols.

    So yes, currently I feel as you do or did. Im not very satisfied, at all, but I have only taken the beginning classes. I think if your at a pretty good school your experience may be better then mine though. I've realized something though. Its not really the teachers fault that the class is bad, its the students faults. If you have a room full of kids who just want to get the equations, memorize some things, and pass a test then what motivation is there for the teacher.

    I wanted to add something else that I forgot about which I thought was funny. The problems have a lot more weight for the concept, and it doesn't matter whether you understand the concept as long as you can solve the problem. Its funny though because its almost as if the concepts don't exist sometimes. No one will even talk about it like its real. For instance, they would say "You have vi and you have m" instead of saying "you have the initial velocity and you have the mass".
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2008
  9. Oct 31, 2008 #8
    So true: With a class struggling with math (and with a set curriculum for the course that probably says that students must be able to solve certain types of problems), courses all too often become glorified problem-solving classes, where perhaps you don't even take time to marvel at the answer and consider why it might make conceptual sense! This CAN even be true for upper-level courses.

    I'll go out on some bizarre limb here (WARNING: bizarre advice being given for a student who already feels good about math and could handle the math of an algebra- or calculus- course and possibly even an advanced course). Have you thought about a conceptual course?

    I presently teach a non-math conceptual course but... trust me, my course is still challenging. No pure memorization. Uber-application. My last test short response questions had students 1) analyze fish biology (note: the air bladder is for buoyancy so the fish don't have to constant try to swim upwards to keep themselves at a given depth, but has the problems of expansion and the bends if you quickly bring the fish up from deep levels) and 2) analyze a hair blow-dryer (what's the danger with the attachment called a diffusor? Your hair can get "sucked" in when you use it... do you know why? and is the term "sucked in" correct?) among other questions.

    Of course, before registering, you should check out these courses and see how they are taught... my class is activities- and simulations- based, so even students who have had algebra-based courses before, and enjoyed those classes and COULD do quite well in an algebra class still have fun and learn new things! Last week my students were learning about the physics of fluids-related toys (including gliders and self-built "whirligigs") in our lecture hall! It was wonderful chaos :surprised, but the majority of students really cared about diagramming the fluid flow around objects correctly, looking at the motion of the molecules in the air flow, understanding the impact of this on pressure, and ultimately understanding why the toys worked the way they did. But my class might be special... a lot of lower level courses like mine get neglected and I'm sure you also don't want to take a course that just has LOTS of definitions and memorization but no understanding presented :mad:.

    The question I always find myself asking? WHERE is the course that has a good balance of math and concepts? :confused:

    Maybe I've just been unlucky in my teaching assignments :wink: ... when I get math-based courses, I either get E&M (where all the students struggle with the calculus because here, mechanics is taught by engineering and doesn't have much calc) or I've once had a course that covers ALL HS algebra-based physics in one term, and the students struggled with the algebra. I've never had either of our 2-term algebra-based courses. Hence, I really have turned our conceptual course into something special, since it's my one chance to influence the thinking of students who aren't planning on ever being science students (some, as a result of my course, start looking into it). For me, teaching the 101/102 course is amazing and I've learned a lot (even with my advanced degrees in physics)!
  10. Oct 31, 2008 #9
    Thanks for the advice guys. Feynman's set of books look amazing, I will definately have to check them out. I don't know if my school has anything like what physics girl phd describes.

    I am really good at learning through books, and can easily self learn through books and see through the dry text into something greater and more elegant. (ex... baby rudin).
  11. Nov 1, 2008 #10
    A Calculus-based general physics course is about halfway between a real Physics class and high school Physics. It's basically setting up general problems and learning how to solve them with basic calculus so that students won't be bogged down in computational material when it comes to the deep understanding that upperclassmen get.

    This is my first semester as an upperclassman in my Physics department and I'm taking Classical Mechanics and E&M and I really couldn't be happier about it. Not too long ago my Mechanics class analyzed the motion of a spinning coin, it was right then I realized that I was formally and mathematically approaching problems that caught my interest back in middle school science class. Right now I'm trying to approach Feynman's spinning plate problem through Hamiltonian mechanics and it's blowing me away.

    In my humble undergraduate opinion, the beauty of physics lies in the discovery of why tidal forces work or that refraction is a boundary value problem and things of that nature. The joy of finding things out is what I believe Feynman called it. It takes physical science from the number crunching and rote memorization of high school right back to the anticipation and excitement of a junior high science class.
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