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Pursuing Theoretical Physics

  1. Jul 22, 2010 #1
    Hey all,

    I'm going to be a freshman in college in a month or two, and am currently intending on majoring in something within the liberal arts; at the moment, I'm heavily considering philosophy. I'm quite interested in theoretical physics, astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics as side pursuits or hobbies. My question would be: what is the best way for me to get an exposure to the above topics, leveraging the fact that I've got four years in college? I have no thorough desire to fulfill the math and physics prerequisites to take any of the (in my opinion) more interesting physics subjects, but would still love to learn as much as I can about them.

    Up until this point, my base of knowledge is solely constructed from various physics books "popularized" for the public - ie, sanitized of math, as well as online forums and repositories of information (Physics Forum!). I've considered sitting in on or auditing some of the above classes, but would love to hear what everybody's ideas are in terms of where I could concentrate my energies to learn the most.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2010 #2
    Not wanting to take the prerequisites and wanting to learn as much as you can about them are mutually exclusive goals. You won't be able to fully appreciate or even understand the 'more interesting' topics without the prerequisites.
  4. Jul 22, 2010 #3
    Perhaps my choice of wording was poor; I believe you're acting under the assumption that I'm looking for a "full appreciation" and "deep understanding" of the referenced fields. In fact, quite the contrary is true: I specifically chose "exposure" and "as much as I can" to indicate that I am not looking for a complete and comprehensive education in these chosen fields.

    I would also like to refute your assertion that taking extensive prerequisite courses in advanced physics and maths is necessary for a topical or mild understanding of the relevant fields. Are you positing that, for instance, to understand the basic premise of GR, I must be intimately familiar with Einstein's field equations and the supporting material? I would be hesitant to agree with this idea.

    I guess what I'm asking for is how I can learn more about the field from an observer's perspective. Picture, as I have mentioned, popularized physics and science books, some of which as I have read. Maybe suggestions more in this vein are more appropriate, if what you suggest is true.
  5. Jul 22, 2010 #4
    First of all, try Feynman's lectures, and his book QED.
  6. Jul 22, 2010 #5
    Alright, yes, I misunderstood you.
  7. Jul 22, 2010 #6


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    Think about what you're going to do with that philosophy major - there aren't a lot of practical applications. As for physics, you can take an introductory astronomy class without knowing more than algebra and some trig. But there are very few physics classes you can take without knowing calculus or higher math, and that applies to more advanced astronomy courses as well. There's no 'theoretical physics' course - that's a way to approach physics, not a field of physics. Cosmology will require advanced math and physics prerequisites, as well an astrophysics course and anything in physics you might find more interesting than basic physics - like quantum mechanics. GR is typically only taught to graduate level physics students.
  8. Jul 22, 2010 #7
    Thanks for the suggestions, I'll check these out pronto.

    Apologies if I came across as unduly harsh; your point is well noted.

    Maybe I should have left out the whole part about college. I'm more interested not so much in learning the math and theory behind physics, but rather the conclusions and summaries resulting from the esoteric derivations that others (with a greater affinity for math and physics than me) have performed, however lazy of me this is. Think A Brief History of Time style information, although I'm looking for something slightly more complex.

    From what I have seen in the posts, it looks like I should probably stick to generalized science and physics books; from what I'm hearing, anything I would be able to take at a college level/any of the resources I would have would be far more literal and fine-level then what I'm looking for. Is this a correct takeaway?
  9. Jul 22, 2010 #8
    I'd strongly suggest that you take some math courses at least to the level of introductory calculus. You can think of math as a language, and once you learn enough basic phrases, you'll much better be able to understand what is going on.

    The problem is that if you try to learn facts by passively absorbing conclusions made by others, I think you are missing the basic heart of physics and science, which is to read something and think to yourself "this doesn't make any sense" or "I could do something better."
  10. Jul 23, 2010 #9
    Thanks for the recommendation. I do indeed intend to at least fulfill a basic background of some of the more advanced math classes.
  11. Jul 23, 2010 #10
    What popular science books have you read? Have you read Carl Sagan's books? Brian Greene and Lee Smolin have written popular-ish science books on string theory.
  12. Jul 23, 2010 #11
    I would definitely go with the consensus to read books that are meant for the non physicist community. Most of the physics classes in theoretical physics are math intensive and really meant for physics majors, not really casual learners, so it probably isn't for you. As for astronomy, ask your college advisor about astronomy classes, and which ones are math and physics intensive and what aren't. At my school, a lot of astronomy classes are not very math intensive, so you might want to try to take some of those in you're interested. But for physics, I don't believe there are any purely conceptual classes, meant for the general school population. Also, try seeing if there are any clubs at you school for physics and astronomy, and keep a look out for lectures at your school. There are many different ways to learn about physics and astronomy without actually taking the classes.

    If I may ask, what are your careerer goals?
  13. Jul 23, 2010 #12
    Many departments host public lectures which are aimed at the general population. There should be some physics/astronomy clubs you can look into, as well. These clubs can also point you towards some interesting events.
  14. Jul 24, 2010 #13
    Thanks, I'll do this. I'm not actually sure at the moment, I'm still actively searching. Philosophy is just one of my interests, so I'll probably follow whichever classes I end up loving.

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