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New to studing physics and scared of math

  1. Sep 3, 2012 #1
    Hello everyone,

    My name is Mike. I am new to PhysicsForums, and this is actually the first time I have ever posted in a forum! So if I am doing this wrong, or if I should be posting this in a different section, please let me know.

    I began learning about physics and cosmology about 4 years ago when I joined the Marine Corps. I graduated high school in 2002, and then joined up with the military in 2008. I am now honorably discharged and going to college. So I am a 28 year old freshmen undergraduate majoring in physics.

    When I was in high school, I did not take my studies seriously, so I did not learn much in the way of math (or science, for that matter). I have found that re-learning (or as it is in my case: learning) to be very difficult, especially the math. I tested into Survey of Algebra, and I am not having any problems with that so far. I am also in a Physics I class, and I am already struggling with vectors a little bit.

    I have been trying to learn math on my own (to get up to the level I need to be), and I am doing ok with this, but I need some sort of a "road map". So here are my questions:

    Is there anyone else in this community that can sympathize with my struggle with the math?

    Is there anyone else in this community that can sympathize with entering the world of physics at a later age?

    And finally, is there a good resource for learning math quickly and efficiently, with some sort of a road map? I can't think of a way to explain that... I guess I am looking for something straight-forward like this: If there was a book titled: "Physics: Math from the 6th grade to College level", what would be the chapters and sub-chapters? I can learn the stuff on my own, I just need a compass!

    Thank you all for your time in reading this!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 3, 2012 #2


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    When I was an undergraduate, I had a friend who had been in the Marines. Almost the same story. He did poorly in high school and, according to him, learned very little math or science. He got interested in physics while serving in Iraq. He came back here and majored in physics. He is now an extremely successful graduate student (one of the best I know). I truly believe a large part of his success had to do with his work ethic that he attributed to the Marine Corps. In my opinion, you are set up for the same kind of success if you play your cards right. Your slightly advanced age can easily be offset by your maturity and work ethic. In fact, it can be a benefit.

    As far as (re)learning math, I would suggest you pick up some schaum's outlines in college algebra and churn through them. Make sure you're extremely proficient in algebra, trigonometry, and precalculus and you will be fine. Success in physics has more to do with hard work than anything innate.
  4. Sep 3, 2012 #3
    Thank you, ZombieFeynman! Your reply makes me feel much better. I will look into those Schaums outlines... thanks again.
  5. Sep 3, 2012 #4


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    Keep in mind that nothing worth getting comes easy. If you're struggling a bit, you're doing it right. Struggle too little and you're probably not learning. If you are having far too much trouble, then it may be worth stepping back and evaluating what you're doing. But the right amount of pain means it's working. Apes are not meant to do physics, so we must beat it into our lowly primate brains.

    Best of luck.
  6. Sep 3, 2012 #5
    Thanks again!
  7. Sep 3, 2012 #6
    I'm a big fan of just cover to cover reading through textbooks on your own. Just set yourself up with a 5 hour energy on a Saturday and just start rampantly going through books. I would recommend a thorough reading through of a precalculus book instead of an algebra book (it's essentially algebra mixed with trig topics mixed with nuance topics used in physics like vectors and such). Then I would hit a calculus book pretty hard (I recommend any standard calculus text by someone like James Stewart), and then suddenly you have an amazing foundation! It's only 2 books and and a couple weeks intense reading in your spare time and your education will take off like a rocket.

    You can buy this used: https://www.amazon.com/Precalculus-...F8&qid=1346713814&sr=8-6&keywords=precalculus and this new or used (it's very cheap now): https://www.amazon.com/Calculus-5th...&sr=8-1&keywords=calculus+stewart+5th+edition. Start a cal based university physics class after you're done reading them in the spring (or really just when you've finished studying derivatives in the calculus text) and just like that you'll be able to start tackling junior level physics courses and you will be well on your way to completion. Remember, the journey is the most important part of anything :D
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  8. Sep 3, 2012 #7
    The last math class I took prior to entering college was 6th grade math. You struggle with algebra. Then you struggle with calculus and find that algebra was easy. Then you struggle with differential equations and find that calculus was easy. Then you struggle with partial differential equations and.. well, you get the point.
  9. Sep 3, 2012 #8
    Just use the KhanAcademy. By far the best source for those "struggling" in introductory collegiate mathematics. Not the best source though if you want to master the material as a mathematician, but I assume you want to grasp it just enough to solve the problems.


  10. Sep 4, 2012 #9
    Many (maybe most) of the laws of physics involve vectors- Classical mechanics
    John r. Taylor.

    In 3000 Solved problems in Physics, Schaum's Series, the first chapter is Mathematical Introduction.
    The chapter is about:
    1. Planar vectors,
    2. Units
    3. Scientific Notation.

    Projectile, Free-body diagram are beginning examples of vector manipulation.
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2012
  11. Sep 4, 2012 #10
    Thank you everyone for the advice! Bipolarity, I will look into the khan academy resources tomorrow for sure! azizlwl, thank you for the advice, but it is a little bit confusing... Angry Citizen, did you find anything helpful in particular? For learning math quickly?
  12. Sep 4, 2012 #11
    I seriously study math about 4 to 5 hours a night... I just don't want to be wasting my time on things. For example: I learned a bunch of trig this week. There are tons of formulas: sin, cos, tan, secant, cosecant, cotangent, all the inverses, law of sins, law of cosines, etc, but it seems that they are not all needed really? Things seem really basic (at least for the classes I am in now, and it is just the first week), but I need to be able to take Calc 1 next year, and I am not even close to that level. Now PLEASE understand: I am a Marine. I will work my a** off to achieve my goal. I just need a direction; I need to know how to get to that level quickly and efficiently.

    Ha! Maybe I am over-complicating everything... it is the first week of school. I have not been in a scholastic setting (besides learning how to build rockets and missiles in MOS school) in ten years... perhaps I am just stressing too much! Lol
  13. Sep 6, 2012 #12
    The first thing you need to do is get over your fear of math. Tell yourself that you can and will succeed...it makes a huge difference.
  14. Sep 6, 2012 #13
    I am 28 going into electrical engineering. I didn't go to any school after 5th grade because my parents were nut jobs. So I sympathize. I had to teach myself math as an adult, and I understand how difficult that is.

    Alot of people here poo poo it, but Khan Academy's website is a great resource for people like you and me. It isn't comprehensive and rigorous, and I think that is why alot of people here don't care much for it. But they probably have a very different background than you and me. It starts as low as you want (all the way down to basic arithmetic) and goes all the way up to topics in calculus and trigonometry. It has video tutorials and exercises all the way up.

    It may not be rigorous, but for an adult wanting to get a foundation in math for college it is invaluable. Thanks to khan academy I am doing great in my math and physics classes and have a 4.0. Best of luck to you chief, as long as you work hard you'll do great.
  15. Sep 6, 2012 #14
    I'm totally with you on Khan Academy. I'm 28 and looking to study next year. Khan Academy has been so helpful for catching up on high school math that I hadn't touched in 12 years. After spending a month or so working solely on KA almost every night I went on and got a couple of entry level college textbooks and they made SO much more sense than when I'd looked at them pre-KA.

    On the other hand I can absolutely see why more experienced people don't like it. It definitely glosses over some things and gives you a really simplistic view but at the time that was exactly what I needed.
  16. Sep 6, 2012 #15
    Hi Mike. I can totally relate, as I am studying engineering after years spent in another field entirely. I have managed to do pretty well, and I'm sure you can too. As far as specific advice, I guess I would say, hmm...1.) It's okay to start slow and really focus on the basics, esp. Algebra. The stronger your foundation, the easier it is to build up. Don't ever trivialize gains you are making at the very beginning, because they will be important later. 2.) Look at a variety of textbooks for each course you take, until you find one whose approach you like better than the others. Ask your professor which text they feel is the best on the topic (it may not be the official text for the class) and definitely look at this one. 3.) Use resources like Khan Academy, Patrick JMT and MIT Opencourseware. and 4.) Make peace with feeling stupid/befuddled/hopelessly confused. Also accept as normal the feeling that you have studied so hard that you have actually physically injured your brain. All of these feelings will pass, and at the end you'll know some math. Good luck!
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