Is everyone's brain capable of learning physics

In summary: This is not true at all in science. It takes people very long to actually understand a concept. You can't get through a science book by reading it once. You need to do exercises, ponder on the material,...
  • #1
MathJakob
161
5
Hello all, do you believe that everyone has the same ability to learn and understand something? I'm trying to learn physics at home in my own time using books and the internet. Sure I can read about quantum mechanics or relativity and understand what I'm reading but there is a difference between understand what something is saying and understanding why something is the way it is.

I genuinely don't believe that my brain is capable of learning the equations involved with physics and learning to use these equations to solve problems. For example if one of you guys ends up descovering something new in the lab, you'll need to form an equation to describe what is happening.

I am not a university student or anything and my experience in math and physics is extremely basic, I haven't even learned calculus yet... bottom line is I just think I'm not smart enough, my brain simply isn't capable of truly understanding physics.
 
Physics news on Phys.org
  • #2
Why would you think you're not smart enough if you didn't even try? You never even did calculus, so you never been in contact with "real" physics or mathematics. Try to learn calculus first and go from there.

Maybe it will be too difficult for you, or maybe it will be far too boring. There is no way to know until you try.
 
  • #3
Was this thread motivated by that pm you sent me today regarding the arxiv article on the shape of black holes that I linked? Please don't be discouraged just because you couldn't understand that paper. It is quite an advanced paper! Start with the basics and work your way up. If you haven't learned calculus yet then there is no reason to expect that the mathematics in that paper would be at an accessible level. Good luck and cheers!

Here's the paper for people who want some context: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1306.1019v1.pdf
 
  • #4
MathJakob said:
bottom line is I just think I'm not smart enough, my brain simply isn't capable of truly understanding physics.
You could be right, you know yourself better than anyone else. No one has the same abilities, drives, motivation etc...

Are you in high school? You said you haven't taken calculus yet, what grade are you in?
 
  • #5
Evo said:
You could be right, you know yourself better than anyone else.

You imply that people know themselves pretty well. I think this is very rarely the case. People overestimate and underestimate themselves all the time. It is very difficult to be realistic about your own scientific capabilties.
 
  • #6
micromass said:
People overestimate and underestimate themselves all the time. It is very difficult to be realistic about your own [strike]scientific[/strike] capabilties.

Agreed with a minor correction.
 
  • #7
Evo said:
You could be right, you know yourself better than anyone else. No one has the same abilities, drives, motivation etc...

Are you in high school? You said you haven't taken calculus yet, what grade are you in?

I'm 21 and had some problems in school so I never finished. I've just been living a normal boring life going to work ect and in my spare time reading science books because I find it incredibly interesting but I just can't do the math side of it. I can't even learn the math... so how can I ever use it to work things out..
 
  • #8
MathJakob said:
I'm 21 and had some problems in school so I never finished. I've just been living a normal boring life going to work ect and in my spare time reading science books because I find it incredibly interesting but I just can't do the math side of it. I can't even learn the math... so how can I ever use it to work things out..

Well, have you actually sat down and tried to learn the math? How did that go? Where did you get stuck?

It's impossible to learn physics without a very good grasp of mathematics. So before even attempting physics textbooks, you should learn mathematics really well.

If your basic math is rusty, then be sure to start with "basic mathematics" by Lang. Then you can go to "a first course in calculus" by Lang. Only then can you really read a decent physics book.
 
  • #9
Well when I started I never even knew basic algebra so I bought an algebra I book and got through it in about a month and now I've just ordered an Algebra II/Trig book which I'll start working through.

Just most people I know read something once and that's it they know it... but I have to keep going back to relearn rules ect. I just have real problems "thinking outside the box" basically.
 
  • #10
MathJakob said:
Just most people I know read something once and that's it they know it...

This is not true at all in science. It takes people very long to actually understand a concept. You can't get through a science book by reading it once. You need to do exercises, ponder on the material, read it again, etc.

If you ever meet somebody who says that they learned advanced mathematics or physics by just reading the book once, then you can be sure that they're lying.

I always love the "Doc Smith" approach to mathematics, where Our Hero glances at an equation (sorry, "formula"), and instantly says "of course...!"

My experience is usually more like "I don't know what on Earth that means" ... scribble, scribble, scribble ... "Oh, yes, but what a weird way of writing it" ... scribble, scribble, scribble ... "now *this* should be a much clearer way" ... scribble, scribble, scribble ... "oh, it's identical to what I started with. But *now* I understand it." I can't *read* maths, I can only write it :-)

A colleague of mine put it better: "mathematics is not a spectator sport".

Don't worry about struggling in mathematics, everybody struggles.
 
  • #11
micromass said:
Don't worry about struggling in mathematics, everybody struggles.

I guess this is true but nobody struggles or takes as long as I do to work out a problem lol. I guess I just learn at a slower rate. There must be a time when I no longer have to keep going back to the laws to remember what I can manipulate and what I can't... but then if I truly understood it I'd know what can be moved where and how.
 
  • #12
MathJakob said:
I guess this is true but nobody struggles or takes as long as I do to work out a problem lol.

How do you know??

And why should you ever care whether you are slow or not. If your goal is to learn math, then why do you care whether it takes a month or a year?

but then if I truly understood it I'd know what can be moved where and how.

True. But true understanding takes years, not days. Nobody truly understands something they see for the first time.
 
  • #13
micromass said:
You imply that people know themselves pretty well. I think this is very rarely the case. People overestimate and underestimate themselves all the time. It is very difficult to be realistic about your own scientific capabilties.
No, I said that he'd know himself better than someone else. Other people can form opinions about what they see of you, but only you (if you are normal) know what you really think and feel. And that's especially true on an internet forum.

MathJakob said:
I'm 21 and had some problems in school so I never finished. I've just been living a normal boring life going to work ect and in my spare time reading science books because I find it incredibly interesting but I just can't do the math side of it. I can't even learn the math... so how can I ever use it to work things out..
If you didn't finish high school, perhaps you can look into getting a high school equivalent, which can then allow you to attend college. I'm not sure how things work where you are. But being so young and having a strong interest, I would look into getting back into taking beginner math classes and see if you like it. Just because you didn't have the desire earlier doesn't mean that you can't do it now. Your new mindset may be all you need to be successful now, but baby steps with the maths. Don't start off over your head and get discouraged. Listen to what micro said, it takes time and don't bite off more than you can chew.
 
Last edited:
  • #15
This is probably a bold assertion, but I think anybody can learn anything, and that the difference is really how quickly you pick up new things.

Now there are a lot of implications to this. If you are slower to learn, it will take you longer, (obviously) and you won't learn as much in a given amount of time (obviously). Often people who learn slow though can sometimes appreciate things on a bit deeper level than the ones that just pick it up without having to think too hard about it.

Can you take some classes? Even just one class at a community college?

-Dave K
 
  • #16
dkotschessaa said:
This is probably a bold assertion, but I think anybody can learn anything, and that the difference is really how quickly you pick up new things.

Now there are a lot of implications to this. If you are slower to learn, it will take you longer, (obviously) and you won't learn as much in a given amount of time (obviously). Often people who learn slow though can sometimes appreciate things on a bit deeper level than the ones that just pick it up without having to think too hard about it.

Can you take some classes? Even just one class at a community college?

-Dave K

That may be a possibility in the future but I am absolutely determind to learn calculus I before attending any kind of course.
 
  • #17
MathJakob said:
Well when I started I never even knew basic algebra so I bought an algebra I book and got through it in about a month and now I've just ordered an Algebra II/Trig book which I'll start working through.

Fantastic. That's what I did (at age 34) and I almost have a BA in math now. And I couldn't figure out the tip on the restaurant bill when I started. And now I'm smart enough to know to let my wife figure it out. :)

Just most people I know read something once and that's it they know it... but I have to keep going back to relearn rules ect. I just have real problems "thinking outside the box" basically.

Not that this is about me, but hopefully it's helpful.

So after I studied pre-calculus on my own, I took a pre-calculus class at my university. The amount of information was overwhelming, as we covered quite a bit of both algebra and trig. Each test would cover maybe 3 chapters of the book, and by the time the test rolled around I had pretty much forgotten the first two chapters covered, and had to review it all over again. I did that all semester. When the final came, of course I had to review everything again..again.

Man, I swear I felt my brain hurt sometimes. I would literally massage my skull to see if I could get it to work better. I tried doing yoga inversion poses while working on homework thinking that the increased blood flow to my brain might help somehow. (Maybe it did?)

Anyway, this brain-hurtyness went on for awhile, but your brain does get the message after a while. I'm still not the quickest. But it's totally doable. At 21 you have a lot less obstacles than I have. Just take your time. Seriously try to take some classes if you can.

Sorry if this post is unnecessary, but I just felt a sort of like I identified with your situation a bit.

-Dave K
 
  • #18
MathJakob said:
That may be a possibility in the future but I am absolutely determind to learn calculus I before attending any kind of course.

Self-learning is very dangerous though. It is very easy to trick yourself into thinking you understand something. Even if you can do all the exercises, you might still not grasp the concepts very well. It is much better to actually get feedback on your progress, so you might do things differently once you know something isn't alright.
 
  • #20
Evo said:
And those are referring to cognitive impairment, not a "normal" person.

So a "normal" person can't get cognitive impaired?
What is your definition of "normal" anyway? Is there such a thing as a "normal" person then?
 
  • #21
MathJakob said:
That may be a possibility in the future but I am absolutely determind to learn calculus I before attending any kind of course.

OK. Are you familiar with these resources?:

Khan Academy:
https://www.khanacademy.org/ - Increasingly the first stop for self-teaching in math, physics, etc. Best videos ever. The exercise section includes exercises up through the "chain rule" in calculus. You can even just start doing exercises, and when you get hung up on something, there's a link to a teaching video about that subject. You go absolutely at your own pace. The classes in math are all the way from 1+1=2 up through linear algebra. (I remember finding to my dismay that I had no idea how to do long division anymore) There's also physics, chemistry etc. The guy that runs this site (Sal Khan) has been all but sainted by the public.

MIT open Courseware:
Actual lecture videos from MIT. A bit fast and advanced, but the teachers are very good at explaining stuff, which is why they teach at MIT.

Coursera: fun courses in interesting topics from different angles. Like "Linear Algebra through Computer Science applications"
- They actually run in certain time windows.

Check out the math and physics courses: https://www.coursera.org/courses?orderby=upcoming&cats=math,physics

-Dave K
 
  • #22
We all have our weaknesses. Just try not to be intimidated; if you have enough interest to learn the subject then you shouldn't have much of a problem as far as motivation goes (how long it will take to learn is a different issue). I was insanely intimidated too when I first started learning general relativity. Heck I'm still intimidated when I start trying to solve GR textbook problems that I have never encountered before but after trying for a while I start to settle in. Just remember that doing problems is very important because it's the only real way you can see if you actually understood the material.
 
  • #23
micromass said:
So a "normal" person can't get cognitive impaired?
What is your definition of "normal" anyway? Is there such a thing as a "normal" person then?
You're pulling this thread off topic. If a person has one of those syndromes, are you saying they are normal? I'll define "normal" for this scenario, to be someone without cognitive impairment.
 
  • #24
micromass said:
Self-learning is very dangerous though. It is very easy to trick yourself into thinking you understand something. Even if you can do all the exercises, you might still not grasp the concepts very well. It is much better to actually get feedback on your progress, so you might do things differently once you know something isn't alright.

Yes, I find that with self learning I either a) trick myself into thinking I understand something I don't or b) convince myself I am not capable of learning something when I actually am. It's why the push helps.

-Dave K
 
  • #25
It's very hard not to feel like giving up when you spend an hour on 1 page and still don't get what the heck is going on. I often think I understand something and then when I'm presented with a similar question to the one I had no problem solving before I get stuck, not because it's harder but because it's different.

I do get such a great buzz though when I have a question and use the laws I've learned and slowly see the answer getting more and more simpler and before I know it I've found the value of x.

@dkotschessa that other post was quite helpful thank you.
 
  • #26
Evo said:
You're pulling this thread off topic. If a person has one of those syndromes, are you saying they are normal? I'll define "normal" for this scenario, to be someone without cognitive impairment.

And then, how are you certain the OP doesn't have any cognitive impairment? You said to him he knows himself best, so that implies he's a "normal" person?
 
  • #27
dkotschessaa said:
Fantastic. That's what I did (at age 34) and I almost have a BA in math now. And I couldn't figure out the tip on the restaurant bill when I started. And now I'm smart enough to know to let my wife figure it out. :)
Fantastic! You're well on your way to becoming a mathematician.

It's best to get separate checks when going out to lunch with mathematicians. Otherwise you'll find yourself in endless debates about how to split the bill, interspersed with comments such as "I'm a mathematician, not an arithmetician."
 
  • #28
micromass said:
And then, how are you certain the OP doesn't have any cognitive impairment? You said to him he knows himself best, so that implies he's a "normal" person?
Wow, seriously?
 
  • #29
MathJakob said:
It's very hard not to feel like giving up when you spend an hour on 1 page and still don't get what the heck is going on. I often think I understand something and then when I'm presented with a similar question to the one I had no problem solving before I get stuck, not because it's harder but because it's different.

You just need practice in problem solving skills, which is what math teaches you. A good, classic book is G. Polya's "How To Solve it."

Also, sometimes examples are just difficult because they are difficult... Even professors (people that do this stuff for a living) get stuck on Calculus textbook problems they've assigned. It's just something that happens.

Sometimes you spend more time staring at your paper than writing on it.


I do get such a great buzz though when I have a question and use the laws I've learned and slowly see the answer getting more and more simpler and before I know it I've found the value of x.

@dkotschessa that other post was quite helpful thank you.

Oh, I hope so. I've noticed I'm chattier (posty-er?) than usual tonight.

Anyway, please do not be discouraged. Please do try to find some type of assistance other than self-teaching, even for pre-calculus stuff, if you can. Your brain-muscles will get the idea.

-Dave K
 
  • #30
D H said:
Fantastic! You're well on your way to becoming a mathematician.

It's best to get separate checks when going out to lunch with mathematicians. Otherwise you'll find yourself in endless debates about how to split the bill, interspersed with comments such as "I'm a mathematician, not an arithmetician."

I was at a dinner with about 15 people one night, about 10 of them math professors, for a birthday dinner for one of them.

The birthday cake was decorated around the side with 8 strawberries.

The ensuing tumult involved in watching them try to figure out how to cut that cake was something I will not soon forget.

-Dave K
 
  • #31
Quite frankly, unless you have some true disability mentally, then I would assert you can learn virtually anything with enough effort. Of course you won't understand complicated Physics equations right away, you must learn the mathematics first. Mathematics is the language of Physics, learn Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus 1-3, Statistics/Probability and Ordinary Differential Equations, then you will understand almost all the Math behind the Physics. It might sound tough and boring, but Mathematics and Physics are very similar, both very exciting and useful. Also, remember that Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are college level courses, be sure that you've learned Newtonian Physics, Electricity and Magnetism and the rest of the basics prior to attempting more complex topics. Physics is astounding, it explains our world and is so interesting, but it many people forget that just "understanding" the concepts is not knowing the Physics, you must understand virtually everything about it. With regards to trying to read Physics papers (like the one mentioned before that came from the Cornell E-book Archive), you should avoid doing that until you learn the "traditional" topics taught in college. So, learn basic Physics, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and probably a few other topics like String Theory, then attempt to read these papers. Remember that the papers are written by Physicists for Physicists, so it is obviously quite technical, don't worry about reading them much until you learn all the implicit prerequisites.
 
  • #32
Jheavner724 said:
Quite frankly, unless you have some true disability mentally, then I would assert you can learn virtually anything with enough effort. Of course you won't understand complicated Physics equations right away, you must learn the mathematics first. Mathematics is the language of Physics, learn Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus 1-3, Statistics/Probability and Ordinary Differential Equations, then you will understand almost all the Math behind the Physics. It might sound tough and boring, but Mathematics and Physics are very similar, both very exciting and useful. Also, remember that Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are college level courses, be sure that you've learned Newtonian Physics, Electricity and Magnetism and the rest of the basics prior to attempting more complex topics. Physics is astounding, it explains our world and is so interesting, but it many people forget that just "understanding" the concepts is not knowing the Physics, you must understand virtually everything about it. With regards to trying to read Physics papers (like the one mentioned before that came from the Cornell E-book Archive), you should avoid doing that until you learn the "traditional" topics taught in college. So, learn basic Physics, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and probably a few other topics like String Theory, then attempt to read these papers. Remember that the papers are written by Physicists for Physicists, so it is obviously quite technical, don't worry about reading them much until you learn all the implicit prerequisites.

Thanks for the advice. Do you not ever have the problem though of getting to the stage where there is just so much to remember? There are so many categories that once you learn something you've forgotten it a few months later because you've moved on from those topics and learning something completely different.

There is so much to remember it's crazy lol
 
  • #33
MathJakob said:
Thanks for the advice. Do you not ever have the problem though of getting to the stage where there is just so much to remember? There are so many categories that once you learn something you've forgotten it a few months later because you've moved on from those topics and learning something completely different.

There is so much to remember it's crazy lol
This is why I suggested that you go back to basics and work your way up. Without a strong understanding of the basics to build on, you might have a harder time grasping the more advance math. Invest the time to learn from the bottom up, you won't regret it. You seem to have the desire now to make this happen, good luck to you!
 
  • #34
MathJakob said:
Thanks for the advice. Do you not ever have the problem though of getting to the stage where there is just so much to remember? There are so many categories that once you learn something you've forgotten it a few months later because you've moved on from those topics and learning something completely different.

There is so much to remember it's crazy lol

I think you're learning to broadly, probably trying to jump between Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Classical Physics and so on, but that is more difficult than focusing on one topic. Learning is dynamic but also iterative, so you build on what you know, which is why you learn sequentially, but you also want to constantly review so that the repeated exposure helps with memory. Once you learn the fundamentals you can build more easily, and if you struggle with memory then find the way that works best with you to cope. Memory works by basically "chunking" information into "chunks" that make sense to us, which is why you use methods like acronyms to remember. Just find what works with you, and remember that learning becomes easier as you go! Good luck, I'd be happy to provide any further assistance.
 
  • #35
MathJakob said:
There is so much to remember it's crazy lol

I bet there is! Remember though, similar to all that you know today; Rome wasn't built in a day.

That said why would you want to know how to solve complex physics equations?

If it's this

Sure I can read about quantum mechanics or relativity and understand what I'm reading but there is a difference between understand what something is saying and understanding why something is the way it is.

Seems like you are saying you need to be able to perform the mathematics of a subject to be able to understand it. I don't buy that for a moment. Mathematicians are not Physicists.

mathematically expressed as; physics - math = the fun part of physics :-p
 

Similar threads

Replies
2
Views
699
Replies
9
Views
1K
  • STEM Academic Advising
Replies
21
Views
1K
Replies
5
Views
758
  • General Discussion
Replies
33
Views
2K
  • General Discussion
Replies
14
Views
1K
  • General Discussion
Replies
12
Views
1K
Replies
5
Views
1K
Replies
6
Views
876
Back
Top