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I think this question has its place here because I am sure some of you are "self-taught experts" and can guide me a little through this process.

Considering that :

  • I don't have any physics scholar background at all.
  • I have a little math background but nothing too complicated like calculus
  • I am a fast learner and am willing to put many efforts into learning physics
  • I am a computer programmer and analyst with a passion for physics laws, theories, studies and everything that helps me understand how things work or making me change the way I see things around me.

Where do I start ? I mean.. Is there even a starting point ? Do I absolutly have to choose a type of physic ? Is it possible to learn physics on your own ?

I know it's a general question but i'm sure you understand that i'm a little bit in the dark here.

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closed as not constructive by dmckee Apr 14 '13 at 14:29

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start with newtonian mechanics –  Neo Feb 4 '13 at 16:56

11 Answers 11

The learning time problem affects everybody, physics is intimidating because to learn it, you have to recapitulate the history, there's no underlying axiomatic system to deduce from. On 't Hooft's website, you will find a self-study guide put together for this purpose. It should get you started, and I don't think I can improve on 't Hooft.

But if you know mathematics and programming, there is a simple way to study the field--- just go over the famous problems yourself. You can simulate the Ising model in a very short time:

Make a 2d grid of bits with value 0 or 1. Choose a bit at random, and calculate the energy it feels with its neighbors, by counting the number of neighbors that have a different bit value. The energy is this number.

Now flip the bit, and if the energy goes down, keep the flipped value. If the energy goes up, keep it with a probability $e^{-\beta\Delta E}$ where you are free to change $\beta$. Do this a very large number of times, and you get an equilibrium configuration. Then you can draw a picture of what it looks like.

As you change $\beta$, you will see the phase transition appear. The Ising model will settle to be either mostly 0's or mostly 1's. Studying this transition and the related problems is a good introduction to most modern physics (past 1940). It contains the seed for everything except string theory.

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You start by starting the process. It really doesn't matter all that much how you start, only that you start. Go to the library, look through some books, etc.

At first, you'll find much of what you read opaque. But, in a short time, you'll start connecting some dots and then more and then more still. You'll revisit material that was initially incomprehensible to you and find that bits and pieces now make some sense. This non-linear process will continue with great strides followed by slow spells.

At some point, you'll determine that you must make the effort to become familiar with the language of calculus if you're to make any more meaningful progress.

Once you've done that, it's like you've opened your eyes to an entirely new world.

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Ok clear, encouraging and concrete. So it is possible. I just bought a few books today can't wait to receive them and see where I can get from there. –  PhaDaPhunk Jul 31 '12 at 18:09
@PhaDaPhunk: reference request please –  Argus Jul 31 '12 at 21:21
@Argus of what I bought ? –  PhaDaPhunk Jul 31 '12 at 22:38
Quantum Physics: A Beginner's Guide , QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone –  PhaDaPhunk Jul 31 '12 at 22:40
@PhaDaPhunk: I'd start with mechanics and optics before looking at QM/QED. –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jul 31 '12 at 22:42

Like you, I want to self-teach myself physics, yet here I am still at around the same stage I was a few years back. Why?

Because to learn physics effectively, I need to be immersed in it for days, weeks, months even years at a time. I also need to be coached by good teachers and peers that can steer me in the right direction, and prevent me from being lead astray by wrong ideas and bad problems. It's therefore essential people are in the right social environment.

So my answer would be to find the right social environment to make things easier for yourself, such as studying part time at night school, joining a physics club, forum--as you've done here.

I really do think people underestimate the importance of the correct social environment when studying physics because of the support it provides and the warding off of depression from social isolation.

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I like the idea although I have a hard time finding a single post I understand in here. But I guess that by reading and connecting some dots ill start to understand a few things. –  PhaDaPhunk Jul 31 '12 at 22:41
@PhaDaPhunk I see it all the time--people wanting to write a novel, set up a business, learn a foreign language etc. They never do in the end because the obligations of other parts of their life are too distracting. If you want to massage your ego by answering the odd question here, then make it your hobby over the next few years to do all the problems in the book Introduction to Electrodynamics by Griffiths. Or you could give up and answer questions in your discipline on another Stack Exhchange site. There is no getting away from sacrificing time and effort in mastering physics. –  Larry Harson Jul 31 '12 at 23:18
I was actually saying that because of.what you said about social environnement. I.dont believe I should limit myself to one discipline. But if thats how you see it its fine too. I dont come here for my ego but because its one of the best source of information I know online. My discipline is know it all. I just love to learn –  PhaDaPhunk Aug 1 '12 at 2:20
And ive never said anything about mastering anything I just want some.information about how to start on my own because I love this science. –  PhaDaPhunk Aug 1 '12 at 2:22
The problem of social isolation can be circumvented rather easily by reading literature, and explaining it in a quick monologue to people who don't understand what you are talking about (and don't care). The social parts of the brain can be easily fooled into mistaking a one-way rant for a social interaction, so you can get by without going nuts. The social environment in academia is a mixed blessing. Seminars are wonderful, because detailed work is presented, but the day-to-day blah-blah-blah stuff just tends to produce conformity. –  Ron Maimon Aug 1 '12 at 6:40

1.) Find something that interests you. The secret to learning is to do something you can be passionate about. For one person it may be building metal detectors (cicuits etc.) and another may be more interested in string theory or crystal physics. Explore your local library's physics section.

2.) Become competent in the area that interests you. Thomas Edison was home-schooled and taught himself everything, but he also was given the freedom to learn whatever interested him. You will have to use relevant books. The internet alone will not suffice.

3.) Learn the Math. Focus on the theory and the equations should come naturally. Albert Einstein had to learn a lot of math before he could express his ideas in equations. Calculus 1, 2, and 3 are commonly used in much of physics. Khan academy may be useful here.

4.) Find another topic that interests you within physics. That should be easy since you will doubtlessly have stumbled across many fascinating concepts while investigating the first.

5.) Repeat steps 2-4.

There is nothing we can't do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibility.

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Wow this is a good approach. From whay I read , QM and String theory interest me a lot but still the same problem, i dont think I can start there –  PhaDaPhunk Aug 1 '12 at 2:45
The issue of foundation is a tricky one. Start with a general physics book (1st year undergrad) and find the advanced topic(s) of interest in the index. If you understand the pages referenced in the index, then find a more advanced book and use the index again. Repeat until you encounter concepts you are unfamiliar with and then use the index procedure on them! If you find the index is needed much too often, take a course in general physics from MIT OCW (free online). Another way to approach an advanced topic is to read its history. Relevant physicist biographies may also help. –  Dale Aug 1 '12 at 4:05
@PhaDaPhunk: you seem to be aware of very few high level terms in physics, so u r thinking only that...but actually u need to work on basics...the lowest level. If u can imagine it happening around you in daily life than u r fit to go ahead...join some correspondence course and start from books that are more of verbal description rather than big equations. and remember "Patience is learning"..be ready to spend days on learning even the simplest of concepts. ASK YOURSELF IF U CAN ANSWER ANY QUESTION RELATING TO IT !! –  Rorschach Aug 1 '12 at 5:49
@JoeHobbit Albert Einstein flunked math? Yes, and Micheal Jordan was cut out of the high school basketball team, right? I hate these myths, they're purely manufactured by incompetent people, for incompetent people. Those people worked hard, stop making excuses. –  OmnipresentAbsence Mar 10 '13 at 18:44
@OmnipresentAbsence: The Einstein story is not a myth to make incompetent people feel better. It is a fact that Einstein was flunked by Hermann Minkowski in 1902 because he considered Einstein a lazy math student. Einstein was not studying Minkowskian things like rings and abstract algebra, but instead was beginning his revolutionary work on atomic theory. This led Einstein to not get recommendation letters, and he ended up in a patent office. The story is not telling people to be lazy, rather it is warning them that the social order can't appreciate radical work, and will punish them for it. –  Ron Maimon Apr 16 at 13:33

First and the most important thing to do is to study calculus . I recommend the 2 textbooks by Apostol.Then, study classical mechanics(Taylor is good) and electrodynamics (Griffith) .They are basically calculus .If you understand linear algebra, read Griffith book in Quantum mechanics(You don't need anything outside calculus and linear algebra to read this book) Classical mechanics ,Electrodynamics and Quantum mechanics constitute the foundation of physics . After that , you can learn whatever you want in physics or math. Be sure ,to solve all the problems contained in the textbooks you read.

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First and the most important thing to do is: don't get Apostol's Calculus. Unless you want to go into math as well, I don't see the purpose of getting that book when you want to self-study physics. Second, I am shocked that the previous commenter said that you only need calculus and linear algebra for Griffiths' QM when he said in his book's preface that you also need to be familiar with the complex variables and fourier series. You need more math than just calculus and linear algebra.

So what do you do? I say that you can do this free. Here's my list with websites.

  1. precalculus (http://www.opentextbookstore.com/precalc/)
  2. Strang's calculus (http://ocw.mit.edu/resources/res-18-001-calculus-online-textbook-spring-2005/)
  3. Nearing's undergraduate math methods (http://www.physics.miami.edu/~nearing/mathmethods/)
  4. Stone and Goldbart's graduate math methods (http://webusers.physics.illinois.edu/~goldbart/PG_MS_MfP.htm)

And for the physics? It's just one website: (http://farside.ph.utexas.edu/teaching.html)

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I think it depends a bit on what you want to do in physics. For mechanics you need the least math knowledge (basic calculus). At least my opinion and experience. –  mick Oct 23 '12 at 16:17

I've begun a self-study schedule on my own. I began with a review of algebra and geometry and have now begun calculus. I'm basically trying to follow a typical college physics curriculum. There are alot of resources on the internet: MIT online, cheap used books on amazon and barnes & noble, etc. I think most of the above comments are on target. I want to get the math down first, then on to classical physics....like college.

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When I read your question I saw myself in you! I did what you want to do about 5 years ago, to be honest, I am 18 now and I'm not a physicist or engineer yet however self tutoring has brought me a long way and i think my relative ignorance compared to the others who answer your question makes it easier for you to relate to me.

As it has been previously stated there really is no exact place to start however if you ask me following the chronology of the advancements in physics sets out a pretty good self tutoring schedule.

First of all, the maths:

learn maths to the extent that you can solve differential equations with ease. After a point you won't be a able learn much more without knowing calculus.

  • Buy used textbooks or follow video courses to learn the basics of integral and differential calculus after you nail down every concept in pre-calc.

If you're overly keen about it like I was, learn multi-variable calculus.

-I recommend stewart's multivariable calculus textbook.

After you're done with the maths you need general physics knowledge like the major branches and current researches etc.

After you have a feel for what physics is start by learning classical mechanics. There are countless textbooks and online sources and for this case you cant go wrong with any of them since its pretty basic stuff. But I recommend the schaums college physics: It's cheap and easy to understand not to mention the ridiculous number of problems it offers.

  • For classical mechanics start with kinematics: newton laws, uniformly accelerated motion, harmonic motion, projectile motion and so on. Then move onto thermal physics. Make sure you understand this concept very well because the understanding of thermodynamics will be very helpful for further subjects.
  • After kinematics and thermodynamics my opinion is that you should learn electricity and magnetism. Learn about circuitry and magnetism and don't be afraid of Maxwell and his equations.
  • Then start trying to understand relativity, special at least because general relativity is far more complex then learn relativistic kinematics. (this is not classical physics but you should still know it before starting quantum mechanics)
  • You should also have a pretty good understanding of electromagnetic waves and optics.

After classical mechanics move on to quantum mechanics: the physics of the small and strange. Quantum mechanics is a relatively hard concept to grasp. As for reading material you should definatley read dirac's principles of quantum mechanics cover to cover. After that get a textbook and solve problems.

After you have a good understanding of quantum mechanics explore particle and accelerator physics.

Beyond this point it is up to you, now you know the basics of physics and you can understand any further concepts. In my case for example I looked into gravity and string theory after teaching myself physics for a considerable portion of my relatively short life time.

After you learn this much physics your understanding of everyday concepts change. For example you will know why street lamps are yellow or why a singer can shatter a wine glass with her voice. Besides everyday concepts, you will know how to theoretically break the law of conservation of energy and you will know why two like charges repel each other and so on.

Good luck! If you like mathematical subjects physics wont disappoint you!

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I would recommend starting with calculus and maybe linear algebra. A basic understanding of the properties of functions, derivatives, integrals and especially differential equations is vital. Vectors, matrices, tensors, different coordinate systems and their metrics, vector calculus are equally important. I would also take up a book on general (classical) physics, a good reference for that is Physics for scientists and engineers by Randall D. Knight. It's a big book, but it starts from the very basics and it goes all the way up to Special Relativity and QM (although you'll probably want to study those topics more in-depth in other, more specialized books).
From then on, analytical mechanics would probably be a good choice of topic. Learning about the lagrangian, Hamilton formalism,... That should give you a nice idea of the beauty in theoretical physics as well. And from then on I think you can go pretty much any way you want. For QM, a good book to start with is Introduction to Quantum Mechanics by David J. Griffiths. But you're not there yet, the maths comes before the physics. Good luck!

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It strongly depends on what you want to do with your physics knowledge.

If you want to make something practical or experiment then don't agonize over the math or you'll end up learning math alone and you won't understand the whole point of doing physics. Learn math on an as-needed basis and stick to the basic undergraduate physics literature.

If you want to do some theoretical/simulation modeling or just curious about the universe, like for example string theory/astrophysics/field theory etc, you need to start from basic calculus and work your way up to multi-variable calculus, differential geometry, abstract algebra and group theory. Then study just a little about introductory classical mechanics, E&M and go straight into QM/QFT or whatever. Don't be scared. Solving problems as opposed to just reading stuff will greatly quicken the learning process.

Hope this helps.

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Just a note in addition to the advice being given here is this:

ACTUALLY DO THE PROBLEMS. Like on pen and paper. Do not under any circumstances look at a solution and go "Oh yeah, I get this. Next!" That is absolute bull and what many, many people who attempt to self-study physics end up trying and why a lot of them fail. It is very easy to skip on the grinding, difficult work associated with trying to actually solve problems and just read examples and theories but at that point you may as well pick up a popular science book and save yourself some heartbreak.

I am not kidding about this. If you take one piece of advice from this thread, let it be this. I am sure other people who have been formally educated as physicists will echo my sentiment.

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