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Physics burdened by slow deep thought.

  1. May 3, 2012 #1
    So I consider myself to be thoughtful and curious about my schoolwork, but to the point that it drives me mad.
    I get caught up over proving physics rules, checking the derivatives, understanding the "visuals" behind the integrals as best I can.
    I certainly don't aspire to be a student who simply plugs in formulas, but sometimes I run out of time before an exam and rush my studies.

    It takes me hours to get through physics chapters, while my friends seem to just "accept it all" and tell me to not struggle so much with the material. It makes me agitated and then I just feel slow....
    And I am only in freshman engineering physics, currently in electromagnetism.

    So my questions are:
    1) Is it ok that I am taking my time to get through the basics?
    I am worried because even though I take so long to read the book, I still have trouble remembering concepts and the associated math by the next week...

    2) Is it ok that these electromagnetism concepts (especially Voltage) are DIFFICULT to visualize?
    And the math equations make zero sense sometimes.
    For example, dividing distance by time creates an inherent concept of speed.
    And when it comes to graphing velocity, I can imagine a little runner moving faster, slower etc.
    For Electric fields, the pictures of electric fields make sense, but the equation of dividing Force by the Main Charge doesn't help me paint a picture.
    VOLTAGE is a whole other problem... potential energy divided by a unit of charge...I trust the math but it doesn't seem natural.

    I am mainly concerned about my "mental struggling" and tendency to be skeptical.
    Thank you for your advice, anecdotes, stories, explanations, or any answer at all.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 3, 2012 #2
    just accept the conclusions for now. you'll get to all the derivations you'll ever want to know, and then some, later on.

    the most important skill in learning physics isn't anything related to study, but rather how to relax. i haven't even learned how to truly relax yet.

    that's because if you don't relax, you're going to crack.
  4. May 3, 2012 #3
    Keep up with your classes, accept stuffs and move on, you can always come back at a later time to gain deeper understanding and gain more intuition, for example, during long vacations.
  5. May 3, 2012 #4


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    Staff: Mentor

    Very few people learn a physics subject all in one go, with complete understanding at the end. The normal procedure is to "cycle" through the material repeatedly, at higher and higher levels, gaining a deeper understanding each time.

    I've studied electromagnetism at least four times: at the freshman undergraduate level, at the intermediate/advanced undergraduate level, at graduate-school level, and afterwards while teaching both freshman and intermediate undergraduate courses. Every time I go over the material again I see something "new."
    Last edited: May 3, 2012
  6. May 3, 2012 #5
    this pleases me
  7. May 3, 2012 #6
    It's actually a GOOD thing to take your time on the basics. They never change. A good book on Electromagnetics from 50 years ago would still be completely relevant. People keep wanting to get to the advanced stuff too quickly, and they end up wasting their time.

    Don't worry about lacking the intuition about voltage. You'll get there. It just takes a lot of time.
  8. May 3, 2012 #7
    This is completely true. I didn't try very hard in basic mechanics, E&M and optics and it slowed me down tremendously later on. I still have major holes in e&m because I simply did not learn the intro sequence as well as I could of.
  9. May 3, 2012 #8
    Taking time to go through things is good, but sometimes the problem is just that you haven't done enough math or other background material. I'll ramble on about my own E&M experiences now, since it seems relevant.

    E&M made absolutely no sense to me in high school, and I absolutely hated it, which was weird because I loved every other part of physics. When I got to first year university, I found out that the problem was just the fact that I didn't know calculus or linear algebra in high school. Everything we studied was a "special case" and all the formulas came from nowhere. When we started using calculus to do these things a bit more rigorously, things made a lot more sense, to the point where that class made me decide to go into EE with a physics minor, rather than a different type of engineering. And yet, there were still some things I spent hours trying to prove, but was never successful at. Now, I've just finished second year (which included a course on vector calculus), and I'm beginning work on the more intermediate/advanced E&M that's required for both EE and Physics. Suddenly, with new concepts like divergence, curl, and surface/line integrals under my belt, I'm seeing things in a whole new way, and I'm able to easily prove some of the things that were impossible in first year.

    All that to say, just be aware that you'll probably find that things make more and more sense as you progress. Like jtbell said, as you go over things again and again, you'll make new connections that you never would have seen before. The main thing is to keep trying, and don't get discouraged when you don't understand something. It's far better to know that your understanding is a little shaky than to be confident in a shaky understanding.
  10. May 4, 2012 #9
  11. May 5, 2012 #10
    You're completely right to be wanting to understand things to your satisfaction before moving on. Schools, as a rule, are not good places for people who want to understand their subject with depth. They'll only ever care that you can plug-and-chug the math, pass the test, and then quickly move on.

    All of your peers who are accepting the plug-and-chug understanding are just doing it to get good grades. They're either pandering to the professors and the administration, or they just don't know what real understanding is. Either way, they don't actually care about the material as much as you do.

    If you feel a strong need to understand material comprehensively, then leaving the class and pursuing other methods of educating yourself might be a potential idea.

    Specifically with voltage, the way to visualize it is as a potential field (assuming you can already visualize potential fields). Of course, voltage is not the usual sort of potential field, but rather it's a potential field that expands or contracts depending on what charge is placed inside of it. So yep, visualize voltage as an expanding and contracting potential field. When you put a big charge (>1C) inside of it, then it goes "fwoop" and its magnitude everywhere gets bigger. If you pug a small charge (<1C) inside of it, then it goes "schweeee" and it's magnitude everywhere gets smaller.

    Next you have to visualize what this field will do to the charge inside of it after it has expanded or contracted, but I'll leave that up to you.
    Last edited: May 5, 2012
  12. May 5, 2012 #11
    You're doing the right thing, but sometimes, educational systems don't reward people who do the "right" thing and instead reward people who simply cram for exams and walk away with stellar grades but absolutely horrible understanding of the material, let alone little/no interest in it. This unfortunately can put you at a disadvantage when the time for a job hunt/grad school application comes.

    Try to find a balance. If you can afford it, then take less courses at a time and spend your time learning the material properly at your own pace. If you have no option other than to pass your courses to maintain financial aid status/not be a burden on your parents, then I don't have any advice to give you because I'm currently in that situation myself and I haven't figured out the solution.
    Last edited: May 5, 2012
  13. May 6, 2012 #12
    This. It's a major problem with how schooling works, but I guess we all just have to put up with it for the time being.

    I have the same problem and I know how it feels, especially when I am trying to wrap my head around a topic and something like an English essay gets in the way...

    I've found that it helps to really try as hard as possible to learn something, then if you feel as if you aren't getting anywhere with it, have a break. By 'break' I don't necessarily mean go relax, sometimes if I'm struggling with some physics stuff I'll go and do some math because it seems 'more natural'. It's really important to find out what works for you.

    Also, with your problem memorising things, every time you learn a new concept, give yourself a couple of minutes to pretend you're teaching it to someone else. It works a treat and it really makes sure you have a solid understanding of your topics.
  14. May 6, 2012 #13
    To be honest, I face the same problem too. Thing is, it takes (more than) a lifetime to truly learn and understand Physics and really know about the world around oneself, not twelve short years. But that's a fact of life I'm afraid....

    So, now for the answers:

    It is good that you are trying to build a solid foundation. It is important for any field. But what helps me tackle this problem is to understand Physics as a whole. Physics is a man-made thing. It is a model that we humans build in order to understand the world around us. In class, we really just study this 'model' rather than studying the world itself. So I shifted my attitude to this fact, that it is a model and since it is made by humans, it is probably an imperfect and incomplete one (even the top physicists doesn't understand certain concepts such as "Where does gravity come from?"). Personally, as a student new to this field (only started my real Physics class this year), I decided to learn the model first, how it works, how the great scientists think and see the world in a ingenious way. Then, when I get better (and probably get a full-time job thinking about it all....and paid too ;)), I would try to tackle understanding the real world based on what I learned, always asking why and all. Though it would be nice to do that now, I frankly don't have the time....

    As for visualizing electromagnetic concepts, I understand it is not the most straightforward thing to do. What I personally do is draw analogies and make connections with something I know as a first step. Voltage is electrical potential energy, right? So, for voltage I think of something that has the potential to do work. For example, if I am given a piece of homework, I am also given the potential to complete it. If I am not given it, I don't have the potential to complete it. Elecrtons are the same. We need to give them something that gives them the potential to do work, like a store of energy, etc. Without such, they can't, and therefore have no potential or 'voltage' to do work. Then, from there I integrate this concept with other information in Physics.

    Bottom line is to understand what is it you are studying. If you don't understand, chances are it is pretty pointless.

    Sorry it is a bit long and hard to understand (my language isn't very good). But I hope that this helps! :D
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