Tuesday, August 24, 2004

So You Want To Be A Physicist - Part 1

Most of us have various reasons or impetus for wanting to go into this profession. I sometime liken it to wanting to be a priest (I have a bad joke to accompany that, but I won't say it) - the calling towards it that somehow can't be ignored. We all know that being a physicist would not make us filthy rich, but there is somehow an intrinsic satisfaction working in this field.

In this part of the series, I'd like to start at the beginning. No, not during conception, or while one is still in the womb (although it isn't too late to read to a fetus about Newton's Laws of motion). The preparation one makes while still in high school before proceeding to college can be important. The most important of which, in my opinion, is one's mastery of basic mathematics. Typically, by the time someone enters college, there should already be a good command of algebra, trigonometry and geometry. Taking intro physics without a good command of these three is a recipe for disaster. In many cases, one also needs at least a semester's worth of calculus if the intro physics class includes calculus.

Although this appears to be obvious, it isn't. In my brief teaching experience at the freshman level (1st year students in a university in the US), I often found that many students struggled with their physics homework not because they did not understand the physics, but they could not do the mathematics. Of course, they then blamed the difficulty of physics for this without realizing that the physics course itself was not to be blamed. Interestingly enough, we often encounter similar situation on our IRC channel. Students coming in with physics problems are often stuck more with the mathematics.

So, adequate preparations in mathematics at the high school level is crucial. In the US, one can still catch up on the necessary basic mathematics even after enrolling in a university by taking which ever mathematics courses that one needs. However, this will mean delaying other physics courses till one has the necessary mathematics skill.

Are high school physics classes necessary? Definitely. It is always advantageous to have a flavor of the simple ideas of physics before hand. In the US, there is such a thing as AP Physics, where high school students get advanced physics lessons almost at the college level of intro physics. This can do nothing but add to one's advantage.

Unfortunately, sometime these high school physics classes can backfire. It is a sad reality that in many high school in the US, the physics classes are often taught badly, and often by someone without a physics degree. This has the negative effect of turning many students off this subject. Ask anyone who hates physics and chances are, they had a bad introduction to it in high school.

In Part 2, surviving the first year of college.



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