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Is physics just not for me?

  • Thread starter -Dragoon-
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  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Ever since my first midterm, I've been studying hard with a friend and drilling through very difficult problems almost everyday and throughout the weekends. I think this time, I did much worse. Admittedly, there was one or two chapters I was weak in, but I thought I felt well prepared for the exam, and yet I still did terrible. I put in half the work for linear algebra and calculus, and I'm doing better in those two classes. Is physics just not for me? Should I just stick with math instead?

I did enjoy spending my free time doing practice problems on the weekends, but it is quite discouraging and depressing when you try so hard and yet do terrible on the exams.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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which physics?
 
  • #3
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which physics?
Are you asking which physics I am interested in or what I am currently taking right now?
 
  • #4
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Are you asking which physics I am interested in or what I am currently taking right now?
He means which physics are you having trouble with?

Retribution, stick it out. I've been there actually. Now I can't believe that I had trouble with physics and find it very easy actually. It just kind of clicked with me one day. Its hard to describe how actually.. part of it was something like this:

I started treating all the equations similar to what I seen in Linear Algebra. A spark went through me when I saw gauss' method. I realized that the best way to do physics is to think of it as purely equation manipulation. I would just keep manipulating equations around, just for the heck of it, take it here, put it there, take this out, put this in, whatever it is! Just play with it! I can't explain it, it just kind of clicked with me the past 2 weeks!

Beforehand, I kept thinking about everything too conceptually. It didn't take me anywhere without knowing how to manipulate equations and ideas around.
 
  • #5
High five to Nano-Passion on that one :-)

There's a quote attributed to Paul Dirac on the exact same note:

A great deal of my work is just playing with equations and seeing what they give.
--Paul Dirac
 
  • #6
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High five to Nano-Passion on that one :-)

There's a quote attributed to Paul Dirac on the exact same note:

A great deal of my work is just playing with equations and seeing what they give.
--Paul Dirac
Haha.. that is quite weird because I was thinking the same thing earlier today in the figment of my imagination of being a physicist. Amazing quote!
 
  • #7
jtbell
Mentor
15,523
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Are you asking which physics I am interested in or what I am currently taking right now?
Hint: Don't expect people to remember (or have seen) your situation from previous threads that you've posted in.

If you're in the first semester of introductory physics, it may be too early to come to a conclusion about what you want to do with the rest of your life. IMO, you should consider your difficulties as a "wake-up call" and see if you can improve during the second semester.
 
  • #8
309
7
He means which physics are you having trouble with?

Retribution, stick it out. I've been there actually. Now I can't believe that I had trouble with physics and find it very easy actually. It just kind of clicked with me one day. Its hard to describe how actually.. part of it was something like this:

I started treating all the equations similar to what I seen in Linear Algebra. A spark went through me when I saw gauss' method. I realized that the best way to do physics is to think of it as purely equation manipulation. I would just keep manipulating equations around, just for the heck of it, take it here, put it there, take this out, put this in, whatever it is! Just play with it! I can't explain it, it just kind of clicked with me the past 2 weeks!

Beforehand, I kept thinking about everything too conceptually. It didn't take me anywhere without knowing how to manipulate equations and ideas around.
Well it is mostly mechanics. I'm not even doing "real physics" yet, and I'm already struggling. How do I expect to do well in upper year classes if I can't even handle the baby stuff?

As for linear algebra, well I've never worked a problem where you have more variables than independent equations, and thus parameters, so I can't really see any parallel. But, it's not really the math that is giving me the problem or rearranging for variables, I actually find that to be quite trivial and to be the easiest part of solving the problem. I don't know how helpful doing an exercise in notation will truly be to me in becoming better at physics, even though it worked very well for you.

I think for me, my main problem is lacking in physical intuition and mostly the conceptual aspect of the problems rather than the computational part.
 
  • #9
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Well it is mostly mechanics. I'm not even doing "real physics" yet, and I'm already struggling. How do I expect to do well in upper year classes if I can't even handle the baby stuff?

As for linear algebra, well I've never worked a problem where you have more variables than independent equations, and thus parameters, so I can't really see any parallel. But, it's not really the math that is giving me the problem or rearranging for variables, I actually find that to be quite trivial and to be the easiest part of solving the problem. I don't know how helpful doing an exercise in notation will truly be to me in becoming better at physics, even though it worked very well for you.

I think for me, my main problem is lacking in physical intuition and mostly the conceptual aspect of the problems rather than the computational part.
Well not the computational part, but I guess it would be more accurate to say the conceptual aspect of the computation clicked. lol

Anyhow, what problems are you having with physics? What concepts don't you get? If you post them then people can help you out.
 
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  • #10
I'm curious, do you feel confused about the material before the test, and then not surprisingly you bomb the test? Or do you feel comfortable with the material before the test, comfortable with the questions while taking the test, and then are just shocked when a bad grade hits?

Because of it's the latter then maybe you just need to work on test taking skills, which is a complete different thing.
 
  • #11
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Retribution, don't be discouraged. As you do the problems try to get as much intuition as possible. Make sure you get every problem right, and whatever you don't get right then take note of your mistake and what intuition, misplaced or wrong, led you astray. Write it down if you have to! You will get there, it is too early to doubt too much.
 
  • #12
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I think for me, my main problem is lacking in physical intuition and mostly the conceptual aspect of the problems rather than the computational part.
"Physical intuition" is trivial. It comes to you if you work enough derivation or practice problems. If you're focusing on pure visualization, you're going to get lost. Plus, it's somewhat useless. Why would you ever have to visualize certain things (such as potential energy) anyway? Let math lead the way. Sometimes, physics is counter-intuitive.

I'm curious, do you feel confused about the material before the test, and then not surprisingly you bomb the test? Or do you feel comfortable with the material before the test, comfortable with the questions while taking the test, and then are just shocked when a bad grade hits?

Because of it's the latter then maybe you just need to work on test taking skills, which is a complete different thing.
This too; Victor is spot on. Many of the physics professors make the problems intentionally difficult because physicists enjoy challenging problems, and they want to see how well they taught their students how to reason rather than memorize equations to use (which they usually provide on the exam anyways).

Wouldn't you be bummed if you had a really easy exam? Wouldn't it seem like a waste of time and a chore to just perform the calculations that computers can do on their own via plug-and-chug? If you're getting a bad score, but comparatively, you're doing okay, then don't worry about "doing poorly".

If you're actually doing poorly, that's a different story. I would question where you got such confidence that you can do the practice problems fine. How long does it take you to do the practice problems? Doing them on a timed exam is different from slowly figuring things out.
 
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  • #13
Why would you ever have to visualize certain things (such as potential energy) anyway? Let math lead the way.
I politely disagree. Visualizing the potential energy field is definitely a useful thing.

In 1 dimensional cases, such as earth-gravity, visualizing the PE field can help you get a feel for how high up a thrown object can go, and why.

And much more interestingly, in 2 and 3 dimensional cases like generalized gravity or electrostatics visualizing the PE field give you feel for where a particle is likely to move, and how fast, seeing as how particles tend to seek out numerically lower potential energies; also if the potential energy field is non-moving then being able to visualize it will help you get comfortable with the idea that the particle simply cannot enter certain pockets of space with numerically high PE values due to lack of kinetic energy (which is sort of like the "how high can you go" idea, but in multiple dimensions).

Harrisonized said:
Sometimes, physics is counter-intuitive.
I politely disagree again, at least specifically in the case of mechanics and the sort of calculus associated with mechanics I think everything can be pretty intuitive :-)
 
  • #14
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Not to deviate too far from the topic, but if by visualization of earth-gravity, you mean assigning values at various heights using the equation

1/2 mv2 = mgh

there isn't an absolute reference frame from which you can define the height. (Also, the error term grows larger as the height increases, but that's another problem entirely.) I guess if you really wanted to visualize the potential field from the point of view of throwing a rock, you can define the zero height from yourself. For your multiple dimension visualization, the potential energy is always lower in the direction in which the attractive force is greatest (and the repulsive force is weakest). You can view equipotential surfaces if you want to, but I really don't know how you can claim that imagining a visual picture adds to your understanding.

What do you do when, say, you want to visualize how an electron moves around a nucleus? Okay, actually, that isn't mechanics, so I'll give a question relevant to the context of mechanics. How do you visualize chaotic motion, such as that of a double pendulum? The Earth is rotating about its axis. Therefore, the Earth bulges outward at the equator. Suppose the Earth is a giant slippery block of ice. If I were standing at the equator with no initial velocity, which way would I slide?

I'm not saying that visualization is a bad thing, but sometimes it is unnecessary and misleading, and trying to visualize literally everything leads right into certain traps and pitfalls. Visualization is a qualitative thing, and physics aims to be as qualitative as possible.
 
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  • #15
You can view equipotential surfaces if you want to, but I really don't know how you can claim that imagining a visual picture adds to your understanding.
Ok, sure, visualization doesn't add to understanding. So in that case let's take all of a school's physics students and surgically remove the parts of their brains that deal with visual-spatial reasoning (since it doesn't really add to their understanding of physics anyway). Then let's come back 50 years later and see if any of them have successfully done any interesting research.
 
  • #16
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Ok, sure, visualization doesn't add to understanding. So in that case let's take all of a school's physics students and surgically remove the parts of their brains that deal with visual-spatial reasoning (since it doesn't really add to their understanding of physics anyway). Then let's come back 50 years later and see if any of them have successfully done any interesting research.
That you would suggest something so preposterous is beyond words.

Go troll someone else.
 
  • #17
Do you still claim that imagining a visual picture does not add to your understanding on matters of physics like equipotential surfaces?
 
  • #18
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Does it matter? Stop derailing the thread.
 
  • #19
Does it matter? Seriously? Yes, it does matter that the community expresses to troubled students that visualizations always matter in first year physics, because they do.

The original poster just said that he thinks his problem is with a lack of physical intuition. And then you go and tell him that visualizations are not really that important, but if he wants to acquire this not-so-important skill anyway then he should just drill more problems and it'll magically come to him after enough blood, sweat, and tears.

No, you're completely wrong. He needs to stop punching numbers into his calculator and just sit staring at the pictures for a while so that he can learn what the core equations actually mean beyond just being a collection of symbols on paper.

You stop derailing the thread.
 
  • #20
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Does it matter? Seriously? Yes, it does matter that the community expresses to troubled students that visualizations always matter in first year physics, because they do.

The original poster just said that he thinks his problem is with a lack of physical intuition. And then you go and tell him that visualizations are not really that important, but if he wants to acquire this not-so-important skill anyway then he should just drill more problems and it'll magically come to him after enough blood, sweat, and tears.

No, you're completely wrong. He needs to stop punching numbers into his calculator and just sit staring at the pictures for a while so that he can learn what the core equations actually mean beyond just being a collection of symbols on paper.

You stop derailing the thread.
This is right imo, the first thing I learned in solving physics problems was to 1) write down everything I know: variables, relevant equations; and then 2) draw a picture to help visualize the problem and see how to apply things.
 
  • #21
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2) draw a picture to help visualize the problem and see how to apply things.
Absolutely. Draw a picture. If you're not drawing a picture, you're doing it wrong if you're having trouble. I can't think of a prof who didn't recommend drawing a picture immediately.

Drawing a picture helps you visualize the problem, which helps you determine which equations to use and how. It also helps you recognize which parts of the problem are irrelevant.
 
  • #22
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The original poster just said that he thinks his problem is with a lack of physical intuition. And then you go and tell him that visualizations are not really that important, but if he wants to acquire this not-so-important skill anyway then he should just drill more problems and it'll magically come to him after enough blood, sweat, and tears.

No, you're completely wrong. He needs to stop punching numbers into his calculator and just sit staring at the pictures for a while so that he can learn what the core equations actually mean beyond just being a collection of symbols on paper.

You stop derailing the thread.
Visualizations aren't important in most cases. They are in some cases. If I inquired about an object sliding down a ramp, he shouldn't need to draw a right triangle on his paper all the time. If I asked him about a swinging pendulum, he shouldn't need to draw a line on his paper. If he's working doing statics problems, then it's necessary to put in force lines to see if they relate to one another.

Whatever. It depends on the situation, and you're taking some small comment of mine, blowing it out of proportion, and then attacking a straw man. You're speaking as though he needs a god damn picture for everything, and that's just plain wrong and unnecessary, and sometimes, pictures can lead to misleading conclusions.

I suggested deriving the equations. Maybe work a few practice problems to go along with seeing whether the equations make any sense. You interpreted that as going through "blood, sweat, and tears". Are you even capable of reading, or should I assume that you're trolling?

Also, you're still derailing the thread. I'm going to do you a favor now and stop responding to your asinine comments. I thought we, as a community, were supposed to be constructive, and your post is obviously not that.

If you have any further comments, feel free to PM me. Otherwise, drop it.
 
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  • #23
Harrisonized said:
Visualizations aren't important in most cases.
They are when the student says that he's having problems with physical intuition.

Harrisonized said:
If I inquired about an object sliding down a ramp, he shouldn't need to draw a right triangle on his paper all the time.
He should if he is having problems with physical intuition.

Harrisonized said:
If I asked him about a swinging pendulum, he shouldn't need to draw a line on his paper.
He should if he is having problems with physical intuition.

Harrisonized said:
If he's working doing statics problems, then it's necessary to put in force lines to see if they relate to one another.
He should if he is having problems with physical intuition.

Harrisonized said:
I suggested deriving the equations.
...which he says he's already comfortable with.
 
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  • #24
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I strongly disagree with whoever said that trying to visualize in physics is "useless." It's what separates physics from math. Heck, even in math, visualization is key to understanding and retaining it better. Physics is not all about the equations. You can be a master in deriving and manipulating the equations and call yourself good at physics, but if you can't visualize the physics idea behind at all, what's the point?

And to your statement that physics intuition can lead you astray, I agree, but that's why you discard your incorrect intuitive ideas and develop new ones. How do you do that? By visualizing the physics, not by staring at the equations.
 
  • #25
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The truth is that unless you are a super genius, there will be some aspects of physics classes that will be hard. When you encounter these topics, I'd suggest looking for other lecture notes, animations, books, etc to give you a different perspective. We all learn differently, and sometimes one explanation may be overly complicated, whereas another person's explanation and examples may be just what you needed.

That being said, if you do your absolute best and still find that your grades aren't improving, you should switch to something else. Everyone has areas that they are good at and areas that they aren't. Nobody is perfect, and it's completely okay to decide you want to study something else.
 

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