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Where do I start?

  1. Jul 13, 2007 #1
    Hi there, I'm new to these forums, and to start things off I would like to ask a few questions.

    I'm currently attempting to become a NASA physicist, and I know that takes a lot of work. However, my high school doesn't have a physics program (I know, it's extremely abnormal). I talked to a few trusted friends who think that it would be best for me to study independently through books and whatnot.

    Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure where I should start. I have a very tenuous grasp on the Physics I've read about, but I make up for it by being very proficient in Calculus (luckily our Math Department is a bit better-funded). So, I'd like to start from the beginning, wherever that is.

    My question is this: What basic, but serious, underlying concepts should I focus on learning before moving on to more advanced Physics topics?

    Any books you can recommend would be wonderful. Like I said, I already have a background in Calculus (and, therefore, algebra), so I'm not afraid of most equations. The problem I usually have is the books I find at the library usually require a background in a more basic aspect of Physics, and the formulas and equations don't make sense.

    So... what is the bottom of the Physics Pyramid? What should I learn first?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 13, 2007 #2
    You should check with your school and see if they give credit (and hopefully will pay for) a community college physics course. It's kind of ridiculous that a school wouldn't have a physics program at all. Without HS physics, you would have to take an algebra based physics as a prerequisite for calculus based physics once you got to college. With a CC course you would get to skip this needless waste of time (or at least take care of it during HS).
  4. Jul 13, 2007 #3
    I would do just that if there were any colleges in the area. And our "physics course" is somewhat integrated into our Algebra II course, and gives us just enough of a once-over on these topics to be counted as an extra credit for the course. Like I said, weird. But, where did you get started? What topics did you learn first?
  5. Jul 13, 2007 #4
    i would be more specific and tell what u already know, because you said you learned al little in algebra...how much?
  6. Jul 13, 2007 #5


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    Can you point to an example of a (U.S.) college or university that has that requirement? The ones that I know (a limited number, admittedly) don't. They do of course require that you have taken (or are concurrently taking) calculus.

    I do agree that for many people, it's probably a good idea to take some kind of physics course beforehand, so that they're not starting completely from scratch.
  7. Jul 13, 2007 #6
    I learned the basic formulas of Newton, how to calculate distance, rate, and time... really stupid stuff, but the school board got it cleared so that it counts as our Physics class. We're drastically underfunded ever since the school board voted themselves the ability to vote themselves raises.

    The stuff I've learned myself is mostly conceptual. I know quite a bit about Einstein's Relativity and the bending of space time, time dilation... along with a tenuous grasp of string theory, superpartners, quantum physics, and atomic theory. However, this is all just the conceptual ideas of each topic. No formulas, no equations... I don't know much beyond what each one says. It would be a lie to say you know addition because you know it's the combination of two or more numbers, but when faced with even a simple addition problem, you're helpless. That's the way I feel right now.

    Oh, one more thing. I also picked up a little bit of calc-based physics knowledge from my Calculus teacher. He taught us all how we could use derivatives and integrals to calculate position, velocity, and acceleration. My chemistry teacher offered to teach me calc-based thermodynamics and electrochemistry, but she got laid off and now I'm stuck with a know-nothing biology teacher teaching us watered-down chemistry.

    I'm mostly just looking for books to read to teach myself. Luckily, I'm pretty sure I can beat this thing even though the odds are against me. I've tried changing how things are at my school, but nobody's willing to take a stand. So, I'd just rather just start learning on my own.
  8. Jul 13, 2007 #7


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    You should be aware that in the end, you will probably still want to get a degree or a diploma or something.

    The first thing you should do, IMO, is set out a program for yourself. As you said you want to become a NASA physicist, your focus will likely be on applied physics and engineering. Maybe check out a few university programs, study their structure: they is (presumably) some logic behind it. Then look around for good books (this forum can help you a lot in picking them). Watch out you don't do too much at a time: though it may seem appealing to do all those wonderful and exciting subjects at the same time, you won't learn them any better (the opposite, in fact). Also, watch out for dependencies (e.g.: if you want to do Lagrangian mechanics, you should have done a thorough course in differentiation and preferably classical mechanics)

    Still, I think finding a college in the neighborhood would be a good option, as learning physics is also partly about sharing ideas with your fellow students and discussing problems with professionals. Though, of course, if you choose not to, we'll try to help you as much as we can.
  9. Jul 13, 2007 #8


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    I'd suggest getting a [well-known] college physics textbook and start reading the chapters and working through the problems. (If you get stuck, you can ask your question at PF.)

    I suggest using a "well-known" text in case you go to a college or university that uses that book or something comparable to it. In addition, you might benefit from finding worked solutions online to check your own work.

    If price is an issue, look for a used book or an older edition of a textbook.

    Some standard college textbooks include: Serway, Halliday-Resnick, etc...

    If you want something newer in style and spirit, you might try something like
    http://www.physics.pomona.edu/sixideas/ .
  10. Jul 13, 2007 #9
    I would like to see pre-reqs for your school's calc-based physics if you could post them. I had assumed most colleges require a previous physics, be it in high school or in college, in the form of algebra-based physics.
  11. Jul 13, 2007 #10
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  12. Jul 13, 2007 #11


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    For the introductory courses I have taught [or been a TA for] at different universities, there has never been a physics prerequisite... with exception of taking Physics I or its equivalent before Physics II. In fact, I prefer it if my students had not had any high schoool physics. Some bad habits they may have picked up [like plugging in all of the givens at the beginning] are hard to break.

    In my opinion [and in my experience during high school], the Feynman Lectures was great leisure reading.... in the sense that if you didn't fully understand a chapter the first few times, it was okay... just keep at it.

    However, I think one has to really work on doing lots of problems... which the Feynman Lectures didn't offer.... [unless you got a hold of the Problem Books].
  13. Jul 16, 2007 #12
    As pointed out... NOT true.

    All college-level calculus-based courses that I know of have a "corequisite" of (meaning you must be registered for or have completed) the similar calculus course... for instance, to register for Calculus-based Physics I (Mechanics and waves, sometimes with a little thermo), a student must be co-registered with Calculus I (single variable calculus with differentiation).

    To register for Calculus-based Physics II (Electricity and magnetism, sometimes with some optics), a student must have received credit for Physics I, and Calculus II (single variable calculus with integration) is a "corequisite".

    I have experience with some private schools, some public, in at least four different states. No university I was affliated with as a student or instructor required an algebra-based course as a prerequisite to their calculus-based course. If you are interested in a particular university: the university catalogs or student handbooks contain this course information and universities often make a pdf of the most recent editions available online.
  14. Jul 16, 2007 #13


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    This is NOT stupid stuff!!! This is important because it is lays the foundation for what you will learn later on.

    I say this because when I was a freshman at university (now I'm an all grown up junior:biggrin:) there was this physics major in my class who hated studying Newtonian Physics. He spent all of his time reading popular science books on String Theory, Relativity, etc. This isn't bad, but he never studied and never learned the fundamentals. He failed the course. He was eventually asked to leave the physics department and get a new major. I think there were other problems (getting high), but you see my point. If you don't know the basics well, you won't be able to do the more advanced stuff.

    So it's not stupid! Don't take it for granted! Good luck to you in the future. I hope you make it to NASA!
  15. Jul 16, 2007 #14

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    Maybe you could look at some of the MIT Open Courseware materials:
    They have videos lectures on physics posted for free.

    This professor looks like he would be a hoot!
    http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Physics/8-01Physics-IFall1999/CourseHome/index.htm [Broken]
    http://ocw.mit.edu/NR/rdonlyres/Global/3/3E89EB1F-9914-42C1-BC6A-7CB78519B5AE/0/chp_lewin_11.jpg [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  16. Jul 17, 2007 #15
    And yet I posted the requirements for my college which clearly state that high school physics or a lower algebra based physics is a pre-req. All I asked was to see an example where such a pre-req is not enforced.
  17. Jul 17, 2007 #16
    my school (Umass amherst) also does not enforece such a pre-req, I actually am curious as to what school you go to, as I have never heard of such a thing.
  18. Jul 17, 2007 #17


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    start anywhere, just start.
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