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Should I stick with physics?

  1. Jul 24, 2009 #1
    So I'm going into my second year of college at the University of Neb @ Omaha. I'm majoring in Physics and Civil Engineering. Now I have always loved physics but there was something about the way they treated it in my classes up to this point that absolutely turned me off. I'm not sure if any one else finds learning about newtons laws for the 3rd time exciting or not. I disregarded my dislike for physics one because it was just an intro course I'd seen most of the bits and pieces to(and the prof sucked-more on him later). But, I hate physics II with a passion. I don't quite know why though. I don't know if its because I'm being given equations to solve problems instead of techniques or what. I've never been a fan of dealing with electricity but I'm never despised it this much.

    I've always had an interest in GR, SR, and QM but if the classes are going to be taught like physics I and II where you are just drowned in formulas and using them together to solve a problem I'm not sure I want to take the classes. I really know I should gut it out and see what its like for myself, but I'm worried about the math methods class I will take this fall. It is taught by the same professor from physics I. I can tell you right now that I will end up teaching myself the majority of that class and if its going to be much more stressful.

    Basically what I'm asking everyone that went through the physics major process, do you think the advanced classes were taught any different that the intro ones, or were they any more interesting to you? Physics major or not I'm still going to take Diff Geometry and probably complex analysis and tensor analysis just because they are math classes and I love math and need something else to take and those would help a bit to wrap my mind around GR atleast.
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  3. Jul 24, 2009 #2
    I'm confused; how else do you expect so solve physics problems, if not with formulas?

    What do you mean 'techniques' to solve problems?
  4. Jul 24, 2009 #3
    I have a 8.5x11 sheet of paper of just formulas for one test. 99% of the questions require no thought what so ever. Its all just plug and chug.
  5. Jul 24, 2009 #4


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    Yes, advanced physics goes considerably beyond plug and chug. Just like advanced mathematics. Sorry Univ of Neb hasn't gotten you there yet, but second year is pretty early. Take the math classes. If you are going to do GR, you'll need them.
  6. Jul 24, 2009 #5
    Yes it is fairly early especially considering last semester was my first as a physics major. I'd had physics classes previously before for civil engineering.
  7. Jul 24, 2009 #6


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    Well, then wait for more advanced physics courses to send you screaming for help. Enjoy plug and chug while you have that option. Use your spare time on the math courses.
  8. Jul 25, 2009 #7
    Don't you worry. Plug and chug will very quickly become a thing of the past.
    I find plug and chug trivial/boring myself, luckily I haven't seen it since first year. (in second year you do classical mechanics and such and people stop caring about a spefic number value). Furthermore, "formula's", in the sense you think of them, will be gone to. You will have to derive all your own mathematical expressions for the most part.
  9. Jul 25, 2009 #8
    Hmm, your introductory physics class is plug and chug? That is very strange indeed. I take it you're in a calculus-based class. The algebra-based stuff is generally pretty mindless, but if you're taking a class that has a title sounding like "physics for scientists and engineers," it should already be challenging. I'm starting my third year of grad school, and to this day I'd have to say that physics 1 was one of the hardest classes I ever took.

    Strange as that may seem, think about it for a moment: in advanced physics basically all you do is learn new mathematical methods to solve more general and complicated problems. Most of the actual science you learn, you learn in your first two years of undergrad. And I'm very surprised to hear that you've just plugging in numbers and getting results. In my physics 1 class at the University of Minnesota, we were required to solve some pretty challenging problems. Heck, even the intro physics course that I've TAed at my graduate institution poses a challenge to intelligent freshmen and sophomores.

    Maybe you're just really good at problem solving, and if so, then this is a skill that the rest of us would covet greatly. But advanced undergrad physics is quite a bit different than the introductory courses. The emphasis is less on learning general scientific principles, and more on specific phenomena and problems. For example, in advanced mechanics, instead of blocks on inclined planes, you learn how to deal with funny spinning tops, particles in electric and magnetic fields, collisions, Lagrangian mechanics, systems of springs, etc. In advanced E&M, you learn about EM waves interacting at boundaries, scattering, solving Laplace's Equation, and other such stuff.

    I don't know how appealing that sounds to you. Also, do keep in mind that real physics has nothing to do with blocks on inclined planes. I don't know a single physicist who spends any time doing mechanics problems. I, for example, spend most of my time thinking about how high energy particles interact in the atmosphere, acceleration mechanisms in the violent regions of the universe, and other cool stuff. Real physics requires you to know GR, QM, plasma physics, and all kinds of other things. But mechanics and E&M are still the foundation. Ultimately if you don't master the whole block on an incline thing, you won't be able to be a good research physicist. If you don't happen to like it, that's fine. But do make sure that you at least grasp the material.
  10. Jul 25, 2009 #9
    Generally any introduction course that uses something like Serway, Halliday and Resnick, Knight, etc. is going to be pretty plug and chug in my experience. It wasn't till second year E&M (the second E&M course, not the second part of first year physics course that covers E&M, the vector calculus one), for me, that I got a taste of real physics problem solving.
  11. Jul 25, 2009 #10
    Yes stick with physics if you want Distinctions in all your subjects and hence GPA equivalent to distinction!
  12. Jul 25, 2009 #11
    Do some serious thinking about your future career. Would you rather be a civil engineer or whatever physics students end up being. There aren't as many jobs in physics, and they don't pay that well. Do you want to be a teacher, financial type, or programmer? If so, then physics might be OK...

    I've always had an interest in GR, SR, and QM and taking advanced physics classes allowed me to learn how to solve some of the basic problems in these areas. But I didn't learn any more about the philosophical background and "physics ideas" than you might pick up by reading Brian Greene et.al. You don't need to go and dig up fossils to understand the idea of Darwinian evolution. And you don't need to learn how to solve partial differential equations to understand the basic ideas of Gr, SR, and QM. So your question boils down to do you want to do a *really hard* mathematical method course given by a bad teacher or (probably!) an easier mathematical methods course (as given to civil engineers).

    I'd take the civil engineering path, if I was in your position, and read Brian Greene to scratch the physics itch. (You could even become a teacher, finance type, or programmer with a civil engineering degree and a touch of insanity:-) But a civil friend of mine helped design and supervise the building of the channel tunnel ... Now that's a job worth having!)
  13. Jul 25, 2009 #12
    I've read his books already. I can't say I really cared for the last one. I liked the first the best(Elegant Universe). I know I would enjoy the Civil engineering path. At my current job in one of the university labs we test concrete designs the graduate students are working on. I can say I have a good understanding of how your friend feels. We almost broke a pre-cast bridge girder in half(only the reenforcement was holding it together) @ ~1.2 million pounds. People on the other side of the building felt that one. But on a more serious note, I think I would very much enjoy being a teacher or something along those lines.

    What else am I supposed to do for fun?:wink:
  14. Jul 27, 2009 #13
    I have the same question. In my university, we stopped using numbers after the first two weeks...and it was hard at times but usually a lot of fun.

    And if you want inspirational physics related reading, just read some of Feynman's books. I'm not talking about the lectures, I'm talking about the books. Actually you might like the lectures too.
  15. Jul 27, 2009 #14
    As someone who is currently in reasonably 'plug n chug' paper that uses Serway as the text, can you elaborate on what second year physics might be like? An example of the sorta question you might do?
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