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Interest in physics, but no real foundation in mathematics past pre-calc.

  1. Jan 19, 2012 #1
    Try and make this short... starting with the fact that I never attended in any way shape or form 6th-8th grade. Bullying, family (or lack thereof) issues, was depressed and ended up being "home schooled". Except after like two weeks my dad gave up and I just stopped studying anything school related. Played video games, woke up around 5-6pm and went to bed around 4-8am. Best years of my life really.

    So then I decide to go back to high school. Interestingly enough, if you want to go from being home schooled in middle school to home schooled for high school you need to take an exam, but if you go from home schooled in middle school to public school (small town... three hundred students in high school on average, generally a good school). My main concern was the math, as I hadn't touched the stuff since 5th grade.

    Regardless of the whole gigantic gap in education, I managed to barely pass pre-alg. Then I failed algebra twice, took intermediate math junior year, passed with a poor grade. And when it came down to the wire senior year (having to pass algebra) I finally put a small amount of effort into it and passed with I think a B-. Given the contents of this paragraph, you may have noticed that I never really put forth any real effort. Partly on account of being convinced that I was dumb, and part loathing of just core math (the step by step system of it all).

    Anyway, I enjoy science... primarily physics. And parts of chemistry. I can also do the math in those classes which involved trig and calculus, but in college I struck out in pre-calc. After you fail it three times you're not allowed to take it anymore. However, the first time I failed (keep in mind that I'm omitting a lot of situations and time spans) I should have passed with at least a B... but apathetic would best describe my approach. If I had just done the online homework and not been irresponsible I would have passed with a 64%. If I had gone to class during group sessions I would have passed with a 72%. If I had gone to class like a mature student (which I was not at the time) I could have refreshed the parts which had become fuzzy over the years and received an A. However after that the core math classes and everything else just spiraled down.

    The last thing I had done was teach myself, according to the suggested prerequisites, what was equal to two years of fresh high school chemistry knowledge and at least a B+ in pre-calc, AND the very heavy workload of the class itself, in roughly 40 hours spread out over a week before the first exam (it was sort of a last ditch effort, encouraged by my ex-girlfriend to prove something to myself). After the first exam my grades were slightly above the average of 250 UNIV chem I students. During that semester I never went to my pre-calc class minus the exams and ended up with something close to 50%.

    Skipping approximately 1.5 years of (mostly) not being enrolled but studying on my own and speaking with a physics professor, some graduate students and a chemistry professor about ideas of mine and quite a few topics in general... I'm 'here'. Here is more or less dropping out, which is happening now. What I had retained from the core math classes is all but gone. On top of that, I never really understood the 'pure math', likely because I had never learned it. I would just visually memorize things over the course of a night or two before the exams, not knowing why it worked or even what I was writing, but knowing that it's what the exam wanted me to write down. Same went for the online homework... you were allowed to do the problems over and over. A little pattern recognition and cramming and I knew what question *insert trig function* was asking and could answer with no idea what was being answered. Didn't even know trig involved a circle until after my 2nd F in the class.

    So... heart of the matter. I can't decide if I'm just too poor with math and should ignore physics because the math will shove me out. Or if I just need to start strait from the 6th grade and up, redoing classes I've passed and all of that while just drilling until I comprehend the math like I comprehend English. And if I were to do that, what would be the best way?

    Side note: I'm not great at general computation, but I'm not an idiot. The physics professor I talked to the most admitted to using his fingers to keep count (his words: I consider myself a physicist in spite of my mathematical ability). Either way, before realizing that I needed to understand and be able to do the math (fill in the giant holes) I was consistently happy and excited about both chemistry and physics. And right now there's no real way for me to be sure that I could restart and get the math down easy, or if it would just be a waste of time. Also coming to a bit of a rock and a hard place where I need to do something or not do it... no more of this jumping all over nonsense.
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  3. Jan 19, 2012 #2
    I would say you need to go to a community college, start with one algebra two and start trying. I don't know your personal life but this just reads like a wall of excuses, if you have a lot going on in your personal life, well, then it happens but either way, without math you simply can not learn a lot of physics.

    Go back and get a foundation.
  4. Jan 19, 2012 #3


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    Math isn't even your biggest problem. I think your biggest problem is your attitude towards studying. Getting into physics is really difficult. It requires a lot of work!! Do NOT underestimate it.

    Have you ever truly worked hard for something so far?? More important: are you willing to work hard in the future?? The road is very far and very difficult (but it's really worth it).

    I think it is time to do some introspection and to see what it really is you want. Are you prepared to give yourself 100% for studying physics?? This is what it takes.

    IF you are willing to work your *** off, then we can continue. Of course math is crucial in physics. So you need to know it really well. I suggest that you start again in the very beginning with algebra, geometry, trig, precalc. Your foundations will need to be excellent.

    I suggest that you enroll in a community college and start by taking algebra. (I know you past algebra already in high school, but somehow I am not convinced you really know it).

    A very useful site are the videos of khan academy: http://www.khanacademy.org/
    Also try to obtain the book "Basic Mathematics" by Serge Lang. This book will probably be too difficult for you at the moment. But the book contains exactly what you need to know in order to start with calculus. So it's good to read the book sooner or later.

    The road ahead of you is difficult. It's important to be hopeful. Don't be discouraged by setbacks (because setbacks WILL come). Keep on going and try to learn the material. Don't go for the easy A, but go for a complete understanding of the material instead.

    It's not too late for you. There are 30 year old people on this forum who never took algebra before and who managed to get into grad school of physics eventually. The key is not so much being smart, but the key is being persistent.
  5. Jan 19, 2012 #4
    I'm 24 years old, and I've been at Michigan Tech since 2008. The problem isn't the physics itself, it's the math. I essentially cheated on account of being able to visually memorize things and recall patterns... then associate the two. Which is why I could get questions right concerning the core math classes, but really have no clue what it was illustrating.

    Yes... three'ish years of independent study, involving a variety of different areas. However everyone tells me I need to get a firm grasp on vector calculus. I've come to accept that, which brings me back to the main issue here.

    I know that I don't.... Like I said before, I basically cheat. My memory is considerably efficient and when combining that with my pattern recognition and ability to spot the easy way or a sort of "loop hole" I can cram the night before, then during the exam simply recall various problems in my "minds eye" from the online homework until I make a connection and answer what the exam question is asking... however, without really knowing what the answer means.

    I was immature, frustrated at people perceiving me as dumb, and had no confidence in my abilities, and it caught up with me when the equations became too long for me to just remember and connect all the possibilities while not studying the material at all.

    Thanks for all this. I sort of know the answer to my own question, but there is a fear that I will actually just be poor with the mathematics. My IQ wouldn't suggest it by any means, but going about it the way I have for this long is creating doubts. Unreasonable doubts, but still... the degree to which I enjoy physics and am good at it (at least theory wise... understanding concepts) makes the idea or possibility that I may just be very poor when it comes to math conflicts with the passion for physics.

    If you've ever seen the scene from the movie 'Little Miss Sunshine' where this kid, who wants to be a fighter pilot, is told that he's colorblind and how that means it's not possible for him. Well, it seems a bit like that.
  6. Jan 19, 2012 #5
    Not counting my reasons for not not attending middle school... you're right. Took a long time to realize it all too. But it also took a long time to realize that I could teach myself all that chemistry in such a short period of time. And after being treated like a neglected dog during most of my school life, intellectually, it took even longer to accept people referring to me as gifted or even genius. Now I can either quit, give up on myself like I always did. Or, go back and actually learn the math.

    The whole issue is getting over the fear that I really am just a flop with math... which would = a proper end to any hopes I had in the sciences. Leaving me back to talking about number philosophy, set theory and logic (which gets extraordinarily dull, even if you're good at it). It would also leave me back at that feeling of being useless to other people, without any reviving/exciting work and without any goal. Which scares the s*** out of me.
  7. Jan 20, 2012 #6
    I dropped out in sixth grade too. Didn't even go to high school. No studying whatsoever during the seven years I was out of school. I got all A's and B's in my college math classes until I hit differential equations, where I got a D for not applying myself like I should have.

    The question you have to ask yourself is, why do you want to go into physics? You clearly don't have the desire to overcome your circumstances. When you can honestly repeat after me and say "I f'd up", then you'll be on the path towards redeeming yourself.

    Sorry, but I don't know what you can do to become a physicist at this point. You've been through college and failed math three times. I can't imagine anyone letting you try a fourth time, even if you go back to community college. But that's just me. My main point in this post was to tell you that you really did royally mess up, and you need to own up to it. Take some time out to mature and decide why you really want to go into physics - is it for the glamor, or because you like cranking out theorems using math that only a few tens of thousands of people know?
  8. Jan 20, 2012 #7


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    I'm sorry, but it appears that you have a very faulty understanding of what "physics" is. Physics isn't just "one goes up, must come down". Physics also includes "[/b]when and where it comes down"[/b]! It means that there is a qualitative and quantitative aspects to physics. Mathematics is the ONLY language of physics that makes any sense! It is the reason why the formalism of quantum mechanics was never in doubt even when people are disagreeing on the interpretation of what it means.

    The other important thing that you need to realize here is that you have barely, BARELY, covered or seen the necessary mathematics that one needs to even survive some of the advanced undergraduate physics classes. All I've seen is you struggling with basic algebra, and a bunch of "if's" of what you might have gotten IF you did this or that. If you have such issues with something THAT elementary, think of the challenges when you have to start taking calculus, vector calculus, PDE, etc.. etc., assuming you actually have enough prerequisites to actually take them. And yes, these are all the necessary TOOLS that a physics student needs to be able to do physics.

    In the end, it is you who have to decide if this is the path you wish to take. If you do, then it should be done whole-heartedly, with no excuses! Physics is difficult enough as it is to major in without all the drama.

  9. Jan 20, 2012 #8
    Ntstanch - i can totally empathize with you. i loved math and did extremely well through high school until i hit pre-calc, at which point i was too lazy to apply myself. i've also always obsessed about the big questions in life, which i suppose was my reason for studying psych and philosophy. i went so far as to get an m.a. in applied philosophy (specialized in ethics), but honestly, i've always had a love affair with the cosmos. when i was in junior high i told my mother and other adults that i wanted to be an "astronaut" (cute right)? well, i was laughed at. i'm still scarred ;) but the truth is, i didn't have any real math or physics role models growing up (i'm female and from the middle of nowhere...). I tested into advanced math and science in junior high and DECLINED b/c i HATED being labeled as "smart" instead of "cool". And quite honestly, this one decision is my biggest regret to date (i'm now 35, married with 2 pre-preschool aged children and stay home with them). i'm toying with the idea of picking some of this back up, but i really have to start from scratch (relearning basic math, etc). my strategy is to see how far i can go with the math (as others have mentioned, online khan videos and community college courses are good starting points). but honestly, the challenge for me is going to be how much can i really devote to this. i know i have a brain for math, at least the basics (do you? did you find it enjoyable? i think that's telling), the real question is how much work am i willing to do? this is your big question as well. good luck!
  10. Jan 20, 2012 #9
    and micromass - thanks for the book rec. i will likely order it. ah, it's fun to dream...
  11. Jan 20, 2012 #10
    Yeah, I hit the "I f'd up" point a year ago. An option I would have to pass up retaking the class would simply be taking a few months out of my time and getting my bearings back. However, I'd like to go even further and get a serious understanding of the math. Not just your average students ability to drill, drill and drill some more until the answers are all just rote memory responses. As far as going in for the glamor (which most students tend to do)... that's never been my thing. I'm just taking some time to be completely sure that I want to do this. Right now I just crank out theorems and realize they're no use without the math... they're basically just philosophy. Primarily sound ideas, but yeah. Need the math.

    P.S. I also breezed through college alg 1 and 2, but when I transferred from FSU to tech I had no idea what I wanted to do and, as we've established, royally screwed myself by applying the least amount of effort. If I had applied myself at a basic level the first time in pre-calc I would have easily gotten at least a B.
  12. Jan 20, 2012 #11
    I'm sorry to say, but everyone else will tell you the same thing: you can't have sound ideas in physics without using mathematics. Philosophy of physics usually ends up being various ways of describing the meaning of reality in a quantum universe, and even that ends up being math-intensive, because you have to know what the blazes the equations mean. You do need the math, much more than you think.

    What has changed in the interim to make you believe that you will apply yourself at a greater level than you did before? And with that kind of work ethic towards things which do not interest you, why would you consider something like physics, where at some point you'll run into a class that bores you to tears?

    I'm not against you returning to school; but you have to understand that there exists a limited number of positions in physics programs, and if you get your way, you will occupy one of those positions and someone else will not. Can you justify your spot in the program to the detriment of someone else's chance at their dream - someone who hasn't already demonstrated terrible work ethic and an unwillingness to adapt and overcome challenge?
  13. Jan 20, 2012 #12
    There's a lot being assumed here. I've taken UNIV chem I and II and did fine (they're weeder classes as well, so buried in work constantly). They use calculus based problems and recommend that you at least be taking calculus while also taking the class. Though those types of problems just require a good memory for the steps. Once you know where everything goes you're set. I also have had long discussions with a atmospheric physics professor and yes, he made it very clear what to expect.

    It wasn't that I was struggling... it was that I wasn't trying (at all) and was about to drop out because I hadn't found a major I could enjoy doing. Big difference :tongue2: (and yes, I've grown out of that phase... but the damage from it has been done). Though, really... I've primarily answered my own question. I just need start from the bottom and work my way back up to where I understand the math with ease, instead of just doing the rote portion of the math and "number plugging" in later classes. Like I've said before, the majority of students in math heavy majors just end up memorizing complicated math forumlas and learning to recognize where to plug the numbers. I want to know as much about every thing I'm doing when it comes to using the math, and by that time wanting to major in physics (possibly chemical physics) should be a lot easier for me to be certain of.
  14. Jan 20, 2012 #13
    Quick replies to both paragraphs.

    First: I agree with you, my point was that I do what I suppose you could call "natural philosophy". How the physics of things work/operate = the majority of my pondering time.

    Second: What changed is the simple realization that I've been approach the math thing with the wrong perspective. I could have applied myself the first time to pre-calc and gotten an easy A. However, I wouldn't have REALLY known what was being taught, there would just be a capacity to recall what to do when presented with the math. The ROTE processes that most people here who aren't math majors work with. So the test to see if I really am cut out for those classes which bore me into studying something completely unrelated, but more complicated and interesting, etc -- will be teaching myself the whole thing over again with meticulous attention to detail. Then, if I can manage that... not due to teaching myself being difficult, but getting through the fact that it is significantly boring, I will have a far greater understanding of whether or not I want to continue into physics or possibly chemistry. I really did enjoy UNIV chem I and II... even with the huge work load, but I suppose we'll see.

    Edit: When I refer to the math being significantly boring, I'm referring to the core math classes. College alg 1, 2, pre-calc. The math in the chem classes was really enjoyable as it had physical substance behind the numbers.
  15. Jan 20, 2012 #14
    Sure you could have. Like I mentioned in my first post, I was in an even worse math situation than you were - no high school. I learned math in a community college. My first math class since sixth grade was a remedial class for the slackers from high school and adults going back to school, taught by someone who didn't even have a Masters in the subject, let alone a Ph.D. I survived. I learned. And I assure you, I'm about as bright as that really freakin' old light bulb ( http://www.centennialbulb.org/ ).

    What helped me is to realize that anything can have physical substance behind it. Damned if I could figure out how quadratics might apply to the real world (at the time).. but just today I was doing a Dynamics problem and waddya know, a quadratic came up (in fact, quadratics come up a lot just in straight line motion of a particle). And the equations/algebra/calculus principles had no applications (and sometimes didn't even exist) until someone dreamed up a way of applying it.. just saying :)
  16. Jan 20, 2012 #15


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    Don't forget, just because you're interested in physics does not at all mean you need to study it in university (or get a degree in it, or work as a physicist!). Taking classes while you're at university because you find them interesting is one thing, but going to school specifically for physics is another ball game altogether, suggesting you have career aspirations of being a physicist. Obviously nobody can tell you what you want to do, just think about it.

    If you're just interested, there's no reason why you can't study physics in your own time, at your own pace. You can even go through the same textbooks as universities use, just without the pressure of course work deadlines or exams. After all, if it's just for your own interest, this is certainly a better option.
  17. Jan 20, 2012 #16
    or you could take the noblest path of all - teach math/science in secondary ed.

    inspire young minds.
  18. Jan 20, 2012 #17
    Heh... I didn't learn a damn thing in high school. You didn't miss much, just like neither of us missed much in middle school. You're essentially taught to regurgitate what they feed you to make it look like your own work, when it's really just repetition drills. So you know when one thing happens, you need to react with the other thing to get the appropriate response and results. Knowledge beyond that isn't encouraged, emphasized or anything. They don't want or have the time for philosophers/critical thinkers. They want people who can do the work and the jobs. Though I don't believe, at all, that progress comes from formally taught repetition.

    I'm essentially quoting the physicist I've been talking with from time to time for the last 2.5ish years. And this physicist is no crock. I think last year he was given 300,000$ in grants, and quite a bit more over the years. And his lowest grade during a chemical physics bachelors and masters was a C in fluids (one of my major curiosities).

    I am still, but less so, a bit of an immature and arguably spoiled mind. Many of these things come easily to me, but someone as driven as you is worth ten of me. Just trying to find what you've found. It doesn't so much matter that your IQ is 120, 155 or 250 (William James Sidis) as much as it does being passionate about what you are doing.

    The Ancient Greek word techné is a perfect illustration of how I feel towards what I will spend my life on. In a nutshell, the plumber who is great at his job and happy with his work is = to the physicist so long as they have the same passion/drive for what they do. But instead of techné, I see too much of the opposite now days. Namely, people wanting to be biochemical engineers, physicists, chemical engineers - etc for reasons of prestige in the title, and the higher pay check. Illegitimate reasons for working and applying yourself to the best of your capacity in a certain area.

    That is a huge portion of why I am where I am right now... it is not easy to graduate high school and decide, "Hey, I want to be a chemical physicist." without any doubt. I could be a good doctor, a good English teacher, a good farmer, a good technical writing... but the essential key of it all is being as certain as possible, discerning all the options, what you should be. (and in my experience, it's REALLLY difficult to find the answer).
  19. Jan 20, 2012 #18
    I've considered this many times... however, people do not listen to the man without grades and a piece of paper saying "you did it". Making a difference, a good one... to the best of my knowledge and advice from professors/advisers in this area, makes that piece of paper essential. Also, doing it all solo removes the most essential aspect of it all... the feedback, the think tank like environment. Three things in life make me very happy/content. One is playing with children, one is playing with dogs... and one is sitting in a room full of students brain storming ideas. Or just brain storming with others. I obviously don't have that experience with advanced physics, but I do with set-theory and number philosophy. (there is a thread I started about set-theory which largely resembled what I used to do in the math learning center for fun).

    Before transferring I studied cognitive psych with an almost disturbing passion. Almost all of my time was dedicated to it once I breezed through the other class work. If I took this path it would focus on adapting learning styles, using multiple intelligence theories to add new perspective and value to standardized testing. That dream was far bigger than becoming a physicist... but after two years I lost faith in the ability for me to re-write the perspectives on intelligence. My IQ is exceptionally high... yet here I am, not much better than a college drop out.

    The extent of combining visual-spatial and logical-sequential IQ abilities, along with Howard Gardner, and all adaptations of his original theory of multiple intelligences with the other perspectives and ideas on intelligence and how best to approach each individual mind... it's too much. There isn't a quick solution to any of it. Not in proving validity and efficiency of a new theory over the old, and especially not in implicating it into our horrible educational system.

    Need to stop talking about cognitive psych/teaching now... or I'll be here for the next five hours explaining how we don't want to slow down progress in order to make changes so that every student reaches his or her potential. Either in the same field of study (from different teaching tactics) or multiple fields. The whole darn thing is what made me transfer to MTU, and sulk/do horribly while at MTU (aka - tech) on account of a dead passion. I have no idea what to do besides work and be exceptional as a physicist, and then possibly combine my history (similar to Angry Citizens history) to produce a large Ef-You to our educational system. Or something... I don't really know concerning the big picture. All I know is that I love physics, or at least natural philosophy (wondering why everything works, works together, etc)... and far beyond that want to remove the destruction of peoples minds and potential through such a terrible educational system. Arbitrary systems of "you're smart or dumb" based on a standardized test(s); like in I.Q. tests.

    In summation: I am very stubborn, very lost and focusing on the closest/most realistic goal currently available to me.
  20. Jan 21, 2012 #19


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    Then I don't know what you want here. You obviously know what needs to be done. Then go DO IT! No more "if's".

  21. Jan 22, 2012 #20
    Yeah... true enough. Just need to do it right this time. The first time (the years of indefatigable work/drive I left out) lead to a small breakdown. Things like that teach you incomprehensible fear and also the lessons in overcoming them. And I do know what needs to be done.... First part is to get this symphony going again.
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