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Retired writer & physics fan, hope to overcome math block

  1. Dec 11, 2016 #1
    Hi - I'm a writer/editor/writing coach/teacher, now retired - alas, more due to disability rather than age. My speciality when I was working was various sorts of non-fiction. I particularly enjoyed coaching professionals writing their first books, on various topics in business, the non-profit world, law, history, and psychology.

    Now as for physics: I've been interested in it since high school, but was always daunted by the math; I was much handier with words than with calculations, and although I did OK in high school algebra, I found it rather dull & seemingly pointless. Strangely enough, though, I enjoyed my high school physics class very much; and over the years I've read a lot of popular books on physics or about personalities in physics.

    More recently - maybe a couple of years ago - purely by chance I picked up a new hobby: designing, building, & modifying amplifiers for electric guitars. So naturally I'd like to learn more electronics - yet rather than read only electronics textbooks, I'm thinking it may be more fun, and might also provide a better foundation, if I start more toward the beginning & learn concepts such as motion, force, work, and energy as they first appear in classical mechanics. That would give me a better foundation for studying these same concepts when they appear in electromagnetism.

    How do I plan on learning? I'm unfortunately about 5 years shy of being able to get a discount in undergrad classes at a nearby state college; so I'm going to have to rely on books, maybe one or the other of Ben Crowell's books for example. Math will be the same: I have a bunch of math books meant to catch adults up to material they may have missed, and I will be relying on those. I've found I learn best when I take things slowly & try to pull apart a topic to find what it is I'm not understanding, then recast it in my own terms; then pull it apart again. I'm definitely a slow thinker & slow learner, but when it's going well I enjoy the process.

    Right now I'm trying to settle on how to coordinate my math & physics learning, so eventually I'll be putting together a question on that to post in the appropriate forum. I'll also do a search to see if others have asked similar questions in the past. Anyway, that's who I am & why I joined - thanks for reading this.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 11, 2016 #2
    Welcome! I am new as well.

    I sort of see math as a means to an end; it's daunting on its own, but if it can help me understand something I'm interested in (e.g., physics, computer graphics, etc.), then it becomes my best friend. Finding a satisfying answer to most things in physics, for me at least, requires going beyond the conceptual explanations found in the mass market books. It sounds like you might be in the same boat. If you can look at the math as means to that end, then you may find it easier to learn. That's how it worked for me, anyway.
  4. Dec 12, 2016 #3
    Yes, I agree w/ your thinking here. And in fact having had a few days to mull things over, I have decided to adopt a similar strategy for my own physics/math learning - similar, and if anything, even more targeted to my interests.

    Some backstory may help here. Maybe 6 or 7 years ago, out of personal interest I began studying a highly technical model within behaviorism known as "relational frame theory", or RFT; it proposes a very unusual way of analyzing language as it relates to behavior. And to understand RFT, you have to first understand an equally technical topic known as operant behavior, first developed in depth by B.F. Skinner. All of this is very strange stuff & intimidating to a layperson. I was lucky enough to be in communication with researchers in RFT, so that gave me a head start; but it was still tough going. I assembled most of the existing books & papers and went through them. At first I was stumped on how to proceed when so much was opaque to me; but I eventually realized the best way was to build a mindmap contrasting "common sense" views of language with RFT views; this highlighted the differences I needed to focus on. I also added any questions I had to the map; and typically, it was the most naive, seemingly trivial questions that in fact proved to be the richest veins of inquiry. I eventually developed a pretty good understanding of RFT, much better than anyone could have if they hadn't put in as much focused study as I did.

    So I will probably do something similar w/ learning a combination of classical mechanics; selected topics I am especially interested in within electronics/electromagnetism; and the math needed to support a non-calc approach to these same topics. I will again use a mind map to keep track of all this stuff; my actual course material will come from textbooks I already own or can easily obtain. This ad hoc approach will keep my interest up & make it more fun, while slowly building some fundamentals. It wouldn't be adequate for a conventional student enrolled in a conventional program who wants to become well-rounded in all aspects of physics; but it ought to work pretty well for me & my particular interests, especially given that I have had success w/ this approach previously.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2016
  5. Dec 12, 2016 #4


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    Welcome to PF!
  6. Dec 12, 2016 #5
    One thing that you might really enjoy studying is Special Relativity. The basics of it can be derived with just algebra. It gets a little hairy when talking about distances between points spacetime (Minkowski space), but there is a book by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw called Why Does E=mc2 (And Why Should We Care?) that explains it pretty well, I think, without requiring too much math. It's fun to read about different thought experiments, like the Barn Paradox, and then actually perform the Lorentz transformation (again, just algebra) and see for yourself that it works.
  7. Dec 12, 2016 #6
    I just want to give the complete opposite advice, which you are welcome to ignore, which is to learn to love math a bit more for it's own sake.

    I hate terms like "pre-algebra" and "pre-calculus" or pre-anything because they imply that the goal is just to get to some other kind of math. It took a long time for mathematicians to come up with stuff that we consider basic, like conic sections, the quadratic formula, or even just the idea of an equation.

    Your background in the humanities can actually be leveraged here. It's not something that you need to entirely dispense with from your past now that you are going down this new road. Mathematics is in itself quite beautiful and has a colorful and exciting history. Read something like "https://www.amazon.com/Zero-Biography-Dangerous-Charles-Seife/dp/0140296476 (or just about anything else Amazon recommends when you click on it.) I just watched the new movie "The Man who Knew Infinity" about Ramanujan, which had a legitimate math adviser on hand! I have a billion other recommendations. (for small values of one billion (math joke)).

    Befriend mathematics, and physics will start asking to come over and play. :)

    -Dave K
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  8. Dec 12, 2016 #7
    I do read quite a few of those books, and have for awhile.

    As for what is beautiful or interesting in math, so far I still find that most of the time nothing much appeals (at least not yet), but every now & then something really stands out, i.e. the unit circle I find delightful for its own sake. I also like some of the early physics experiments and the math related to them, e.g. Galileo's experiment w/ the slanted boards.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  9. Dec 12, 2016 #8
    Thanks. Do you know why this thread was moved to a new forum? I had been careful to write my intro post so as "not to ask questions" since we are told not to; but then fpsulli3 commented & I responded to his comment; however, I still wasn't asking a question, so I don't quite get why the thread couldn't have stayed where it was? And could it possibly be moved back again without breaking any rules? I know there is a slot at the bottom of our profile where we are allowed to add some description about ourselves; but that seems like it would need to be kept short whereas with my intro post I could stretch out a bit.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2016
  10. Dec 12, 2016 #9


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    Staff: Mentor

    I didn't move it, but I'd guess it's because it evolved beyond a simple introduction. No worries. You can continue your discussion here.
  11. Dec 13, 2016 #10
    I use these books, they are good *especially the exercises*:
    what is mathematics? R. Courant.
    Schaums outlines of logic.
    Book of proof. free link here: http://www.people.vcu.edu/~rhammack/BookOfProof/
    How to prove it.
    How to study for a mathematics degree (lol). lara alcock
    How to think about analysis. lara alcock.
    Schaums outline of computer architecture.
    A level physics book.
    A level maths, mechanics modules books.
    Introduction to mathematical philosophy, Bertrand Russell.
    Elias zakons lecture notes. they are free and can be found here: http://www.trillia.com/products.html
    Discrete mathematics normal L biggs.
    Logic for dummies. Mark Z.
  12. Dec 13, 2016 #11
    Cool list. I wish I had known about the Lara Alcock books when I was in undergrad.

    "How to Prove it" was a really fun book for me. I used it to prepare for my first "Bridge to Abstract Mathematics" type course, because everyone told me this would be a difficult transition. I know a lot of math people who begrudge these types of courses but I found both the book and the course (which used a different book) very enjoyable.

    -Dave K
  13. Dec 13, 2016 #12
    thanks..means a lot coming from a real mathematician! :D
  14. Dec 13, 2016 #13
    Oh gosh, thanks for the confidence but I am afraid I do not qualify as that. I am about to finish up a master's. A glance at the topology forum will reveal my inefficiencies. :)
  15. Dec 13, 2016 #14


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    Staff: Mentor

    Yes, I moved it because it grew beyond a simple New Member Intro thread, as Drakkith says. :smile:
  16. Dec 13, 2016 #15
    Yes, I see it now. it is a rather elementary problem, im surprised one has trouble with it at all. :oldbiggrin: (joking)

    edit: in all seriousness I do not know if one can even be REASONABLY good at all areas in MATHS :eek: it is about specialisation i think. The problem you posted is an absolute monster to me, as in, I hope I can one day understand it to some extent heh.
  17. Dec 14, 2016 #16
    Here are partial lists of books I've acquired along the way -not that I am doing them ALL right now, but they are what I have built up as my library for present & future -

    Math background:
    "A Mind for Numbers" - Oakley - good survey of study strategies
    "Mathematics: A Short Introduction" - Gowers - helpful for coming to grips with abstraction
    "How to Bake Pi" - Cheng - ditto, though not as pithy as Gowers
    "Mathematics From the Birth of Numbers" - Gullberg - reference for historical info
    "How to Study as a Mathematics Major" - Alcock - not sure I'll keep it, too advanced for me right now

    Math texts:
    "Functions and Graphs" - Gelfand, Glagoleva, Shnoi - I've used this already, very helpful
    "Maths for Mums and Dads," and "More Maths for Mums and Dads" - Eastaway & Askew - helpful refresher
    "Algebra" - Gelfand, Shen - just starting now
    "Trigonometry" - Gelfand, Shen - to come
    and a few more I won't bother listing here.

    Physics & also electronics:
    "Simple Nature" - Crowell - though I may opt for his non-calc text, "Light and Matter"
    "Galileo's Finger" - Atkins
    "Practical Electronics for Inventors", 3rd ed. - Scherz, Monk
    and again I have left some out here, e.g. unlikely I'll use "University Physics" since Crowell is more accessible.

    Of course buying books is easy. Working through them, harder. BTW for math texts, I find the large, overstuffed books put out by Pearson etc. to be fairly bad; I prefer pithy & witty books that get good reviews. One of Fenyman's tape-recorder essays was about how he once was asked to review textbooks & how appalled he was by both the process & the books.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2016
  18. Dec 14, 2016 #17

    I want to quadruple recommend this book, and the online course that it was written for (or that the course was designed around) "Learning How to Learn" It should not be dismissed as a typical "make sure you heave breakfast before a test" type study strategies book. There are some really good discussions on how our brain works when we study stuff with a "high cognitive load" such as math and science.

    -Dave K
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