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Read Zapper's Thread, Still Have Questions

  1. Aug 13, 2010 #1
    I have a 15-year-old who wants to go into astrophysics, applying either quantum, or atomic/molecular/optics disciplines. My understanding, from reading Zapper's thread, is that she should get a BA degree in physics then specialize at the graduate level in astrophysics. Is that correct?

    Since we are homeschoolers, I can orchestrate her curriculum pretty freely, which leads to some other questions. She is mathematically-gifted, so we skipped geometry and have gone straight to what Saxon (publisher) calls Advanced Mathematics. Some of the topics covered are lots of trigonometry including vectors, logarithms, linear equations, etc. I have planned for her to do calculus next year, and math physics her senior year. Is this a good plan?

    In science, she has done physical science and chemistry, and is going to grit her teeth through biology this year. Next year I have her doing physics, then advanced physics her senior year. We could dispense with biology this year if you have a better suggestion.

    I have a friend who has a Ph.D. in physics. He suggested that for her first computer course that she do java, and said that many colleges have gone to java as an introductory course. I see Fortran, C, and C++ recommended in Zapper's thread, but it hasn't been updated since 2008. What is your recommendation?

    Suggestions on what to CLEP out of, or AP courses would be helpful. My daughter wants to CLEP out of college algebra because she finds algebra boring and doesn't want to waste time on it but to move to more exciting math.

    Would the book, Mathematical Methods in the Physical Science by Boas be a good book for my daughter to read now?

    What is the difference/relationship between math physics and science physics?

    What is the difference/relationship between computational physics and numerical analysis?

    Thanks for any help and/or suggestions! I really appreciate it.

    Marliss Bombardier
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 13, 2010 #2
    i can't advise on much but skipping geometry is absolutely the worst decision you could have ever made.

    and skipping algebra would be the second worst decision you could make.
  4. Aug 13, 2010 #3
    The last algebra I took was 10th grade. Testing out of college algebra isn't necessarily a mistake as long as she is good at it.
  5. Aug 13, 2010 #4
    Public school geometry is awful anyways...honestly I might as well have skipped it back in the day, all I learned can be summed up by that picture with two parallel lines intersected by a third.

    Java is not a new language so Zapper's thread being from 2008 has nothing to do with that. I haven't actually seen any Java in the stuff I do, it's a lot of C++ with a little bit of python sometimes.

    She will need calculus before you give her mathematical physics. And honestly, mathematical physics is sort of dull- I don't know why you'd make a high schooler sit through that when you don't need it really. It's mostly going through the physics in a more rigorous way, which doesn't mean much unless you've gone through physics in the first place. But Boas would be the go to book if you want to stick to it.
  6. Aug 13, 2010 #5
    I should probably clarify--my daughter has already taken algebra I and II, has tutored other students in it, and will be coaching a middle school Science Olympiad team in math/algebra this year. My main concern with her on math is that she solves problems intuitively. Her gripe with algebra is having to learn the formula when she already knows the answer. Her big brother (who is also mathematically-gifted and just graduated magna cum laude with an engineering physics degree) insists that she must learn to do that now or she will have trouble later.

    She will be taking calculus next year, so what would you suggest in place of the mathematical physics--advanced calculus?


    Marliss Bombardier
  7. Aug 13, 2010 #6
    College students would take multivariable calculus or linear algebra after single-variable calculus. If she really enjoys single-variable calculus, she could also work through a first course in real analysis. It might appeal to her preference for deriving math rather than memorizing it. (I avoid using the term "advanced calculus" because it means multivariable calculus to some and real analysis to others.)
  8. Aug 13, 2010 #7
    Yes. Undergraduates may get the opportunity to take some astronomy classes, though.

    Definitely C++. Java has some uses, and object orientated programming is a good thing to learn - but you can't do better than C++ á mon avis. MATLAB is another obvious choice - though you would have to pay for it there is a student version available for cheaper once you reach university. Otherwise, OCTAVE is available as an open-source (i.e. free) equivalent of MATLAB if you want to dabble. The difference is that octave is missing many 'functions' one might expect to already be available.

    A great book for undergraduate physicists. Once she's comfortable with the basics in calculus, vectors and vector calculus.

    I don't see the need (or use) to make that distinction. That is to say, I think 'nothing'.

    Again, probably not a helpful distinction to make to a pre-undergraduate. Computational physics is broad term - physics using a computer. So, modelling etc - numerical analysis might come under this umbrella. Numerical work on it's own might be something like finding numerical solutions to systems that can't be solved algebraically.
  9. Aug 13, 2010 #8
    Why exactly would you say this? Personally, I found a year of geometry in high school was mostly a waste of my time. And if you can handle the math that comes after "algebra" then you probably know how to do algebra well enough...

    Doesn't matter if colleges use Java. The important thing is to learn how to program, and C++ is a complex enough language that you'll be able to pick up Java easily if you know C++. (But it's not easy; when I first started learning C++ in high school I gave up, and then came back to it later and now I feel confident learning any language on my own)
  10. Aug 14, 2010 #9
    MIT now uses Python for their introductory computer science class. I have heard that Python is excellent as a first language for learning programming.
  11. Aug 14, 2010 #10


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    You're not familiar with Saxon, I guess. Advanced Mathematics is meant to be covered in 1.5-2 years, and if one studies from their Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Advanced Mathematics books, they will have had the equivalent of a Geometry course. I don't know why the OP said that they 'skipped' it, because they actually didn't. (This is assuming that the OP used the older editions of Algebra 1 and Algebra 2, however.)

    I would instead have her take multivariable calculus during senior year. You can take any one of the 'standard' ginormous calculus books out there (Stewart, Larson, Thomas, Anton,...) and have her do roughly half the book next year and the rest senior year. (Multivariable calculus is covered in these textbooks.) If she happens to finish the calculus book early, she could then go on to linear algebra and/or differential equations.

  12. Aug 15, 2010 #11
    As some people have said before, taking multivariable calculus might be useful. It'll also help keep calculus fresh in her mind before college. She more than likely would still have to take in college though, so it wouldn't really push her ahead. It will keep her busy though, and she'd be learning useful things and be able to take multivariable in college with no problem.

    One thing that I love to emphasize is diversity of knowledge. It seems like you're taking a very directed approach with your daughter. Although she herself might not really want to take it, it could be because of the seeming "uselessness" of taking biology if she's going to become a physicist. But something that I always bring up is that a lot of the time, people don't really know what physics really is. There's a lot of sensationalism when it comes to the sciences and it's probably the worst with physics. I think that you should at least attempt to expose her to different things, just so she doesn't get narrow minded and forced into a field she doesn't end up liking. Now I realize that your physics PhD friend probably has explained things to you guys, but going by your daughters interest in astrophysics, specifically, I would venture to say that she still has at least a slightly skewed perception of what it is. And please, feel free to correct me on this. I'm sure it's possible for a 15 year old person to fully understand their prospective career choice in physics. I just don't see any real harm in taking some different classes. There is no real opportunity cost of taking them because there really isn't too much to gain from "getting ahead" beyond taking advanced math courses and things like that, which it seems you already plan on her taking.

    There isn't really any need to clep out of college algebra, because with a physics degree she won't need to even take that class. Unless it's required for her to get a diploma, in which case I would say it's not really necessary to take college algebra. If she's as strong in math as you say she is, she won't need it. College algebra, like a lot of early math classes teaches you a few processes to do math, but if your daughter can intuitively figure things out, she'll be able to figure out problems on her own. Now one thing I might want to mention though, is that being exposed to ways of doing math that you don't think of intuitively, while seemingly pointless, can actually help a lot. A lot of the time, different approaches can make math a lot simpler. Also, standardized tests often cater to certain ways of doing a problem, and if your daughter hasn't been exposed to those before, it could make things difficult. So there are pros and cons to taking it, with the main cons being her being bored and using up a space. If your daughter is confident enough in her abilities, you should let her not take the class and just test out of it.
  13. Aug 16, 2010 #12
    This is excellent advice, thank you. Although she has always enjoyed astronomy, I didn't hear about astrophysics as a career choice from my daughter until after she and her partner came in 6th in the nation at the middle school Science Olympiad national tournament in 2009, in an event about the physics of waves. I agree that she may not really understand what is entailed in astrophysics, so part of my motivation in being so directed in her science and math is to make sure that's what she really wants to do.

    We will do biology this year because diversity of knowledge is a good thing, and so is disciplining oneself to do something one doesn't really want to do, and to do it with a good attitude. And of course, science and math is not all we are doing. :)

    Thanks again! Hope you have a great week!

    Marliss Bombardier
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