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How to learn Physics (And Mathematics)

  1. Jun 16, 2008 #1
    I recently have been trying, with various levels of success to self-study some physics and mathematics texts. I've been trying a variety of things to improve my outcomes, but I would like to pose a question to the PF community about how they go about learning physics and maths (I don't mean which texts you use, but how you use them).

    Obviously everyone will have a slightly different way of learning that works for them, but I'm hoping by getting some perspective anyone can improve their study habits.

    As for myself, I tend to get just one set of lecture notes or a book on the subject of interest, start at page one, work through every example in detail, until the very end of the book. While I think this is good in principle, you get a thorough understanding of all the material, it doesn't actually work for me in practice. For larger texts, after a certain depth I begin to lose interest and get bored, and end up with a lot of half-read texts.

    To contrast, Ian Stewart wrote in Letters to a Young Mathematician that he likes to flick through a mathematics text until he finds something interesting, then works his way back through the necessary sections so he can understand it.

    Generally as I work through a text I write a lot, I think this is important in gaining understanding of a complicated work, unraveling the details yourself, working through the exercises - this is where the vast majority of my learning takes place. My habit is to write it all roughly on pad paper, which I subsequently throw out. As I learn more I am starting to regret this, I have kept my notes from formal lecture courses and I find myself referring back to them continually- I wonder how many potentially useful problems and notes I have discarded. At the same time a line has to be drawn with how much paper you keep.

    An interesting technique I'm trying now is to draw summaries of notes, rather than listing them out - that is to try to capture abstract concepts and methodologies pictorially, giving a different perspective - a sort of image mind map.

    How do you do it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 16, 2008 #2
    I go to class and try not to fall asleep, then make sure that I can do the homework problems, get the right answer, and go back and see where I went wrong with the ones I miss.

    Self study is more difficult, just because it is not something like Social Science or Liberal Arts where you can just read through Feynman's Lectures On Physics and understand the subject. It is deeply mathematical. You cannot learn programming without writing code. You cannot understand the theoretical aspects of physics without a pencil, paper, and a calculator. You cannot understand the empirical experimentation aspects without taking a lab.

    A classroom has an instructor who can answer your questions; self-study does not, although this forum could serve as a substitute.
  4. Jun 16, 2008 #3
    I like to embark on free-form mathematical excursions. I only bring my brain, an interesting problem, and a cup of coffee...Occasionally pen and paper.
  5. Dec 28, 2008 #4


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    Hey men
    I'm really interested in learning relativity(special and general) and quantum mechanics with whole needed math in full detail but i have 2 problems:
    1-I don't have a source(that its lectures are complete)
    2-I really get bored in the middle of reading.
    help(more on first)
  6. Jan 1, 2009 #5
    I'm not exactly sure what level of preparation you already have but there are plenty of free course notes available nowadays on the web. For the introductory stuff in these areas (say Griffiths for QM and an intro relativity course book like Schutz or Stephani) you should already have taken a calculus sequence, linear algebra, and ODE (and differential geometry for relativity). You can pick up anything you need to learn about tensors (which you will need to know) fairly easily. Once you get more advanced in QM you need to know PDE and group theory.

    Like I said, a quick google search will yield even more results but for QM this looks fairly good: http://farside.ph.utexas.edu/teaching/qmech/qmech.pdf

    This is a good place to start for relativity:
  7. Jan 4, 2009 #6


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    hi men
    I must thank you ps2138.so
    Thank you
    but to complete your kindness and make me thank you again,Could you do the same about strings and at the end,M theory.
    It was the plan i had from almost 1 year ago but i gained no achievement until now.
    and in this plan,M theory is the end.So could you tell me what should i learn firs?
    thanks again and in advanced
  8. Jan 4, 2009 #7
    I have the same problem. By 1/3 (about 800 pages) of text books I get bored and actually feel like have to work to keep going. When I feel like I have to work I get frustrated and don't learn the material properly. There's just sooo much more to learn left. I try watching lectures online, that helped but not enough. Any ideas?
  9. Jan 4, 2009 #8
    I do the same as you suggest (the first poster, but with my music), it gives me the drive to keep it going despite dullness and tiredness.
  10. Jan 29, 2009 #9
    Well, I am a self learner, I don't really like lectures, only if they are very very well made (for example, Susskind's lectures at Stanford, which you can find on YT). I am a first year physics undergraduate. When I started, in October, I carefully selected which lectures to attend, and for the rest, I got some really nice books from the library, and spent hours reading them.
    My problem is not getting bored , but more like getting tired.
    So... my way of learning is an extremely simple one. 1) Read the text carefully, even if you have to do it more then once, concentrating every time on what you think is the more complicated part. 2) After reading the chapter, take a pen an paper, and (with the book closed) try to recreate the chapter you have read, just imagine you are a professor, and you are making some notes for a lecture you are going to give. It is very important NOT to simply reproduce from your memory, but to go through it logically. 3)If you have time, solve as many problems as you can. That is how you really glue the information to your brain.
    Well...this is my method. Anyone has anoter? :)
  11. Jan 31, 2009 #10
    Great advice! You might have some vague but strong desire to know what would happen to you if you fell into black hole. Pick up a GR textbook and you could spends months working through a bunch of examples which don't interest you -- perhaps on the the effects of GR on planetary orbits, or on the workings of clocks. Hardly surprising you give up! By going to p678 on black holes straight away you are gonna be interested -- bedfuddled initially, but interested -- now work back to just those sections that might unbefuddle you. Just do the black hole examples and those in key unbefuddlement sections.

    Of course if you are taking a course that expects you do all the planet & clock stuff then you should do it -- the motivation is then not to get an F! That should be sufficient unless you are James Dean.
  12. Jan 31, 2009 #11

    My thoughts exactly. I've never worked through a book in its proper order in my life.
    I always have plans to do so, but I have to search and play.

    As a side oddity, I seem to always flip through magazines and journals in reverse. It's definitely not on purpose....but unless I make it a point to read it forwards, my natural tendency is to go backwards from article to article. (obviously the articles are read correctly....it's just the page flipping until I start reading a paragraph that catches my enough to find the start of the article)
  13. Feb 1, 2009 #12
    There's really no reason to worry about "not completing texts." It's the material you're after; this being said, I generally pick a *topic* and check out multiple books from a library. While working through the material I do what most have said - work through the problems myself, do *all* exercises, etc. With multiple texts you begin asking yourself questions and looking them up, learning much more of the "boring" material along the way than you otherwise would have.
  14. Feb 2, 2009 #13
    I think maybe this is a conditioning from sports illustrated if you have ever read them. Rick Riley has the final page of this magazine and he is without a doubt the best writer for it. I do the same thing now with just about any magazine, back page then work forward, because every week when i got an SI, it would start at the final page to read up on what rick had to say about the sporting world.... anyone else have this?
  15. Feb 21, 2010 #14
    how can i organize my self? i am good at physics meaning i have no trouble understanding it but my problem is i always forget what i studied last time which makes me loose interest in the subject. CAN ANY ONE HELP ME GETTING THROUGH THIS PROBLEM!
  16. Feb 21, 2010 #15
    haha...I'm way late in a response to this, but I do remember always doing that with SI....I wonder if that is where it came from? That was probably the only magazine I read for about a decade of my younger years. lol
  17. Feb 23, 2010 #16
    A bunch of valuable advice from everyone.

    One thing that I do to keep myself from becoming too "tired"/bored of a particular book when studying a topic is to prefer shorter and more focused textbooks. This might seem like copping out, but I find it definitely easier to thoroughly go through a few short books with breaks in between than one long textbook. If I still decide to use a bigger textbook to study I will carefully select the chapters that I want to cover (usually I know enough about the material to know what I need to learn).

    Another preference that I have is using online course notes over text books especially in areas that I already "half" know. Course notes are a lot more condensed and if you study them carefully you can cover more material. Another plus is that they might include the essential exercises unlike textbooks which usually have huge selections of problems for instructors to choose from and that makes it a little harder to pick out the more important stuff to practice on. The only downside to this of course is that looking for a good set of course notes is not the easiest job but it is definitely my priority unless I am totally clueless about a subject.
  18. Mar 1, 2010 #17


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    Dear fantispug I have a suggestion for you and also others.I haven't tried it yet but I know its good.I suggest you to buy a white board and do all of your calculations on it.Because you know that you wanna clean it,you will write all important tips on it and You will be saved from keeping a bunch of filled papers and also you just keep the important points.But I suggest you to use a notebook for it.
  19. Mar 3, 2010 #18
    In addition to the TS's question, can anyone recommend some ideal books for self-studying physics and mathematical concepts used in physics?
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