I'm interested in physics but have no idea what path to take (14 years old)

In summary, this person found PF through Google search and is looking for advice on self-esteem and guidance on what to study in order to become a physicist. They are from a poor family and are not confident in their math and physics skills, but they are doing well in school. They suggest that you find a club or organization that you are interested in and then find a way to get help from a teacher or counselor. They also suggest looking for self-paced online resources.
  • #1
LenaWenaKena
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How did you find PF?: Google Search

I'm new to this forum and I am currently 14 years old. I've recently taken an interest in physics(Due to popular science/ books and natural curiosity). But I have no idea what path to take so I could study it. I come from a poor and quite unsupportive family and I don't have any resources(excluding the internet and the local library). I do well, in school, but it isn't really challenging enough, and I fear I won't stand the vigor of math and physics. And I really struggle with self-esteem (Compared to other kids who are able to compete in Olympiads I feel really stupid). I know this is unrelated to the general threads of this comment section but does anyone have any advice to provide for me?
 
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  • #2
Hello and :welcome: !

LenaWenaKena said:
How did you find PF?: Google Search

I'm new to this forum and I am currently 14 years old. I've recently taken an interest in physics(Due to popular science/ books and natural curiosity). But I have no idea what path to take so I could study it. I come from a poor and quite unsupportive family and I don't have any resources(excluding the internet and the local library).
This is a lot nowadays!
a) You found a website here where you get free tutoring in the STEM fields, often from real professors.
b) Almost everything on every level of understanding can be found on the internet. You may run into lecture notes from universities and chances are high, that these will be frustrating at your age. So don't get hit by all these many things.
LenaWenaKena said:
I do well, in school, but it isn't really challenging enough, and I fear I won't stand the vigor of math and physics.
c) This is a good start. Keep learning math and physics! If you have questions or problems, turn to point a).
d) Maybe you could find a certain field, e.g. astronomy where you can start to read about: library and Internet. Ask us if you're not sure whether something is too difficult.
LenaWenaKena said:
And I really struggle with self-esteem (Compared to other kids who are able to compete in Olympiads I feel really stupid). I know this is unrelated to the general threads of this comment section but does anyone have any advice to provide for me?
d) I tell you a secret. Geniuses are rare. Most of us have to work hard to learn all that stuff. Don't take too big bites.

e) Most important of all: Have fun and stay curious!
 
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  • #3
Thank You! By the way, do you have any recommended resources?
 
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  • #4
LenaWenaKena said:
I do well, in school, but it isn't really challenging enough,
Hang in there; you are off to a good start in life! :smile:

So at 14 years old, are you first year in high school, or will that be next year? Does your school have a Physics Club or a Math Club? How about a Chess Club? Clubs like that are great places to meet like-minded students with similar interests and help each other to grow stronger together. Also, does your school support a Science Fair competition? That is another way to get good experience in researching a subject and doing some experiments and presenting your results. Great fun. :smile:

Be sure to utilize your school's counselors to help you find programs and opportunities that will help you to grow in your science and math interests. For example, when you are in high school, there can often be opportunities in the upper grades to also attend classes at a local Community College, to get more advance instruction in subjects that you are interested in. And sometimes, those CC credits can be transferred to the university that you eventually attend.

Have fun and enjoy the ride! :smile:
 
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  • #5
LenaWenaKena said:
Thank You! By the way, do you have any recommended resources?
What level is your mathematics and what physics do you already know? In terms of what problems can you solve yourself? Almost everything is free online now in some shape or form. You need to decide what to study first. Any ideas?

Note that reading popular science is all right, but the author does all the work. If you want to learn physics, you have to find academic textbooks that teach you the subject and get you to solve problems. It's a bit like if you want to learn to play the piano, you can't just watch someone playing.
 
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  • #6
I was in your position, nobody in my immediate surrounding knew physics or math, and even in my school nobody really ever pointed me to anything, but I did look things up on my own. I made lots of mistakes and took many wrong paths but now I know better!

The bad news is, to know physics you HAVE to know calculus and basic linear algebra (vectors etc), and then also differential equations (at least the basics)!

The good news is, learning that opens up a huge chunk of physics for you.

The other bad news is that to know the fun stuff that people write about in pop physics, you have to know the boring stuff first.

The good news is that when you really get to know these things, it stops being boring and you realize it's also interesting.

It also helps if you like math for its own sake. Do you? Even if you don't, it's ok, but if you do, I could suggest things purely math related that you may still find interesting and will eventually help you tons with physics.

To start out, you definitely have to know basic Newtonian mechanics (have you learned it in school?), basic calculus (integrals and derivatives) and basic stuff about vectors. Obviously basic algebra too, which I assume you have learned in school. When it comes to these things, I'm sure you can find many resources.

Once you know these things, you should know that Leonard Susskind, a famous theoretical physicist, has a series of books called "Theoretical Minimum" and a series of free lectures on YouTube with the same title that introduces people with little background to the necessary tools to understand higher level physics. If I remember correctly, the first book on classical mechanics even explains some of the basics of calculus. Definitely start out with the classical mechanics stuff. Personally I found classical mechanics boring at first, and I couldn't see the use of some formulations of it. But as you progress you slowly start to figure out why this stuff is needed. At the same time, you should also learn the basics of differential equations. Probably most of physics comes down to finding the right differential equation and then solving it.

Of course if you have any questions of understanding etc (which is very normal) ask here or elsewhere. There are people willing to help. I can help with basic stuff, I actually have a little bit experience tutoring kids your age in physics and math.

Finally, I would say do exercises and keep notes. It helps a ton. Especially exercises, you haven't truly understood a concept until you can actually do something with it. In general it is very important that you solve problems yo understand all the theories we come up with in context.

Now, when it comes to books, I understand you may not have the money to buy them. I couldn't buy all the books I wanted either. If that is the case, there are... ways to get access to books for free online. But moderators may not like it if I start posting links here because it's not completely legal. I gotta say however, it's indispensable.
 
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  • #7
By the way, if you find things hard, it's because, well, they are. But if you keep at it it eventually becomes easy. Even better, you start seeing glimpses of the big picture, and it's a great feeling when all the confusing and seemingly unrelated things you learned start coalescing into a coherent whole that you understand!

For some reason many people think you either get math immediately and you are good at it or you don't and you are just bad. I remember long ago I encountered a problem that was asking to find a number x so that x to the power of x to the power of x to the power... Well you get the idea, you do that for infinity, and it gives you 8. When I saw it at first, years ago, I was very confused and couldn't solve it. I saw it again a few days ago and I instantly figured it out. What happened? It's just that I did so much math and saw so many ways to solve problems that this previously "impossible" problem suddenly seemed embarrassingly obvious.

The other side of this is that people who deal with physics and math for a long time consider some things to be obvious that are completely over your head. As a result, when they explain things they may omit or gloss over many things that you don't understand. So don't be afraid to ask questions and when you still don't understand, press people into clarifying until you understand, or at least until they tell you what background you should have to understand!
 
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  • #8
LenaWenaKena said:
Thank You! By the way, do you have any recommended resources?
You could have a look at https://openstax.org/subjects or better at https://openstax.org/subjects/math since math is basically the common ground to all sorts of sciences.

You should start with the "Pre-" books. It is better to skip some parts you already know than to get frustrated by parts you do not understand because you missed something in between.
 
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  • #9
I will echo others. Most importantly, you should take the most rigorous math sequence offered. If you can, think about taking a college level course your senior year (is that possible for you?... local college?..you don't need to decide now!!) Knowing the math early will make every other course very much easier (OK maybe not Shakespeare). For me it takes time for the math to settle into my head.
Otherwise study everything and anything you find interesting. A tip: at your age you can ask any stupid (but well-considered) question you want. You get a free pass! Most of the time it will turn out not stupid.....
 
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  • #10
One thing you said jumped out, your apparent lack of confidence. You are young but with hard work and drive you will discover how much better you will feel about yourself and your future.

I have referred to an article by Leon Lederman (Nobel Prize in Physics-1988) a few times in this forum. He wrote it in response to a letter written by a young college student doubting his ability to succeed in physics.

Lederman said that he was only a B- to B+ student in HS although he continued to improve through college, graduate school and in his professeional career.

Here is his summary to the students questions. (Physics Today, January 1990 pp 9,11)

1683910356854.jpeg
 
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  • #11
AndreasC said:
The bad news is, to know physics you HAVE to know calculus and basic linear algebra (vectors etc), and then also differential equations (at least the basics)!
I would disagree here. Learning physics is indeed more efficient if you already know the math you've listed. But it's not essential to get started. The OP is only 14. It's been many, many moons since I was in high school (US), but I took physics in sophomore and junior years (grades 10 and 11), pre-calculus. In my senior year (grade 12), I took AP Physics and AP Math (calculus) concurrently. Some math topics (such as vectors) are introduced and covered in physics courses. It is possible to get an intuitive feel for many physical phenomena without the full mathematical machinery. Some formulas, of course, initially need to be accepted as given, rather than derived.
 
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  • #12
CrysPhys said:
I would disagree here. Learning physics is indeed more efficient if you already know the math you've listed. But it's not essential to get started. The OP is only 14. It's been many, many moons since I was in high school (US), but I took physics in sophomore and junior years (grades 10 and 11), pre-calculus. In my senior year (grade 12), I took AP Physics and AP Math (calculus) concurrently. Some math topics (such as vectors) are introduced and covered in physics courses. It is possible to get an intuitive feel for many physical phenomena without the full mathematical machinery. Some formulas, of course, initially need to be accepted as given, rather than derived.
Fair enough, can't say I really disagree, BUT if you want to move beyond a surface level understanding of simple phenomena that you get from pop sci etc, you more or less need that kind of math. And of course you can learn these things concurrently, I didn't want to claim that you have to FIRST learn the math and THEN the physics. But you have to make sure you cover them well.
 
  • #13
AndreasC said:
Fair enough, can't say I really disagree, BUT if you want to move beyond a surface level understanding of simple phenomena that you get from pop sci etc, you more or less need that kind of math. And of course you can learn these things concurrently, I didn't want to claim that you have to FIRST learn the math and THEN the physics. But you have to make sure you cover them well.
I agree with you for a full and deep understanding. But learning physics, like learning most subjects, is typically done incrementally and iteratively. Again, the OP is about to enter high school, not college. Last thing I want is for her to be spooked if she thinks a heavy dose of math is needed just to get off the starting block. An alternative approach is to introduce her to the joy and fun of physics via observations, descriptive phenomena, and experiments first. Then get into the theory and math. Needless to say, I grew up to be an experimental physicist.
 
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  • #14
1. Take the hardest classes you can and do well at them.
2. Develop your other interests.
3. Be nice to people.
 
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  • #15
CrysPhys said:
I agree with you for a full and deep understanding. But learning physics, like learning most subjects, is typically done incrementally and iteratively. Again, the OP is about to enter high school, not college. Last thing I want is for her to be spooked if she thinks a heavy dose of math is needed just to get off the starting block. An alternative approach is to introduce her to the joy and fun of physics via observations, descriptive phenomena, and experiments first. Then get into the theory and math. Needless to say, I grew up to be an experimental physicist.
Yes. That's my point e) in post #2. Being curious about what a continuous function is will teach you what it is, not epsilontic.
 
  • #16
Vanadium 50 said:
3. Be nice to people.
You are so touchy-feely! :smile:
 
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  • #17
Vanadium 50 said:
1. Take the hardest classes you can and do well at them.
2. Develop your other interests.
3. Be nice to people.

berkeman said:
You are so touchy-feely! :smile:

Hmmm ... let's see. Judging from V50's history of responses,

either

(a) V50's response is an AI generated fake pretending to be from V50, poorly executed;

or

(b) V50 is undergoing court-mandated behavior-modification therapy.
 
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  • #18
fresh_42 said:
Yes. That's my point e) in post #2. Being curious about what a continuous function is will teach you what it is, not epsilontic.

Actually, my notion of the joy and fun of physics is more in line with this previous post:

berkeman said:
Also, does your school support a Science Fair competition? That is another way to get good experience in researching a subject and doing some experiments and presenting your results. Great fun. :smile:
 
  • #19
It is good that you developed an interest in physics at 14. You are likely finishing your first year or maybe second year of HS. Some good advice is that to get into a good college, you should be good at all sciences and mathematics especially. That means try to get good grades and test scores in biology and chemistry too. This will make you well balanced scientifically.

I found in reviewing videos on advice from mathematicians who earned their doctorate, that many successful mathematicians did not compete in the olympiads, and some of those that did compete did not do very well. Interest and persistance goes a long way in a career. Feel good about yourself, and do not become overcome with feelings of inadequacy. After all, you are 14. Your cognitive mental processes are still growing.
You may also be going through a moody period of time at this age.

You mention your not economically advantaged. Neither was I. Back in the 1960's there was no internet and computers. Most of my study and interest was done in the local library. Libraries are wonderful. The local library did not have any books beyond elementary calculus and maybe some first year physics, but it did have books on mathematics like "the compleat strategyst", "mathematics for the practical man", and "matter, earth, and sky" by Gamow. In short, these are books that are not college textbooks, per se, but they can whet your appetite for the subject matter, you will get to in college.
 
  • #20
LenaWenaKena said:
I do well, in school, but it isn't really challenging enough, . . .

OK, that is great.
LenaWenaKena said:
. . . and I fear I won't stand the vigor of math and physics.

So why do you feel this way? What do you see as the problem?
 
  • #21
LenaWenaKena said:
I do well, in school, but it isn't really challenging enough, and I fear I won't stand the vigor of math and physics.
PREPARATION! One can study ahead for several weeks to become better prepared when actually a student in a course. Or, be sure to have learned the prerequisites. Or both of those.
 
  • #22
Thank you for the advice! Right now I'm taking high school-level geometry and biology. But one thing I hate about learning in school is the constant memorization- many times in math I have no idea how they derived equations/methods/theorems. It makes me feel that the problem-solving skills I have are really inadequate to learn physics.
 
  • #23
LenaWenaKena said:
But one thing I hate about learning in school is the constant memorization- many times in math I have no idea how they derived
Both parts are important. In my experience. The joy of hard science and math is that the more you understand (including understanding how to learn), the less you need to memorize. I do not enjoy memorization, but I do need to know enough things that my imagination is "fully loaded"
Linus Pauling (Two Nobel prizes: Peace and Chemistry) was once asked how he had so many good ideas. He said "I just have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones". To do that you need to know both kinds of stuff.
 
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  • #24
If you have some problems with memorization, there is a concept of a "mnemonic device". This concept might be a little jingle, like the way most of us english writers learned our ABC's First year medical students taking anatomy, (much later than HS biology), learn the 12 cranial nerves by a little ditty for the first letters of the nerves, On old Olympus Towering Tops... the rest I will not repeat.
Physicists also use mnemonics at times for electicity, like ELI the ICEman. You will get to this in a few years if you continue in physics or engineering.
I find If you make up the mnemonic yourself, it may be more effective than one told to you. For some reason, the more amusing and ridiculous the mnemonic is, the easier it is to remember. To remember the the bone above the elbow in the upper arm, the humerus, I remember the mnemonic "humourous" (isn't that funny?).
There is a funny song "them bones" at an earlier level than your HS biology with some words, ... "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone", although I don't pretend to think the song is serious in its instruction of anatomy.

I agree with the post above, that memorization is important, and it gets worse in chemistry, next year when you learn oxidation states of common chemical radicals. Perhaps, flashcards, or making a game of the effort can be effective.

As far as derivations are concerned, you can ask your teacher how much you are responsible for deriving
(for example), the angle addition formulas for the cosine of the sum of two angles. Most likely, the teacher will tell you that you are responsible for using the equations and manipulating them, rather than deriving them. Most teachers regard that as "their" job, and it is done in class. When you get to college, there is a good chance it will become "your" job.

The SAT's and ACT's and other tests do not test derivations much if at all. Most HS mathematics are applications and examples.

Because you are taking HS geometry, you are now exposed to the idea of proofs. If proofs do not upset you, this is good. I have a good friend who hated proofs in HS geometry, and it disuaded him from ever going further in math, although he did go further and learned trigonometry (which he liked), and elementary calculus. Today he is a data scientist, and he continues to brush up and learn more calculus, so take heart if learning comes slowly. Good Luck
 
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  • #25
berkeman said:
You are so touchy-feely! :smile:
I was going to ask "Who are you and what have you done with V50?"
 
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  • #26
CrysPhys said:
I agree with you for a full and deep understanding. But learning physics, like learning most subjects, is typically done incrementally and iteratively. Again, the OP is about to enter high school, not college. Last thing I want is for her to be spooked if she thinks a heavy dose of math is needed just to get off the starting block. An alternative approach is to introduce her to the joy and fun of physics via observations, descriptive phenomena, and experiments first. Then get into the theory and math. Needless to say, I grew up to be an experimental physicist.
Well, we had different paths, so you can provide a different perspective, which is cool! There are lots of roads to physics. You make a fair point.
 
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  • #27
LenaWenaKena said:
Thank you for the advice! Right now I'm taking high school-level geometry and biology. But one thing I hate about learning in school is the constant memorization- many times in math I have no idea how they derived equations/methods/theorems. It makes me feel that the problem-solving skills I have are really inadequate to learn physics.
This is indeed making me cry. It summarizes in a few line, where school teaching around the globe miserably fails!

If there is one subject of human knowledge, which you can really understand, it's math. Learning math should never involve memorization of some recipe to solve some specific kind of problems without understanding, where this recipe comes from. Of course, as any subject also math involves a huge body of knowledge gained by mankind in the millenia math has developed, and to a certain extent you also have to memorize things, but the real point is indeed to understand, where all these achievements come from.

I had quite the same experience in high school. In the lower classes, I've not been very good in math, and I didn't understand well, why a problem was solved by the recipies they taught us to use to solve it. Then one day in the public library I looked for math books to read about something, I didn't understand in high school. I think it was something about trigonometry. Finally I found a book about geometry for engineering students. First I thought, I'd not be able to understand it, but reading a bit, I got very surprised, because it indeed explained, why geometry is as it is due to a few basic assumptions called axioms and that this way of axiomatic thinking was in fact invented by the ancient Greeks with Euclid's geometry the paradigmatic example. It took me a hard effort to really learn about the trigonometry from this book, but finally it was a success, and I started to love math and went on to study it from this kind of books.

Concerning physics, it's indeed true that you need a lot of math to really understand it, but I don't think that it is a good idea to say that you need to study math first before you can also study physics, if it's the physics that really interests you most since physics can also be a great motivation to learn math, and it can also help to understand math better in an intuitive way.

My suggestion thus is to start reading introductory university experimental-physics books (like Haliday, Resnick, Walker or Tipler) and see how much you can already understand and which math you need to understand them.
 
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  • #28
My main problem is that I feel like I’m too stupid for physics-a feeling that is hard to overcome.I feel like even if I try hard I won’t get anyway which makes me really depressed.The funny thing is though I’ve never touched a physics textbook, and yet the feeling persist.
 
  • #29
LenaWenaKena said:
I do well, in school, but it isn't really challenging enough
LenaWenaKena said:
I feel like I’m too stupid for physics-a feeling that is hard to overcome
If you feel that school isn't challenging you enough, you are definitely not too stupid for physics.

LenaWenaKena said:
I’ve never touched a physics textbook
Whelp, it's time! Take a physics class in school and have fun! (and join the academic clubs that I recommended many posts ago in this thread). :smile:
 
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  • #30
LenaWenaKena said:
My main problem is that I feel like I’m too stupid for physics-a feeling that is hard to overcome.I feel like even if I try hard I won’t get anyway which makes me really depressed.The funny thing is though I’ve never touched a physics textbook, and yet the feeling persist.
Every single person in the world is too stupid for physics. Nobody understands everything. And you said school isn't challenging enough for you. Most people, including those who go on to study physics in uni, find school challenging!

It shouldn't matter anyways. When people download a videogame, they don't start thinking "oh but what if I'm not good enough at it", they just play. Don't worry about it, start learning about physics and math in a way appropriate for your level and if you don't understand, then keep doing it until you do understand, and the process will be more fun than it sounds. Do you have something that interests you in particular?
 
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  • #31
LenaWenaKena said:
My main problem is that I feel like I’m too stupid for physics-a feeling that is hard to overcome.I feel like even if I try hard I won’t get anyway which makes me really depressed.The funny thing is though I’ve never touched a physics textbook, and yet the feeling persist.
Don't take too big bites, then it will come from alone. You are 2 years away from your driver's license. Start thinking about which physical laws will keep you on the road, especially in curves and during fall and winter! :cool:

And if you start thinking about why it is a very, very bad decision for girls to enter a car driven by a guy, then you have already started learning biology, chapter: hormones. They are listed in Monday morning newspapers where I live. I call them disco deaths.

Science is all around. Just analyze what you see and try to understand it.
 
  • #32
AndreasC said:
Every single person in the world is too stupid for physics. Nobody understands everything. And you said school isn't challenging enough for you. Most people, including those who go on to study physics in uni, find school challenging!

It shouldn't matter anyways. When people download a videogame, they don't start thinking "oh but what if I'm not good enough at it", they just play. Don't worry about it, start learning about physics and math in a way appropriate for your level and if you don't understand, then keep doing it until you do understand, and the process will be more fun than it sounds.

And in case you are looking for challenges: ask us! We can provide challenges and guide you through solutions.
 
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  • #33
LenaWenaKena said:
My main problem is that I feel like I’m too stupid for physics-a feeling that is hard to overcome.I feel like even if I try hard I won’t get anyway which makes me really depressed.The funny thing is though I’ve never touched a physics textbook, and yet the feeling persist.
Which is more important or which is stronger? Your feeling of stupidity or your interest in Physics? Dedicated regular study effort is really what is relevant for learning or studying Physics. With the necessary studious effort, you can ignore the feeling of stupidity; it will not apply.
 
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  • #34
LenaWenaKena said:
My main problem is that I feel like I’m too stupid for physics
„The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.“ (Bertrand Russell)
 
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  • #35
fresh_42 said:
And if you start thinking about why it is a very, very bad decision for girls to enter a car driven by a guy, then you have already started learning biology, chapter: hormones. They are listed in Monday morning newspapers where I live.
Ours only list enzymes... :wink:
 

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