Physics: To Be or Not To Be?

  • #1
Hello all; as I'm sure many of you have ascertained from my join date and post-count, I am new to this particular forum -- what I've seen from here so far has been great, though, and I am looking forward to delving into the wonderful world of physics with the rest of you :)

That being said, I have a question for those of you who are more acclimated and more experienced in the world of physics than myself, and I am hoping to get some good advice on the matter. My utmost apologies if this is a redundant topic (which I'm sure, to at least some degree or variation, it is) but if I could have a few moments of your time, it would be HUGELY appreciated!

P.S: Feel free to skim through this and touch on whatever points you feel are most necessary to reply to the topic at hand -- I have tried to outline my post so that the most important information is easy to pick out from the rest of the please don't let the wall of text frighten you away. I have tried to provide as much information about the situation as possible so that you may assess the circumstances and render your own personal opinion on the matter.

A Little Background Info

I was one of those people who was not so well-suited for High School. Whether it was the environment not allowing me to flourish or my own lack of motivation disabling me from being an effective student (I would suspect that it was some combination of the two), the bottom line is that my grades were absolutely horrible in school, and I barely managed to squeak out of graduation on time with a 2.1 GPA (mostly due to the fact that during my senior year I got a wake up call that caused me to slap things into high-gear.)

This senior year was somewhat of a revelation for me that really caused me to re-evaluate where I was in life and what I wanted to do. After graduating, I took my first semester of college off and was toying with the idea of whether or not I was going to start in the Spring Semester; this was until the very unfortunate and tragic passing of my best friend made me realize that my time was not as infinite as I would have liked to imagine. He was always pushing me to apply my intellect while I was always struggling to be something else...

I enrolled in classes at the nearest community college about a week after his passing, and started my academic journey. I had decided some time in High School that I wanted to be a teacher, and perhaps a college professor some day. After I witnessed the immense discrepencies between high school and college I revised my dreams strictly to wanted to become a college professor. But...of what?

So far, the wondrous world of academia has changed my life; I am thrilled to wake up each and every morning and embark on the challenging and captivating trek through the world of knowledge. Things that I once suspected I was not so good at, I have realized that I am rather good at. One such thing is Math.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Mathematics

So far, I am currently taking my first semester of math in college. Throughout high school, for the most part, I despised math. It is because of this that I utilized my efforts to finish up my math credits as early as I possibly could in high school, in order to get them out of the way. Oh, how things have changed...

Having not taking math in three and a half years, to say that my math skills are rusty and unpractised would be an incredibly understatement. Math was not my strongest subject in high school (I slept through almost every class) and having not taken it in what seemed like eons, undergoing the placement test was like taking a test in a foreign language. Incredible frustrated and stressed about the situation, there were many moments during the test-taking proccess where I resorted to christmas-treeing the it.

So here I am in Pre-Algebra thinking that I am going to hate myself for the next several semesters while I run the mathematical gauntlet, and I realize that the numbers look different. The way they speak to one another, the way I remember them, the way I think of them, what they mean, how one concept relates to's all different.

I am LOVING math, and am utilizing the time I would have spent studying were the class not so incredibly easy to study and review higher concepts of algebra.

Is There Such a Thing As Too Late When it Comes to Chasing Childhood Dreams?

I am 21 years old and in my Sophmore year of college after taking the first semester off, and only taking a half-load my second semester. After this semester is over I will have completed 35 credit hours. As previously aforementioned, this is my first semester of math, and due to my less-than-adequate placement test scores via not having practised math in years, I am only taking a trivial and meaningless Pre-Algebra class.

Philosophy and Physics are two subjects that have always dominated my imagination. Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a scientist and writing about the philosophical implications of my work. Astrophysics and Particle Physics were always favorite topics of discussion between me and many of my greatest friends, but I never had the appropriate understanding of mathematics in order to fully comprehend the depth and magnitude of ideas that are relevant to the field of physics.

Things are changing; after reading books like "The Language of Mathematics" by Keith Devlin have opened my eyes to the world that is waiting to be discovered via the rational application of numbers. Needless to say, Theoretical Physics is starting to look more appealing than it did once upon a time.

My Question To You...

Are these dreams foolish? Are they unattainable? Am I at a time in my life where I should usher the fanciful world of physics out of the window of my mind?

Most importantly, with the right drive and motivation, is it possible to make-up the knowledge in mathematics that is necessary to major or perhaps minor in physics?

More and more, I am feeling like I really want to explore the relationship between physics and philosophy in a professional setting, but can I do this without having to wait twenty years for my math to catch up?

Theoretically if I skip the Basic Algebra class like I am planning, I could take Intermediate and College Algebra in the summer, and start Trig in the fall, and Calc in the Spring semester. I realize it may not be advisable to do so, but if I put the right amount of time, work, and effort into increasing my aptitude for math, is this possible?

My Utmost Appreciation

Thank you all SO much for your time and effort; it is greatly, greatly appreciated. I always value the opinions of those more knowledgable than me in a given subject, and I look forward to hearing from you all. I apologize for the rambling...I sometimes have a bit of a tendency to get off-topic.

Once again, thank you, and any advice you have to offer is very much appreciated :)

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Of course it's not too late, you're only 21.

The only thing I'd caution you about is to stay flexible about your major. You say you now enjoy math, but you're only taking what amounts to 7th grade level coursework. Strive for your goal, but keep an eye out for other opportunities that might pop up if math ends up not working out.
  • #3
No doubt; I one hundred percent agree with you, and am certainly not planning my life around physics at this point and time -- as you pointed out, the coursework that I am currently experiencing isn't going to be any type of platform for me to be able to accurately asses whether or not I want to dabble in the realm of physics as a career; this sort of thing will have to be fully determined once I have experienced higher level math, I was just wondering if it was completely unrealistic to get to that higher level math from where I am at now.

Who knows how math will work out; only time will tell. All I know is that when I was taking this course in 7th grade I HATED it, lol! My mind works on the premise of appliance and practicality -- as a kid, I could never an entire numerical alphabet of abstractions that I had no clue how to use (after all, other such abstractions, like the english language, grant me the ability to read what you wrote, and type out this response.) Now, as I am a little older (still a kid in the grand scheme of things), a little, and a hell of a lot more matured and focused, I figure this is the time to figure this whole math thing out ;) :P.

I will take your advice and make sure to stay flexible and open-minded about my options. I appreciate the response :)
  • #4
I started my college career last fall. The placement tests administered by the college placed me at the basic algebra level. Like you, I have lofty goals, dreams, and ambitions of becoming a chemical engineer fluent in several European languages and skilled in poetry and guitar.

However, I recently realized that my desired future matters little if I do not take care of the now. From now on, I will simply focus on the classes I take now and will focus later on the classes I take later.

I recommend you do the same. Concentrate on what you are doing now. Let the future come to you and not the other way around. Hopefully, you will fail many times; your failures will show you your limits, and hopefully you will learn how to overcome, work around, or adjust to them.

The only tool you need on your journey is dedication. This is also the hardest one to obtain (more so than intelligence). Best of luck to you and hopefully you will stick around here to share your experiences with us.
  • #5
Too late at 21? You're kidding, right?

I'm 28, in community college, and am entering my second year of fulltime studies as an EE student. I also graduated high school with a 2.2 GPA ten years ago, but I have a 3.9 right now, and have been accepted at a highly-rated engineering college.

I have a student colleague who is entering her second year as a ME student... at 46 years of age. My girlfriend went back for her MBA at 34, after both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Chem. E. and Biotech E.

Need any more anecdotal evidence? I can conjure at least five more examples off the top of my head; I'm sure there are numerous others here that can triple that.

An old saying (I don't know the author): "Live to be too old to learn."

One thing: don't waste so much time writing 1000 word diatribes like above... you either study hard, or you fail, and believe me, you'll have very little time to spare if you're serious about learning well. Establish the good habits now while you're in the easy classes.

Study hard; and pay attention in algebra and trig: you'll need them! Those pesky trig identities come in handy.

Speaking of, back to the salt mines I go. Viel Glück!
  • #6
Science Advisor
If you were not going well in highschool and learned from that then some would say you are in a better position than some people who flew through highschool and that are indecisive about what they really want to do.

Like everyone here has said (or rather implied), 21 is not old. Also I'd like to point out a piece of research that looked at several experts in several areas, each in a completely genre of endeavor (ie athletes, scientists, and other professionals) and they came up with the figure that it takes about a decade to gain the conceptual understanding and experience before they have their "Einstein moment" or reach such a situation.

Think about that. Ten years before you really come into "expert" territory. You will only be 31 by this time and that is still young enough to offer a lot to anyone be it in teaching, research, or industry or all of the above.

If you are thinking about looking at physics and philosophy again I would use the "ten year" rule as a minimum. We have several experts in math, physics, and philosophy who are well educated, highly reflective and deep thinkers who spend their lives in the same sort of pursuit who you can draw and learn from and reflect to an extent that may give you the sort of ideas that you are looking for, but you will have to work hard and collaborate with other people and by doing those you will more than likely push your own envelope (and that of your peers) if you are dedicated in whatever endeavor yours may be.

I would also advise you to think about having a well rounded education. If you study maths, and physics and nothing else your thinking will more than likely be constrained. You don't have to formally study something to become familiar with it: experience in doing is all that is required. I realize math and physics are "full-time" experiences but if its all you do then your "context" is severely restricted. There are many different areas of knowledge and application, many different ways to generalize, to decompose (or "atomize"), different heuristic manners and so forth, and a variety of activities across a large spectrum will help you form more complex relationships with ideas and knowledge that will generate a plethora of new things that will come to mind or think about.

Some more advice about math.

First thing is calculus. I'll limit what I have to say to the 19th century of mathematics.
Single variable calculus should be straight forward. Vector calculus I recommend Div, Grad Curl and all that and when you want to learn the 20th century version Div Grad Curl are dead is a good book.

Before analysis you will have to most likely do a standard calculus course which includes Integral and Differentiable Calculus, Vector and Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, Differential Equations II and III, Partial Differential Equations, Complex Analysis, Group Theory, Probability, Statistical Models, and given that you're doing physics the standard physics courses (including EM, Classical Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, and Relativity depending on your uni).

This is obviously a huge amount of information to swallow even if it takes 3-4 years of which you've simply "scratched the surface". You will with more experience most likely form new perspectives on what you have learned and have deep and reflective moments where your different perspectives merge together in which your understanding suddenly reforms itself.

I hope i've given you some things to chew on and evaluate as some tidbits that i've learned. I'm still in the learning process myself (as most of us here are) but even though a lot of us come to the conclusion that the more we know the less we really know, it doesn't mean that after learning things for many years we don't have anything decent to say ;)

If you're still around after having done all of the coursework then I take my hat off to you :)

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