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Self Study From Books

  1. Nov 16, 2009 #1
    What is the most effective way to learn physics material without the aid of a formal course?

    Trying to (only) read material really thoroughly and take notes takes a huge amount of concentration, and doesn't seem to have been very effective for me. I think it would be amazing to meet someone with the talent/ability to just absorb complete understanding from just reading a book. Can some of you guys do this?

    My latest idea is to just read the chapter, spend time thinking about subtleties when they seem critical, and then do all the difficult problems of the end chapter (although not all books have problems at the end heh).

    Also, when I eventually/hopefully get to graduate school, should I plan on doing these sort of "extraneous" studies or am I going to need to just focus all my efforts on marking off the check boxes and goals that are laid out for me? Doing a TA-ship and 9-12 hours (which is apparently the norm?) maybe won't leave time for anything at all, or maybe not.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 16, 2009 #2
    This is a very hard skill I think. I am currently doing this for 10+ hours a day, just reading graduate level maths books and spending about 20 minutes on each page, and it is a very slow and frustrating ordeal. The worst part is I know that I'd learn it 20x faster if I just had a conversation with someone who understood it, so I constantly have to get rid of the "why am I wasting so much time on this" thoughts. The textbook is more like a maths journal, theorem, proof, theorem, proof, and very little description, and when the literature is so dense it can be very hard to gain any confidence.

    If I ever met someone who could learn effectively from reading I would be amazed.

    My advice is just stick with it and your brain's resistance to knowledge will wear down after you cover the material enough, and think about what each sentence means, try to paraphrase equations to see if you can explain their behaviour in simple terms, and do not get into a rhythm of copying things down without examining them (I catch myself doing this so much).

    edit- also I find the Youtube videos of Feynman very inspiring, whenever I get really down about not understanding something I just watch his "monkey with two sticks" video and it helps me realise that even the brightest minds on the planet are the same. I think a lot of people in the world of academia pride themselves on intelligence, and so it is hard to find some "weakness" that you can relate to, for me it is a little alienating, but I watch Feynman and get on with it. He was a great scientist.
  4. Nov 16, 2009 #3
    I think the only way to learn is to take notes and write them in your own style. The make a summary. Then a summary of a summary. Get to know the concepts and connections. Leave it a week, and then look at your notes. If you don't understand the topic at first glance, then your notes are bad and you have to improve them.
    The point is: Don't just copy notes. Write them your own style and think about it. Try to think of a tactics of solving problem before you even see the problem.
    If you start the problem and your tactics is not complete enough to give the answer, then rethink you tactics.
    And problems are not meant for practice. They are meant so that you notice your own gaps in knowledge.

    I actually hardly ever solved problems. I looked at them and if I couldn't do them in my mind, then I put it away and sat over my notes again. Then I looked at the problem again.

    And any guys that claims that he understands complicating physics after just reading it, clearly has no clue. There are many people like this, who are excellent at quoting stuff from a book, but if you confront them with a non-standard question they fail.

    Maybe there are different learning styles, but from my point of view that's the possibly worst thing to do. Rather make sure that you know exactly how to deal with the basics and even more important: know exactly what isn't allowed to do!
    And if you start a problem and don't know how to proceed, you shouldn't even continue but get back to the notes. Otherwise you will only learn how to solve specific problems.

    For each university topic I have a like 50 page pdf full with equations and headlines. I thought a lot about structure. People think that takes a lot of time to prepare that, but effectively I spent much less time on learning. They had to read books over and over again and still weren't sure how to solve problems. They had to solve many problems, whereas I hardly did any. I went thoroughly through some selected books (that I chose from inspecting all of the library shelf briefly) and knew the topic once and for all.
  5. Nov 17, 2009 #4
    A very valuable resource would be to find those in your area that are also self-studying the material you are, and work through chouce material with them. You might self study the bulk of the material on your own, and bring problematic material to each other to discuss through it. I wonder if this type of resource is even available in another section of this very forum?
  6. Nov 18, 2009 #5
    This is just my opinion but from my experience so far it is difficult to do 'real physics' (using physical principles to solve a problem) without having a problem to solve.

    I personally felt I didn't solve a mathematical physics problem until after University and I needed to work out the energy stored in a gas cylinder. I then thought about it, and did the necessary maths. Unfortunately this required a different mind-set to that required at university, however I find it very difficult to explain how.

    From reading books I think you get an idea of what the theory is qualitatively (which is important so you know how to use it). And also an idea of the maths involved. However when you try to apply it to a problem you need to go over it in a lot more detail.

    I don't know what you're studying but my advice would be to come up with your own problem and then try and solve it. Don't be afraid to simplify your problem until it's soluble.
  7. Nov 20, 2009 #6
    my apologies to intrude in the conversation. I am still getting used to the forum's culture. I have my masters in mathematics and currently working full time as a software engineer.

    I am currently taking up physics as a hobby (I self studied it in the past but was too unfocused to really absorb all the material) Anyway, I wanted to know where to start. Should i start with general calc based physics or since I am a little bit versed in higher level mathematics should i start at the upper undergradulate physics? Like Classic physics?

    I have taken ordinary differential equations and have touched on PDE's in my complex analysis class. My focus in graduate school was Analysis, Abstract algebra, Topology and a little bit of Functional Analysis,. Any thoughts anyone?

    As for NickR I am currently attempting the same thing you are. I wish you best of luck. I think if you have the passion in your heart to do something you will do it. That's what driving my studies.
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2009
  8. Nov 23, 2009 #7
    Root, maybe classical mechanics would be a logical starting point. It seems like everything else in physics is centered around it either directly or indirectly, including modern physics from what I have seen of it.
  9. Nov 23, 2009 #8
    Thats exactly what I was thinking. Thank you for the advice.
  10. Nov 23, 2009 #9
  11. Nov 23, 2009 #10
    That is an awesome site and very specific to what my current goals are. Thank you Gerenuk. I am taking both you and Nick's advice but first going to freshen up with reviewing some math first. It's been a while since I delved deep.
  12. Nov 23, 2009 #11
    I would also recommend that site. I have it on my bookmark bar so I can open it any time I want.
    In addition to the specific lecture notes he has on the site, he has a link to another site with hundreds of courses from all different branches of science.
  13. Nov 24, 2009 #12
    I don't know about physics, but certainly it is true for math ( I would assume it is true for anything that is difficult and abstract) that having someone who is well versed in something to talk to is a huge advantage. As far as learning from books, I think that the most effective way is this:take a look at various areas related to the material you are doing and see if there is anything you are familiar with, if so, good, then you can try to think of the material in terms of that when you get stuck. Usually that helps. You also want to try to get multiple books and pick them carefully by looking at reviews from various sources. Try to find some that look too elementary and some that look too difficult. Use the simplified version in the elementary or naive treatment to help you understand the more accurate rigorous one.

    It really really helps to know where you are going and where the stuff is coming from if you want to get some intuition. See if any profs know of the seminal papers in the area you are looking at or if they know of an older book that isn't as formalized as the modern texts ( this I think may be more helpful in math than the sciences). Thats how I go about it.

    Really the only way to be effective enough to not feel like you are wasting time is to know a little about the subject and have some intuitive basis to help you think about what you are reading.
  14. Nov 24, 2009 #13
    Can you specify which link that is? I looked through quickly wasn't sure which one you were talking about. There are a lot of links on there. Thanks.
  15. Nov 24, 2009 #14
    Have you looked up videos in youtube on different areas in physics you wanna learn? You can find all sorts of videos of people teaching concepts. Its like sitting in a classroom but you get to rewind the teacher and skip parts that you already know.

    MIT has loads of online course material on physics too

    The only reason I attend lectures at all is to see where the class is I learn everything by myself using my own method which is to have the book I bought for the subject open, have wikipedia open, have google videos open, and have google open so I can search whatever concept it is I'm learning. I cross reference everything like that and I learn at about 5 times the pace the lectures go. I'm only in a first year course at the moment though the physics covered is dead simple.

    I recommend you get a method of cross referencing going though. Search to find sites that cover the same kinda material that the book your reading covers because different authors explain concepts differently and by reading over various explanations of a concept simultaneously it just clicks at one point. For lecture notes and ebooks I recommend the site
    for videos
    Lots of universities have youtube channels where they upload lectures like Berkeley for example
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2009
  16. Nov 24, 2009 #15
    Here is the link: http://www.theassayer.org/cgi-bin/asbrowsesubject.cgi?class=Q#freeclassQC

    On 'tHooft's site, the link is right below the section on string theory and says "there are many more lecture notes to be found on the web."

    To link to the notes, you click on the words "lecture notes."
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