Should I start with a basic physics book without calculus?

  • #1
Hi, I want to start learning physics as I have never studied it in my life but have now taken an interest towards it. I have quite literally zero knowledge on physics, so assume I haven’t taken middle school or high school courses on physics, as I haven’t. I’m 17 currently, but that shouldn’t matter.

My mathematical knowledge is okay, about a high school level. I have been studying the art of problem solving text books, I am at pre-calculus to calculus area of mathematical knowledge.

How would I go about learning physics by self teaching if I have never studied it in my life? Ive read a lot of people suggest calculus physics books to beginners wanting to learn physics on the forums here. But is this intended for people who already understand the basic overview of physics, I.e those who have learned basic physics in high school and already understand the overall concepts and ideas of physics?

I’m unsure that if I was to learning physics by delving into an advanced calculus based physics book which focuses on the minutiaue of calculus and the fine details of physics. That’s I wouldnt have the big picture or a broad understanding of what I am learning if I started with a calculus book like “university physics" which is on calculus and focuses on a first year of university physics.

However I might be mistaken, maybe it does teach the very fundamentals and gives a broad understanding while also teaching calculus based physics.

I was potentially thinking that I start with a book intended for someone with, most likely, zero knowledge of any physics like, "Basic Physics: A Self-Teaching Guide", "For the love of physics", or "Physics for Dummies" etc. Then once I have read through it and understand the fundamentals of physics and overall concepts, maybe then should I start reading and studying calculus based physics books?

I am not sure of what is the optimal approach for someone in my case would be if they wanted to learn physics from the ground up, quite literally from zero knowledge, but with at least some mathematical knowledge.

Thanks.
 
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  • #2
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I would start with a book on classical mechanics followed by electrodynamics and see, whether your math knowledge is sufficient or not. The higher you climb in physics, the higher you will have to climb in mathematics. You can find free pdf / books on OpenStax which at least can help you to determine where you currently stand, and maybe serve as a reference to look up subjects. Also many definitions and terms can be found on Wikipedia, which will provide you with short explanations what they are about, so you won't get stuck. If it'll happen despite of it, don't hesitate to come over and post your questions here - at the beginning presumably in our homework section. Just make sure to use our (automatically inserted) template, and especially section 3 (own effort); and yes, "no idea" isn't sufficient here. A short description of your thoughts so far, however, will mostly do.

Furthermore, you can find a list of possibly interesting articles about self-study here: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/self-teaching-gcse-and-a-level-maths.933639/#post-5896947
 
  • #3
I would start with a book on classical mechanics followed by electrodynamics and see, whether your math knowledge is sufficient or not. The higher you climb in physics, the higher you will have to climb in mathematics. You can find free pdf / books on OpenStax which at least can help you to determine where you currently stand, and maybe serve as a reference to look up subjects. Also many definitions and terms can be found on Wikipedia, which will provide you with short explanations what they are about, so you won't get stuck. If it'll happen despite of it, don't hesitate to come over and post your questions here - at the beginning presumably in our homework section. Just make sure to use our (automatically inserted) template, and especially section 3 (own effort); and yes, "no idea" isn't sufficient here. A short description of your thoughts so far, however, will mostly do.

Furthermore, you can find a list of possibly interesting articles about self-study here: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/self-teaching-gcse-and-a-level-maths.933639/#post-5896947
Thanks for the reply. So do you think a classical mechanics book would give me a general overview and understanding of physics?

Thhe openstax physics books appear to be university and college level. Would this not be too advanced for me? Someone who hasn’t even done middle school or high school physics?
I think the books would assume I posses basic knowledge which I do not have from say middle or high school.

Thanks.
 
  • #4
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Thanks for the reply. So do you think a classical mechanics book would give me a general overview and understanding of physics?
Sorry, in this case I misunderstood you as you said "study physics". Classical mechanics (and electrodynamics) covers almost all which we encounter in our daily live. Of course it does not cover physics as a whole. I thought you would like to start studying physics, in which case these are the standard starting points. For an overview about the field, you probably won't need mathematics at all. But that can only provide you some more or less good common knowledge rather than actual insights.
The openstax physics books appear to be university and college level. Would this not be too advanced for me? Someone who hasn’t even done middle school or high school physics?
I think the books would assume I posses basic knowledge which I do not have from say middle or high school.

Thanks.
I have had a look on the books, and I think they are more an in-between than good college books. My impression was, that they try to solve the problem: How to close the gap between countrywide very different levels of school education to the basics we need to start a study? At least the pre-calculus book starts there.

I do not like the label "too advanced" very much. In my experience there is a "too lazy" or a "too busy" or a "too much to catch up in a given time", but rarely a "too advanced". Sure, one does not start with general relativity without studying various areas before, which again themselves might require various preparations. But this comes down to the question of what can be achieved in which amount of time rather than to the category "too difficult". However, this is a measure only you can apply: "Where to get from where to where in which given time?"

That's why I cited the OpenStax books. They offer you a cheap way to find out what lies ahead of you, resp. behind you.

In case you want to get to a common knowledge level, I'm probably the wrong person to ask, as I don't know those books in English.
 
  • #5
Sorry, in this case I misunderstood you as you said "study physics". Classical mechanics (and electrodynamics) covers almost all which we encounter in our daily live. Of course it does not cover physics as a whole. I thought you would like to start studying physics, in which case these are the standard starting points. For an overview about the field, you probably won't need mathematics at all. But that can only provide you some more or less good common knowledge rather than actual insights.

Well what I really meant was having a broad understanding of what I am going to be studying/learning and maybe have some rudimentary knowledge that might be expected to be known in a calculus physics book or classical mechaincs that a highschool physics student would already know. Before I would start studying physics like classical mechanics.

Or do you think I don’t need to learn any prerequisite physics knowledge before starting I studying classical mechanics?
 
  • #6
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Or do you think I don’t need to learn any prerequisite physics knowledge before starting I studying classical mechanics?
I think this is the prerequisite in a way. It introduces you in the way physicists think and reason, which is more important than content at the beginning. The difficulty might lie in the way it is presented. You can write ##F=m\cdot a## as ##\vec{F}=m\cdot \vec{a}\; , \;\vec{F}(t)=m \cdot \ddot{\vec{x}}(t)## and even more mystically. In this sense the safe answer will be: you need at least some foundations in differentiability, integration, and linear algebra. Large parts of physics investigate things in motion, i.e. even all of physics, if motion is understood as the change between two states. And motion is described by the change of location in time, which is a differential equation of vectors.

Therefore:

##F=m\cdot a## is basic school, because we have a constant acceleration here.
##\vec{F}=m\cdot \vec{a}## is high school, because force as well as acceleration have a direction, they are vectors.
##\vec{F}(t)=m \cdot \ddot{\vec{x}}(t)## is college, because the acceleration doesn't have to be a constant one anymore.
And here are the even more fancy ways of notation, because at university, forces become a vector filed and acceleration multi-dimensional.

For each step to understand you will need to have different levels of prerequisites: from simple algebra under highly simplified conditions to differential geometry for the overall view on it.
 
  • #7
I think this is the prerequisite in a way. It introduces you in the way physicists think and reason, which is more important than content at the beginning. The difficulty might lie in the way it is presented. You can write ##F=m\cdot a## as ##\vec{F}=m\cdot \vec{a}\; , \;\vec{F}(t)=m \cdot \ddot{\vec{x}}(t)## and even more mystically. In this sense the safe answer will be: you need at least some foundations in differentiability, integration, and linear algebra. Large parts of physics investigate things in motion, i.e. even all of physics, if motion is understood as the change between two states. And motion is described by the change of location in time, which is a differential equation of vectors.

Therefore:

##F=m\cdot a## is basic school, because we have a constant acceleration here.
##\vec{F}=m\cdot \vec{a}## is high school, because force as well as acceleration have a direction, they are vectors.
##\vec{F}(t)=m \cdot \ddot{\vec{x}}(t)## is college, because the acceleration doesn't have to be a constant one anymore.
And here are the even more fancy ways of notation, because at university, forces become a vector filed and acceleration multi-dimensional.

For each step to understand you will need to have different levels of prerequisites: from simple algebra under highly simplified conditions to differential geometry for the overall view on it.
Okay so mathematics is the only pre-requisite for studying classical mechanics really?
 
  • #8
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Okay so mathematics is the only pre-requisite for studying classical mechanics really?
Physics is written in "mathematcian", so this is true for the entire field. It only becomes more sophisticated the more sophisticated physics get. A good example is relativity theory. To understand special relativity, school math is probably sufficient. To understand general relativity, then there is more math required. That was my first suggestion: start and see what you need. You can learn them in parallel. However, some basics should be known: what is a differential and what a vector, resp. how can they be manipulated. If you want to take no risk, start to learn calculus and linear algebra, which are quite different in the way of thinking. Physics, as e.g. classical mechanics will be a third way. These differences are usually the real difficulties at the start.

I had a look at the first book of physics on OpenStax: https://openstax.org/details/books/college-physics
It doesn't appear too advanced and should give you a good first step.
 
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  • #9
Physics is written in "mathematcian", so this is true for the entire field. It only becomes more sophisticated the more sophisticated physics get. A good example is relativity theory. To understand special relativity, school math is probably sufficient. To understand general relativity, then there is more math required. That was my first suggestion: start and see what you need. You can learn them in parallel. However, some basics should be known: what is a differential and what a vector, resp. how can they be manipulated. If you want to take no risk, start to learn calculus and linear algebra, which are quite different in the way of thinking. Physics, as e.g. classical mechanics will be a third way. These differences are usually the real difficulties at the start.

I had a look at the first book of physics on OpenStax: https://openstax.org/details/books/college-physics
It doesn't appear too advanced and should give you a good first step.
Okay thank you! So do you think I should start with college physics as it uses mathematics which I have learned. Then later, once I have learned calculus and linear algebra should I then read the university 3 volumes of openstax physics?
 
  • #10
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Okay thank you! So do you think I should start with college physics as it uses mathematics which I have learned. Then later, once I have learned calculus and linear algebra should I then read the university 3 volumes of openstax physics?
I think more important is your interest than your agenda. If you are curious enough, you can learn everything. Those books are for free, so you can switch them at any time you want, resp. get better books. They are not the optimum, but better than to waste money on expensive books and then quit. Plus, they can help you to see where your interest and where your deficits are. Try and find out - and return if they don't match your expectations for a better advice.
 
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  • #11
I think more important is your interest than your agenda. If you are curious enough, you can learn everything. Those books are for free, so you can switch them at any time you want, resp. get better books. They are not the optimum, but better than to waste money on expensive books and then quit. Plus, they can help you to see where your interest and where your deficits are. Try and find out - and return if they don't match your expectations for a better advice.
Should I use this book maybe? https://www.amazon.com/dp/1118230612/?tag=pfamazon01-20
 
  • #12
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I'm not sure. My knowledge of English books about physics is limited. I have books I could recommend in my own language, so I'm of no help here. Maybe others know better (have a bit patience and give them a chance to see this thread). I wouldn't call 50 pounds cheap, but the content lists looks as a nice overview. However, I wouldn't call its reading "study" either, but that's hard to tell from a single list.

Edit: If the title "Physics - College" frightened you, then there are two things to mention. Firstly, you can look into it online and for free. Read 20-30 pages and judge on your own. Secondly, as your amazon link was British, I suppose you're a European. Let me quote my American nephew here: "What Americans know when they come from high school cannot be compared to what Europeans know at the end of school. What's taught in the first two years of American college is included in European school education." As he knows both systems I have to take his word, although the "all" quantifiers in this statement are certainly debatable.
 
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  • #13
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I'm not sure. My knowledge of English books about physics is limited. I have books I could recommend in my own language, so I'm of no help here. Maybe others know better (have a bit patience and give them a chance to see this thread). I wouldn't call 50 pounds cheap, but the content lists looks as a nice overview. However, I wouldn't call its reading "study" either, but that's hard to tell from a single list.

Edit: If the title "Physics - College" frightened you, then there are two things to mention. Firstly, you can look into it online and for free. Read 20-30 pages and judge on your own. Secondly, as your amazon link was British, I suppose you're a European. Let me quote my American nephew here: "What Americans know when they come from high school cannot be compared to what Europeans know at the end of school. What's taught in the first two years of American college is included in European school education." As he knows both systems I have to take his word, although the "all" quantifiers in this statement are certainly debatable.

I have heard similar statements about the American education system. Would like some opinions of users here to confirm/deny this.
 
  • #15
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If a general overview is of interest before starting the standard topics of mechanics, electrodynamics, etc. in detail then a good starting place is the first volume of Feynman's lectures. However, these could also serve as a good companion to the standard topics as I bet you will find him more interesting than standard textbooks. Reading them first and then re-reading them again as a companion to standard texts would also be good.
 
  • #16
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I've read a lot of people suggest calculus physics books to beginners wanting to learn physics on the forums here. But is this intended for people who already understand the basic overview of physics, I.e those who have learned basic physics in high school and already understand the overall concepts and ideas of physics?
No, introductory physics books don't assume that you've had previous exposure to physics. Calculus-based books, however, assume that you're familiar with basic concepts from calculus.

The Openstax books are a decent place to start, but you might keep in mind the adage "you get what you pay for." The main thing going for them is that they're free, not that they present the material better than other books. So if you find them hard to follow, you might consider looking for a different book. To keep costs down, consider older editions of popular textbooks.
 
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  • #17
No, introductory physics books don't assume that you've had previous exposure to physics. Calculus-based books, however, assume that you're familiar with basic concepts from calculus.

The Openstax books are a decent place to start, but you might keep in mind the adage "you get what you pay for." The main thing going for them is that they're free, not that they present the material better than other books. So if you find them hard to follow, you might consider looking for a different book. To keep costs down, consider older editions of popular textbooks.
Thanks for the reply. So calculus based physics books, at least introductory ones, don’t assume prior exposure to physics? In that case, would you recommend that I read "Fundamentals of physics extended" by David Halliday? https://www.amazon.com/dp/1118230612/?tag=pfamazon01-20

I would then think this book wouldn’t assume much prior physics if any physics knowledge?

However, If it did assume any basic prior knowledge like that of middle school or high school, would reading this book give me the sufficient pre-requisite knowledge other than the mathematics? https://www.amazon.com/dp/0471134473/?tag=pfamazon01-20

Thanks.
 
  • #19
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That book assumes no previous knowledge of physics, but it does use some calculus. It doesn't require extensive knowledge of problem-solving techniques in calculus, that a proper calculus course would teach. It uses calculus mainly for conceptual purposes and to simplify derivations of key equations. At many colleges and universities in the US, students take this course alongside a calculus course.
 
  • #20
I would start by strengthening your maths skills because it will serve you better when trying to understand concepts in Physics. Most undergraduates take Calculus courses in their Physics degrees so they can learn how to solve and manipulate equations in Physics. Download the Khan Academy app https://www.khanacademy.org/ This is a great tool for practising and learning Maths. All of the online videos are on youtube too. The lessons are engaging as and they are not too long either. So you can easily learn most of what you need to be capable of to do Fundamental Physics. This app also has lessons on History, Chemistry, Finance, Biology, Physics and many other subjects.

The University Physics book is great but it is expensive. However, it goes through each concept in a way that is easy to understand plus it provides plenty of examples and problems for you to challenge yourself and test your understanding. Like some of the other posts have mentioned try and start with classical mechanics first as it is the fundamental basis of what you then go on to understand. Personally what I don't like about this book is that it is also massive. Great to use at home at a desk maybe. I like to read on the bus/train so if I prefer to read paperbacks. Additionally, I watch lectures and lessons on my iphone when I am travelling.

There are loads of lectures and lessons on youtube for you to check out. Just search "classical mechanics lectures" on youtube and you will find university lectures and lessons. The lectures by Walter Lewin are fantastic because he is a brilliant teacher with amazing passion for engaging interest in Physics. Leonard Susskind from Standford University has a series of books called the theoretical minimum which are a great read but I would say the Maths is potentially challenging if you are inexperienced.

These are some examples of resources out there for learning Maths and Physics. Try and balance your learning by watching lessons, listening to lectures online, reading books as well as trying to solve problems independently.
 
  • #21
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I will strongly suggest that the OP pick up a standard, General Physics textbooks that are used in colleges. Halliday and Resnick is a tried and true book that have been used by generations. There are many others, including a number that are designed for General Physics courses without calculus. But even the ones with calculus, the usage of it can be ignored for this purpose, because most of these books often have a lot of "stories" to tell about the physics. Halliday and Resnick, for example, have grown tremendously in size (and thickness) since I first encountered it in 1980 (before many of you were even born!). These physics textbooks have been read, tested, corrected, modified, and changed over the y ears to not only make them better, but also to make them more relevant with the way we teach the subject.

The problem I have with "videos" and "online lessons" is that many of them have not gone through the rigors of usage, corrections, and modifications. They are conveying a topic to teach someone, and unless a group of experts have closely looked and evaluate them, one can't tell if the material is correct, or accurate. Often, many of the errors are subtle, but they are still errors. Khan academy videos have been mentioned on here, and elsewhere throughout this forum. I know a lot of people use them, and depend on them. I never recommend them, not because I don't think they are useful, but because I haven't gone through many of the videos to know if they are presenting the material accurately. Unfortunately, the one time where I was asked to look at a video by them, I was a bit surprised at some of the things they got wrong. I wrote about the inaccuracies of their video on the photoelectric effect a few months ago after one of my students asked about it, and I decided to check it out.

This is not meant to put them down. I'm simply giving some evidence to support why I would rather recommend tried-and-tested college textbooks than anything else out there. I appreciate that these books may not be cheap, but if one wants to start with a general overview of basic physics, this is what many of us have used.

Zz.
 
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  • #22
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I appreciate that these books may not be cheap,

OTOH, you don't need the latest, greatest edition. A quick search for "Halliday Resnick" shows many used copies less than ten years old for 3 to 25 $US.
 
  • #23
I have looked at the first pages of questions in the book of fundamental physics. It seems that even at the start of the book there are things I still don’t know and questions I can’t answer. It asks questions of physics things I don’t know, like moles of atoms and protons, electrons etc. I think I will need to start with a much more basic physics book to begin with?
 
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