Is it okay to not understand the calculus in intro physics?

  • #1
I don't understand a good portion of the non-algebraic math behind much of the physics in my first semester college class. I understand everything with algebra, and can solve all problems, but I don't understand the relationships with vector cross/dot products, calculus derivations, DE, etc.
---Is this okay as a physics major, or should I make certain I know these relationships?---
 

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  • #2
kuruman
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No it's not OK. Math is the language of physics and is used to describe physical concepts. If you don't understand the language, you will not understand the concepts.
 
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  • #3
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I don't understand a good portion of the non-algebraic math behind much of the physics in my first semester college class.
I think it is OK that you don't understand it the first time you see it, but this late in the semester you should have worked at figuring it out -- you should understand it by now. It seems there are always people in class who "get it" effortlessly. The rest of us have to work to "get it."
 
  • #4
Orodruin
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Having taught physics at all different stages of university I must agree with previous posters. The main reason I see for people who fail in higher courses is lack of mastery over the basic mathematics. If you do not control it properly you will struggle to keep afloat.
 
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  • #5
Thanks for all the replies, it really helps to know. I previously thought that if I could solve all the problems(it's an honors course btw) and do well on the exams, then I'm understanding it well enough. Clearly, that's not the case.
Does anyone have any suggestions on a good method to learn the more advanced mathematical relationships in physics?
@Orodruin, your advice would be greatly appreciated.
 
  • #6
Orodruin
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How your approach should look like depends strongly on how you learn better. It is very individual. Some people need some examples of the use of the mathematics in physics or other sciences in order to grasp the ideas, others grasp the ideas better from a more "dry" approach. I think it is difficult to make a generalisation here. Personally, I like to try to build physical intuition for the mathematics using examples from physics I (or students) are already familiar with in order to get a new view of a known field at the same time as new mathematics are introduced.
 
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  • #7
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Does anyone have any suggestions on a good method to learn the more advanced mathematical relationships in physics?
I faced a similar difficulty when I started out with quantum mechanics in high school. Much of the linear algebra required there was not known to me. But the professor whose course I was attending, briefed out the basics, and I was good to go with that.

However, the advice of another professor has been very useful for me. He had told me that when I cannot follow a certain topic in physics or chemistry due to maths, then I should pause there, refer to some book and learn the basics, and return to the course.

Actually, I find it difficult to continuously follow a course strictly on maths. That's mainly because I do not like rigorous maths too much. Moreover, it is often not possible to follow books with titles "Mathematical Methods for Physicists" because I don't know much of the advanced physics stuff that the author uses using as examples (Note: I am not talking about @Orodruin's book). However, referring to such books in the middle of a course in physics has proved to be helpful.

Generally when I get stuck in a course on some topic, I refer to an introductory book on that topic, which generally outlines the basic maths in the first one or two chapters. For example, when I was stuck in tensors, I took up Dirac's book on General Theory of Relativity (because I knew that GR requires tensors). The first two or three chapters were good enough for me to head back to the original course. Similarly, Griffiths' book on QM lists most of the required linear algebra in the third chapter.
 
  • #8
robphy
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One thing that I did when I was an undergraduate was to get the next textbook in the sequence (i.e. look at more advanced E&M texts when taking intro E&M).
I felt I got a sense of what was to become important, even if I didn't understand much of it at the time.
Certainly, I would still try to learn the current material... but I felt I had a sense of where this is all going.

I would also look at alternate textbooks... to get a different viewpoint... and maybe I'll like that text better. Shop around!
I feel that many students don't consider texts outside the official course textbook.
 
  • #9
FactChecker
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I don't understand a good portion of the non-algebraic math behind much of the physics in my first semester college class. I understand everything with algebra, and can solve all problems, but I don't understand the relationships with vector cross/dot products, calculus derivations, DE, etc.
It sounds like you have skipped the math prerequisites (or corequisites). You should not do that.
 
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  • #10
It sounds like you have skipped the math prerequisites (or corequisites). You should not do that.
You don't understand the meaning behind dot product and cross product till you reach calculus 3. I was very lucky to have taken calculus 1-3 before I took Physics 1.
 
  • #11
robphy
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You don't understand the meaning behind dot product and cross product till you reach calculus 3. I was very lucky to have taken calculus 1-3 before I took Physics 1.
Dot and Cross, being algebraic operations, can be understood without calc 3. However, calculus topics like divergence and curl or line- and surface-integrals probably need calc 3.
 
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  • #12
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You don't understand the meaning behind dot product and cross product till you reach calculus 3. I was very lucky to have taken calculus 1-3 before I took Physics 1.
I don't remember when I first encountered vectors and simple vector algebra. I would think that a brief introduction could easily be done before or as part of Physics 1.
 
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  • #13
I don't remember when I first encountered vectors and simple vector algebra. I would think that a brief introduction could easily be done before or as part of Physics 1.
You don't go into depth, but you do learn vectors in Algebra-based physics. Is like the second chapter
 
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