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Preparation for University

  1. Jan 11, 2017 #1
    Hi, this fall I'll be attending university for Theoretical Physics (Canada). I'm hoping to continue education to graduate level, and become a physicist myself.

    Firstly, I'm wondering what I should have under my belt, to not only be successful in school but also become an expert in physics problem solving. So far I have completed my Junior (Grade 11) Physics course which covered Kinematics, Dynamics, Introduction to Newtonian Physics (Basic), Energy and Work, Introduction to Thermodynamics and Wave mechanics of light and Sound. Spring semester I will be taking my final secondary physics course, which will cover advanced topics in all the previous stated topics, as well as introductions to Relativistic mechanics (mostly SR I think).

    On my own I have advanced my own knowledge in the field, both in the history of physics itself as well as some more advanced topics. Mathematically I am curious what I should know as well, as I already understand Functions, Calculus (Basic Integral and Differential), Euclidean Geometry as well as basic proofs.

    Overall I was curious based on your own experience in University/college courses if you, with hindsight would have prepared or mastered something. I'm curious in not only the content I should know, but also the skills I should develop. Thank you :)

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 11, 2017 #2


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    Well, it's tempting to attach a list of basic concepts and tools that would be of help. However, this might be a kind of an overkill. I like the fact that you're interested in historic questions very much. I think one can learn a lot more from it as it's usually believed. It brings you back to the original motivations, the difficulties even the most admired scientists have had by adopting new concepts. The famous quote of Einstein "God doesn't play dice." is only the peak of the iceberg. One can find these kind of objections at almost all birth places of new concepts. So instead to list many books, I tell you about my own experiences and main observations:
    1. Mathematics (and probably physics, too) is largely different from what it is at school.
    2. The learning process is another.
    These two reasons were in my opinion the ones who were most responsible for the high drop out rate in the first year. Now what do I mean by different from school?

    To start with the easy one, the learning process, the main difference is responsibility. Nobody is much interested in whether you do your homework or preparations or don't. You have a book, and the lectures are mainly there to enable you to learn from the book by yourself, to ask the right questions, to reveal the principles behind the theorems and to put them into a larger context. Of course, I also had professors who merely read the book and brought it on the blackboard. This is not all bad, because it helps to adapt the techniques quicker. But for a deeper understanding, listen carefully to the others. The Feynman lectures (available on youtube) might be of interest for you. It's really worth watching them! So you will basically be left alone. Don't consider this - like many do at school - as a charter for doing nothing or only the least. You'll only hurt yourself. To some this might be a big difference, none to others. That depends on personal characteristics which I cannot assess. I only saw, that it was a big difference to most and that among those, the drop out had been higher. It is tempting to regard less restrictions as more freedom, but actually it means more responsibility for yourself.

    The first point I mentioned, the difference between the content at school and at college might also depend on location and I'm not a Canadian. Here it was quite a big difference. Mathematics at school has mainly been calculations and algorithms for those. Numbers wherever you look. At university, all of a sudden, you only needed the integers ##-1,0,1,2## maybe sometimes ##3##. Everything took place in symbols and formulas where formerly had been numbers and graphics. Instead of solving numeric exercises, the principles behind became the matter of consideration. I like to think of scientific fields as studies of language: every science has its own and is very different from the everyday language - whether it's mathematics, physics or legal science. Even the mathematics physicists use is often quite different from the way mathematicians would use it for the same thing! And these different languages are nothing that could be looked up in a lexicon. You have to develop a feeling for its usage on your own. That might take some time, a lot of errors and practice.

    So to answer your question more explicitly: You could watch some Feynman's lectures on youtube, read an introductory book in calculus and one in linear algebra (preferably the ones you will use in your first year) and try to get used to concepts and language. This will also help you to read books on classical mechanics which I suppose to be the starting point in physics.

    If you like practical examples take a snowboarder in the pipe. It is a rich example for many concepts. Obviously a lot of mechanics (velocity, friction, momentum, angular momentum, conversation laws, etc.), but also coordinate systems, the change between them, curved spaces, symmetries, tangents etc. You could fill small books with the physics and mathematics in there and you can even imagine questions by your own before reading about it. Things like: Is thermodynamics in there? Which role play waves and their mathematical handling? and many more.
  4. Jan 11, 2017 #3
    Thank you. Just an adjacent question. Is it more important to build a strong mathematical foundation, or develop conceptualization of physics first? Or are these to ideas developed best in unison?

  5. Jan 11, 2017 #4


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    I'd try to develop both.
  6. Jan 11, 2017 #5


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    I think the mathematical foundation is simply a necessity you can't avoid. Whether it is "more" important cannot be answered. Mathematics is simply the language in which physics is written. Take our snowboarder again. You can measure his varying speed at the top and at the bottom of the pipe. But as soon as you want to explain the results to others, you would probably need some differentials and coordinates. So in my opinion you cannot separate one from the other. Since it might be of a greater difference to learn the mathematics, I mentioned linear algebra and calculus first as this is necessary even in classical mechanics. Later on in physics, some physical conceptions are even hidden in the mathematical description. But at the start I agree with @PeroK and recommend to do both.
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2017
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