Theoretical physics self-study curriculum

  • #1
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Hey there, my name's Travis, I'm a high school graduate and prospective theoretical physicist.

I started my post-school learning by looking into correspondence study and got hold of some material from a friend. However, despite the fact that I love calculus and physics, I completed the 1st year linear algebra and Mathematical modelling curriculums within the space of a month while barely going through a quarter, a third and a half of the calculus, electromagnetism and mechanics 1st year curriculums respectively.

Following this I looked into MIT's opencourseware (a fantastic initiative by the by) and started going through "An Introduction to Mechanics" by Kleppner and Kolenkow and I was shocked by how much more enjoyable I found it compared to Knight's "Physics for Scientists and Engineers."

I then started going through MIT's prescribed 1st semester calculus textbook, "Calculus Vol 1." by Apostol and found it somewhat imprecise, profligate with how's and parsimonious with why's and I didn't find it much more preferable than Stewart's "Calculus-early transcendental functions."

After that I remembered once googling a nerd version of "what's your dream team", in this case, "best textbooks on every subject", as opposed to best captain of the enterprise (which, in all honesty, I searched as well.) and in this search, (best textbooks, not spandex wearing captain) a fair few people recommended Calculus by Spivak.

I didn't quite like it at first but now I enjoy it more and more after every page.

And with this I have decided to self study and request feedback on the best topics to do and the best textbooks to use.

Any assistance would be much appreciated.

Yours in itchy spandex costumes, Travis.
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
Your attempts are appreciated and I suggest you to try your best in your self studying . I am also mostly a self studying person and am also an enthusiast about theoretical physics . I think you will find General Relativity as one of the most exciting theories of physics and as you have finished much of calculus and linear algebra I suggest you to start learn them deeply cause it will prove useful while you will be learning the branches of theoretical physics such as quantum mechanics , general relativity or string theory if you like .
 
  • #3
ZapperZ
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@Nerd-ho and @theoretical_p : What do you think is this thing called "theoretical physics"?

And many long-time PF members may know what's coming next, so I'm not giving you a trick question.

Zz.
 
  • #4
Well I may not be the best one to define it you can search Wikipedia instead.
 
  • #5
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The point of Zz's question is not that he doesn't understand what theoretical physics is - he does. He has a PhD and is an active physicist. The point is to find out what Nerd-ho thinks it is, in order to provide better advice.
 
  • #6
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Hi Travis, welcome to PF.
request feedback on the best topics to do and the best textbooks to use.
I'm not qualified to give you advice, but I can at least point you in the right direction. To get an idea of what is coming, you may wish to read this guide: So You Want To Be A Physicist - it will cover a good deal of questions that you may have at the moment (e.g. which subjects constitute physics foundations, and which books are well suited for it). I found it immensely helpful.

Of course, before investing money on any particular book, searching through textbook sub-forum may also help.

As you will soon discover, PF is a great community. Many members here are professional physicists who kindly volunteer their time to help people like us, so feel free to post any questions you may have.
 
  • #7
Then I will be very benefited by his advice because I am not a physicist but he (ZapperZ) is.
 
  • #8
Fra
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Hey there, my name's Travis, I'm a high school graduate and prospective theoretical physicist.

I started my post-school learning by looking into correspondence study and got hold of some material from a friend. However, despite the fact that I love calculus and physics, I completed the 1st year linear algebra and Mathematical modelling curriculums within the space of a month while barely going through a quarter, a third and a half of the calculus, electromagnetism and mechanics 1st year curriculums respectively.
...
And with this I have decided to self study and request feedback on the best topics to do and the best textbooks to use.

Any assistance would be much appreciated.

Yours in itchy spandex costumes, Travis.
I dont think the best approach is to have too strong preconceptions of what you want "to be" in a remote future.

If you are driven by your own curiosity and wish to increase your understanding of certain things, i would suggest focus on your present quests, working to solving them, that will guide you towards where to seek information. Once you make progress you will also automatically form new questions that guides you further. The more you learn and understand, you will also learn to find your own ways. So take one step at a time and enjoy it. Asking someone else to form your questions, is a sign of that you are thinking too far ahead.

As for the "typical books" for certain study programs looking in the course catalogue is a starter, but the question is what your objective is. Even for those that study physics there is a wide span of motivational factors.

/Fredrik
 
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  • #9
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@theoretical_p Thanks, I look forward to studying all of those topics

@ZapperZ I understand it to be the explanation of experimental results using mathematical models.

@Hypercube Thanks for the welcome! I actually found that website right after I posted the question, thanks. Also, thanks for the suggestion regarding the textbook sub-forum.

@Fra Apologies, my op wasn't clear enough. I'm not asking whether I should specialize in particle physics or string theory. I, myself, will obviously discover which topics especially interest me, I'm more looking at the requirements necessary to get to that point. Albeit that I've tried some basic experiments and enjoyed them, I'm more interested in the mathematical side of things, and although I thoroughly enjoy mathematical abstraction and proof writing, the idea of studying the phenomena of the universe excites me immensely, thus having the privilege of doing so is my objective.

I must confess that I have autism, and my responses to questions are quite often blunt. Please do not interpret this as a lack of appreciation.

I must also apologize to everyone in that I got over excited when I made the op. While I did not find a question on PF that I felt matched mine entirely; I did, subsequent to my op, find one elsewhere on the internet.

While I am enjoying Spivak's Calculus, I'm very uncertain about what math I should be doing and how "deep" I should be doing it. As such I'm rather delving into the physics and then studying the math as needed, a strategy that works better for me personally.

Remain physicists.
 
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  • #10
@theoretical_p Thanks, I look forward to studying all of those topics

@ZapperZ I understand it to be the explanation of experimental results using mathematical models.

@Hypercube Thanks for the welcome! I actually found that website right after I posted the question, thanks. Also, thanks for the suggestion regarding the textbook sub-forum.

@Fra Apologies, my op wasn't clear enough. I'm not asking whether I should specialize in particle physics or string theory. I, myself, will obviously discover which topics especially interest me, I'm more looking at the requirements necessary to get to that point. Albeit that I've tried some basic experiments and enjoyed them, I'm more interested in the mathematical side of things, and although I thoroughly enjoy mathematical abstraction and proof writing, the idea of studying the phenomena of the universe excites me immensely, thus having the privilege of doing so is my objective.

I must confess that I have autism, and my responses to questions are quite often blunt. Please do not interpret this as a lack of appreciation.

I must also apologize to everyone in that I got over excited when I made the op. While I did not find a question on PF that I felt matched mine entirely; I did, subsequent to my op, find one elsewhere on the internet.

While I am enjoying Spivak's Calculus, I'm very uncertain about what math I should be doing and how "deep" I should be doing it. As such I'm rather delving into the physics and then studying the math as needed, a strategy that works better for me personally.

Remain physicists.
For most theoretical physicists, math is a tool, and whether you learn all the proofs or you're just good at intuiting why something is true, it doesn't matter as long as it gets the job done. So feel free to learn proof based math, but you don't necessarily have to, to be good at physics. This is just personal opinion, but I think the reason why this empirically is true is because there are few places in theoretical physics where rigorous proofs are realistic. Often, the physicist comes up with some thought experiment argument, and a sketch of why it's true first, and mathematicians formalize it many years later (or decades later even).

MIT ocw is a great starting point, 8.01-8.02-8.03 material should occupy you plenty. Make sure you also get plenty of practice by actually solving problems/coming up with problems/thought experiments and solving them too, physics is not a spectator sport. Once you have learned some DiffEQ/linear algebra (18.03/18.06), you can then start 8.04/8.044.

If you are looking for just bite-sized articles for entertainment, I recommend the Feynman lectures. I say "entertainment" because these lectures I think are terrible at teaching physics for the first time because they are so disorganized. However, they are amazing at seeing how top-notch physicist intuit about various phenomenons.
 
  • #11
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@paralleltransport Thanks for the sage advice.

Perhaps Feynman is an aloof whisperer, I'm studying his lectures at the moment and I'm enjoying them immensely.

Regards, Travis.
 

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