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Is it better to self-learn theoretical physics?

  1. Feb 12, 2007 #1
    It seems that undergrad students usually haven't learned enough maths when they start the physics subjects so after the course, they don't really 'understand' the physics. The other thing is students usually do many other subjects and do not have the time to solve many problems. For someone who dosen't need a degree paper with 'physics' on it, do you think it's better to self learn via books at their own pace and do as many problems as possible on any one topic, the theoretical physics subjects after learning fully the neccessary maths? Or is it much better to take the subjects when you have the opportunity and maybe go back throught the subject content later on as a second time and do problems missed out the first time? What differences are there between the two options? Is it only the case that self-learn takes more time and effort but if you can pass an exam or do every excercise in the book than it is just as good as having listened to the lecutres?
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 12, 2007 #2
    It's what I'm going to start doing now.
  4. Feb 12, 2007 #3
    I'll say doing, it is better to understand the concepts over not understanding, no matter the situation. So basically, I would consider that if you learn more self-teaching yourself than by being a student, then you should do it, but I would encourage to try to get a formal education or at least take a class to make sure you understand it.
  5. Feb 13, 2007 #4
    Are you attempting to learn all of undergraduate physics without having done any experimentation yourself? I am assuming in are in junior high right? I have at least done second year labs.
  6. Feb 13, 2007 #5


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    I've always found it useful to have someone, like a mentor or colleague, with whom I can discuss an academic subject.

    Perhaps one could engage a professor or graduate student in the physics department.
  7. Feb 13, 2007 #6


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    Yeah - self-study only gets you so far.

    It doesn't teach you how to share or express your ideas or knowledge with others.
  8. Feb 13, 2007 #7
    I believe that most of us who self-study physics and mathematics believe that we can teach ourselves without the help of others, however, there is interesting and curious insight to be gained from the perspective of a professional mathematician or physicist that you can't gain from a book or from explaining the subjects to yourself.

    There is nothing wrong with self-study but make sure to engage others for alternate perspectives and different ways to approach a problem.
  9. Feb 13, 2007 #8
    That's where style comes in. Different authors have different styles, and the "perspective" you are talking about is reflected by this.
  10. Feb 13, 2007 #9
    That is quite true, however, would you discourage someone that is attempting to independently study theoretical physics, from seeking out professionals or at the very least, other physics and mathematics minds? Or is your contention simply that given enough exposure to various authors and approaches through independent study, it is sufficient enough to construct and develop a strong theoretical model?

    I am self-taught in all fields so far (which are all very easy and simple fields), however, I would definitely assert that physicsforums has given me a broader perspective regarding topics and subjects that I probably wouldn't have gained on my own.

    Perhaps my anecdotal experience is incommesurable to yours because you are probably much more intelligent than I am.
  11. Feb 13, 2007 #10
    I'm self-studying math and physics. I'm pretty early on (differential equations/intro. physics with calc), but I agree that it's good to have somone to consult with to make sure you understand. Luckily, I'm still in junior high so I can talk with my math teacher! Physicsforums is very nice to have around as well. If you can, it'd be nice to also have a professor to talk with at a local college or something.
  12. Feb 15, 2007 #11


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    The argument I would have against self-study only is that while you can fully appreciate and understand a text, you're only measuring your knowledge against yourself.

    One of the immediate things of learning through lectures, at a top university, is that you're immediately surrounded by people who are as good or better than you - most of whom have had the same experience of being top in their school-days.

    You can't get this from studying alone.

    Also, you can't get this from occasionally talking to professionals in your field. And, I cetainly don't think you can get this interaction from the internet.

    (I'm not discouraging self-study, just warning against only self-study.)
  13. Feb 15, 2007 #12
    If I can do every problem in the book than does it matter if good people are around me? Although, it could be the case that they can do it quicker than I can.

    Not getting to talk to professionals in the field could be a problem but often undergrad students don't seem to talk to their professors anyway. I admit that if I self study, I wouldn't carry the material very far, certainly not to a professional level.

    I am most worried that if I self study, I don't understand the material as much as when listening to professors and their insights, even if I can do every problem. Or is it the case that if I can do every problem, I must also understand?
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  14. Feb 15, 2007 #13


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    Being able to do every problem from a given text will give you an advantage in understanding a field.

    However, possibly try this: pick up another textbook from the field and try to do the problems it contains with the knowledge you've acquired.

    I would expect you'll have difficulty simply due to the wording of the unseen problems and, perhaps, notation used.

    In this way, your self-study has focussed you to learn the field in a detailed but narrow way - the way preferred by the author of your first book.

    And, in this way, your self-study will show that by being able to do every problem from a given text, doesn't imply total understanding.

    (Again, I'm not discouraging your self-study :smile: )

    Physics and maths may be an exact sciences but different people have different ways of explaining concepts in them.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  15. Feb 15, 2007 #14

    I am currently attending college with plans to double-major in maths and physics. I am just self-studying ahead until I have completed a few pre-requisites that are prohibiting me from taking upper-division courses and until I transfer into a university. That is precisely why I was recommending at the very least, an occasional discussion with a professor or student to get alternate perspectives. While I could learn it on my own, it would take a little longer and I would only have myself to debate with concerning the validity of my interpretation, so taking formal courses definitely gives you a better understanding. It also lets you know where you stand among your class, which can be humbling or inspiring.
  16. Feb 15, 2007 #15

    In that case how about 3-4 books? I guess it's a matter of time? Compare someone who has spent a year self studying 3-4 books on the one topic to someone who has attended a one semester subject. It just takes longer to self study but at a pace chosen by the person they can do more problems and remember more than someone in a course that might go too fast and miss doing many problems. However, if that person who took the course than revisits the material and learn it a second time himself, it could be better and faster than someone who only self studied.
  17. Feb 15, 2007 #16


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    Theres nothing wrong with self teaching. But I will also recommend a mentor for guidance.

    But in self studying undergrad physics, you at least have and understanding of differential equations. The more math you know, the better. For example, only recently I found out how the kinematic equations were derived using differential equations.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  18. Feb 16, 2007 #17
    It also depends on why you are studying. If you just have a thirst for knowledge, fine. But if you want to some day go further... well, given a choice between a smart person with a degree and a smart person who has read a lot of books in their spare time, who do you think is going to get the job/be admitted/etc.?
  19. Feb 16, 2007 #18


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    I don't think you can put a number on how many books one must read to be fluent in a subject.

    However, I still think my experiment of you picking up some unknown book on a subject and trying the questions worthwhile. Even better, get some final exam papers from unis around the world and try them; see if there is any difference between your learning and what they expect you to know.

    cP - I agree with your points about the mentor but I think my earlier point of immersing yourself within peers, of your own age and ability, is important also.

    Finally, if you want a career in science, I can't see any other way than getting those pieces of paper from your graduation at uni.
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