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Preparing for Electromagnetism

  1. Dec 6, 2011 #1
    I would like to prepare for my second semester of physics in electromagnetism. Its exciting because its my first taste of physics that isn't all about kinematics and dynamics.

    What are good ways to prepare for electromagnetism? I don't want a rudimentary and superficial understandings. I went through my physics book and found the chapters periodic motion and mechanical waves to be very interesting. Would that be a good start?

    Perhaps studying vector fields and vector spaces would help?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 7, 2011 #2
    Vector fields yes, but not vector spaces.. Where did you get that idea? What did your first semester of EM cover?
  4. Dec 7, 2011 #3
    Vector calculus sure would help too.
  5. Dec 7, 2011 #4


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    In the USA, vector calculus is normally not a prerequisite for the second semester of freshman physics. The course introduces some concepts of vector calculus: surface and line integrals, and the gradient, but probably not the divergence and curl. Maxwell's Equations are presented in their integral forms, not the differentlal ones (with divergence and curl). The integrals use examples that usually (because of their symmetry) make the integrals themselves almost trivial. (I call them "Geico integrals": so easy a caveman can do them.)

    I think the most important skill you can bring to this course is an ability to visualize in three dimensions what diagrams on paper have to present in two-dimensional form: patterns of electric and magnetic fields (vectors or field lines) around charges, conduductors, etc.
  6. Dec 7, 2011 #5


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    I would kindly reccomend the Feynman lectures, because his pace is great and explanations clear.
  7. Dec 7, 2011 #6
    Actually this will be my first semester of electromagnetism. It's basically going to introduce Gauss' law, Maxwell's equations, electric and magnetic fields, etc.

    Hmm, any idea on what specifically?

    This should be fun, I'm a good visualizer. Now would it help if I studied periodic motions and mechanical waves? Electromagnetism does deal with a considerable amount of waves anyways?

    Okay, I will look into that.
  8. Dec 7, 2011 #7
    Actually, I think vector spaces might help in the long run (so that you can bring differential forms into the picture, among other things), but probably not for a first course.

    That's a good attitude, but in a first course, particularly in this subject, it's not expected that you'll have the deepest level of understanding. I don't think I minded this when I took it for the first time, and I'm very fussy about this sort of thing. My memory of it is mostly overshadowed by the next electromagnetism class I took, so it could be that I didn't know what I was missing. Obviously, I understood it a lot better after the second class. As long as you learn it in the long run, it's okay if it takes two passes to do it. My third E and M class, with the EE dept. was a major factor in my decision to change majors to math because I couldn't stand the way it was taught. Very shallow, black-box type stuff. So, beware of electrodynamics. To this day, I still haven't completely come to terms with the subject, although I found that Feynman had some nice discussions of what makes those EM waves tick in his book (my favorite is the one with the sheet of moving charge producing a plane wave and the calculation of the speed of light going along with it).
  9. Dec 7, 2011 #8
    Yes, which is why I was hoping that if I study vector spaces/vector fields then it might help me grasp some of the concepts. It really bugs me if I don't know 'why'. I'll just focus on vector fields for now.

    That is very unfortunate that they have a shallow introduction of the subject. I hope that changes in later physics classes?
  10. Dec 7, 2011 #9
    Your single variable calculus should be solid and maybe some notion of multivariable and vector calculus (idea of a line, surface and volume integral, dot/cross products and their physical meaning(I assume everyone learns this in a general physics course?)).

    It would probably be a good idea if you familiarized yourself with polar/cylindrical/spherical coordinates ahead of time.
  11. Dec 7, 2011 #10


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    I always recommend reading the history of the development/early work of a subject, and early texts.

    In the history and original writings of a topic, you will, as it were, work with the people who struggled to comprehend the subject. Therefore, what you may read is to see which parts are the most difficult to comprehend and conceptualise - because if it were simple they'd have jumped to the right understanding straight away!
  12. Dec 7, 2011 #11
    Learn PDE. Wasn't required at my school, but you sure use a garbageton of it. Other than that, I wouldn't worry about it.
  13. Dec 7, 2011 #12
    Hey thanks for being a bit more detailed about what I should learn! And what physics will use polar, cylindrical, and spherical coordinates?
  14. Dec 7, 2011 #13
    PDE? I was referring to a first course of electromagnetism, as in "Physics II."

    Hmm, thanks. I've always loved history of physics and math so that would be interesting.
  15. Dec 7, 2011 #14
    Haha, don't learn PDEs right now. Be comfortable with single-variable calculus and multi-variate calculus and you should be well prepared.
  16. Dec 7, 2011 #15
    Well, differential forms are sort of a luxury, I think. Not really necessary to understand the basics--actually, that kind of "shallowness" is a good thing because you should really work up to that level, not just get there right away before you are ready. Once you know vector fields, then, you'll be ready for differential forms. I wouldn't recommend starting with differential forms. There are different kinds of "shallowness". Maybe some of it may be that they cut corners in understanding, and some of it is more of a question of coverage (as in, not getting to the more advanced topics), not using the most sophisticated tools, or just building up to things, rather than hitting you with the most sophisticated approach right off that bat.

    Depends on your luck, I think. Of course, it gets deeper in terms of the selection of topics, but whether it gets conceptually deeper--there you're at the mercy of the professors, unless you take matters into your hands. For me, I contemplated switching to physics, rather than math from EE, but promptly left physics after a terrible classical mechanics course. I just saw trouble ahead and steered clear of it, so I can't say much about it. I took a couple graduate level physics classes and they were better, though.
  17. Dec 7, 2011 #16
    So this is calculus based, then? I'm unfamiliar with the US system, but here the first 2 physics are algebra based, and then you attack calculus based after completing Physics 1, and Physics 2.
  18. Dec 7, 2011 #17
    I should add that, ironically, the first semester of electromag with the EE dept (after taking physics II with E and M) was my very favorite electrical engineering class (mostly electrostatics), but the 2nd semester was my very least favorite EE class. Big change. But the physics version is a bit different than the engineering one (some physics people say it's totally different, but, browsing through a physics textbook like Griffiths, it looks pretty similar to what we did in EE). In EE, they focus more on antennas, and in physics, relativity replaces that.
  19. Dec 7, 2011 #18
    Over here the physics version is more math intensive in comparison to the engineering version. Physics version requires a course in differential equations, while engineering does not.
  20. Dec 7, 2011 #19
    Hmm, first time I've heard of the term "differential forms." Alright, I'll look into that. ^.^

    Haha, oh I know that.. lectures have always been rather shallow minded. I'm the type to rely on my own self so we will see how future classes will feel to me. You might have left physics a bit too early, for me most of the excitement comes from mathematically breaking down nature to its most fundamental level. I like to think about it as applied math. I haven't had a sufficient exposure to rigorous mathematics but I love the systematic breakdown of things and its ability to convey absolute truth! Though the think that makes me quirk is that it feels rather impersonal, while physics feels a bit more friendly to me.
  21. Dec 7, 2011 #20
    Hmm, this is how it goes in my school: Physics I, Physics II, & Physics II.

    Physics one introduces basic kinematics and dynamics, physics two introduces electromagnetism, and physics three is an introduction to modern physics.
    Yes, I can't speak for all universities but most universities start off with calculus based physics. Some colleges allow you to take Calculus based Physics I as a co-requisite of Calculus I, while others require Calculus I as a pre-requisite.
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