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Courses Ugh How different is introductory physics from high level courses?

  1. Oct 25, 2011 #1
    At this point I feel like my classical mechanics I course is an engineering course. While I do enjoy physics, I am much more interested in the theory behind it.. I find myself easily engulfed in calculus but when it comes to physics it is harder to motivate myself. I love proofs and mathematics, and physics is what actually got me started in appreciating mathematics itself.

    But at this point I completely hate the way that physics goes on to portray its concepts. I feel like a lot of things are left in obscurity. Its too much of a "hey lets use this, this, and this math formula and try our hardest to conceptualize the problem." I'm an aspiring physics PhD holder, but at this point classical mechanics I is really turning me off. Also keep in mind that I took physics in high school, so that may also affect my level of interest toward classical mechanics I.

    I say this especially because I have a midterm soon. I always find myself with the urge to open my calculus book and doing extra problems instead of opening up my physics book. That is certainly not good since I'm planning to pursue theoretical physics.. -_- :frown:

    How different is introductory physics to some of the higher level physics courses that you take later on? Will it be more theory or will problem-solving be stressed over theory for a while?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 26, 2011 #2
  4. Oct 26, 2011 #3
    If you need some quick physics inspiration (not exactly what you asked for but seems kind of relevant) see if you can borrow a copy of The Feynman Lectures, he has a unique way of viewing physics and his explanations are artful.
  5. Oct 26, 2011 #4


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    I also found classical mechanics to be extremely boring, and I was not alone.
    Don't worry, it will get better and more interesting later.
  6. Oct 26, 2011 #5
    He also came out with a new book after his retirement, seems interesting:


    Thank you, I'll look into it. I read one of his books "six easy pieces" about a year ago, it was amazing.

    Will it also be more theory based or forever intertwined with solving real life problems? I'm guessing it gets more theory based as you approach graduate school?
  7. Oct 26, 2011 #6
    It does get more theory based. However, from my experience they don't diverge from enforcing applications to the concepts. Initial courses do appear more to be "plug and chug" types of problems, because essentially these courses are not designed from merely Physics majors. They are usually designed for students in a diverse range of colleges.
  8. Oct 26, 2011 #7
    Thank you. ^.^ It just bothers me that physics in my class is taught only as a tool to solve for relatively rudimentary problems. I feel like my professor strips physics of all its beauty. His lectures consists of doing examples in the book and telling us what formulas to use when. I completely despise it. I also have him for calculus too.. I'm definitely avoiding him next semester.
  9. Oct 26, 2011 #8
    Hi Nano-Passion,

    I am halfway through my third year of a 4 year physics degree at the University of Waterloo. I am quite different from you, as academia doesn't really interest me. but I do have an experience that you can take into account. My physics courses for first semester third year were very mathematically intensive, and very theory based, and I only see it trending in that direction. I was much more drawn to my initial courses as the subject matter was more tangible.
  10. Oct 26, 2011 #9
    Yeah. Professors can really make or break the class. For example, when I initially came to university, I had no aspirations to major in physics. It was the professor of my first physics class that really lit a flame under my cheeks, and got me motivated and interested in a subject (finally).
  11. Oct 26, 2011 #10
    Well I guess one's bad news is another's good news. Thanks for the info. What kind of problems do you have to solve?

    Same here, I didn't like anything until my senior year of high school when I took physics. The teacher was amazing and obviously had a passion for his subject. He really brought me in physics! I later figured out its the math aspect that I really like of physics. You can say I'm also seduced by the mysteries of physics and the problems that are yet to be solved. =D I love both.

    Before my physics professor I was just another follower of society. Yesterday I read my goal in life from highschool that I wrote for college.. "I want to be a successful doctor and have a happy family." Oh boy, I've changed so much since then. I have a love for knowledge and wisdom. I no longer plan to base my life around attaining a 9-5 job and money.
  12. Oct 26, 2011 #11
    The simple answer is : VERY DIFFERENT. I see the introductory physics courses to be more about problem-solving than anything else. Upper level stuff is way more interesting and even the "applied" courses, like Electronics, have a good amount of theory. Don't give up now, take a couple of upper level courses like Quantum, E&M, Relativity, etc, and you'll see what you want. Upper level Classical Mechanics is also very theoretical, specially if you go deep into Hamiltonian and Lagrangian dynamics. Problem solving is there for sure but let's just say you won't see numbers as in your intro courses....
  13. Oct 26, 2011 #12
    Thank you, that was uplifting. What do you mean that you won't see numbers as your intro course? Do you mean there are less numbers and more symbols? Whats the big difference exactly?
  14. Oct 27, 2011 #13
    Well I can tell you the courses I've taken up to this point. Calc 1 through 3, lin alg 1, class mech 1 and 2, math phys 1, quantum 1 and 2, EM 1, optics, thermodynamics, programming, plus my first year physics courses.

    The three courses that I took most recently were class mech 2, quantum 2, and math phys 1. Math phys and quantum overlapped in a handful of differential equations. We solved the hydrogen atom in spherical coordinates, whatever that means... For math phys we did legendre polynomials, bessel functions, fourier series, and a few other topics. In class mech we covered gravitation, rotational kinematics (tensors involved), briefly special relativity, coupled oscillations and I'm probably forgetting something. and in quantum we covered formalism, schrodingers equation, the hydrogen atom, and perturbation theory.
  15. Oct 27, 2011 #14
    We all had bad classes but what is stopping you from just self studying higher level physics on your own? Especially if you're doing well in that class. If you claim to have such a love for "knowledge and wisdom" then why are you complaining about the class and wasting time from learning what you really want?

    I get very annoyed by this kinda stuff because my high school was trash so I had to self study like crazy to make sure I wouldn't fail my first year in college. My high school had more people that either became rappers, gang members, or drug addicts than went to college.

    You have an incredible opportunity while in college to learn something, even if it is on your own, take it or leave it. I went to an incredible undergrad school, but guess what? I still had some garbage professors. I could have easily complained, as most did, but I didn't. Instead I just took it into my own hands. Make sure your grade is good then move onto to something that interests you.

    If you only knew what some people went through to get into college... I promise you, you would never complain again.
  16. Oct 27, 2011 #15
    Thing is I don't know where to start. If I were to spend my time on self-study I would put it toward mathematics because I like it more at the moment.

    And in response to "learn what you really want." I feel like I don't have time for that. If I have extra time I use all of it doing extra problems in calculus. I feel like its a good investment of my time. This is because, like you, I didn't get much out of high school at all. I don't blame it on my teachers, rather, it was because of my disinterest in knowledge in general; which has changed since. By doing all the extra and harder problems in calculus I feel like I am catching up on my mathematical maturity.

    But who knows, maybe its terribly inefficient of my time; if you have other ideas please share!

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I'm very curious though on how the style of the problems differ from that of classical mechanics I. The most mathematical excitement you might get out of classical mechanics one is basic linear algebraic substitution (in my opinion).
  17. Oct 27, 2011 #16
    I really agree with this. You don't even have to study higher-level physics, though. You can just read through and work a lot of problems in your physics text.

    Earlier in the thread you said that you liked physics in high school. How is this class any different? I know that your teacher may suck, but that doesn't change the actual content.

    I wouldn't necessarily call being able to solve some tough problems in Calculus I as having mathematical maturity. I have always heard the term used to refer to comfort with proofs and abstraction. If you just enjoy trying to solve these problems, then that's fine, but I would refer to it as "getting good at calculus."

    It's never a bad idea to pick up a programming language or two, because it will really benefit you in the future. If you're really forward looking in your math, perhaps pick up a text on mathematical proof techniques.

    Yeah, there's a lot of linear algebra in more advanced mechanics, but - in addition to what dacruick mentioned - you will also explore the calculus of variations and Lagrange multipliers. You get a couple of formalisms in classical mechanics that are pretty cool and really show you that classical mechanics is pretty elegant. Also, you'll likely study non-linear dynamics and chaos, which are awesome topics, and still developing fields of mathematics. So, don't be so quick to dismiss classical mechanics. There's plenty of excitement to come, you just need to be patient!
  18. Oct 28, 2011 #17
    Thing is though, I'm for some reason more inclined to work extra problems in calculus.

    I'm still trying to pinpoint the psychology of it all; I always try to single out a couple unconscious reasons influence my paradigms toward things such as physics. I believe one of the reasons is that its basically the third time I'm being introduced to the concepts. Once in physics, once in a intro to physical science course because I was itching for a science course at the moment, and then another time now in College physics.

    Oops, I should choose my words more carefully. To reword it, doing a lot of calculus problems makes me feel that I am getting better at math. The reason for that is I realize that the only hard part of calculus is the algebraic manipulation part. Furthermore, you use pretty much the same skills for Calculus I to Multivariable Calculus and Differential Equations. If I am mistaken please direct me towards the right path!

    I try to prove everything I come across in calculus, but I don't think that is enough so I'll heed your advice. Do you have a couple recommendation? I find proofs to be the most fun part of mathematics so I'm looking forward to it. ^.^

    Haha, yeah.. I told a previous professor of mine that classical mechanics doesn't have enough theory he replied "Are you kidding me!!"

    To be honest I don't really know the terms you mentioned but they sound neat. Someone passed on a free online version of a linear algebra book, I looked through it and it was pretty cool. I always love how math starts with very simple things such as "algebraic substitution" and builds up into more complex and powerful concepts!
  19. Oct 28, 2011 #18
    Just as in other disciplines, concepts become abstracted the further you go into them. As a senior undergrad I can tell you that the classes get more interesting both mathematically and physically. The range of topics one tackles become more broad and the techniques become more rigorous (or at least they can). The reason for this is that the mathematical level one is at during upper level courses is (expected to be) greater than what you had in your first years. Mechanics wasn't very interesting to me until I picked up a copy of goldsteins classical mechanics. Like it's been said before don't put off physic just yet.
  20. Oct 28, 2011 #19


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    Be careful not to confuse "Physics I" with a course on Classical Mechanics. As others have mentioned, they are different. Here's an example from my course catalog:

    The following is the sophomore/junior-level physics course on classical mechanics:

    As you can see, even though the Physics I course covers some of the same material, it is not at the depth of the classical mechanics course itself. This probably lends to the more "plug-n-chug" nature of the introductory course to which you're referring.
  21. Oct 29, 2011 #20
    Yeah, seeing essentially the same material treated three times can be extremely boring, especially if you understood it the first time. That being said, the mathematical arguments for why we use the equations we do should be more interesting (and convincing) than what you have had before. Either way, hopefully when you take your next course, it will be more interesting to you.

    I would say that solving a lot of problems in calculus makes you better at solving problems in calculus and a better problem solver. But a lot of folks finish up a calculus sequence and can't say what limits (and the special limits of derivatives and integrals) really are. Sometimes these type classes focus too much on rote calculation, and students lose track of the more theoretical parts of calculus.

    I'm not sure I agree with this. Integration (calculus II) is, in my opinion, a completely different beast than differentiation. I could probably find the derivative of almost any function. There is a well defined set of rules for differentiation, and I think it is usually pretty clear which rules to apply. This is not so with integrals. You may try many different approaches, and none of them work. In my opinion, solving integrals improves your problem-solving skills much more than differentiation.

    Going through the calculus proofs is a great step in the right direction for moving into proof-based math. I worked through https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Writing-Proving-Mathematics-Undergraduate/dp/0387008349" for some proof books - they are usually very affordable.

    I will forewarn you that physicists aren't always the most meticulous people when it comes to proving things. In my experience, unless the professors felt that the proof was just as important as the result in understanding how something applies to physics, they would usually point us to a reference text for proofs. In general, physicists want to use the results. I find that very satisfying, but not everyone does. I just don't want you to think that when you're using math in your physics classes you will be going through a bunch of proofs.

    Haha. Yeah, you'll get there.

    I agree. Linear algebra is what made me really like mathematics. I found the concepts to be reasonably simple, but it is still a nice course to get your hands dirty with some real proofs.

    Yes, this is an important distinction to make.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
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