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Help with what to study (and clarification on previous suggestions)

  1. Jun 1, 2013 #1
    In short, I completed my first year as a physics major and have off for the summer. As such, I wanted to dedicate some time to studying but am not sure what should be prioritized. I am currently studying for the GRE, keeping up with my calculus, studying Spanish (foreign language requirement), and have been studying command line in Linux.

    Since I have the basics of command line down and am happy leaving it at that for now, I wanted to figure out what I should study next. I was given some suggestions previously, but I was hoping for some clarification on the suggestions from those of you who are familiarized with these things if you don't mind. I'll try and keep this as organized as possible.

    1. Is Mathematica similar to MATLAB and Maple R, or are they different things? I am not sure which ones do what, so I don't know how they compare. I have Mathematica (though I haven't used it much yet since I haven't taken the time to learn how), but I don't have either of the others yet.

    2. Is latex used in any of those in #1, or is it something completely different? A lot of people told me I should familiarize myself with latex at least a little bit. A couple people said they hit a brick wall when teachers expected them to know it and gave assignments using it when they never saw it before. Also, is latex a type of programming language like python?

    3. If I were to delve into some type of computer programming a bit, which one would you recommend? I got a lot of mixed feedback between C++, python, and perl, and it seems like the topic has been beaten to death on the forums. However, I am hoping that by seeing everything else I'm looking at studying, it might help narrow it down to one of these to start.

    4. Primary modules for scientific computing were suggested as well, such as numpy, scipy, and matplotlib. From my take on these, they seem like some type of add-ons for programming, so I'm assuming the first step is familiarize myself with computer language first?

    5. Of all that I mentioned here, what do you think is the most important to learn now before I get into classes that I will use it for? Is there any of them that would be a waste of time to study on my own (ex. they are thoroughly covered in required courses later on or are impractical to try and teach yourself without the assistance of an instructor)?

    I really appreciate whatever feedback any of you can give me on this stuff. I have a lot of time on my hands right now, so I figured I'd really like to learn some of this stuff. However, since I don't have the time to delve into all of it, I'm debating on what is the most valuable to learn at this point.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2013 #2


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    Mathematica is a versatile CAS/Numeric computing language. It is widely used in physics. Maple is similar, but in my experience is less widely used.

    Matlab is primarily a numerical computing language. It seems to see a lot of use in engineering. I use it for numeric scripting over Mathematica.

    Scripting is straightforward and simple in all three of the above languages.

    C++ is a compiled, object oriented language. It sees much use in experimental high energy and nuclear physics.

    Latex is a typesetting language. It is used to make pretty looking documents and imho does a very fine job of it.

    What you study certainly depends on what you want to do later in your education and career. My humble suggestion is C++. It is a powerful language and perhaps a bit more intricate than Mathematica and MATLAB. If you become proficient in C++, it will be a gentle transition to other languages.

    In addition to this, I would offer that you read Physics Today or a similar publication as much as possible. Now could be the time to diversify your knowledge of the current research frontiers.

    I must admit that I find it interesting you are studying for the GRE. Is your post correct that you just finished your first year as a physics undergrad? I find it a bit strange to study for a standardized test that you wont take for about two years.

    There seems to be a trend of beginning students here that want to prepare, prepare, prepare for the future. I maintain that it can be invaluable to get lost in something that you find interesting and beautiful. Find a neat piece of physics. Play with it. Make up questions about it and try to answer them. You're doing physics because you love it and you find it fascinating, right? Perhaps you could go out and just let your interests guide you.
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2013
  4. Jun 2, 2013 #3
    For starters, thank you very much for your feedback Zombie. Now in response to your message...

    As far as studying for the GRE, I'm just brushing up on my vocabulary. I have apps on my ipad, so I study while at work or while hanging around the house. I'm not doing any type of practice tests or anything like that yet. I'm only studying the vocab about 180mins/wk is all. Since I am only working part-time, I have the spare time. I haven't bothered with the math part of it yet because math is my strong suit, so I'm assuming that it won't be too difficult for me. However, once I have a lot of the more common GRE vocab down, I do plan to at least skim over the math studies as well. Anyway, next year is the year that I should take it to have for grad schools, so I figure I might as well study it while I have the time now. Oh, another reason I'm studying for the GRE now is so that next summer when I have some spare time, I can study for my physics GRE.

    My problem is that since I have to work during the spring and fall semesters, I don't have any spare time at all during those semesters. So, summer is pretty much my only time to study anything outside of my courses. In addition, I'm hoping to do an REU next summer, so I may not have spare time like this on my hands for quite a while.

    To be honest, I sometimes feel like there is so much we have to learn that it is overwhelming. Maybe I just feel that way because I'm not seeing at this point that a lot of those things are similar because I've never worked with computer programming/languages before.
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