A good idea?

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CrackTheSky
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A good idea?

Postby CrackTheSky » Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:02 pm UTC

Hello, I'm new here. You all seem like intelligent people who could possibly give me some good life advice based on your own experiences, so I figure here would be a good place to ask for some.

In order to understand my question, it will help to know a little background about me (forgive me if this gets a bit lengthy; I do tend to write a lot). I am currently a sophomore in college, my intended major is physics (though *technically* I'm still undeclared, but I've more or less made the decision, that 'more-or-less' being the reason for this thread, as you'll see). The thing is, though, before this year of school I had never taken any physics classes, nor had I taken any math classes since my senior year of high school (and the most advanced math class I took - pre-calc - I took my junior year).

So, as you can imagine, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed right now. I'm in my college's Calculus I course, and I thoroughly enjoy it - my grade doesn't reflect it but I understand most of the material and over the past few years I've come to the conclusion that I really love math. There's an elegant beauty to it that I really just adore, and learning it is something I truly enjoy.

However, I didn't decide this until rather recently, and last year I went into college intending to major in psychology. After taking a few psych courses, however, I realized that continuing down that road would probably drive me crazy - I tend to think in very black-and-white terms, and psychology, being nothing but shades of gray, became very frustrating to learn.

So I turned to mathematics and physics, and I hope to one day become as astronomer as what I'm really interested in is space and all the cool stuff up there. However, it has been my curse - forever, it seems - that the things I'm interested in are rarely the things I'm good at, and I NEVER seem to be good at the things that interest me. I'm doing very poorly in my introductory - yes, introductory - physics course right now, and I seem unable to grasp what should be relatively simple concepts such as gravitation and kinetic/potential energy.

I attribute some of this to not being completely focused all the time, but I do spend a decent amount of my time working on problems and studying the material, and the majority of the material seems to be over my head.

I tend to give up when things get this way, but I honestly cannot think of another area that I would even want to consider making my major. You could say I think like a right-brained person. Well, I guess that's not *entirely* true, because I usually can only see things in terms of black-and-white, which would probably be considered a more left-brained attribute. All my life I've pursued right-brained activities like the arts and writing, a lot of times because of personal influences, just as many because I used to enjoy them. Recently, though, the only things that I care enough about to want to study further are left-brain oriented. It's very, very, very frustrating.

So my question to you is this. Since I know a good majority of you majored/are majoring in physics, or at least took enough physics/math classes to know your stuff, in your opinion would it be wise for me to continue studying physics and math and see where it takes me? Or, given how I describe myself, do you see it as a potential waste of time and money? I know someone'll probably be likely to say something along the lines of, "If you're interested enough, you'll care enough to work at it and succeeed", which I certainly wouldn't disagree with. It's just, given that basically my whole life up to about a year or two ago I focused in so much on more abstract, less structured thinking, that it may be very hard to get out of that rut.

I don't plan on making any stupid decisions based on what anyone here says, I just want a little outside perspective on the situation because Lord knows I've spent countless hours rolling this around in my head, and I wanna hear someone else's opinion.

Thanks for your time!

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Re: A good idea?

Postby MFHodge » Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:09 pm UTC

Have you had trouble in science classes with multiple professors? It is possible that you are the victim of a poor teacher if you are having trouble with basic classes. When I was taking mechanical engineering courses, I would sometimes find a course incredibly hard and drop it, and then find it quite easy with a differnet professor.

Also, "introductory" doesn't always mean "easy". I found that frequently the intro classes went very quickly over a lot of topics and that the more in-depth classes were much easier to learn from.
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Re: A good idea?

Postby Mathmagic » Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:15 pm UTC

I'm going to say this right now: If you're not prepared to do *a lot* of math, and you're not able to grasp basic calculus or kinematics concepts, it is only going to get harder down the road. Physics gets far more abstract and complicated as you go on, and the fundamental concepts (such as calculus and basic force/energy laws) are the basis behind everything you'll do in physics.

I realize you enjoy math and physics, but it sounds like you may enjoy it more as a hobby interest than as an education or career objective.

Have you considered trying out Pure Math? From what I hear, Pure Math is a lot more about "the beauty" behind mathematical concepts, whereas Physics and other areas of Applied Math is about applying practical uses to these concepts.
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Re: A good idea?

Postby Mad_Gouki » Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:19 pm UTC

Don't we all come to confusion over what our major will be in college? My first one was Mechanical Engineering, and now it is Computer Science. There are a few things to consider here. If you really want to do Physics, will it be alright if you fail a few courses? If having to spend extra time or failing a course is not acceptable (due to parents beating you with an iron skillet, or because of financial aid requirements) you should consider what major will get you through college. If you are hell bent on doing Physics, you should not give up on it.

I personally have no set job that I want to do when I get out of college (aside from ninja/assasin, working for the cia, developing weapons for DARPA, starting a revolution, stuff like that, which I all intend to do... one of these days). I have some ideas of what I would like to do, and maybe all of my confusion over my major comes from my desire to get into game design and production. There are only a few schools offering game design, and my grades were bad in high school, so I decided to go into engineering to get the background for level design. Now I am in computer science, with the hopes of learning programming so I can get a job making video games some day. I should probably stop beating around the bush and just try to get into a game design school, but I don't have the money.

Ask yourself what you REALLY want to do, what your dream is in life. My brother knows a guy that went to digipen for 3d arts and movie special effects, and that guy now works at Bungie. You should do what you will really enjoy, because trying to get into something your heart is not in will leave you wishing you had gone for your dream. That is really the only suggestion I can make, as I am in the same shoes you are.

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Re: A good idea?

Postby CrackTheSky » Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:27 pm UTC

VTHodge wrote:Have you had trouble in science classes with multiple professors? It is possible that you are the victim of a poor teacher if you are having trouble with basic classes. When I was taking mechanical engineering courses, I would sometimes find a course incredibly hard and drop it, and then find it quite easy with a differnet professor.

Also, "introductory" doesn't always mean "easy". I found that frequently the intro classes went very quickly over a lot of topics and that the more in-depth classes were much easier to learn from.

No, I have a good teacher, she'll spend days doing nothing bu going over problems from our textbook so we understand completely. The problem may be that I don't fully take advantage of those days, which is of course my own fault. Also, it's probably worth mentioning that the physics department at my school is *tiny*. We have two physics professors, and my biggest class has about ten people in it.

As to the introductory course comment, yes, that's what I've been thinking too. We have covered a lot of material so far and haven't gone all that in-depth for a lot of it, but the class is obviously a prerequisite for more advanced (and more specialized) courses.

mathmagic wrote:I realize you enjoy math and physics, but it sounds like you may enjoy it more as a hobby interest than as an education or career objective.

Yes, I have of course considered this, but like I said there's not much more that interests me enough to make it my major. It's a bit of a catch-22, unfortunately :/

Mad_Gouki wrote:Ask yourself what you REALLY want to do, what your dream is in life.

Yes, of course, and when I ask myself that the answer is always "physicist" or something of the sort ("astronomer"'s still the most popular ;)). I think a lot of it just breaks down to me not being entirely focused on school in the first place :/

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Re: A good idea?

Postby Mad_Gouki » Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:43 pm UTC

CrackTheSky wrote:Yes, of course, and when I ask myself that the answer is always "physicist" or something of the sort ("astronomer"'s still the most popular ;)). I think a lot of it just breaks down to me not being entirely focused on school in the first place :/


I don't mean in the field of school. What do you want to do for the rest of your life? It doesn't have to be some specific field like chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, physics. Do you want to design cars, or write poetry, or be a professional video gamer? There are plenty of jobs out there that require just as much intuition as they do education. Understanding the universe and how things work is a common human desire. If you are really interested in physics, go for it, but just make sure you are doing it because you WANT to, because it is your DESIRE, and not because it is part of some other desire you have or because your parents want you to do that. I can't tell you what you should or should not do, but if physics is what you live for, do it.

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Re: A good idea?

Postby Govalant » Thu Oct 25, 2007 8:19 pm UTC

First of all, I cant believe that you're in an introductory course in college and just now learning about energy and the gravitational law. Your principal should be beaten with a stick, since I'm 15 and I had it in school this year.

When you said that you see things in black and white it was enough information, you're one of us! You need to study some Exact Science. I say you go for Physics, Math or Computer Science.

About your problems with your grades. The same happened to me the last year (first time ever to take Algebra seriously), I couldn't do the simplest problem and even failed the subject (I don't how it is in the US, but here in Argentina I took a test in December and passed it).

But now, in the most difficult year of my high school (Acording to almost everyone who's older than me), I can do everything. I even correct my math teacher once per class minimum.

If you're not understanding anything of Physics right now, I suggest taking a break. Maybe you can wait a year before going to college, and study some basics on your own. Also ask about anything here on xkcd, I'm sure everyone will be happy to help you.

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Re: A good idea?

Postby Solt » Thu Oct 25, 2007 8:30 pm UTC

CrackTheSky wrote: It's just, given that basically my whole life up to about a year or two ago I focused in so much on more abstract, less structured thinking, that it may be very hard to get out of that rut.


Well that may be the problem. A lot of being good at physics and math is simply having experience in the subjects and building up your skills over time. At the end of my first calculus course I could do everything but I barely understood it. After 2.5 years of college I know most things in that course well enough that I can teach them, simply because I've become experienced by using the concepts so much and seeing higher level concepts. And like the previous poster, I actually got a C in Algebra my first year but went on to become one of the best math students in my school. I'm not entirely sure why.

I think you've got to figure out how to get into the math and physics way of thinking. I'd suggest tutoring or office hours. Just immerse yourself in it and eventually you'll start to get it. It just takes time and patience.
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Re: A good idea?

Postby Mad_Gouki » Thu Oct 25, 2007 8:31 pm UTC

Solt wrote:
CrackTheSky wrote: And like the previous poster, I actually got a C in Algebra my first year but went on to become one of the best math students in my school. I'm not entirely sure why.

I think there are a lot of bad math teachers out there that are to blame.

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Re: A good idea?

Postby evilbeanfiend » Fri Oct 26, 2007 1:08 pm UTC

VTHodge wrote:Also, "introductory" doesn't always mean "easy". I found that frequently the intro classes went very quickly over a lot of topics and that the more in-depth classes were much easier to learn from.


i often get the impression that intro classes are explicitly design to put off as many people as possible so that profs have more time to do research.

OP while you will certainly need to do some advanced-ish maths for physics, we do have a tendency to try and fit all physical phenomena into as few mathematical forms as possible, so you will often find yourself reapplying similar formulas for different contexts. i certainly recall the amount of new maths i had to do reducing each year (although the bits that are new get a lot harder)
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Re: A good idea?

Postby Govalant » Fri Oct 26, 2007 10:05 pm UTC

Mad_Gouki wrote:
Solt wrote:
CrackTheSky wrote: And like the previous poster, I actually got a C in Algebra my first year but went on to become one of the best math students in my school. I'm not entirely sure why.

I think there are a lot of bad math teachers out there that are to blame.



Today at school, solving a logarithmic equation, my teacher did some horrible resolution for this equation:

log2 * sqrt(2) (X) - log8(3x) = 1

She did like ten steps and even calculate the values of log10(8) to put them in the equation! She ended up with 23.28, being the answer 24.
I was going to post her resolution but I forgot it, and trying to follow her steps made me feel stupid.

It's just wrong that people like her are able to teach.



And to the OP, like said before, try to see if you can get a different teacher.

Edit: I got the resolution from a friend, its just plain awful.
Spoiler:
log(2s2)(x) - log(8)(3x) = 1
log(x)/log(2s2) - log(3x)/log(8) = 1
log(x)/0.451 - log(3x) / 0.903 = 1

(log(x) * 0.903 - log(3x) * 0.451) / 0.403 = 1

log(x) * 0.903 - log(3x) * 0.451 = 0.403
log (x) * 0.903 = 0.403 + log(3) * 0.451 + log(x)*0.451
log(x) * 0.903 = 0.403 + 0.215 + log(x)*0.451
log(x) * 0.903 = 0.618 + log(x) * 0.451

log(x) * (0.903 - 0.451) = 0.618
log(x) * 0.452 = 0.618
log(x) = 1.367
x = 10^1.367 = 23.28


Here's mine:

Log(2*sqrt(2))x - log(8) (3x) = 1
log (8) (x^2) - log(8) (3x) = 1

log(8) (x^2/3x) = 1
x^2/3x = 8
x^2 = 24x
x = 24 or 0, but since the log function isn't defined for 0, it must be 24.

And when I showed her this, she said "Ah, but now you have a quadratic equation and it gets harder!".
WTF? Factorize the damn x you idiot.

I'm sorry. I'm really angry.
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Re: A good idea?

Postby shoyer » Sat Oct 27, 2007 1:29 am UTC

CrackTheSky - Since your physics department is so small, a decisive factor has to be how much you like the two professors and how much you can learn from them. You'll be taking many classes from both of them over the years to come.

I also think you can put off making a decisive decision for now. You lose little continuing though at least the intro physics track and you'll be far better positioned to make an educated decision. As long as you are still enjoying your courses, I think this is the right choice. As others have mentioned, intro courses are not necessarily indicative of the difficulty of upper level courses.

Finally, you should be bringing these questions to your physics professors! There are only two of them, so you'll be getting to know them well if you continue in physics. They have a more knowledgeable position from which to answer these questions, too.

As a side note, also coming from a small department (~10 professors) small classes can be great, but they can be hard, too, especially if your preparation or mastery of the material is not at the level of your classmates. It's possible that most of them took physics courses earlier which gave them a better background in the material.

(My background: final year physics undergrad applying for grad school in physics.)

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Re: A good idea?

Postby RockoTDF » Sat Oct 27, 2007 7:23 pm UTC

Govalant wrote:

Today at school, solving a logarithmic equation, my teacher did some horrible resolution for this equation:

log2 * sqrt(2) (X) - log8(3x) = 1

She did like ten steps and even calculate the values of log10(8) to put them in the equation! She ended up with 23.28, being the answer 24.
I was going to post her resolution but I forgot it, and trying to follow her steps made me feel stupid.

It's just wrong that people like her are able to teach.


And to the OP, like said before, try to see if you can get a different teacher.

I'm sorry. I'm really angry.[/spoiler]


Thing is, most people aren't very good at math. Teachers sometimes have to spell out every single step so that they can understand, and sometimes it seems redundant. This applies in other subjects as well.
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Re: A good idea?

Postby CrackTheSky » Sun Oct 28, 2007 7:56 am UTC

Govalant wrote:And to the OP, like said before, try to see if you can get a different teacher.

Well, since there are only two professors in my school's physics department, and only one of them teaches intro, it's gonna be kinda hard to do that :P And she's not a bad teacher at all, she's quite patient with us, so I think it's pretty safe to say that my not understanding the material is coming from the fact that I haven't taken full advantage of her willingness to make sure I understand completely.

shoyer wrote:Lots of nifty stuff.

Thanks, that's actually pretty helpful. I definitely agree with what you said about other students being at a slightly higher level than myself, because I've found that to be true...the nice thing is my roommate's in pretty much exactly the same boat as I am (physics major, no physics background, same exact classes as me) and he's struggling too, so at least I know it's not just me.

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Re: A good idea?

Postby Herman » Sun Oct 28, 2007 3:42 pm UTC

I had a similar experience, but earlier. 10th grade chemistry was my first "real" science class (things like Earth Science don't count) and I worked harder than I ever had and got C's. I was just completely unprepared. The next two years, I had physics and got straight A's. Then I took intro to Chem in college, and it was easy as pie because I had seen the material before and I had matured as a problem-solver.

So, CTS, is it possible for you to keep trying for the physics major for another semester or two without it disrupting you too much if you eventually quit it? Maybe you'll have that breakthrough where your nuts-and-bolts skills catch up to your preferences. And if not, maybe you could do the education track (which avoids higher-level stuff) and teach high school physics or math. I've done some tutoring, and I find it's actually easier to teach what I struggled with than what was obvious because I know exactly where all the pitfalls are, and how I worked through them.

Keep this in mind too: the concepts of math and physics are, in many ways, the easy part. It doesn't take a genius to learn the concepts of calculus or physics -- they're very universal and simple, and so a lot of people say they're beautiful. The tradeoff is that the calculation does get a bit tricky. So if you find yourself in a few years still getting the concepts but not the algorithms, then it may just mean you're not so good at math and you should find something else to do. Like psycology, where the concepts are more complicated and less universal (= less beautiful) but the math is easier.

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Re: A good idea?

Postby Amicitia » Mon Oct 29, 2007 9:04 am UTC

CtS, many of the forumites have the MIT sticker to help them along, but for everyone else, such aspirations can be misleading and destructive.

But regarding the intro classes thing, they're often really bad. My high school physics teacher was really awesome, but I failed every test until he handed me a copy of Halliday, which I thought very sensible. I failed calculus in high school, but after picking up a copy of Spivak, I aced the accelerated college courses in calculus, and felt I had a much better understanding of calculus after. "Intro" is deceiving and cruel, and sometimes simplified to oblivion and nonsense. Look into the closest major university library, or talk to your professors. Feynman's lectures on physics are top notch. Check out a copy, or buy one.

If you would pursue physics it without the job possibilities, then go for it. Or if you know you have the talent.

Mathematics and physics are cutthroat fields, and most graduate schools--mandatory for most academic positions--have ivy leaguers with outstanding credentials for most if not all of their American candidates. And guess who employers hire from?

Consider taking leave from college if it's bogging you down, and see if an academic field is what's right for you. Most everyone is shunted into undergraduate, and few even have a clear goal in mind. Or even an applied field, like finance or electrical engineering, which isn't as gray as psychology. These will be more useful in career options, unlike mathematics and physics, though less theoretical, as expected.

It took me a shitty high school and pretty bad college experience to realize fire and brimstone (and the disdain of everyone) will not change my interest in math/econ, another career disaster (if you're not going to MIT/Chigago). Should you send a PM, I'd love to converse with you over AIM/Gtalk/something.
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Re: A good idea?

Postby thoughtfully » Sun Nov 04, 2007 7:39 pm UTC

I'll echo what others have said. Get on friendly terms with the math. One other thing I'll add is a book recomendation: Thinking Physics, by Epstein. This book focuses on concepts and problem solving, and helps you develop intuition about physical problems, which is really essential. There's some math, but the emphasis is on figuring out solutions with as little math as possible.

Oh, and then there's the old one about how to get to Carnegie Hall. I had trouble with that part too, actually.
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