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Is everyone's brain capable of learning physics

  1. Jun 26, 2013 #1
    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 belive 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 learnt calculus yet... bottom line is I just think I'm not smart enough, my brain simply isn't capable of truely understanding physics.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 26, 2013 #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.
  4. Jun 26, 2013 #3


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    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
  5. Jun 26, 2013 #4


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    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?
  6. Jun 26, 2013 #5
    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.
  7. Jun 26, 2013 #6


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    Agreed with a minor correction.
  8. Jun 26, 2013 #7
    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..
  9. Jun 26, 2013 #8
    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.
  10. Jun 26, 2013 #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.
  11. Jun 26, 2013 #10
    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.

    Don't worry about struggling in mathematics, everybody struggles.
  12. Jun 26, 2013 #11
    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 truely understood it I'd know what can be moved where and how.
  13. Jun 26, 2013 #12
    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?

    True. But true understanding takes years, not days. Nobody truly understands something they see for the first time.
  14. Jun 26, 2013 #13


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    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.

    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: Jun 26, 2013
  15. Jun 26, 2013 #14
  16. Jun 26, 2013 #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
  17. Jun 26, 2013 #16
    That may be a possibility in the future but I am absolutely determind to learn calculus I before attending any kind of course.
  18. Jun 26, 2013 #17
    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. :)

    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
  19. Jun 26, 2013 #18
    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. Jun 26, 2013 #19


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  21. Jun 26, 2013 #20
    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?
  22. Jun 26, 2013 #21
    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
  23. Jun 26, 2013 #22


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    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.
  24. Jun 26, 2013 #23


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    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.
  25. Jun 26, 2013 #24
    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
  26. Jun 26, 2013 #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 learnt 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.
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