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Math major to take intro physics: calculus or non-calculus based?

  1. Jul 10, 2013 #1
    I'm about to take vector analysis and abstract algebra, so I'm pretty far along in my undergrad math program (passed Calc III, DE II, LA, and Transition to Higher Math). Realistically I could finish off the core math requirements in one year for my B.A. However, I want to expand and take some physics (thinking about adding a physics minor in the two and a half years I have left, and getting a B.S.).

    Now, normally I would advise myself to take calculus based physics. But the thing is, from what I understand of it, a portion of the course will be spent on calculus to make sure students are up to speed, and the calculus used will be elementary in the first place.

    Based on what I read of course descriptions, it seems that non-calculus based physics covers more topics. However, there is a con with non-calculus based physics as well: besides the math being less interesting, it seems that the second installment of calculus based physics gets much more detailed on electricity and magnetism. Essentially the only thing I'd be learning about E and M in non-calculus based physics is circuitry and Ohm's law, while the calculus based course covers a great deal more E and M stuff (going by course descriptions).

    Given that I want to take about 12 hours of upper division physics before I'm done to possibly get a physics minor, and that I have a pretty solid lower division math background, which intro physics survey course should I take? Calculus based physics or non-calculus based physics?

    Thanks for the advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 10, 2013 #2

    George Jones

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    Do you have a choice? At your school, does non-calculus first-year physics satisfy the first-year prerequisite for upper-level courses?
  4. Jul 10, 2013 #3
    They both satisfy the requirements for moving on to the modern physics courses and then the upper division ones. It's an either or situation.
  5. Jul 10, 2013 #4
    Don't care about grad school/just get your gen ed --- non calc-based.
    Want intellectual stimulation/classical introduction into the world of physics? --- calc based.

    I just finished the sequence myself and as a math major I can say it was quite rewarding!
  6. Jul 14, 2013 #5


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    There is not really a class tailored to you. I'm not sure intro physics does anyone any good. The stated purposes are to teach problem solving, basic math, and physical reasoning. A math student does not need the first two (except possibly a quick review in a new context) and may or may not need the third depending on if they have some applied math knowledge. Calculus is intertwined with basic physics it is silly enough to teach physics to any one by hiding the calculus, it is even more silly to teach it that way to someone who knows calculus. The main thing is to concentrate on the physics not the calculus. Some people in your situation read through a few physics books and then skip to physics 2 or whatever it is called. Others just take the mostly useless class. I hope you like incline plane labs.
  7. Aug 27, 2013 #6
    Oooh, I get to roll stuff down a ramp? Neat.

    I went ahead and did the non-calculus one due to scheduling restraints and simply because I'm pretty sure I'm going to be able to extrapolate the calculus versions of various formulas (D = rt is pretty obvious, for example) and spending 2 months on Maxwell's equations in the second semester while sticking to only one or two dimensions seems kind of silly to me (not that I really know much about them, but I've seen them and they look like Calculus III and DE II). I think I'd rather cover more topics, because I suspect that either way it's going to be baby food.

    But thanks for all of your responses!
  8. Aug 27, 2013 #7

    D H

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    You'll have the same problem, in spades, with the non-calculus physics class. That course is going to waste even more time teaching high school algebra. Another feature of algebra-based physics is the huge amount of rote memorization of formulae.

    Take the calculus based class.
  9. Aug 28, 2013 #8


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    Physics without calculus is like fruit preserves without peanut butter, cereal without milk, or pizza without ranch dressing.
  10. Sep 16, 2013 #9
    The interesting part is that I can clearly see what the equations being taught so far would be in calculus based physics. I don't think I'm missing a single thing, personally, except meaningless problems on the test like "if such and such function models position, find a function for velocity." Could be wrong, of course. But oh, well. Opportunity cost, I guess.
  11. Sep 16, 2013 #10
    Physics without calculus is just not good. But I don't know about the peanut butter or the ranch dressing!!!:biggrin: I might try the ranch dressing next time, but peanut butter........Ah........No!!!

    To OP
    Definitely physics with calculus. You might not know it, you already ran across a lot of the physics in your Cal I and II.
  12. Sep 16, 2013 #11

    Vanadium 50

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  13. Sep 16, 2013 #12
    For the first term of freshman physics, I think there is little difference. The calculus I see in mechanics is just integrating and differentiating polynomials. For the E&M portion I think the calculus is both more difficult and more illuminating and useful (no surprise).
  14. Sep 16, 2013 #13
    The only calculus question we had in mechanics was a moment of inertia question. And the only reason it was a calculus question was because the question specifically said we had to show our work and had to solve using integration instead of the constant for whatever shape it was (I believe it was a rod rotating on its end). :P
  15. Sep 17, 2013 #14
    This was ultimately my reason for choosing algebra: my choice was either spend almost all the second semester discussing Maxwell's equations, or spend a lot of time on quantum mechanics. As much as I love E&M for all it's worth, somehow QM seems a lot more interesting to me. ;)
  16. Sep 17, 2013 #15
    I don't understand why anyone would ever choose easier, but "equivalent", classes. College is a place to learn. Learn all you can.
  17. Sep 17, 2013 #16
  18. Sep 17, 2013 #17
    EM is a lot more useful. Good in EM, you are ahead of the game transition to EE for RF.
  19. Sep 18, 2013 #18
    I had an acquaintance who majored in Biology and took the calculus physics series. When asked why he took the harder one when he didn't have to, his response was something along the lines of getting his moneys worth (it was funnier the way he said it, but I don't remember the exact quote).
  20. Sep 18, 2013 #19
    I was in Biochem major, I was not required to take the calculus physics, so I did take the easy way out and I regret every bit of it.
  21. Sep 20, 2013 #20
    And they'll be discussing QM in a non-calculus based class? What the f*ck man, please tell me I misunderstood something?

    Here's the thing man. If you're interested in physics at all, you should be learning it using calculus. For heaven's sake, physics was why calculus was invented in the first place. Sure, you might think that you can translate things in calculus notation pretty easily but you will still miss out on things unless you're reading a calc-based text on the side (and in that case, why not just take the calc based class). You may think E&M is uninteresting to learn using vector calculus, but Maxwell's equations are infinitely more interesting and fundamental (IMO) than the dull formulas of circuits that you say you'd rather learn instead.
  22. Sep 20, 2013 #21


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    Amen to that. God the circuit stuff was so boring I wanted to take a bat and smash every circuit I saw to pieces, then have them put back together and smash them to pieces again.
  23. Sep 21, 2013 #22
    LOL :biggrin: Circuit was THE reason why I decided not to study physics for my A-Level (I got pretty bad experience when learning it during high school science -- and I soldered my finger too. That was painful.), and as a result also not majoring in physics in university, and majored in math instead. But I am back to physics now for PhD :biggrin:
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