Should I pursue my interest and study college physics more?
February 10, 2011 7:19 PM   Subscribe

Should I pursue my interest and study college physics more? Specifically, should I take a year-long calculus-based program, until I get comfortable that I'm on top of it-- and can really judge my level of interest and aptitude fairly? Considering I'm a Junior English major. Also considering that it's been 15 years since HS algebra and I've never been good at math. But I want to be.

Some factors:
- I am a junior in college and I'm 33. I know, I know. I'm also an English major. I know, I know. I semi-but-mostly-plan to either graduate and try to go to English grad school next year, or stay and be crazy and go for a BS in ...some science that probably involves physics.
- I know it's crazy. But I've always been a dreamer and a very restless person who disliked feeling pigeonholed into doing just the stuff that comes easily. Too many things come easily (when it comes to English-type stuff). People telling to be a philosopher of science when I was in HS and expressed interest in serious study of mathematical science in college was just the icing on the cake-- not that I'm not into philosophy, but it felt patronizing.
- I no longer seriously want to be a scientist. I mean, I'd have been great at it in the 18-19th century (I think), but not now. But.
- I'm not really a practical person. And I don't care. So common sense/practical arguments are irrelevant (though I can make them myself).
- I love learning about physics and natural history (that is, observational biology or zoology/ecology and 'human studies' in the biological and psychological but not medical sense). It's a major interest.
- I suck at math. No, I mean, I've almost always had really bad experiences or teachers or whatever, I was a poor student anyway, and I skipped some courses most schools require but mine didn't (like trigonometry). I'm not even sure I took Algebra II. I think I took 2 years of HS algebra but I was only 'on top of it' in Algebra I. In year 2 I think I maybe got like, 75 tops. That was 15 years ago. I was pretty good in Algebra I, though, and I enjoyed it once I got it. I was fond of linear equations, and was even fond of quadratics. I liked algebra, once upon a time.
- I am not naturally linearly logical or spacially-intelligent. That is, basic visual puzzles confuse me, even though I'm a visual artist. I'm an artist in a different... side of my brain or something. I can draw from life, but I can't manipulate 3d objects in my head-- sometimes not even 2d objects-- very easily. But like I said, I'm an artist, and I could probably rewire some of this somehow. Also, while my logic isn't linear, I'm good at making my reasoning linear when I work on it purposefully.
- I'm pretty 'concept' smart-- or, intuitive. That is, I'm very good at understanding concepts. Once I get it, I really get it. I am also very curious and never feel satisfied not understanding or feeling stuck. If I get stuck, I get stubborn.
- I am pretty bad at study skills and consistent endurance (aka discipline). I endure extreme all-nighter study-fests but consistent daily study has never been natural for me, and this is partly why I'm better at humanities work (besides natural gifts or whatever). I can simply bullshit at anything that has wiggle room to bullshit in.
- I also have ADD I'm only semi-treating at the moment, and of course that's not helping.
- I want a general, liberal arts and sciences education. I've taken way too much English already, though most of it not 'canon' or breadth oriented.

I'm currently taking a math (algebra) & physics 'in the natural world' intro course that goes into stuff like chaos theory, spirals in nature and the Golden Ratio, as well as an overview of standard physics concepts using algebra, and I'm really lagging. It's a struggle to try to review middle-school and HS algebra and learn bits of trigonometry and advanced calculus and do coursework and try to start a project, etc. I'm definitely lagging. I took this course to get a feel for whether further study is warranted and how much did I 'really' like physics. However, what I learned was that I need more time before I can differentiate 'lagging brain' disease from genuine results from full engagement with the material.

So I was thinking, I just want more time. I don't want this rushed course to be 'it' for me and college physics.

Even though I'm so discouraged at my own mental abilities, I still feel fascinated by physics and I don't hate math. I can try to take more physics this summer (Basic College Physics 1, without the fancy 'nature' stuff). I can also just forget all my other plans for next year and plunge in with a year-long calculus-based physics/chemistry program, because in our school you can only take one multi-subject 'program' at a time.

I know it's kinda crazy, but my priority, ultimately, is to 'be all I can be' as a human being, not to graduate earlier or whatever. Maybe you could argue it's not like a significant portion of my inborn talents lie in chemistry & physics, so it's not like I'm missing much. Maybe I should accept I was lazy in HS and lazy earlier in my college career and didn't take those broad gen-ed science courses when I should have, and now I should face the music. But that's just depressing. Maybe it's partly an ego thing and I don't want to believe this is the best I can do, but I'm not a person with a big ego; I genuinely don't think this is the best I can do.

Thoughts?
posted by reenka to Education (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes.
posted by lalex at 7:30 PM on February 10, 2011


Why? To what end? Be prepared to have your classmates roll their eyes and your TA sigh. If you want to hide out from the real world, why not?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:34 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can you afford to get a tutor? Math comes very easily to a lot of people, and they are often willing to help out with your learning for a very reasonable rate....
posted by miyabo at 7:35 PM on February 10, 2011


It is a drawback of the way most college physics programs are structured that there are two tracks:
1. the non-science-person track, with a few courses of fun interesting stuff that are not heavy on the math (sounds like you are in this kind of class now), and
2. the heavy duty science major track, which is a lot of problem sets and labs and serious math. The latter track usually has a very tough first course to weed out people who will not succeed in science majors.
There is usually no good in-between course.

You should ask yourself:
Suppose you take the hard course and fail it -- are you willing to accept the consequences?

If yes, go for it. (For example, if you're paying for school yourself and you are willing to pay the money to make up another course.)

If no, if you would really need to pass, then be honest with yourself: will you really put in the necessary hours of studying to get a grade you'll be happy with? You will need to do a lot of problem sets, a lot of time in the tutoring center or meeting with your prof/TA, maybe you could organize a study group, etc. It's not something you will be able to do just relying on intuition or conceptual mastery. You'll need to do the math. Make a realistic assessment of how much time and sustained studying you can put in -- are you going to seriously raise your game?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:36 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another possibility, if you want to do a science that has an intro level course in that "in between spot, take GEOLOGY. Intro geology was one of the best courses I took in college, and very accessible without being dumbed down.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:40 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can draw from life, but I can't manipulate 3d objects in my head... I am pretty bad at study skills and consistent endurance (aka discipline). ... It's a struggle to try to review middle-school and HS algebra and learn bits of trigonometry

Based on what you're saying, you should expect your experience taking calculus to hurt. A lot. If you said, "I am the sort of person who can slam my head against problems for as long as it takes to 'get it' even when it's not intuitive," I'd say, "go for it." But you actually said the exact opposite of that, so you might be setting yourself up for a fall.

I think that an introductory understanding of calculus and physics is fundamental to seeing how the world "works." Thus, I might suggest some kind of survey course or maybe just first-semester calculus so that you can understand the concepts behind what calculus is about, or perhaps audit calculus. Combined with maybe another introductory physics class, you could see more about what physics covers and see the parts of the class where calculus would be used without having to struggle with it.
posted by deanc at 7:57 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you invest in one thing, make it "treating your ADD comprehensively." It sounds like that's the stumbling block between you and your current coursework, and it will murder you in a hard-science-for-science-majors intensive.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:00 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Two points:

1. Consider taking your first course pass/fail.

2. What did you mean by this?
I love learning about physics and natural history (that is, observational biology or zoology/ecology and 'human studies' in the biological and psychological but not medical sense).
From my perspective, that doesn't really sound like you like physics at all. If you're looking for a science-ey course that presents students with a grab bag of unrelated topics without getting involved with much in the way of systematic theory or math, try Linguistics 101, or an introductory course on cognition.
posted by Nomyte at 8:02 PM on February 10, 2011


I am a junior in college and I'm 33. I know, I know. I'm also an English major. I know, I know.

You say those things like they're bad. They're not.

I think the suggestion that you take the class pass-fail is a great idea - not because you're a 33-year-old English major, but because you say your study skills are weak. Anyone can learn physics, anyone, but it's going to be a lot of work. If you love it, and you can work hard at it, then you can do great. If you can't work hard at it, then take it pass-fail and get what you can out of it. Or even audit. But either way, don't give up on your interest. If you don't want to become a physicist, then there's no reason for you to accumulate the credit and keep track of your grades.

The suggestion that you get a tutor is also a great one, and if the class is designed to allow it, work on homework with your fellow classmates.

Make it work for you. Physics is cool. Even just a math-weak understanding of the basic concepts will make the whole world seem richer, and will support your interest and understanding of other subjects.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:21 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm going to be a little harsh here, and I apologize for this: you need to take a lot of remedial math before you can start taking even the lowest physics courses. Based on what you've said about your history and learning issues here, I don't think that that will go well.

This is like trying to be an English major starting off completely illiterate, not being able to speak more than broken sentences: it could happen but it is extremely unlikely.

If you want to study physics as a hobby, you can finish up your degree and take courses on the side - start with precalculus and see if your interest persists. Get your degree in English, then see what is out there.

It is also unclear what your actual interest in physics is. You're unhappy in your physics for poets class (like rocks for jocks); articulate what grabs you in physics.

Again, I'm sorry, I'm saying this so bluntly. Giving negative advice sucks.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:22 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the responses!

Some things I thought I'd clarify:
- As to 'why bother?', I think I agree with this quote above: 'I think that an introductory understanding of calculus and physics is fundamental to seeing how the world "works."' Yes.
- I honestly do like physics (although defending it is a bit funny-- 'no, I do love you, I swear!'); the other stuff related more to 'natural history', which was a semi-tangent. But it's the other major direction my scientific interests lie (ie, cognition, yes). I realize physics is not cognition. :) Although it can be! The "grab bag" is my writing style, not my conception of what physics is.
- I can't take courses pass/fail, and we have no grades in my school.
- You're right about the ADD being the major issue, probably. Some practical stuff re: what my insurance covers and how effective drugs are alone and what drugs are covered and how rigorous I am in taking them, etc, interferes a bit.
- The person who said that if I was the sort of person who "can slam my head against problems for as long as it takes to 'get it' even when it's not intuitive" then it'd work, but I'm not: well, the lack of discipline is mainly ADD, not lack of intensity, dedication or stubbornness to know. It's because I actually am that kind of person that I want to keep trying and take physics again in the first place. So....

In a way, that's the fundamental issue that I have with this: I am that person in many ways, but it hasn't really manifested for a variety of reasons, probably a lot of them to do with ADD, some just to do with fluctuations in my level of engagement with... life. So yeah. I can be, and sometimes I really really am, like whoah, and too often I'm not, and I hate that.

- I really appreciate the question re: "am I ready to fail or up my game". I think that really nails it. Although I like the strong possibility of failure. Without it I get bored. :)
posted by reenka at 8:25 PM on February 10, 2011


So...
1) You don't care if you graduate earlier;
2) Your school has no grades;
3) It would take 1 extra year?

What exactly is stopping you? The possibility you'll fail, even when there are no "GPA consequences"? What are the consequences? From what I've read here, you haven't mentioned whether the hesitation is related to... finances (i.e. funding another year of school)? esteem of your professors? self-esteem? having to take remedial math?

Basically I can't really figure out from your question what is stopping you.

For whatever it's worth, I started college when I was 26, at a community college. It had been 8 years since I'd last taken a math course, so I had to start back at basic algebra. That was 4 courses ago; I'm currently in trigonometry -- what would be 1/2 of a precalc class -- so that I qualify to take either my college's or my future university's physics courses (I'm transferring next academic year). Yes, having to do so much remedial catching up will probably extend my total time for a bachelor's degree into five years, but I don't care: it is worth it to me.

Is it worth it to you?
posted by asciident at 8:45 PM on February 10, 2011


PS: I find it interesting that 'what am I doing with physics' is such a question. I mean, I'm not taking it badly or anything, but why is that such a common response? No one really asks me to justify my interest in literature. I don't think I'm that great at writing that it's so obvious why I'd be into it. Maybe I'm a little sensitive because I'm a girl, and I'm not 'the type', etc. I mean, obviously I'm not the stereotype. People used to ask me-- are you sure you're really interested? If you were *really* into science, you'd be doing experiments in your basement, not reading science fiction. I guess with writers, there's always the question of 'when/what have you published?'.

Anyway, it's always been a serious interest. I have an abiding fascination with the basic forces and underlying physical structure that drive the universe. How things function. All those things scientists are curious about as children and never stop-- I never stopped being curious either. Why does light diffract? Why do stars seem to move? Why do cars make that shift in sound as they pass by? Why is 137.5 the most common plant growth angle? Why are there tides? What goes on inside the sun? There are so many questions that you don't even know to ask because it's easy to take things for granted about the world.

To me, it seems more relevant to say, why wouldn't an intelligent person who's interested in the universe they live in be deeply fascinated by physics? Is it that most people 'get religion'? Is it that they think the whys don't matter and only subjective feeling matters? I'm not one of those people. I am deeply and intensely curious about the universe, simply because I'm aware I exist in it and I don't know 99.9999% of what there is to know about it-- and therefore myself. To me, physics is the underlying narrative of the universe's deep structure-- beyond the realm of biology or cognition, and therefore beyond ego-centric or Earth-centric understanding.

I have a feeling many people will dismiss all this as 'philosophy' and find it not worthy of someone with an interest in a hard science like physics, but to them I say, pay some attention to the history of physics and you'll find people who thought quite like I do. Except without the atheism part. :) I feel strongly about it. To me, the separation of philosophy and physics was perhaps necessary but ultimately detrimental to both. There can be no philosophy without physics, at least. There can be no understanding of oneself as a human being in the universe without an understanding of that universe, the underlying mathematics of which is ultimately described by physics. So I can give up and say 'I'm not suited to know, right now', but I'll never really be happy about it. I'm not saying physics has all the answers at all, but it provides a rigorous framework for asking the sorts of questions I think need answers. I don't need to be a physicist to think so. Anyway, as you can see this gets a little passionate and idealistic, so I didn't really want to go into it, but... it was a challenge. Perhaps it's really as simple as 'I want to ask'. Not simply 'I want to know', but 'I want to ask'.
posted by reenka at 8:47 PM on February 10, 2011


Taking a year-long calculus program strikes me as a bad idea. Not because you're bad at it, per se, and not because it wouldn't be "practical." Rather, because nothing in your question says that you like it -- all I see is that you want a well-rounded education, and that includes sciences.

I think there are a lot of other ways to improve the scope of your education beyond your English classes. Linguistics, sociology, psychology, other social sciences, history, anthropology, economics... but pursuing schooling that you hate and you're not good at and you have no practical reason to take just doesn't make much sense.

Okay, you definitely don't like math (right?). Which is the language of physics. Seriously, what is it that makes you think you would like studying physics?
posted by J. Wilson at 8:55 PM on February 10, 2011


I have a feeling many people will dismiss all this as 'philosophy' and find it not worthy of someone with an interest in a hard science like physics, but to them I say, pay some attention to the history of physics and you'll find people who thought quite like I do.

While this is true, the nitty-gritty of a college-level physics class prepares you for (a) studying higher level physics on your way to being a physicist or (b) taking higher-level mechanical and electrical engineering classes. Your time is going to be spent integrating over a lot of curves, doing a lot of cross products and dot products, and understanding angular momentum, the right-hand-rule, and how to calculate the flux through a surface. It isn't about having in-depth discussions about Fritjof Capra and the nature of existence.

Personally, I think your goals are noble: an understanding of and experience with science is fundamental to having a "liberal arts education." However, I think the commenters here are trying to prepare you for the reality of what you're going to face in class when it comes to the week-to-week work of problem sets and midterm exams, and it may be a reality that falls outside of your core competencies.
posted by deanc at 9:07 PM on February 10, 2011


I find it interesting that 'what am I doing with physics' is such a question. I mean, I'm not taking it badly or anything, but why is that such a common response? No one really asks me to justify my interest in literature.

Because it's not much of a stretch to imagine that you have an intrinsic interest in literature. There is no "introductory" literature — it is assumed that you can read anything short of Finnegan's Wake by the time you enroll in college.

In comparison, the first several semesters of an undergrad majoring in physics is spent building a foundation. And that foundation is relatively tedious and unexciting. You will not get to special topics courses until you reach upper-level coursework. It's the opposite of English, where you can probably jump right in and take a special topics course on Gerard Manley Hopkins or some such.
posted by Nomyte at 9:13 PM on February 10, 2011


In comparison, the first several semesters of an undergrad majoring in physics is spent building a foundation. And that foundation is relatively tedious and unexciting. You will not get to special topics courses until you reach upper-level coursework.

Ah. Yes. Well, that is one answer to why I hesitate (as a person asked above). Even in English, as I mentioned, I jumped right in and didn't build a broad foundation 'cause I could get away with not doing it. The major reason I want to go to English grad school is actually for an opportunity to catch up (though technically I could transfer to yet another undergrad school instead). I want to work on this, but yeah, I get turned off by tedium and busy-work and so on.

Though that bit someone said about 'physics for poets' is unfair; the class I'm taking is a lot more rigorous than that. Anyway, I guess the answer is, 'because I've read a lot of pop-science books and magazines and have a pretty good lay-person's familiarity with physics concepts'. It never occurred to me to explain that. But yes. That's my so-called 'foundation' that allowed an intrinsic interest to flower, though I still think I can-- and do-- have an intrinsic and 'intuitive' interest about the sorts of things physics addresses as a subject. It's not about having read literature before school. It's like being an English major because you like words so much (even if you don't read a lot), or being a physics major because you've always been so fascinated with how the universe works.

The only difference is how easy it is to jump in and pursue it, yeah. But the interest itself shouldn't be so odd for an intelligent person.
posted by reenka at 9:23 PM on February 10, 2011


If you're going to take calculus-based physics, you also need to take calculus at the same time and in the recommended sequence with relation to the physics sequence. Universities design those courses to go together. Also, spend some time brushing up on algebra and trigonometry before you begin. And prepare to spend a LOT of time on homework and studying. Form a study group and stay on top of it every day.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:30 PM on February 10, 2011


OP, I'm in grad school in Physics, and I get asked all the time why I'm in it. And I ask myself the the same question. The career prospects aren't super unless you think you can make tenure down the road. I tell high school students and freshmen to go go into Engineering, for the love of god.

I'm pretty 'concept' smart-- or, intuitive

This scares me. This attitude absolutely kills people trying to learn tough math. Concepts are great, but actually doing the dirty work is what solves problems. Can you see yourself staying on track in a problem that takes 3-4 pages of calculations to solve (not to mention the pages you throw away)? Cause that's going to be life if you take math/physics courses beyond the first year level.

The fact is, learning physics to the point where you can approach it from a philosophical standpoint without looking like an idiot will take a dozen years of your life (not to mention a dozen years off your life). Do it half way, and you end up with junk like

My advice: Don't do anything until you take a semester or two of first year calculus to see if you can hack it (if you can't do calculus, there's really no point in even thinking about taking real physics courses. Calculus is the language of physics). And take a philosophy of science course to scratch your itch. Also, every school I've been to has physics and astronomy courses geared towards non-science people. These sounds perfect for you.

There's no shame in keeping up with physics via Scientific American instead of Physical Revue. The path to a real working knowledge of fundamental physics is a long one; I'm 3 years into a Masters in particle physics, and I barely know squat.

Sorry to sound so discouraging. I absolutely think you should try a course or two to see how it goes, because you're absolutely right that it's a fascinating topic that everyone should learn about. I just think you should really keep your expectations realistic. Anyways, feel free to MeMail me if you want to know more about getting a Physics education, or just to chat about particles.
posted by auto-correct at 9:37 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


OP, I think you should talk to a therapist, and sooner rather than later. The racing prose, semi-treated ADD, and grand plans that require major life changes may just be who you are, or they may be part of a deeper problem. FWIW, you are saying the sort of things pre-medication me did in hypomanic phases.

That said...
I can try to take more physics this summer (Basic College Physics 1, without the fancy 'nature' stuff). I can also just forget all my other plans for next year and plunge in with a year-long calculus-based physics/chemistry program, because in our school you can only take one multi-subject 'program' at a time.

This worries me a little. You admit that you aren't very good at math and are not doing well in the physics class you're already in, but you're considering a year-long math intensive physics program that will require you to "forget all [your] other plans for next year."

Math and science can be learned given time and effort, but you're considering a pretty big sacrifice that has every indication of not being likely to pay off: poor study habits, poor performance in your current class, bad (for now!) math skills, and so forth. I'm not saying that to rag on you, and I'm not going to come close to telling you you *can't* learn what you want, but I am trying to and draw your attention to how you are weighing costs and benefits of likely outcomes.

Although I like the strong possibility of failure. Without it I get bored. :)

More cause for concern, given that you're lagging in the course you're already in.

The major reason I want to go to English grad school is actually for an opportunity to catch up (though technically I could transfer to yet another undergrad school instead).

Even more cause for concern; time to catch up doesn't really make sense as a reason to pursue an advanced degree.

I just want more time.

It seems to me that this is your motivating concern. Is there something looming on the horizon that you want to put off? Would the plans you would be giving up for the physics courses push it further down the road?
posted by Marty Marx at 10:35 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


The racing prose, semi-treated ADD, and grand plans that require major life changes may just be who you are, or they may be part of a deeper problem.
Ha. I did say something like, 'I know I'm not such a great writer people just know why I'm into literature', but the truth is, sometimes I'm the opposite of a great writer, I guess. Anyway, umm yeah it's mostly me. Partly ADD (the scatteredness), but I'm not actually that super-energetic or careless. I consider lots of things that I don't do, more like, though I'm getting better at follow-through. Anyway, a bipolar pattern would be more related to actually taking various sudden or dangerous shifts, perhaps for the thrill. Me, I'm just impulsive and indecisive but ultimately lethargic and rarely get anything done at all. :)

I mean, obviously my tendency to rethink things I've already settled on is a concern (especially for decisive people who have to deal with me), but I'm only like this when it's a big decision and I'm not 100% on board with it being 100% what I want. I always wonder if the next option is better. It's not about throwing away what I wanted before, but always doubting, wanting to do this-and-that-and-the-other-thing, difficulty prioritizing and difficulty knowing what I 'really really' want, etc. That's partly ADD and partly just me.

I'm a little worried about the 'racing prose' part, though, hahah. Is there a 'normal' thought speed/writing speed/level of clarity? Oh man. :) Well, if it counts, I'm super-duper-slow about absolutely everything but wasting time writing things online, when I should be doing HW of course. So. Uh... yeah. Notsomuch with the racing prose if it's assigned busy-work. (Typical for ADD also.)


Anyway, yeah, it's a big sacrifice... as for whether it'd pay off... I think (especially if I take pre-calc or more algebra and get better about my ADD meds and so on) it's possible. But you see the problem moreso than some other commenters who wondered what was stopping me if not my GPA. :) One expression of how much I value (more time for) an education in physics is that I considered it at all. On the other hand, I guess I'm 'lagging' but I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm 'not doing well'. I'm not doing as well as I want to be, but my standards are very high. I'm not doing well enough to feel satisfied and replete with understanding of this program's physics, haha.

And like you said, it's about time, but not exactly about me avoiding something... well, maybe growing up and graduating and starting the 'real work', but not really (been there, done that, know what it feels like). I reallyreallyreally value science, and esp. physics, and (clearly) it's not like the nitty-gritty of it is a natural gift, but I'm not just a fluffy humanities person, either (or so I tell myself). I mean, if I went ahead with my plan as it stands, I have 4 more weeks of college physics. Ever. It was a little freaky to realize.

Anyway, a MA degree in English isn't really 'just' because I want to catch up. It's just why it's an MA and not a MAT. I wasn't satisfied with the courses included in the MAT programs, so MA it is (for now). A part of it is catching up with the foundation I need to teach, though. A part of it's just because I want to study English literature in serious depth, but I guess that's a given for me so I took it for granted as obvious. :)
posted by reenka at 11:18 PM on February 10, 2011


If you go to the school I think you do, then it sound like you are suggesting taking a 30 credit equivalent course in math, chemistry and physics. That's incredibly high stakes if it turns out you hate actually studying intro science.

You give me the impression that you would hate to admit being wrong - this could be a problem if it turns out this course is not for you. If you can go into it able to be realistic and switch if it's not working out, then go for it. But otherwise it could easily turn into a horrible mistake.

Because, graduating does not mean that you can never take college physics. I think you would be better suited to physics courses that are less intensive. And all the people I know who took physics got more of what you want out of it when they were already super-confident with the math involved.

Learning is a life-long process. Finish up, and then start by improving your math skills through calculus before taking a calculus based Physics course. Or if that's too much work, just take physics for poets or whatever.
posted by plonkee at 11:54 PM on February 10, 2011


plunge in with a year-long calculus-based physics/chemistry program, because in our school you can only take one multi-subject 'program' at a time.

Then your college is simply not structured for the sort of thing you want to do. Your college is structured for what you've used it for: becoming immersed over the long term in your area of study (which for you is English literature). You're too focused on trying to fit your interest in taking a couple more physics classes into the structure of your college-- forget that; it's trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Instead, cross register, take a night class, study physics over the summer at another college, etc.

On a more serious note, your biggest priority has to be finishing your degree. You raise so many red flags-- only semi-treated ADD, constant rethinking of what you "want", the fact that you're 33 and in your junior year in college, the fact that you chose a college where you spend all your time studying English literature in a multi-subject "program" -- makes me think that you really need to complete this milestone first and worry about everything else later, because you're in big, big danger of getting distracted and not completing your goal. You obviously jumped in with both feet in your course of study. Good for you. Now finish what you started and follow up with the discoveries you've made about how much want to understand more math and physics afterwards.
posted by deanc at 6:08 AM on February 11, 2011


You're wondering why people are questioning your interest in physics. What you don't seem to understand is that even the examples you've given-- like understanding what goes on inside the sun, why light diffracts, or why cars make that sound when they go by-- is the type of thing you get by reading popular science, not by actually doing science, and doing physics is what happens when you study physics.

You contrast this with people not questioning an interest in English. It's worth noting that even there, people certainly understand why you like to read, but most people don't know what studying English is like-- it's not reading books for fun, it's writing five pages about three words in a Donne poem or researching the appearance of Freyja's neck-ring in Beowulf.

So, I'm worried you don't understand what it is you would be doing in your physics classes. That said, your frequent responses in this thread make it seem like you're very defense about people questioning why you want to do this. Let's say you want to do this just to prove you can, or you want to do this just because you have the idea stuck in your head for no reason at all. If you don't care about the consequences of embarking on this course of study-- and it seems pretty clear you don't-- then just go ahead and give it a shot.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:18 AM on February 11, 2011


To me, it seems more relevant to say, why wouldn't an intelligent person who's interested in the universe they live in be deeply fascinated by physics?

I have my PhD in Physics, so I totally understand this. Why physics? Physics is awesome, it describes how the world works. It's the most fundamental science. Why not physics should be the question.

But, to reiterate above comments. We're not saying that your "physics for poets" class is necessarily super easy, but it's wildly different than what you will see in an introductory calculus-based physics class. Intro physics is, to be honest, fairly dull. You won't be covering all the exciting topics you listed, you'll be spending your time doing what basically amount to applied math problems.

And you really do need more math background for this. Depending on the rigor of the class, you would at least need to be in a calculus class along side this class, or preferably, you would take two semesters of calculus before you even enroll in this class. Again, this intro physics class will be basically all math. It may not be all calculus, so you may be able to slide by picking things as you need them. You may want to look at the prerequisites for the class, you may not even be able to get into it without higher level math credits.

But really, I think this physics class is not what you're looking for. I highly recommend fulfilling this desire by reading popular physics books. I think this is the answer.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:43 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


You may feel like it's a pile-on at this point, but I've got to agree that it would be a mistake to sign up for a year-long science and math-intensive course of study at this point in your college career. What deanc said above seems especially important - you should really be concerned with finishing your degree above all else.

I understand the feeling of wanting more time to catch up and gauge your actual abilities; not to mention the lure of SCIENCE! over the liberal arts. But you seem pretty aware that this idea is coming from insecurity as much as interest, so ask yourself: do you really want to spend so much time and money just to feel smart in more ways?

There are lucky people who are naturally gifted in the maths/sciences (and I gnaw my liver with envy of them), but for the rest, studying it takes a lot of work. Boring, sustained, attentive work. Hours spent wrestling with one damn problem, frustration over not getting some abstract concept, endless complex details to memorize. If you already aren't able to put that kind of effort into your studies, the sparkle of physics isn't going to be enough to carry you through a whole year or beyond. I say this as a liberal-arts type who recently took Calculus, 10 years after taking any kind of math: enthusiasm is not a sufficient substitute for discipline.

Opportunities to learn won't vanish once you graduate, and it's not like your brain is going to stop working. You want to prove to yourself that you're more than a "fluffy humanities" person, then put in some time to catch up on your own. There are all kinds of resources - Khan Academy especially has a lot of nice, short videos that go over math concepts at all levels. If you find that you can handle the nitty-gritty details, then take that new knowledge and find more difficult books to read, or sign up for an inexpensive distance-education or community college course.
posted by missix at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2011


So my question is this (related to what Jacqueline and Tooty said) CAN you take the class? I mean are you allowed to? At my school to take the calculus based physics you first have to take the first semester of calculus and before you can take that you have to take Trigonometry and before you can take that you have to take Algebra II. Or you have to take a test to prove that you can already do all this stuff.

They aren't going to teach you the calculus you need in this physics class; they are going to expect you to already know it and be able to apply it to deriving and understanding complicated formulas.

I'm not saying don't take Physics and anyone who knows me knows I hate college physics so they would be surprised. Why? Because your first two semesters (at least) are going to be ALL plug and chug and VERY VERY math heavy (although I don't think it gets any math lighter as you go on). Try watching Feynman lectures or something, you're going to learn more about concepts and awesome stuff than you will in a college physics course.
posted by magnetsphere at 2:54 PM on February 11, 2011


So my question is this (related to what Jacqueline and Tooty said) CAN you take the class?
Yeah. There's no prerequisites as far as I can tell... I'm already taking algebra (regardless of how well I am or am not doing) and I can take algebra + trigonometry this spring. And this year-long class actually includes calculus instruction. I didn't make that explicit 'cause I figured it wouldn't be crucial, but yeah. It includes calculus; that's what 'multi-subject program' means for my school.


Some people said to already know calculus anyway, and I can see their point. That's one option. I can take the trigonometry this spring, and do my planned non-physics-related sequence next year along with calculus, and if I still want to do physics, stay longer instead of inserting it into next year. I hadn't thought of that. That is to say, I can take calculus-only next year as a night class or whatever.

Anyway, I realize I could keep reading/watching pop-sciencey stuff. This was supposed to be more hard-core. And yeah, it probably is partly due to my insecurity about 'fluffy-humanities person-ness' and partly interest and partly long-ago fixation on wanting to be a physicist that I have trouble fully letting go. The boringness is an issue, but I don't know if I accept that as a final limitation. It's something I should probably fight and not give up and say 'your ADD says you can only pursue things that make you constantly enthusiastic'. One of my goals for being in college is to improve my study skills & discipline. I don't know if I can hack it in the most extreme test of that, so probably I should take calculus first. It seems a little weird to do that without having fully decided to do physics seriously (since I don't need it otherwise), but it seems reasonable nonetheless.
posted by reenka at 5:00 PM on February 11, 2011


Your mind was made up before you asked this question.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:18 PM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tell you what, set yourself some difficult-to-achieve prerequisite milestone before you arrange your schedule around taking the year-long calculus/physics sequences. Like, pass that trigonometry class with a A or high B and do it by doing all the homework problems assigned and maybe some extra ones too. If you can get through that and are still enthused, go for it.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:46 AM on February 12, 2011


Like, pass that trigonometry class with a A or high B and do it by doing all the homework problems assigned and maybe some extra ones too.
Ha. Well, like I'd mentioned, our school has no grades... that's partly why I like it. I dislike the whole idea of striving for grades or failing because of low grades, etc. It puts pressure on 'achievement' and breeds a competitive mindset where the important thing is growth and learning. As for doing the homework, I do generally the homework. Sometimes I do extra work, depending on how much time I have. That's with any class.

Anyway, my mind wasn't made up-- it's really hard for me to settle on anything, though I feel I do need more math no matter what. I did decide not to take the sequence next year, but maybe the year after, if I finish a calculus-only night class. Simply persevering in long-term consistency is way more challenging for me than getting a B, but that applies to any class to some degree.

Still, I appreciate all the options and suggestions! :)
posted by reenka at 10:50 AM on February 12, 2011


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