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I am starting very late - a personal story and hope for insight

  1. Feb 19, 2010 #1
    I don't know much about physics. I had a passion for eastern philosophy from a fairly young age and I got into a discussion with a friend about my theories on where we come from, the energy of existence, and other such things. He asked me if I was a physics major because he had been for a time before our friendship and I told him no - I based a lot of it on eastern philosophy - and he told me I just gave a rudimentary explanation of quantum physics. I was twenty at the time and we were splitting a six pack so I don't recall the conversation itself, but it struck me. My second introduction to physics was the illustrated history of time which again in some ways coincided with my basic beliefs though of course most of it was alien ideas I had never pondered yet found fascinating. I recently bought the quantum and the lotus. For those of you not familiar with it, it is a book of conversations between an asian who spent many years in a buddhist monastary and left to work in physics and an american (I'm assuming anglo) who worked in the heavier sciences and left to become a buddhist monk. They speak of the parallels between the basic tenets of buddhism and the basic theories of physics. I skimmed through it but I'm reading Atlas Shrugged right now so it will probably be about a month before I dive into the book - AS is a big book, after all.

    Having lived a misguided 32 years I feel I've gotten all the BS out of my system and I'm ready to really give myself over to the discipline. On the one hand it is purely academia for the sake of it which is why I feel ready for it now. On the other hand, I know I'm on the old side for taking it up now. I'm a recently registered medical assistant so I know the science courses will be an asset to me in the short term. And I have considered teaching math and science after I earn my bachelor's degree. That may give me summers off for the really hard courses as I pursue the Masters and perhaps the Phd. I understand there is a branch of physics that directly relates to the medical field but to be completely honest, my heart is set on quantum.

    I bought a college physics book for a buck at a library and it is sanksrit to me. My highest level of math is college algebra, and microbiology and botany at the college level as far as any of the sciences. But it doesn't intimidate me because the math and science I have taken from grade school through college I found fascinating and enjoyable, and I know as I progress in the higher maths and sciences I will be building a foundation to turn that sanskrit into english for me so I am not intimidated by that.

    I suppose the niggling concern for me is simply that it took so long in my life to dedicate myself to following my heart academically. And the purpose of my posting is perhaps to hear other's opinions, hopefully some advice, optimistic feedback if there is some out there, and maybe guidance in possible courses (as in directions, not college courses) for me to consider.

    I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and thanks in advance for any insight you may offer.
     
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  3. Feb 19, 2010 #2

    Choppy

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    Just keep in mind that there are a lot of authors out there who use quantum mechanics as a catch-all black box without really even investigating it beyond popular descriptions of convenient phenomena that mesh with whatever philosophy they are peddling. Digging into the actual physics is a completely different ballgame.

    It sounds like you're already aware that you're going to have to hit the books and go back to the basics if you really want to get involved in this field, which is good. It might help to start out with a single night class at a community college - something where you can get a taste of what's to come without "quitting your day job."

    If you find that physics is really right for you, then great. Don't be intimidated about being older.
     
  4. Feb 19, 2010 #3
    I think that starting late isn't that big of a deal. Usually the people I know who are older do very well in the classes, provided they can dedicate the time. As for quantum mechanics, like Choppy said, there are many popular science works out there. But the actual physics is a lot different. I've come to realize, there is probably more junk published about quantum mechanics than any other area of physics. I'm not saying there aren't parallels between quantum & Buddhism, rather just be careful regarding all the popular science articles/books out there.

    Probably for a first year physics course, at a college level, if you think your college algebra is sound, I'd recommend picking up a precalculus textbook. Usually calculus is required (unless you take algebra based physics), so you'll want to learn calculus. You could probably survive a calc based physics course without calc if you can pick up the concepts relatively fast, but beyond introductory physics, without calculus you're done for.
     
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2010
  5. Feb 19, 2010 #4

    fluidistic

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    I agree with Choppy and kuahji.
    Also, don't set too much your mind on Quantum Mechanics. There's a long road before reaching the pleasure of getting into it. I myself didn't finish this road yet.
    Stay open to love any branch of physics. Eventually, when you will have gone through all of the basics of physics, you'll have a better idea about what you like and what not.
    Good luck with enrolling into a Bachelor's degree.

    Oh, and for an intro to physics book, I suggest you "Physics" by Halliday-Resnick or "Fundamentals of Physics" by the same authors. You'll need calculus to understand the material. So you must also study a lot of maths before understanding some quantum mechanics.
     
  6. Feb 19, 2010 #5

    Dembadon

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    Too late? Absolutely not.

    I'm about 1/4 of the way through an Engineering Physics degree and there are people of all ages in my classes. In my math class alone there are at least 4 classmates in the 30-40 age range. Do not let your "late start" hold you back. I've talked to a gentleman in my English class and he is in his 40s; he in no way regrets his decision to return to school.

    Take a placement test to see where you stand and then enroll in an evening class, as Choppy suggested, to get a feel for the pace and workload of a college course. You'll do fine!
     
  7. Feb 19, 2010 #6

    eri

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    It's never too late to start learning what you're interested in, but keep in mind you've probably got at least 10 years of work ahead of you before you earn a PhD, if not more. First, you'll have to catch up with the math before you take college physics (because you will need calculus-based physics). You can start the math and basic physics at a community college. Masters and PhD level coursework is not offered during the summer (at any school I know of); it's a full-time commitment.

    I agree with Choppy; most of the popular literature on quantum mechanics has very little if anything to do with actual quantum mechanics. Even your friend, if he had dropped a physics major, probably didn't even take a course in QM (usually taken at the junior or senior level). Prepare to be surprised.
     
  8. Feb 19, 2010 #7
    Thanks for all of the comments. I suppose based on a lot of the things I have browsed on the internet and even in a couple of field magazines in science it sounded like a young man (or woman's) field which made me second guess myself. And yes, there are all sorts of quack authors out there. I've browsed in self help sections before and didn't stay very long lol.

    And I appreciate what was said about the quantum field. I know myself and it actually is quite likely that once I know more about it the more I'll find interest in other specializations but only time will tell that. But it is certainly the parallels that drew me to the discipline. If my education steers me in a different course, then so be it.

    I am familiar with juggling work and school. When I graduated highschool I wanted to take a year off and be a kid but my family insisted. So for a year and a half I worked 30 hours a week and took 16 credit hours every semester including 6 to 9 hours over the summer. That burned me out on education for a good decade lol. I'm between jobs right now and was wondering if I should bar tend like I used to and take day classes or have a cozy job at a general medical practice during the day and take a few night courses. I've decided since I'm going to start slowly there's no need to fill up a full time coursework during the day so I'll take two or three classes at night. The counselor said I have several hours of credit still but I want to take the classes over because it was years ago so I'm sure I haven't retained it all and also my grades weren't that good obviously and I'm hoping my grades might help me with scholarships and grants to made the tuition a little easier on me.

    Thanks again! That was really my only concern and you all certainly coaxed me out of letting that bother me. =)
     
  9. Feb 20, 2010 #8
    I'm a Buddhist and a physicist and most of what gets written about the relationship between quantum mechanics and Eastern religions is totally non-sense. The basic idea is that Buddhism is weird and quantum mechanics is weird so that there must be some deep connection between them, which is a pretty insane idea.

    Also, don't confuse "Eastern" with "mystical." My personal philosophy is very "Eastern" in the sense that I get it from a set of 18th century Chinese philosophers (google for Dai Zhen, evidential school, kaozheng, and Han Learning), but they were pretty hard-nosed skeptics that wanted to cleanse Chinese philosophy of "mystical non-sense." The philosophers that I get my ideas from were rather rabidly anti-Buddhist, and my own world view has softened their anti-Buddhism, but it still has a lot of the skepticism and empiricism.

    What's important in learning quantum is to try to "unweird" things as much as possible. Start with basic calculus and then understand how to describe waves, and try your best to put numbers to things.
     
  10. Feb 20, 2010 #9
     
  11. Feb 20, 2010 #10
    There are two famous ones. The Tao of Physics and the Dancing Wuli Masters. Both are pretty horrible from a physics and Chinese philosophy viewpoint.

    That doesn't make any sense. In particular, there are forms of Confucianism like the one that I subscribe to that are extremely anti-Taoism and anti-Hinduism. One thing that you'll find is that the term "Eastern philosophy" is something exists in the minds of Westerners. Just to give you a jarring example, I've never see the "Works of Mao Zedong" in a section on Eastern philosophy, whereas Mao was a major political philosopher.

    The Buddhist abbot at the local temple once told me that she was surprised at why there was so much interest in the West in Zen Buddhism since as far as she is considered it's a very minor and insignificant subbranch ofthe Buddhism she is interested in. My one observation is that Americans that are interested in Buddhism are interested in it because Buddhism is outside of the political power structure of the United States, and so people see that religion as "pure." However, what's interesting is that this isn't a property of the religion itself. In Taiwan, Buddhism is very much within the power structure, and so you have many of the issues here. So when people look for some pure and untainted religion, they often turn to fundamentalist Christianity.

    That's fine that you have a liking for Japanese culture, but you should realize that Japan, China, Korea, and India are very, very different places. Also in my family (I'm Chinese), there is not a huge fondness among the older generation for things Japanese. It has something to do with World War II.

    Just looking at Amazon previews it looks like the authors mean well, but one problem is that neither of them seem to really have any particular expertise in quantum mechanics. I'm sure that if you got a biochemist and a former Buddhist monk you can get some interesting conversations, especially if they are talking about something that neither of them has any particular knowledge of, but you could get the same thing if you had an high energy physicist and a Catholic priest. Now having a high energy physicist and a Catholic priest talking about something that neither of them knows well (like French movies of the 1950's) could probably be a book worth reading, as long as you realize that it's probably not a good way of learning anything about what they are talking about.

    One fundamental conflict between Buddhism and physics is that Buddhism regards the world as an impermanent illusion and hence something to escape from on the way to Nirvanna. Physics and evidential Confucianism regards the world as "real" and worth studying. Not only do you have differences in epistimeology but rather differences in ethics. Physics is funded heavily by the military-industrial complex which believes that building machines is "good". This runs into conflict with the ethics of Buddhism.

    Something that you should be aware of as you are reading these sorts of books....

    1) You have will have different conversations depending on who is doing the conversing, so what you read should be considered a conversation between two people rather than two schools of thought. In particular, it's often the case that the two people talking will be trying to reach some sort of connection in which case people will overstate the similarities and understate the differences (they opposite also happens).

    2) One general problem with these sorts of books is that they get their physics wrong, and even when they get their physics right, it very soon becomes outdated.

    One final thing is that the standard books for quantum mechanics are

    Introduction to Quantum Physics - French and Taylor and
    lots of stuff by Richard Feymann (QED, The Feymann Lectures)

    Both are relatively math light, but they get their physics right.
     
  12. Feb 20, 2010 #11
    "There are two famous ones. The Tao of Physics and the Dancing Wuli Masters. Both are pretty horrible from a physics and Chinese philosophy viewpoint."

    Title alone, the Dancing Wuli Masters sounds horrific lol. I've also found (and this is a broad generalization) that most things that start with "the zen of" or "the tao of" are quackery.

    "That doesn't make any sense. In particular, there are forms of Confucianism like the one that I subscribe to that are extremely anti-Taoism and anti-Hinduism. One thing that you'll find is that the term "Eastern philosophy" is something exists in the minds of Westerners. Just to give you a jarring example, I've never see the "Works of Mao Zedong" in a section on Eastern philosophy, whereas Mao was a major political philosopher."

    I don't find having an interest in two opposing ideas is nonsensical. I think creationism and evolution are both interesting. To grossly misquote Buddha, it seems to me he kind of felt that you take what works and discard what doesn't. Bruce Lee felt the same way. But even if I'm wrong, and neither of them felt that way, I do - which ultimately sways me more than what they think in the end. And also, I am not a straight ticket politically or spiritually. I think you can believe in gay marriage and still be a republican overall, and I think you can be passionate about the right to bear arms and still be a democrat overall. And as far as religious contradictions, some Haitians have married catholicism and voodoo beautifully in my opinion.

    Perhaps Mao is placed in politics. Every art and practice can have a philosophy or many philosophies - even sports or fashion. It seems to me bookstores and libraries tend to put spiritual and religious philosophy in the philosophy section, for the most part. For someone who puts a lot of emphasis on semantics that is incorrect. But for a sports fan, it's better that anything relating to sports - including its philosophies - is put in the sports section.

    You're definately right about the eastern philosophy part. There really are more contradictions between one and another that it is as bad as saying "American philosophy" because there are so many. I stand corrected and will not use that term again whether speaking with westerners or any other audience.

    "The Buddhist abbot at the local temple once told me that she was surprised at why there was so much interest in the West in Zen Buddhism since as far as she is considered it's a very minor and insignificant subbranch ofthe Buddhism she is interested in. My one observation is that Americans that are interested in Buddhism are interested in it because Buddhism is outside of the political power structure of the United States, and so people see that religion as "pure." However, what's interesting is that this isn't a property of the religion itself. In Taiwan, Buddhism is very much within the power structure, and so you have many of the issues here. So when people look for some pure and untainted religion, they often turn to fundamentalist Christianity."

    Whether things hold large sway or are culturally insiginificant has no meaning at all to me. But that is a very interesting point. Zen is very big in the western world. Zen seems very austere to me and it is quite the opposite of my natural leanings and I find it very challenging because of that. That is one reason why I like the practice. I think I learn best that way. Running was always my weakest point athletically - it is the most painful compared to other high impact aerobics (for me). Which is why I go to that in fitness. When I run regularly, I feel more accomplished than I would if I attempted any other sport because I know that I went straight for my soft spot and made it strong. Zen is like that for me. Visualization and mantra meditations are good practice for me as well, but the silent sitting for long stretches challenges my mind so I feel I'm developing myself for the better.

    In this world, I don't believe anything is pure and untainted. Every race and every religion has most likely experienced oppression or committed some sort of oppression and any time you get a group together for any reason there is almost always some form of corruption and unsavory politics. I think looking for something pure and untainted is a quest for a holy grail. I was raised Irish Catholic and think there is a lot of beauty in it but I cannot fully commit myself to any form of monotheistic GOD religions simply because part of the belief insists on the belief that every one else is wrong and will suffer for it in the after life. I don't see any purity in that.

    "That's fine that you have a liking for Japanese culture, but you should realize that Japan, China, Korea, and India are very, very different places. Also in my family (I'm Chinese), there is not a huge fondness among the older generation for things Japanese. It has something to do with World War II."

    Well here, I must say I like eastern culture. I was in Tae Kwon Do as a teenager and competed on a national level. Since I worked out thirteen hours a week and travelled in a small group across the country with my Korean instructor and the other ranked competitive fighters, The girl in my group that was in my age and weight rank was vietnamese. I got to know them quite a bit. One of my neighbors was vietnamese and I would hang out at there house quite often. My best friend in highschool had a german father and a chinese mother who moved to america when she married him. Of course I loved to go there too, especially when she made spring rolls! When I was older I had a mexican neighbor with a philipino husband and we played cards all the time and cooked dinner for each other. So I'm not completely ignorant of asians and their differences but I am fully aware that they are very different, indeed. The only two groups we've mentioned that I haven't been close personal friends with at one point in time are a japanese person an indian person. Though I did have a class with a japanese exchange student who didn't understand the instructor very well so I helped her in class. She said I had a really cool style which was an awesome complement to me considering japanese fashion. I would say Japanese culture old and new is my favorite if I had to pick one. But we wouldn't have Golden Harvest films, or Kung Fu, if it hadn't been for the Shaolin monks in China. And of course I never would have been in Tae Kwon Do if Korea never allowed it to export to America. I also love Bollywood, which came from Bombay. I figured if I said I liked eastern culture I could've saved typing this long paragraph. But that is no big deal, I like talking about things I like. =D

    "Just looking at Amazon previews it looks like the authors mean well, but one problem is that neither of them seem to really have any particular expertise in quantum mechanics. I'm sure that if you got a biochemist and a former Buddhist monk you can get some interesting conversations, especially if they are talking about something that neither of them has any particular knowledge of, but you could get the same thing if you had an high energy physicist and a Catholic priest. Now having a high energy physicist and a Catholic priest talking about something that neither of them knows well (like French movies of the 1950's) could probably be a book worth reading, as long as you realize that it's probably not a good way of learning anything about what they are talking about."

    You're talking to someone that reads anything from teen vampire novels to true crime to international cookbooks - I read anything so I can't argue there. But what I was asking for is if you found any books that you found of value specifically involving buddhism and physics. But if you know of any books comparing physics to any other religion I would probably like that as well.

    "One fundamental conflict between Buddhism and physics is that Buddhism regards the world as an impermanent illusion and hence something to escape from on the way to Nirvanna. Physics and evidential Confucianism regards the world as "real" and worth studying. Not only do you have differences in epistimeology but rather differences in ethics. Physics is funded heavily by the military-industrial complex which believes that building machines is "good". This runs into conflict with the ethics of Buddhism."

    Perhaps that is another reason I like zen buddhism. Granted, I haven't run across any form of buddhism that doesn't consider the world we live in as an illusion, but zen seems to emphasize being present in the moment as opposed to completely disregarding the world. This also goes into the middle way. Completely denouncing the world and your physical body is an extreme that almost killed buddha before he was "buddha". One thing I like about buddhism is that instead of thinking of things as "sins" to be punished for or "bad" it seperates things into skillful and unskillful. So if building a machine benefits people it is skillful. If it hurts people or further instills illusion then it is unskillful. If you want to be extreme about the world being an illusion, then eating is bad too.

    "One final thing is that the standard books for quantum mechanics are

    Introduction to Quantum Physics - French and Taylor and
    lots of stuff by Richard Feymann (QED, The Feymann Lectures)

    Both are relatively math light, but they get their physics right."

    You had me at relatively math light. Because I'd love to read more about physics but until I get some calculus under my belt, the pickings will be slim.

    Thank you so much! I really enjoyed this conversation.
     
  13. Feb 20, 2010 #12
    There is interesting, and there is correct. :-) :-)

    And this is the sort of thinking that those 18th century Chinese philosophers that I'm heir to were fighting against. The idea was that Buddhist thinking had contaminated the basic texts on which Chinese philosophy was based on, and what their intention was to use rigorous textual analysis to decontaminate the texts.

    The connection to physics is that those philosophers used scientific and mathematical arguments in order to do the decontamination product. Also the rigorous approach to linguistics works nicely with the type of logic that physicists tend to use in solving problems.

    The good news is that you don't need much calculus. Also as there is a standard physics curriculum that starts with using calculus to solve problems involving Newtonian mechanics. The reason the curriculum starts with Newtonian mechanics is that the goal is to apply the math to something that you can see and experience directly. You learning how to do calculations involving a falling apple. You drop and apple and you can connect the math with things that you can see and experience directly. If you do a calculation, and you end up with the apple suddenly moving at half the speed of light, you know that you did something wrong, since apples just don't do that.

    The problem with jumping into quantum directly is that it makes it difficult to connect things that you can't see with things that you have direct experience with. Once you have some experience thinking about how apples behave, then someone can show you some equations that illustrate how electrons behave differently than apples, and show some experiments that illustrate that yes, electrons are weird.

    One problem with things like quantum, is if you do the math and you a really weird result, then it's hard to know if you did the math wrong, if the math is right but the theory is wrong, or if the math and the theory are both right, and things really are weird.
     
  14. Feb 21, 2010 #13
    When you study physics at a more advanced level, you will find that quantum mechanics is no more deep or "profound" than any other branch of physics. Like all physical theories, it is founded on certain axioms that are assumed to be true. The Schroedinger/Dirac equations cannot be derived any more than the First Law of Thermodynamics can be derived. They were invented to describe experimental results, nothing more.
     
  15. Feb 21, 2010 #14
    Not to burst your bubble, but I have to say it is very likely you will be very disappointed if you are expecting to find spirituality in physics. It is not that likely that it will provide you with some kind of deep spiritual understanding of the world and how it relates to spirituality. The parts of physics I am guessing you are interested in are really just the "philosophical implications" of quantum mechanics. But all of that is just idle speculation, learning all the math in the world is not going to get you any closer to knowing "but what really happens when you collapse a wavefunction?" at least not in the way that you want to understand it. Physics is just an attempt to make a self consistent mathematical model of the way things work, which can reproduce results and be used to make predictions. It does little to answer questions like "does an electron really exist?" or "which path does the photon *actually* take in the double slit experiment?"

    But that said it is still a fascinating subject, I'm not saying you shouldn't study it, just that it very likely it won't lead where you think it's going to. Also it does relate to my own spirituality in that it has shown me how extremely difficult it is to really know anything at all about the world around us, how small we are in the universe, and how much could be going on "out there" that is just way beyond anything anybody has ever thought of.
     
  16. Feb 24, 2010 #15
    I started my undergrad work in physics at 30 ,going part-time it took 6 years to graduate. I loved every minute of it. The questions you relate where similar to the ones I had before I started, but it wasnt finding the answers that really hooked me. It was struggling with the problems, losing myself for endless hours in the math.
    Throw yourself fully into this, find your math 'groove' and you will forget your age, your name, what room your sitting in...
    It's a complete joy when the struggle pays off...
    go for it
     
  17. Feb 24, 2010 #16

    MacLaddy

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    How long exactly does it take to find your math "groove?" Because I sure haven't found it yet.

    To the OP, I am 31 and just started my own academic adventures this year. I am working towards an Electrical Engineering BA degree, with a minor in physics. Like you I tend to get myself lost in my own imagination, (Coast to Coast, gotta love it) but the only way for you to get anywhere is to just take the step and do it... Don't worry about being too old, or that it may take too long. Remember, the time will go by no matter what you are doing, so you might as well make it productive.
     
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