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Self-teaching physics?

  1. Aug 13, 2010 #1
    This may not be the appropriate place for this post, but I am desperate for help.

    I am 13 years old an I will be a physicist. It's incredibly important that physics is prominant in my life and career. However, my school (or anywhere near) does not offer physics classes to my grade (8th).

    I would be so grateful if you could help me to further my understanding. To give you an idea of my very limited knowledge regarding the subject:

    I own, have read, and frequently reference Eintein's/Leopold's Evolution of Physics.

    I own a very old textbook, titled Conceptual Physics, which covers most of areas of physics in a chapter or 2, but at a very basic level (It's a highschool textbook). I have completed all excercises in this book.

    I own, have read, and completed all excercises in Physics for Dummies

    I own and have read: The Einstein Theory of Relativity by H.A. Lorentz, The New Physics and Its Evolution by Lucien Poincare, Optics of Liquid Crystal Displays by Pochi Ye/Claire Gu, Grand Unified Field THeory Solved via Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Quantum Theory:A Very Short Introduction by John Polkinghorne

    I have read all the books in my libraries narrow physics sections, as well as all those in chemistry.

    I own Stephen Hawking's A Stubbornly Persistant Illusion, but have trouble understanding some of the mathematics and concepts, for it is very technical.

    Please, help me to extend and deepen my knowledge! Suggest resources; books, videos, T.V. shows, anything.
    Perhaps a loose "curriculum" that I could follow, and where I should begin?

    Thank you so very much for anything you can do to help an aspiring physicist yearning for a deeper understanding!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 13, 2010 #2

    Math Is Hard

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    Welcome, Shea. I moved your thread to our Academic Guidance section.
  4. Aug 13, 2010 #3
    Well sorry for this "standard reply" but at 13 there really isn't "much you can do".

    All I can say is:
    Keep your grades high, do well in school etc. etc.

    But most importantly learn math! I cannot emphasize the importance, of mathematics, I mean really!In my experience:

    When I started high school (9th grade) I got involved in the physics olympiad and made in to the top 30 (In Turkey)
    Believe me I was lucky that I had an exceptional background in algebra and trigonometry. Most non-calc based physics relies on this. Of course I learned a lot of physics as well (More than a standard high school curriculum with AP physics B ) by the end of my first semester in 9th grade, but math is the basis.

    Try to get your math level to the level of the AMC 10 by the end of 8th grade. And try to improve onto AMC 12 by the end of 10. (This is a loose guideline based on my experience in math/physics contests.) Of course you probably won't need to be at that level to do physics (at least for now), but it builds a strong basis for future study.

    Also next year try to get involved in the National Physics Olympiad. Start slowly who knows maybe you'll make it to the IPHO? Anyways if you can, you can pick up calculus after 9/10 grade depending on your mathematical abilities. After that it just gets interesting...:D

    Try to do challenging physics problems, wherever you can find them( the internet has loads!), if your physics is good math will be your only obstacle...

    Also aask me whatever you want I went through all that+ I'm just entering university in (guess what) physics! So I have a good amount of knowledge on this (all based on my experience though so take it with a grain of salt).
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2010
  5. Aug 14, 2010 #4


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    well,i think maybe you don't have to get involved in the NPO. And if you want to be a physicist, it is very important to keep your interesting in physics.good luck!
  6. Aug 14, 2010 #5
    What does AMC10 and AMC12 refer to?
  7. Aug 14, 2010 #6
    Well you don't but It wouldn't hurt...

    American Math Competition 10 and 12
  8. Aug 14, 2010 #7
    I'd go over some basic calculus concepts like finding derivatives and integrals. It seems to me that at age 13 your math skills will be ill-suited to an appreciably in-depth study of physics. No offense, but you probably didn't glean as much from the books you read as you could have with an understanding of the mathematics involved (exception: the introductory physics textbook).

    If I were you, I'd find a book like Stewart's essential calculus, and complete chapters 1, 2, and 4 (that is, limits, derivatives, and integrals). You won't need to complete the trig-based calculus in those chapters, but it would be a good idea for you to understand basic trigonometry. That would give you enough mathematical basis to pursue a calculus-based physics book with some rigor. Don't balk at studying calculus so early. The concepts I outlined are really not difficult to understand. Derivatives are just slope, and integrals are just areas under curves, and limits just tell you how a function behaves near a certain point.

    I would also go to the Khan Academy (a simple google search will show you the way). Sal's videos are very explanatory and would act as a great supplement to the calculus and physics.

    And hey, good luck. If you find yourself getting burnt out, put the books down. The only reason I'm suggesting this is because you seem to love physics very much. It is completely and wholly unnecessary for you to study these concepts at this stage. Do so at your own leisure, and more importantly at your own pleasure.
  9. Aug 14, 2010 #8
    Try the biography section of your library as well. If you read biographies of physicists like Einstein, Dyson and Feynman you will see how they became physicists, and you can model yourself on them.

    And don't forget the mathematics section! I became a bit stuck on trigonometry at school, but went to the library and found a book that unstuck me. Do the same. If you don't get stuck (!) then try reading more advanced stuff based on what you are doing at school, or historical stuff to broaden your interest.

    Don't forget biology and philosophy sections either. Philosophers like Bertrand Russell, and biologists like Richard Dawkins, have written some really good books about science in general.
  10. Aug 14, 2010 #9
    I use this website a lot: http://www.khanacademy.org/
    Its extremely useful for keeping up with my math skills. There's also series that cover most the concepts taught in college level physics, biology and chemistry. Its all free and high quality.
  11. Aug 14, 2010 #10
    I know of a website you will absolutly love. it's one i've gone through myself and I must say it's Extremly thourough [and i started going through it at your age as well].
    You can download all sorts of free lectures from MIT and lots of problem sets and assignments. And as iratern and angry citizen said, the math is crucial. you should have a really solid grasp on single-variable calculus before you get started with most of the lectures on that site. And if you are as intelligent and determined as you sound like you are, that shouldn't be too difficult for you.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  12. Aug 18, 2010 #11
    Thank you so much!
    I always knew that math was vital, but I never knew where to focus my study or where to begin.
    It's difficult to find textbooks though, we can't afford a lot of the books I would like to get, and the library has nothing. I have one textbook Algebra and Trigonometry with Analytic Geometry which is for the 10th grade. Could this book be any help to me? If so, what should I be looking for?
  13. Aug 18, 2010 #12
    You can get a lot of free ebooks as text books for the more advanced math try googling free ebooks calculus or free ebooks linear algebra, ect. There are more than I expected to find.
  14. Aug 18, 2010 #13
    Also a lot of times the library can order a book from another library
  15. Aug 18, 2010 #14
    It could, yes. Use it to prepare for calculus if you are looking to follow the plan I laid out for you. Try to focus on the trigonometry and vectors, but make sure you have a grounded knowledge of functions and rational expressions beforehand.
  16. Aug 18, 2010 #15
    You are reading the wrong books. Since you are only 13, try this


    If you can do the problems on Newtonian Mech and E&M on that course, immediately stop doing Physics and work on your Calculus or just begin pre-calculus (you are 13...).

    Don't even do the thermo, waves/optics, and fluid mech on that page.
  17. Aug 18, 2010 #16
    Actually instead of doing calculus based physics I would recommend physics problems that use basic math (algebra trig) but need creativity and ingenuity to solve. I know of few sources on the web, but I'll try to give you a list when I have the time to.

    I think that it's too early to go into pre-calc, a really strong bases in basic math would be much better (algebra algebra algebra... trig and geometry too).

    But first like gretun said try to get to the level of AP physics B.

    Oh btw when you encounter a hard problem don't give up keep on it! When I first started physics at the olympiad level I was stumped but I kept on it and eventually it worked out.

    Also try to search around for gifted programs, they may come in handy. If all goes well hopefully you will be able to have an exceptional physics background by the end of high school, and I mean exceptional! I have friends who were able to do Griffiths intro to electordynamics by their junior year in high school (I know people who started in their sophomore!), so keep working on it and remember maths maths maths!

    P.S( I am assuming you are an exceptional student who is gifted, based on your background)
    I will try to find some resources that are reasonable for you...
  18. Aug 18, 2010 #17
    While everyone is quite right in encouraging the study of math and such I think you'd also do well to study a little critical thinking/logic and philosophy. The thing about just studying math and physics is you will only be learning about one theory, and while that theory is defiantly the most well founded and proven, you'll hopefully end up being a graduate student someday and suddenly there won't be just one theory. Instead you'll have to weigh the evidence for one against the other, and design experiments with results that will either validate or disprove the theory (or, if you're lucky, disprove all possible theories).

    Understanding exactly how a piece of evidence supports or contradicts are certain theory or argument is what logic/critical thinking is all about. Don't let the subject name full you either, this is not an easy course. It's similar to math, but math is logic only applied to numbers, where as logic can be applied to any concept. Many courses literally make things algebraic too where they ask, "if thing A implies thing B, does thing B always imply thing A?".

    I also suggest some general philosophy because philosophy is all about deciding between two different theories. Also it's good practice, if you can wrap your head around some of the crazy concepts in metaphysics, the concepts discussed in normal physics will probably come more easily to you. And the best part about these fields is they're are not based in high level mathematics, which means you could probably start studying them right now without too much or a problem (though this stuff would have confounded me when I was your age, but you sound pretty dang smart).

    Anyways, good place for topics like this: itunesU (actually you can find A LOT of free academic material there). I've been listening to a few lectures to a logic course taught at Oxford that have seemed good (yes they have lectures from Oxford totally free, it's awesome)
  19. Aug 18, 2010 #18
    Also read biographies with a grain of salt and get different points of view. The problem with biographies is that sometimes they will put things in and leave things out, and sometimes different people will view things in different ways.

    The other thing that I very strongly encourage you to do is not to be fixated on "great physicists." You aren't Einstein, and if you try to model your career as if you were Einstein, you may find big problems. Personally, I prefer to model myself after people I know personally.

    On the other hand, be aware that just because someone is brilliant in one field, doesn't mean that they aren't totally incompetent in another.
  20. Aug 19, 2010 #19
    Listen to two-fish. A lot of people gloss over the fact that you can't be a genius (usually) by doing exactly what other geniuses have done.

    I'm gonna suggest something different than what everyone else has. I'm a physics major now, but when I was younger (younger than you, about 10 years old0 I started messing around with programming. My dad and uncle were both software engineers, so I took an interest (though they were no damn help let me tell you..) since most boys want to be like their male role models. Anyway, in a year or two, I was writing pretty decent code in basic languages. I think at 13, you're atleast old enough to be able to learn some more difficult languages (I started to learn object-oriented parts of languages when I was 14 or so). You should try it, it's a lot of fun. I had lots of fun with it and I always had an interest in the logic and math that went along with it. You're lucky to have found physics so early, I only really found it in junior year of high school. However, a few have said that you may not be able to get as much out of physics based on your math skills.

    If programming doesn't excite you very much, then I guess you don't really have to. You might not see the connection between that and math yet, so it might bore you. It didn't bore me, and I found it interesting and it was like a mental playground for me. It may be the same for you, so atleast try it out. It gives you a different perspective on problem solving and I think it helps you develop good skills in that area generally. It will definitely help you out in later years since it's a pretty impressive skill for a kid your age (plus a few more years) to have.

    Keep in mind that if you decide to instead learn more about physics and math, you may reach a limit. It's probably because you haven't aged enough that your brain simply hasn't been wired up to understand certain concepts. I never could really wrap my head around OO programming till about 15 or so. Same with some math concepts when I used to try and learn them. I think that might happen a lot if you try to learn more advanced physics or maths. You might get frustrated, but just know that it's not your fault and you're not stupid or anything it's just a biological sort of thing. Some people's brains don't grow as quickly, it has no effect over how intelligent you will be.

    Your passion is admirable for a person your age. Good luck to you, and remember that you don't have to do these things. As one of the other posters said, keep it pleasurable for you, otherwise you might end up hating it and never going back to it, which would be a real shame.
  21. Aug 19, 2010 #20
    I'd recommend you go into http://www.arxiv.org/ and http://adswww.harvard.edu/. You probably won't understand 80% of the papers there, but you can find a few that you can, and that will give you some idea of what "real science" is like.

    The other thing that I would recommend is to go to a university library, and find some old journal articles from a long time ago (say the 1920's), and then read up on how people figured out things. Something else that will help a lot is if you learn how to use a computer and build machines (say learn to build robots).
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  22. Aug 19, 2010 #21
    that's really good advice (I tried that too and my dad does have a B.S in computer science, but no help from him...), but I tried to early when I was 10/11, just didn't happen, and now I get tired reading code on a screen. But I did learn I nice bit of html ":D

    But you have a really good point... But the main point is to do what you like and not burn out...

    I like this thread because so much of the stuff is general enough for any young student, even freshmen like me...
  23. Aug 19, 2010 #22


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    Ah, lucky you, my school didn't offer any physics class until 11th grade (and even that one was kind of a joke).

    Remember that you are very far ahead of the "curve" already.
  24. Nov 6, 2010 #23
    No one mentioned reading Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics, Vol 1-3
    available at Amazon dot com. Also can find them in pdf format on the net.
    He explains physics in a way that is different than anyone else.

    I concur that broadening your education to be well rounded in Philosohy, Literature
    and the Arts will make you a better thinker at anything you decide to do.

    Computer programming is for technicians, not theoretical Physicists.
    Can't hurt to learn a few languages like C+, but that is it.
    Fascinating problems need brilliant and well rounded minds to solve them.
    [ like what is the real nature of light ?, what comes next after the Higgs Boson ? ]

    Good luck
    You are lucky to have found such fertile ground to occupy your life

    Ahhhh and don't forget about girls.
    That is one subject you will never figure out .....hahaha
  25. Nov 6, 2010 #24

    Math Is Hard

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    I believe the OP is a young lady.
  26. Nov 6, 2010 #25


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    So girls (and women) can understand themselves? Darn, I was hoping there was some sort of fundamental uncertainty principle involved there :biggrin:
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