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Possible to learn physics all online?

  1. Apr 21, 2012 #1
    I am a first year CC student taking pre- calculus and I was woundering if it is fesible to learn physics online and through books on your own. I still intend on taking the courses, but as in for preperation, is it a good idea to study the concepts and or math before the course on your own? Or should you wait for the professor to teach the subject?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 21, 2012 #2
    Absolutely! Studying ahead is a great idea in almost all cases.
  4. Apr 21, 2012 #3
    Of course it is. I'm a freshman in college and I've taught myself Lagrangian/Hamiltonian classical mechanics, and the basics of general relativity and non-relativistic quantum mechanics. Just read textbooks and do practice problems. The hardest part for most people is developing enough interest to put the required time in. If you're keen on learning then you should have no problems.
  5. Jul 1, 2012 #4
    MIT is offering a free trial course in Introductory Mechanics online, with a certificate given for completion (but no college credit).

    Open enrollment is available at http://relate.mit.edu/physicscourse

    Besides that, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and others are offering free access to videos of lectures and many course materials for a vast array of subjects through their "Open Course" initiatives (Google it, or look for Udemy, EdX, etc.) You can learn as much about any subject as you have the time and discipline to tackle!!
  6. Jul 1, 2012 #5


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    In physics you need to do lab courses. Those are very important, and cannot be done online. For that reason (and others), there is a barrier you will likely not cross if not having the possibility to talk to other people.
  7. Jul 1, 2012 #6
    True, but that doesn't mean you can't get a fundamental understanding of the thing.
  8. Jul 2, 2012 #7
    Yes. The more learning the better, and if you have studied the concepts by yourself, that prepares your brain for class.
  9. Jul 2, 2012 #8
    1) There are ways of doing labs. A lot of experiments, you can set up on your own.

    2) Online = talking with a lot of people. I think the big missing piece that will really let online education explode is that you can talk to people that you would not otherwise be able to talk to,

    I sometimes feel old because "kids these days" have their entire social life online, and this is going to have impact as they are now getting into college.
  10. Jul 2, 2012 #9

    One thing that I think is missing is for people who are similar to you to chat and share experiences. Personally, I think it's either possible now, or soon to be possible to get an undergraduate physics education online. The hard part isn't the courses, but rather the extra bits like career advice, psychological support etc. etc.

    One thing that I like about this sort of thing is that it encourages "entrepreneurial thinking" which is going to be useful for life in general. Rather than say "it's not obvious how you do labs online so this is all hopeless and you should give up" you have to think "it's not obvious how you do labs online so let's think about it, and we'll come up with something."

    The reason "entrepreneurial thinking" is going to be critical is that (in case it isn't obvious), society and the economy are totally screwed up, and if you just wait for someone to fix the problems, nothing is going to happen.
  11. Jul 2, 2012 #10


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    This is a great point.

    The people that hope for a fix need to realize that they need to do their part to make it happen.

    Even if they don't make the final thing happen, no action is going to be completely wasted and maybe someone else will take notice and finish what someone else started, even if it's fifty years plus into the future.
  12. Jul 3, 2012 #11
    ABSOLUTELY true!! There are several large groups in Europe and one consortium in Australia that are doing online physics labs right now via remote control - log in, control real physical equipment from your home computer, take data and have it streamed to your computer, all while monitoring the process via WebCam. Google "remote labs". Another wave is using simple, easily available materials to have students perform their experiments at home - Sir Isaac Newton certainly didn't have the technology currently available on almost any cellphone and in any laptop.
  13. Jul 3, 2012 #12


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    At some point, I wonder if all of this is just "guess work"?

    I, for one, have never met anyone who has gone through an entire physics program online, and I'm not sure anyone here who responded, has. So it appears that the level of knowledge, skill (very important), and effectiveness of someone who only learned physics online are still undetermined. We can speculate all we want that someone can do such-and-such online, etc., but until we see a functioning physicist that went through it, those are just what they are - speculations!

    Note that "doing experiments" remotely is not a common skill that is shared in many areas of physics. While I've seen "experimentalists" doing nothing more than data analysis (especially in HEP), the majority of experimentalists (especially grad students) actually have to DO something physical. I consider that the training of a graduate student, for example, in things ranging from ultra-high vacuum systems to assembling vacuum components, to designing experiments as one of the most valuable skills a student can have that increases his/her "employability". So, doing something is crucial. One simply cannot learn how to ride a bicycle from just reading about it.

    Is online lessons, etc. useful? Sure it is. But is it the same as going through a standard physics program? No, it is not! If one doesn't fall under such delusions, then go ahead and try to learn bits and pieces of physics online. But otherwise, we have no evidence so far that someone who goes though a purely-online program has the same skill and ability as someone who did a traditional physics program.

  14. Jul 3, 2012 #13
    Before you stick a pin in the balloon of the original poster, remember that the original request was for information on how to get started in studying physics while he is taking Calc I. Are there online resources that he can study on his own to get a leg up?

    The answer to his original question is an unequivocal YES.

    Looking to the future and the possibility of having full online programs in physics, I would like to address ZapperZ's implicit question: Do online programs equal the dynamics and experience of a traditional butt-in-seat lecture degree? My answer would be, No, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly Mr. Z is not suggesting that there is virtue in sitting in a large lecture hall, watching a prof "do physics", taking notes, and taking tests, as opposed to sitting at home and watching a prof "do physics", taking notes, and taking a test. The only discriminators between online and in-person education are a) the level of person-to person interaction and b) the physical contact with high-cost equipment. These factors cannot stop a determined individual from acquiring skill as a practicing physicist up to the doctoral level.

    A few examples: How many on this forum did a thesis or dissertation in a theoretical area, requiring only analytic developments? How many others of us did robust numerical analyses on large computing platforms, that could now be duplicated on a PC running MatLab? If the window is opened for students around the world to access general physics instruction, what is to stop them from acquiring the hands-on experimental experience in three semester-long on-campus intensives after acquiring the requisite background online?

    No, I am with twofish on this one - the only thing limiting our ability to provide quality physics education online is our own creativity and ingenuity.
  15. Jul 3, 2012 #14


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    First of all, read the last chapter of my previous post.

    Secondly, unless you actually have a direct evidence for what you are claiming - "These factors cannot stop a determined individual from acquiring skill as a practicing physicist up to the doctoral level" - that this HAS been done successfully, then my point stands that we are all speculating!

    Thirdly, I don't think you read what I've written. In particular, you missed these:

    "I, for one, have never met anyone who has gone through an entire physics program online"

    "...someone who goes though a purely-online program..."

  16. Jul 3, 2012 #15
    I think that the OPs question was horribly misphrased. Let me put some words in his mouth...

    Yes, and it's a very good idea to take advantage of them whenever possible. Don't skip your classes because you've listened to a few online lectures though.
  17. Jul 3, 2012 #16
    Neither have I, but someone has to be the first.

    In 1987, I never met someone that did e-mail or chatted online, but a few years later everyone was doing it. This is science. The fact that no one has done it before is exactly what makes it worth doing.

    That's why I'm looking for a guinea pig to *try* it. Once we have a guinea pig, we can see what happens. One thing that makes this interesting is that the technology is changing very rapidly, so what's impossible in 2007 could become possible in 2012. If it turns out to be impossible in 2012, we can see what happens in 2017.

    I have some guesses as to why it hasn't been done, but like any good physicist, I'm looking for experimental results.

    Let's reverse the question. If online lessons aren't as good as a standard physics program, what can we do to make it as good as a standard physics program. Heck, what can we do to make it *better* than a standard physics program.

    One thing that annoys me to no end is when smart people give up so easily. We find some guinea pig, put them through a program, see what happens. It's likely that like all beta testers, the first version is going to be bad. So keep iterating until we make things bette.

    One problem is that there aren't any purely online programs. There are a ton of business programs, but no undergraduate physics programs.

    Also it may not matter. Sure watching the superbowl on TV isn't as good as being there, but if it's a choice between getting something that is 85% as good as a standard program and nothing, then 85% looks good.

    Suppose we establish that online programs are "inferior" then the question is 'how inferior" and what can be done about it.
  18. Jul 3, 2012 #17
    1) They can. If you set them up, you can get *better* educational results

    2) The traditional lecture degree is dead anyway. MIT is phasing out the big lecture hall classes and replacing them with small group tutorials.

    Also the traditional lecture degree isn't that traditional. One reason I think that MIT is a very good school for physics is that you have people that want to be at the "cutting edge" of physics education. There's a lot of thinking about *how* the traditional lecture degree came into being (see David Kaiser's web site), and a lot of thinking and rethinking about how best to teach physics.

    a) The dirty secret is that you can get more person-to-person interaction with online courses than you can with face-to-face courses. A lot depends on the details.

    b) People have figured out ways around that. You can have REU's. Also, a lot of the experimental aspects of physics education can be done with low cost equipment.

    c) Also, there are different types of physics. Someone that wants to do computational stuff has all the equipment they need. Most home computers have enough horse power to rule big simulations, and if you need access to a supercomputer, there is this thing called the internet.

    Raises hand......

    My dissertation code runs really, really fast on my home machine.

    Computational science hardware is driven by gamers. There isn't enough money for a chip company to spend billions on chips for scientists, but there is that sort of money in video games. All of the latest supercomputing systems are made of large numbers of parallel computers using hardware that's available to home users.

    Also, I did a lot of my Ph.D. through "distance education." My professor traveled a lot, and so a lot of the communication was via e-mail.

    I disagree with this somewhat. As with most things, it all boils down to money. There isn't money in providing physics education better, faster, cheaper. Let's do a though experiment. Suppose we figured out a way so that we could increase the number of physics Ph.D.'s by a factor of 10x with online education. Fine, we now have *even more* underemployed/unemployed physics Ph.D.'s.

    *That's* why it hasn't been done. It's not a hardware problem. It's not even a software program. It's an economic problem. The current system produces too many smart people, and a system that makes people even more educated is going to stress the economic system even more.

    The way you deal with this is to insert "stupid barriers". Oh, you went to school X, so you must be better. Why is going to school X better? Well just because.....

    This is going to be a problem. But you stare the problem straight in the face and look for a solution. One thing that is likely to change things is that big name universities are doing to get into online education, and if you can get the physics departments of MIT and Harvard to "bless" an online course, that kills credibility questions, and their incentive for doing that is that it's obvious to anyone at MIT that this is the future, and people there want to dominate the "new order" as much as the old one.
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  19. Jul 4, 2012 #18
    There are huge social, political, and economic barriers that keep physics online education from happening. However, the nice thing about social, political, and economic barriers is that they are rarely "iron laws."

    For example, if it turned out that putting together an online physics program would require super-luminal speeds or violate conservation of energy, then we are stuffed. As Feymann notes, nature can't be fooled.

    However, if it's a social, economic, or political problem, then those can be overcome. You just list the problems, and then come up with workarounds. One other thing is that the laws of physics do not change very quickly, but the rules of sociology, politics, and economics can change radically in very short periods of time.

    There are three critical barriers that keep online physics programs from happening

    1) social credibility
    2) social interaction - you need to "tap into" the social networks
    3) monetization - how do I turn my paper into cash

    1) is changing because of things like MITx. 2) is going to change because we are dealing with the facebook generation

    That leaves 3). I have a solution for 3), but it's politically unrealistic right now (and that solution is to build 30,000 km of expressway..... On Mars). For 3), my strategy is to be "crazy". I figure that after a decade, people will figure out that the sane, political realistic solutions won't work, so they'll be willing to listen to something really crazy.
  20. Jul 4, 2012 #19
    In short, mileage varies with the user. Yes, there is more than enough material online to learn as much physics that you desire. In fact, I would imagine that it would be very difficult for you to succeed in the physics without learning ahead since the competition is so fierce and global.

    Of course, self-learning is never an alternative to enrolling in appropriate university courses. This is not because one learns more in courses as opposed to self-learning (which may or may not be the case), but because one misses important networking opportunities and paper-backed qualifications.
  21. Jul 4, 2012 #20
    The only way to win is to think about what you want to play.

    Personally, I think that this sort of competition indicates that there is some very wrong with society. You got X jobs for physicists and then 10X people applying for them. If you improve the educational system so that 10X becomes 100X then the competition becomes even fiercer and over sillier things.

    1) You can network online

    2) I might be a romantic, but I happen to think that if you have the knowledge, you'll figure out some way of getting the pieces of paper that you need. There are fields (computer programming) in which paper certifications are pretty much worthless.

    One other thing is that lots of people are getting pieces of paper and finding that they have limited usefulness. One reason I think that trying to make your own physics degree might be *better* than getting one off the shelf is that you have to be super-entrepreneurial to get this to work.

    The university degree is designed for people to be corporate drones. Be a good boy, obey us, and they'll be this nice reward at the end of the line. Except there isn't.

    Also, enrolling in a university and "self-learning" isn't mutually exclusive. I was lucky enough to go to a university in which the formal coursework was considered only a small part of the educational experience.
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