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I Have Trouble Understanding Physics, Will Higher-Level Math help?

  1. Apr 8, 2014 #1
    I am a Junior in high school, and am currently considering a career (though highly unlikely to find one, from what I've heard) in physics. I have taken Algebra I, (Adv st.) Geometry, (Adv st.) Algebra II, am currently enrolled in Pre-calc, and will be taking Calculus next year.

    I find physics to be incredibly interesting, but have trouble understanding a lot of what I read (about various subjects, ranging from relativity, to quantum mechanics, to elementary particles, etc.).

    My question is, would I find it easier to understand these concepts after having taken Calculus? Thanks for any help or insight!

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 8, 2014 #2
    The short answer is yes. To understand "advanced" undergraduate physics one needs Calculus I, II, III, differential equations, and linear algebra. More advanced math will be required for elementary particles and relativity, but don't worry about it now.

    My advice: take things step by step. If you want to study physics in undergrad, you'll take all that math. In general, one cannot understand the physics without understanding the mathematical language used to express it, and this is a common hitch for people unfamiliar with the study of physics. Take your math courses very seriously and your life will be much easier when you're learning the physics (take it from someone who has had to do a lot of mathematical catch-up)
  4. Apr 8, 2014 #3


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    You will have a better understanding once you get the fundamentals down, like classical physics. Understanding quantum mechanics before classical physics seems a little impossible.
  5. Apr 8, 2014 #4


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    You definitely need to know a lot more math before tackling elementary particle physics, general relativity, and (to a lesser extent) quantum mechanics, calculus itself will not be enough by any means unless you want a really superficial understanding of the underlying physics.

    However the (much) bigger issue is you first need to know your Newtonian mechanics and EM cold. At your age it may seem very tempting to just rush through Newtonian mechanics and, probably more rarely through EM (although why would you? EM is in and of itself an incredibly awesome subject to say the least) in order to start learning the ostensibly "flashy" topics in physics but this will only hurt you significantly down the road.

    If you use the right textbooks, you'll have a lot of fun with Newtonian mechanics and EM and won't have the desire to just haphazardly learn them so as to jump right into GR, QM etc.
  6. Apr 8, 2014 #5
    So it's not such a terrible thing that I don't quite understand some of the stuff that I'm reading? I'm just trying to make sure that I'm not pursuing something that's unreasonable for me..
  7. Apr 8, 2014 #6


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    Gosh no, it's far, far from terrible so don't worry about it even in the slightest. Given your stated mathematical background, absolutely no one would expect you to be able to understand more or less rigorous accounts of QM, GR, etc.
  8. Apr 8, 2014 #7


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    Have you taken algebra-based physics yet? I highly recommend it!
  9. Apr 8, 2014 #8
    Well that's EXTREMELY good to hear, it's good to know that will come later.

    I have, and am taking calc based Physics next year (in addition to Physics II).

    Haha, senior year schedule should be fun:

    Calculus (2nd semester is AP)
    Physics II
    AP Physics (Calc based version of Physics I)
    Chemistry II
    IB English HL 12th
    IB History of the Americas II
    Astronomy (1st semester)/Clerical Aide for Physics teacher (2nd semester)
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2014
  10. Apr 8, 2014 #9


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    Ya, those english and history classes are going to suck.
  11. Apr 8, 2014 #10
    Well, IB Classes are 2 years long, and I'm currently in the first year of both them. Yeah, they're pretty bad. Although, making an A in both is possible with relative ease, so I guess that's all that matters for those classes.
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2014
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