Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

Is there any way to learn science on your own?

By japhar81 in Culture
Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 11:18:02 PM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

So there I was today, reading yet another article on the 'wonders of quantum computing', and I remembered how much I enjoyed my physics courses at school (yes, I enjoyed them, they were my electives). I didn't learn much physics there, and I sort of dropped it after the fact, but I realized today that I really really want to learn more...

Sponsor: rusty
This space intentionally left blank
...because it's waiting for your ad. So why are you still reading this? Come on, get going. Read the story, and then get an ad. Alright stop it. I'm not going to say anything else. Now you're just being silly. STOP LOOKING AT ME! I'm done!
comments (24)
active | buy ad
There are no schools within driving distance of me that teach more than intro to physics (I'll forgoe the rant on the usefull(less)ness of liberal arts), and I know perfectly well that there's no way I'll be able to read my way through a text book, they're just horrid reading material.

Now, learning is easy in some fields. Say I want to learn C programming for Windows, I go out, pick up Petzold's book in its umpteenth revision, and I read it much like a novel [please, no flaming my methodology here]. MFC? Prossie's book is there to help. Java? Theres hundreds of books... What about physics?

I spent the day bumming from book store to bookstore, finally breaking down and driving 45 miles to the largest book store I know of in the state, Barnes and Noble. What I found shocked me. The science section was filled with fluff about how math is great, or why chemistry will save us all. Where's the Teach Yourself Physics in 21 Days? Wheres the Chemistry for Dummies? How about The hitchikers guide to calculus?

I don't necessarily mean this as a rant, although I know I'm ranting, but can anyone point me in the right direction? I want some reading material, something I can read like a novel, that will teach me the concepts I want to know. In my case, physics. I've heard my girlfriend bitch and moan about this also for her Organic Chem [blech] obsession. So, the question, after all that, where can one find readable material to teach scientific concepts like physics and chem?


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Am I right? Do we need more readable stuff?
o Yes 70%
o No 10%
o You're a crackhead 18%

Votes: 48
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by japhar81

Display: Sort:
Is there any way to learn science on your own? | 59 comments (58 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Errors of North american school system (2.33 / 6) (#1)
by maketo on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:28:24 PM EST

Are mostly to do with allowing people to choose what they are going to study in high-school. In my opinion, people should be taught as much hard-science as possible, even in Uni. Instead, they are let off easy with useless crap such as quasi-courses on psychology, sociology, gender studies, religious studies, political sciences, etc....

I understand not everyone is cut out for hard science but the ones that are not, rule the world....
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?

Why? (4.00 / 4) (#4)
by Scrag on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:40:42 PM EST

people should be taught as much hard-science as possible, even in Uni

Why should everyone have to study what you are interested in? Why should *you* choose what is important for them? I disagree that a "one size fits all" education model works. No one knows whats best for everyone else, so let each person choose whats best for their personality.

they are let off easy with useless crap such as quasi-courses on psychology, sociology, gender studies, religious studies, political sciences, etc....

Again, I fail to see what is so flawed about this...

"I'm... responsible for... many atrocities" - rusty
[ Parent ]
Letting them choose. (4.00 / 1) (#8)
by CyberQuog on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:02:22 PM EST

>Again, I fail to see what is so flawed about this...

I'm in highschool right now, and next year I have a choice of physics or a "social science". Most of my friends will probably pick a social science, not because that's what they're interested in, but because it is an easier course in general. While psychology is generally considered a waste of time course in my school, physics is a hard class to pass. I'll end up choosing physics because I'm generally interested in it, but I'd say maybe 75% of highschool students want the easiest way to pass and graduate. IMHO it should not be a choice between physics and a social science, physics should be required, and you should be able to take psychology as another elective. Just my 2 cents.

[ Parent ]
Better yet... (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by Scrag on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:02:52 AM EST

They shouldn't make physics the super hard class that it is. Yes, it can be done. For some reason they always load students up with tons of work in the "basic" classes. They make students take other classes by making electives much more enjoyable. If they made *all* their classes equally enjoyable, we might not have the problem in the first place.

"I'm... responsible for... many atrocities" - rusty
[ Parent ]
True (none / 0) (#42)
by CyberQuog on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:40:29 PM EST

But, I think by it's nature that people understand psychology a lot easier than they would physics. Psychology im sure can be just as difficult, but you don't have to deal with the advanced concepts and the like. In other words, in general it might not just be the work load, but the subject matter itself. But then again, there are probably easy ways to present physics too.

[ Parent ]
Re: Better yet... (none / 0) (#44)
by jkternes on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 06:47:12 PM EST

If a class does not seem hard then you probably are not really learning anything. Learning Physics involves coming to understand a lot of notions which are not really intuitive to everyone. The greater the detail and/or the more material that is covered, the more you learn. This is probably true of any subject, not just Physics.

The easiest classes I had in school were the biggest wastes of my time. Sure they padded my GPA but I could have soaked up all that material in a couple of days rather than a couple of semesters.

The hardest classes were the best. I didn't always walk out of them with an A but I did always walk out with understanding.

In one of the last courses I took in grad school, I told the professor (in front of the class) that we really didn't need to waste time covering the introductory material since it was all covered in a prerequisite course. He said that it "was refreshing to have a student who pays his tuition and wants his money's worth". He immediatly discarded the introductory material and we got down to business.

Disclaimer: I have too many degrees for my own damn good.

[ Parent ]
Some people don't know what they need to know . . (5.00 / 1) (#19)
by discoflamingo13 on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 11:10:17 PM EST

And some people never will, if there is no societal structure in place to help them learn, and, in some cases, (gasp) tell what they need to know.

Given a choice, (in my high school, at least) of learning math beyond basic algebra, or gunning ahead into geometry/trig/calculus, 3/4 of my class opted to learn none of the math. In the states, I believe that there is too much importance placed on individual whim in people who, at this point in their life, need direction more than anything else. Instead, we assume that everyone is a fully-functioning free-thinking adult at 14, and let them select their life's options then. Little emphasis is placed on what doors are being opened (or, more accurately, closed) to them when they choose their classes, and little advice can be given from parents who had the same problem when they were in high school.

Consequently, when I arrived at college, I had to take classes in most of the basic areas in mathematics, physics, and computer science that international students had "forced" on them when they were in high school. I have not yet met a single person who, after being "forced" to take these classes, felt that they were a waste of time or energy- but rather, that their adolescent educational experience (there are lots of names for it) was important in giving them insight into areas of human knowledge they might have never encountered otherwise.

So, now we have an America that, for the most part-

1. Doesn't think science is important at all

2. Can't do basic math without a calculator

3. Doesn't know how to verify statistics in the media

4. Doesn't understand the US's relationship to other countries in the global community.

5. Doesn't have to clue as to how to think logically or clearly

If all of the above seem like irrelevant and stupid concerns, then I pray for the future of our world.

The more I watch, the more I learn ---
If you set yourself on fire, the world will pay to watch you burn.
--- Course of Empire

[ Parent ]

the arts versus the "hard science rox" m (4.00 / 1) (#24)
by Maniac_Dervish on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:29:47 AM EST

Are mostly to do with allowing people to choose what they are going to study in high-school. In my opinion, people should be taught as much hard-science as possible, even in Uni. Instead, they are let off easy with useless crap such as quasi-courses on psychology, sociology, gender studies, religious studies, political sciences, etc....

I understand not everyone is cut out for hard science but the ones that are not, rule the world....

i think you should reconsider your attitude toward the liberal arts and the arts in general. have you tried talking to the people who're at the top of their profession in the liberal arts fields? they're SMART. as smart and just as geeky as the majority of "g33kz" on slashdot or kuro5hin.

i hadn't been signing into my kuro5hin account, but this was an annoying post.

if you judge fields by the morons who populate the lower ranks you will, of course, be sadly disappointed. tried talking to a very average computer science major from a small university lately? most of them are without drive, without talent, and without much of a clue. just like the people majoring in education, psychology, english, sociology, history, political science, or anything else. the *dregs* of the department are always a nightmare to deal with. Those students don't tend to survive upper-division courses, though. It becomes a struggle. Few of them move on to do graduate work. Only the few who make it that far end up doing research and publishing their work.

As I get older i find that more and more of the work i do as a person involved with the liberal arts involves interaction with technology. Not everyone is engaged with writing or history because they're an idiot. Some of us actually enjoy this stuff. (i've been a linux propellerhead since November of 1992. my first distro was SLS on 5.25" floppies. I did five years of solo Netware and Solaris admin work. My degree is in english, for christ's sakes. heaven forbid that someone actually notice that i'm not a computer science major or an engineer... i used to be, but i figured out quickly that the puzzles in linguistics and religious literature are more interesting... genuinely very difficult and complex.) Most things about technology are genuinely good. Getting new tools, and developing new tools to use to teach people, is important to *everyone*. not just the science classroom teacher- discussion and interaction are important to us as social animals.

anyway. my rant for the day is that educating people to a narrow standard produces a group of people who are very poor thinkers. people who can't reason, can't write, and can't create at will. when i say create, i'm referring to the ability to come up with something that needs to be done, assess the tools required to do it efficiently, and then follow-through on the implementation. Most of the "hard science people" i'm acquainted with who're capable of that can generally keep up with me in a good argument or problem-solving contest.

I teach freshman "composition and rhetoric" at a fairly decent-sized university. High schools are not adequately preparing their students to write a four-page essay about "pick a theme in american beauty and discuss how it relates to your own experience", much less a term paper or a thesis or any sort of complex product that they've thought through. I find this depressing. Is it because students are pushed to learn "hard science"? No. I think that's a very silly claim. I think we don't push students to think hard enough, or for long enough, and that we don't have the infrastructure that it takes to make sure that it happens.

I'd love to see schools implement a large-scale mentoring program where people from the community can come into the schools and have students sign up to work with them and come to understand a whole bunch of things about the world that most don't get. I wish people understood *why* designing a car is important, not just know how to do it. If students learned to see the magic in things (and in ideas, and in creativity, and in expanding their views of different cultures/people/philosophies) we'd have a lot more happy students and eventually a happier society.

Things like Columbine happen because "people" (as i make a sweeping generalization) are depressed. They don't have things that they can love, care about, and enjoy. TV and playing "doom" have little to do with it- they're symptomatic of something much worse. A lack of engagement with the world. If people are involved, interested, and excited about the things they see around them, they become HAPPY. funny how that works. Its something to work toward.

sorry if i sounded didactic or preachy at the beginning of this post- i was kind of annoyed to have the "science versus the arts" debacle thrust in my face one more time :) i'm genuinely interested in helping people (that being something i find is wired into some of us on the personality level) and i find that balancing interests in the sciences and humanities is a good way for me to keep my head screwed on straight WRT what's important in the world.

Maniac Dervish

[ Parent ]

No sweat (2.00 / 1) (#26)
by maketo on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 01:14:11 AM EST

I am just dissatisfied with the people that make the world go around, world go around, world go around...
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?
[ Parent ]
why is high school physics not "useless crap& (1.66 / 3) (#32)
by streetlawyer on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 09:12:42 AM EST

I've got an A-level in physics, and it's the single most useless qualification I have. Being able to describe simple harmonic motion is purely and simply fucking useless in my life. I do not plan to generate my own electricity, nor will I ever want to calculate the trajectory of anything, nor will I ever give a tinker's cuss about photoemission or Planck's constant. The charge on an electron could be continuous for all I care, and it will never affect my life whether photons do interfere with themselves when passing through slits. The psychology I learned at school, however, I use every day. I'd far rather have read a few sociology books to make me more interesting at dinner parties.

Of course, physics is useful to people who do it at an advanced level, but's that's true of anything. High school physics is more useless than most of the subjects on the curriculum.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]

Uselessness of liberal arts. (none / 0) (#38)
by Alarmist on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:47:12 PM EST

Instead, they are let off easy with useless crap such as quasi-courses on psychology, sociology, gender studies, religious studies, political sciences, etc....

Yeah, who gives a rat's ass about how people think and how to communicate with them, anyway? (obvious sarcasm)

Maybe I'm biased--I have two liberal arts degrees. I can definitely say that I understand people better after having gotten both of them.

As for hard science, of course there's a dearth of it in a liberal arts program--that's the nature of the beast. What little hard science I did get was mostly in biological and cognitive psychology courses.

There's more to life than hard science, though I would desperately like to know more about it. I agree with you that more hard sciences should be taught, at every level. You shouldn't throw everything else by the wayside, though.

[ Parent ]

Re: Uselessness of liberal arts. (none / 0) (#45)
by jkternes on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 06:56:49 PM EST

This topic is probably worthy of its own article on K5. My formal education is almost entirely in physical science and math. But I can certainly appreciate the importance of "the other side".

I was always frustrated by my peers who thought that even studying a foreign language was a waste of time. No, I never ended up going to Germany but I am sure that studying German in school made me a better communicator in English.

[ Parent ]
I disagree. (none / 0) (#47)
by Requiem on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 01:28:53 AM EST

Hey, a fellow UofS CS major. Cool.

Anyhow: like you, I'm human, and like you, I've got strengths and weaknesses. Judging from the tone of your post, I'd say that your strengths are probably in the hard sciences. Good. Mine are in computer science, music, and the arts. I've got friends who are doing quite well in areas such as political studies and philosophy, but who couldn't hack a university math class to save their lives. Fine.

What I do have a problem with is people trying to impose their unrelated education beliefs on others. Why on earth should a philosophy major have to take physics, for example?

If I weren't doing computer science, I'd probably do a degree in English or Political Studies, taking some computer science and the odd math course on the side. But should I have to? I really don't see why. There *are* requirements for each major area in all arts and science degrees; I'm required to take courses in languages, the humanities, social sciences, etc, just as majors in your so-called "quasi-courses" have to take sciences. What universities stress is a broad education: you specialize in your subject, but you get exposed to a lot of other fields along the way.

My major problem with your argument is that you are attempting to impose your world view on others. I'm very passionate about music, for instance; does it follow that everyone should be passionate about music, because I am? No, it doesn't. It's an arrogant attitude to take.

[ Parent ]
Hmmm (none / 0) (#52)
by maketo on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 11:59:36 PM EST

You forget that I am not implying that you have to become the writer of the next "Principia matematica"...I just think that everyone should have a term or two of calculus. Inability to pass such a class implies inanility to think on a more abstract level. Now, this will not be a drawback for your Joe Mechanic but will be for any university educated citizen. Period.
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?
[ Parent ]
Impractical in practice. (none / 0) (#53)
by Requiem on Sun Dec 17, 2000 at 08:34:09 PM EST

"In my opinion, people should be taught as much hard-science as possible, even in Uni."

That seems quite a bit different than "a term or two of calculus." I'd agree with you on the calculus point if university calculus classes weren't notoriously evil. I was one of 30 people or so that got through in my Math 110 class; at the beginning of the year, we had around 70 or 80 people.

[ Parent ]
hehe (none / 0) (#54)
by maketo on Sun Dec 17, 2000 at 08:41:00 PM EST

Gotcha. Calculus 110 is the material we were taught in high-school in the former countries of the eastern block. I was taught calculus in my last year of high-school - the same elementary calculus that you were required to take in the first year uni. Ssssoo......had you taken it in high-school (and your 70-80 classmates) all of you 70-80 would have finished the class. Same goes for linear algebra etc....We took many a principles of linear algebra and matrix calculations in the 11th grade (it is the 3rd year of high-school) - the subject was called "Practical mathematics" and we studied determinants, matrix, vector spaces etc. Needless to say, we had the expanded version in first year of University Cmpt Sci programme too. This first year subject back home has been tranferred to me as math 358.6 here :PP. Hmmm, let me see.....
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?
[ Parent ]
yeah, but... (none / 0) (#55)
by Requiem on Mon Dec 18, 2000 at 12:50:09 AM EST

A quick look-up of math 358 (abstract algebra) says that the only requirement is that you've somehow done a year of calculus (math 110 and 112 or 116). Those aren't huge requirements. As well, high school mathematics includes the same things you learned (vectors, matrices, determinants, etc), though it's been a few years since grade eleven, so I've pretty much forgotten all of that stuff.

And yeah, Math 110 was basically a review of Calculus 30, which is available in grade twelve here. The difference is that Calculus 30 starts easy and gets a bit tougher, whereas Math 110 starts hard and gets harder. :)

But you have to realize that in the North American schooling systems, the emphasis is on choice: you can graduate high school with a piss-poor knowledge of math here; the last required math course in my area covered basic probability theory and some other stuff which I'm not totally sure of (set theory?). Even though my math skills aren't incredibly strong, I slugged through every available math course because I knew I'd probably have to do a lot of math for computer science. But the point is, I got to choose. If I wasn't good at math, I wouldn't have to be burdened by an excess of classes in an area that I wouldn't need.

I think what I was trying to say is that diversity is good, but my point got lost in the noise. heh.

[ Parent ]
wait wait (none / 0) (#56)
by maketo on Mon Dec 18, 2000 at 01:35:58 AM EST

Hmmm. I think that is what I said too? The choice is given to people at age of 14 or 15 when they do not really realize the requirements of further education. When they get to college they understand the courses they took were an easy way out. It isnt about the science. It is about discipline of mind that many a person today lacks. Why? Because everything is a matter of choice and personal suitability and freedom, even when wrong.
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?
[ Parent ]
!science (none / 0) (#50)
by Pink Daisy on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 02:16:27 PM EST

I agree that very few people, either in university or high school, are getting enough basic stuff. I have to disagree on the rest of your rant, though. The basic stuff isn't science. Not everyone needs science.

I'm in computer engineering. I've looked at the options available after I graduate are. I've concluded I'm going to spend most of my time on linked lists. Yet, I don't consider the ability to write linked lists in C the most important thing I was taught. Nor do I consider the ability to form lists in Scheme, or the ability to instantiate templated lists in C++ particularly important. The most important things I was taught was to logically follow something from premises to a conclusion, and to learn new things as I have to along the way.

The basic stuff is math. Everyone needs more math. Be it an english major who would benefit from formal methods of proof, or a physicist calculating the wavelengths of atoms, math is the one tie. Unfortunately, we tend to forget this when working in fields that don't directly involve calculation.

As for the benefits of liberal arts, I'm not in a position to comment on that directly. Still, my feeling is that the skills gained are very applicable to almost any situation in the real world, even if the particular knowledge gained isn't tremendously useful. But then, for many fields, scientific knowledge isn't useful, either.

[ Parent ]

Try This (3.00 / 3) (#2)
by eskimo on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:32:52 PM EST

No, this.

I had a pretty good 'history of science' class, and this was the book we didn't get to. Good thing I didn't sell it back. Pretty interesting stuff. Probably exactly what you are looking for too, since my background is in the liberal arts as well.

I am my own home. - Banana Yoshimoto

Thanks:) (2.00 / 1) (#13)
by japhar81 on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:31:22 PM EST

Looks like I'll be getting this one sometime next week;)

<H6>Rome is always burning, and the younger generation never respects its elders. The time of your second coming, japhar81, is no exception. -- Aphasia</H6&gt
[ Parent ]
Be wary of New Age fluff (none / 0) (#41)
by kallisti on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:04:01 PM EST

The Dancing Wu Li Masters is a good example of something to watch out for in pop-physics. This book, along with The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra attempted to merge modern physics with Eastern religion. How well they succeeded is questionable. These books will make it seem like you understand more than you really do, which can be a hindrance.

IIRC, Bantam New-Age has a whole lot of this sort of thing. Don't get anything by Fred Alan Wolf, for example, he is quite a flake. Space-Time and Beyond may be the worst pop-physics book ever.

For pop-physics, I would stick with Gribben, Davies, Nick Herbert (Quantum Reality), and Gamov's Mr. Thompkins books. Pop-physics written by real physicists, such as A Brief History of Time is much more useful if you have more background, so try those later.

[ Parent ]

Did You Read It? (none / 0) (#43)
by eskimo on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 06:15:52 PM EST

I was worried about putting that Amazon link up when I saw some of his other titles, but I found the book quite useful. Maybe my mysticism filter works.

Of course maybe I don't know as much as I think I know. Do those other physics cats teach subtlety?

I am my own home. - Banana Yoshimoto
[ Parent ]

Yes. I read it (none / 0) (#57)
by kallisti on Mon Dec 18, 2000 at 10:10:23 PM EST

But I really don't remember much of it, which leads me to think I didn't find it very useful. If you are trying to learn physics, then learn physics; if you are trying to learn mysticism, then read that. Trying to learn a mix between the two is a bad idea, you start relying on analogies and interpretations, which detracts from learning the basics.

Note that I have no problem with mysticism, just non-science posing as science. This book falls into that category.

I don't understand your last question about "teaching subtlely"

[ Parent ]

Well... (none / 0) (#58)
by eskimo on Tue Dec 19, 2000 at 07:05:05 PM EST

I wasn't exactly looking for a job at the local collider.

I am my own home. - Banana Yoshimoto
[ Parent ]

Must be a local problem (4.66 / 3) (#3)
by Rasputin on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:34:39 PM EST

The first book I ever read about quantum physics was _In_Search_Of_Schroedinger's_Cat by John Gribbin. Quite approachable and thin on math for those former liberal arts types :) He has several other books in the same vein (some co-authored by Paul Davies) That are also quite good. Even better, his books tend to have a decent bibliography, which will give you quite a decent start. I had no trouble getting all of his books and many of the works mentioned in the bibliographies from the local Chapters (Canadian :)), many of which were already in stock, a few of which had to be ordered.

I'm not sure why you would have problems finding books like this, the bookstores around here mostly have a very good selection. Could be because you live in a neighbourhood where people just won't buy/read such things. If your local bookstore can't get these for you, on-line shopping is probably a reasonable alternative.

Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.
Textbook (3.75 / 4) (#5)
by enterfornone on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:44:08 PM EST

Most of the textbooks I used in high school were pretty easy to follow. I topped my science classes while doing little in class work, I mainly taught myslef by reading the textbook in my own time. I always had an interest in science, just not an interest following it as a career, so after school I didn't follow it further.

Perhaps you could download a college calander from somewhere, find what textbooks they use and start at the beginning.

efn 26/m/syd
Will sponsor new accounts for porn.
DWID (2.50 / 4) (#6)
by Signal 11 on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:54:24 PM EST

Do what I do - completely ignore the academic world and just start doing it yourself. I stocked up on books that seemed to be useful, and just sat down and started hacking away at the problem(s).

Whether you're learning basic algebra or quantum physics, you don't need a classical education to get where you want to go. Some people do better on their own. Some people don't, however, either.. so you should carefully weigh your options.

It's not undo-able however.

Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.

Im tryin:) (3.00 / 1) (#12)
by japhar81 on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:28:01 PM EST

Thats actually my attempt here, I just cant find any books to stock my shelves...

<H6>Rome is always burning, and the younger generation never respects its elders. The time of your second coming, japhar81, is no exception. -- Aphasia</H6&gt
[ Parent ]
A study group perhaps? (4.66 / 3) (#7)
by vastor on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 08:59:37 PM EST

Might be the option.

If you could find a couple of other people interested in learning it and at a similar level. You each take turns slogging it out through a chapter of a textbook (or a concept or however you decide to break it up), then explain it to the others in the group (maybe even with a little summary to go over with them to get the crux of it down). Have discussions, do some example questions etc.

Maybe find someone that goes to a more fully fledged university that can send you some photocopies of old exam papers so you can test yourself against them if that's something you'd like to do (I'd suggest working through them as exercises though rather than giving yourself exams).

Teaching other people about something though is one of the best ways to make sure you know it yourself (you soon find out if you didn't know it very well when they ask questions you've no idea about) and it'd also make for a source of encouragement if you hit an area you don't like so much.

You might find a university bookstore on the internet as well which sells the type of books you need (maybe not physics for dummies, but the ones used for the appropriate level subjects to the level of learning you're up to). Some textbooks are worse to work through than others.

While it is bound to be expensive, have you considered enrolling in a course by correspondance? It's not really learning by yourself, but it would provide some structure and guidance. Maybe even just see what kind of resources the subjects taught by correspondance are using.

For chemistry though, missing out on lab experiments woudl be a bit of a shame (I never did any university level physics to know what they get up to), but learning about things with no hands on activities at all probably won't be too great and might make for motivational issues.

Any teach yourself physics in 21 days is probably not going to be any better than the intro physics course anyway. The chem101 textbook I used is fairly good as far as textbooks go and is large and hefty at over 1000 pages (probably about the largest softcover I've got in the bookshelf, in bulk anyway).

We have one, but... (4.00 / 2) (#11)
by japhar81 on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:27:10 PM EST

We have a study group, but the folks around here don't seem to be on the same level I am (not to sound egotistic or anything). Theyre, just, well, slow *shrug*. I haven't really met anyone in the area that has the same grasp of math I do, and I really get a kick out of doing the math part of physics (yeah, im a freak)

<H6>Rome is always burning, and the younger generation never respects its elders. The time of your second coming, japhar81, is no exception. -- Aphasia</H6&gt
[ Parent ]
Some Recommendations (4.00 / 6) (#9)
by the coose on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:11:28 PM EST

I'm sort of a closet physics freak and the books I've found were at the bookstore or online. Here's the best of what I've read:

  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Black holes, the theory of inflation, and other cosmological topics.

  • In The Beginning by John Gribbin. Everything you always wanted to know about the microwave background radiation that permeates throughout the universe. The Big Bang and such.

  • In Search of Schrodinger's Cat by John Gribbin. All about the strange world of quantum physics. Fascinating and with very little math.

  • Subtle is the Lord... by Abraham Pais. A biography of Albert Einstein as well as a study of his theories. Kind of heavy on the math in some parts. General Relativity will blow your mind. I still don't have a grasp on tensor theory.
Of course if you want to learn the mechanics starting from Newton and going to Feynman, then there's the bible of physics textbooks Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday and Resnick. It's calculus based college material but the authors are able to present it in a clear, descriptive manner.

fundamentals.. (2.00 / 1) (#10)
by japhar81 on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:25:39 PM EST

I may have to go grab that book... Time to hit amazon.com;)

<H6>Rome is always burning, and the younger generation never respects its elders. The time of your second coming, japhar81, is no exception. -- Aphasia</H6&gt
[ Parent ]
Just one more (3.00 / 2) (#16)
by mbell on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:59:21 PM EST

I would also recommend Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar. It covers a lot of really interesting subjects dealing with simple and complex systems. It explains why a totally natural process like evolution can lead to great complexity (such as a human being) despite something like entropy.


[ Parent ]

Hm.. that reminds me (2.00 / 1) (#22)
by mystic on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 11:33:14 PM EST

I have to finish :"Brief History of Time", which I started on last year!

[ Parent ]
Feynman (3.75 / 4) (#14)
by Arkady on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:37:18 PM EST

I probably shouldn't give you a recommendation after your slagging off the liberal arts (as I'm one of those with LA degrees; a liberal arts education is focused, not on learning information, but on learning how to learn), but the best I could recommend is:

The Feynman Lectures on Physics
1977, Addison Wesley

They are, in three volumnes, a series of lectures Feynman gave in 1963 in which he attempts to derive all physics and chemistry from a single statement: "all things are made of atoms -little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another".

They are, quite literally, a tour de force by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. They're not in large demand, so although they were published in the 70s I still managed to get an unopenned set in around '96.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The 'read like a novel' thing...... (4.00 / 3) (#15)
by armag0n on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 09:44:15 PM EST

You say that you want some reading material that you can read like a novel. What do you mean by this?

Also, what sort of physics do you want to learn about? Mechanics? Quantum theory? Relativity? Nuclear stuff? And to what degree do you want to learn to, i.e. just a general understanding of what each area is about, or do you want to learn the more intricate details of stuff like electron-photon interactions, or relativity?

Without answers to these questions, I find it difficult to give you advice. You initially expressed a distaste for text books, but the only way to *really* learn about physical theories is to plough your way through a text book and do the math involved in solving the problems.

If this is what you want, then I can recommend you this, or this as good starting points. Once you work your way through these (or similar) books, and improve on your math, then try looking at some books that are published by a company called Dover.

However, if you are just looking a general, plain English description of theories, then try this, or this which is a really good book. There are many pop-sci books out there that will give you an overview of modern physics theories whilst going easy on the math.

For those who really want to learn physics at home (I mean actually learning how the theories work), then be aware that you need to be prepared to do a *lot* of studying. Learning physics theories is like learning math (because physics theories are mostly math-based): you aren't going to get anywhere by just reading and reading, you have to actually *do* math and solve the problems. It'll be a long road, but just keep at it. Eventually, you will start getting somewhere.

Yes, there is. (4.50 / 6) (#17)
by CaptainZornchugger on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 10:21:00 PM EST

I'm not quite sure what it is you want. First you say that you are annoyed that the bookstore only sells 'fluff', then you say you want something that reads like a novel. I don't think you can have the one without the other. However, since most people in their suggestions have veered in the direction of 'fluff', I shall err in the other direction.

First of all, understand that before you can even get started, you are going to have to know calculus fairly well. You will have to have cleared this hurdle before you even get started, if you have not already done so.

Assuming you have done that, you will want to start with Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick and Walker, as another poster has suggested. (I suggest the CD-ROM version, if it is still available) Depending on your dedication and ability, it will take you anywhere from two months to two years to get through that (you should attempt all of the exercises). It is during this time that, if you are like most people, you will likely lose interest.

If, for some ungodly reason, this does not cause you to lose interest, you will need to expand your mathematical education before continuing. Specifically, you will need to learn Differential Equations, Partial Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, Mathematical Statistics, and some Mathematical Analysis. Search any of these terms on Amazon and you should find a wealth of suggestions and reviews.

If you complete all of that and you are still interested, you are clearly insane. Next you should seek out an undergraduate Classical Mechanics book, an Electromagnetism book, a Thermodynamics text, and an Introductory Quantum Mechanics text. All of these should also be easy to locate on Amazon, except for the Quantum text, since searching for that is likely to turn up a great deal of 'fluff'. You may be better off going to University websites and attempting to find out what texts they use for intro Quantum.

That should get you up to the level of a physics BS from the more respectable American schools. If you wish suggestions of specific books, you may email me and I will attempt to provide them; however, the books I suggest are likely to be far more mathematically-oriented than what you might want -- not to mention that many of them are out of print. Besides, there isn't much point in thinking about it until you have fought your way through HR&W.

If there is anything I can help you with, feel free to let me know. my email address is npenton@hotmail.com. Best of luck.

Look at that chord structure. There's sadness in that chord structure.
Buy some books. (4.00 / 2) (#18)
by Inoshiro on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 10:44:18 PM EST

University book stores have niced used textbooks for sale, and you can bootstrap yourself into understanding of them by taking the local high school text edition and working through it. All good text books have themselves broken in chapters covering specific topics (kinematics, advanced kinematics, universal gravitation, electricity, etc). Each chapter has notes through out, questions along the way to check that you have the concept well in hand, and an end of chapter quiz. All of these questions are backed up by answers in the back of the book.

My roomate got a nice, big book on physics from the local university for a few bucks because they were selling it from the uni library. I'm sure you can find similar deals at any good used book store or surplus asset sale. If worst comes to worst, you find someone like me who has these texts, and can provide notes and questions, as well as verification of answers ;)

[ イノシロ ]
Feynman Books (4.00 / 3) (#21)
by gulthek on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 11:27:25 PM EST

Surely you must have run into them by now and for some reason were displeased or uninterested, but I urge you to (re)examine Feynman's lectures on physics. Specifically the two books, "Six Easy Pieces" and "Six Not-So-Easy Pieces". Six Easy Pieces is a wonderful introduction into the world of physics writting by Richard P. Feynman, if you are unfamiliar with that name please check out "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" for an introduction. Six Not-So-Easy Pieces delves further into the physics world with topics like: relativity, symmetry, and space-time. Since you are looking for books that "read like a novel", you might find lecture based books to be more to your liking than course books.

Search for "Teach yourself" titles.. (3.00 / 1) (#25)
by Knile87 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:33:41 AM EST

On my shelf here, I have a book called Teach Yourself Calculus which I picked up at a Borders THinking there might be more like it in a series when I read this post, I searched on borders.com for "Teach Yourself Physics", but found a title that's not from the same series. This sort of title search at any bookstore should provide more step-by-step learning than works that are loosely-coagulated, based on theory.

"We're all on a big ship! We're on a big cruise, across the world!" -- Iowa Bob, in Hotel New Hampshire

Try eBay (3.00 / 1) (#27)
by eroberts00 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 02:41:29 AM EST

I found that there are a lot of used textbooks on eBay, and at quite a bargain usually. They probably won't be the newest, but somtimes that makes them more interesting. I just recently bought a 1940's textbook on aerodynamics for $5.00 that I find quite interesting, even if not up to date on the newest theory. Sometimes it's good to start with the old information and work your way up to the present, just to get an idea of how things have progressed.

Ultra Cool! (5.00 / 1) (#28)
by azaidi on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 04:02:55 AM EST

So someone else is interested in doing what I'm doing!

I'm a BA in Eco/Soc and I've just about had it with the social sciences. 5 years of Economics and Sociology is more than enough. I've always been very interested in the 'hard' sciences and so a couple of months ago I started my own long term education.

First off, I've got hardly any money to spare so buying books is out. The only avenues open to me are the Internet (I pay per min) and libraries. Unfortunately the libraries here in Bombay aren't that great. There's only *one* govt. public library for some 25-30 million people and it's full of musty books and librarians. The only library I have access to is the one run by the British Council which is pretty nice, except that it only stocks books by British authors; and they aren't exactly at the forefront of research.

As you can see, I have to work under some resource constraints, but it's doable.


First off I'd suggest you get yourself up to speed with maths. A very nice book is one titled 'Mathematics for the million'. It's an extremely readable book which traces the history of mathematics and teaches you basic stuff like trigo, logs and calculus along the way. Most maths books are pretty dry. Memorize this formula and plug in those numbers, but this book actually tries to get you to understand the underlying concepts. It doesn't just show you the trig stuff and have you look up the tables and plug numbers in; instead it has you actually *build* the tables and derive the formulae and then work stuff out. It's also fascinating to see how people used to calculate without the convenience of a '0'. Definitely worth a read.

Make sure your mathematical foundations are sound. I know I'd forgotten just about everything after 5 years.


Again, beware the college textbooks! They tend to be boring and dry. Most are written to help you pass exams, not understand the subject. A nice series of books is available online (at http://www.lightandmatter.com) Worth downloading and reading. The site also has a bunch of links to other places with online books (I think it's in the article about Open books he's written).

I've heard a lot of good stuff about the Feynman books. Can't buy 'em and no library here that I've seen has them, so I can't really comment.


Not my favorite subject, but important for the next one, which is my second favorite, after physics.

Get your hands on a good book and then make sure you get your fundamentals down pat. Understand how those formulae are derived, don't just mug them up.


Specifically microbiology. The BCL has very few books on this subject, but there's a nice online text book at (http://gened.emc.maricopa.edu/bio/bio181/BIOBK/BioBookTOC.html) which I'm in the process of whacking.

Some other good stuff at



Engineering rather than science, but I've always wanted to hack hardware. There's *very* little material online, so you'll have to shell out for some books. An introductory text I used was written by some guy called Grob. I'm not sure where I've kept it, so I can't be more specific. Pretty OK, but not that great. The Art of Electronics (Horowitz and Hill) was highly recommended and it has an excellent attitude towards the subject, but be warned! It's got very little introductory material and it moves too fast (at least for me). It should be your third or fourth book.


Read, read and then read some more. Always read a couple of books at a time. When you get tired of one, switch to the next. Work out exercises and write stuff out. It's tedious but it'll help fix those concepts in.

I know I sometimes grow impatient with the pace I'm learning at and I want to skip ahead to more interesting stuff. However, if you haven't fully internalised the fundamentals, you're not going to be able to make sense of the more advanced topics.

I also believe that it takes time for new concepts to percolate down into your brain and become second nature. Take things slow and easy. Pace yourself. You don't have any exams to pass or GPA to maintain. Learn for the sake of learning and enjoy the ride!


BTW, Anyone know other sources of online info about any of the subjects discussed above? If so, then gimme, Gimme, GIMME! :-)

There is a lot of info online. At one time I had ~350 MB of computer science related material (So I'm a packrat, sue me! ;-). Lost it all in a HDD crash.

Loads of books (most are slightly specialised) at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

Check it out.

Electronics (4.00 / 1) (#30)
by DigDug on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 06:37:35 AM EST

For learning electronics, nothing beats The Art of Electronics. My dad owned the first edition of the book, in two tomes, translated to Russian. (We lived in the USSR then.) Now, I've bought the second edition; One huge hardcover tome in English. This is the book to learn electronics with.

(Yes, that's a referral link to Amazon. No, I'm not promoting the book simply for the referral.)

Yavista - if you haven't found a nice homepage yet.

[ Parent ]

Whoa (none / 0) (#37)
by japhar81 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:31:28 PM EST

Thank you so much for all those links:) I'm definately going to start reading this stuff.

<H6>Rome is always burning, and the younger generation never respects its elders. The time of your second coming, japhar81, is no exception. -- Aphasia</H6&gt
[ Parent ]
Two routes (none / 0) (#29)
by pak21 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 05:30:40 AM EST

So, the question, after all that, where can one find readable material to teach scientific concepts like physics and chem?

I think it really depends on what you mean by "teach": if you want to go down the popsci route, various good suggestions have already been made (Feynman, Hawking, John Gribbin. I'll also better give Martin Rees' Just Six Numbers a plug as his office is just down the hall...). OTOH, if you actually want to understand the maths, so you can derive some of the results which just get quoted in the likes of the above, the only way I know is to sit down and thrash through countless example problems.

I don't know quite what level you're looking at here, but to take my first degree as an example, we're looking at 18-year olds coming in with calculus and not that much more. If you really want to see what our maths problems are like, they're available from the DAMTP Web site (the Nxx sheets are for the science courses). Disclaimer: the students doing these are hopefully the best 18-year olds around, so these problems aren't easy!

The math! the math! (none / 0) (#36)
by japhar81 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:28:34 PM EST

I've read some Hawking and whatnot, and yes, my goal is to be able to derive why a quanta can coexist in two states or whatnot. I'm trying to bust through problems, but (and this is the point) I cant find anything that'll take me through the concepts I need in the order I need. The intro courses start at f=ma and a=v/t, and then they derive derive derive. What I need is something to guide me through deriving this stuff myself.

<H6>Rome is always burning, and the younger generation never respects its elders. The time of your second coming, japhar81, is no exception. -- Aphasia</H6&gt
[ Parent ]
Re: The math! the math! (none / 0) (#49)
by pak21 on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 07:43:22 AM EST

my goal is to be able to derive why a quanta can coexist in two states

You'll never be able to derive why that's the case: a photon (or whatever) is a wave and it is a particle. That's just a fact you have to accept (or at least, it's one of the basic assumptions of quantum theory). What you are able to derive is (say) the double-slit interference pattern see from Young's slits, or how relativity affects the light coming from very close to a black hole.

(Posted with lynx. Hope this looks OK...)

[ Parent ]
Feynman's lectures (3.00 / 1) (#31)
by slaytanic killer on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 08:27:49 AM EST

Painfully good book.

It is apparently also available in softcover, which shaves over half the cost. Certainly available on audio tape, since they were Caltech lectures. Covers from the fundamentals of mechanics (vol 1) to quantum theory (vol 3). For understanding rather than mechanically doing.

Minor note (none / 0) (#34)
by slaytanic killer on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:18:48 PM EST

I will add that this is a very good book for learning how to "do" physics. Foundations. Equations. And along with that (and not at all instead) is the philosophy of physics, in Feynman's style. How physics differs from mathematics, important things like that.

[ Parent ]
How ironic (3.00 / 2) (#33)
by Rand Race on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 11:15:44 AM EST

Does no one else see the irony in dissing the liberal arts while bemoaning the lack of readable hard science books?

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

Is it realistic to teach yourself science? (none / 0) (#35)
by ignatiusst on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:21:20 PM EST

I think the answer has to be "No". Science, on any level besides the most introductory, is based on objective observation. Being subjective creatures, I cannot imagine anyone being objective at the level chemistry/physic requires without subjecting their ideas/understanding to a peer review of some sort.

You can learn some interesting stuff by picking up the text, but I don't think you will ever gain a deep understanding without formal training.

Just my two cents...

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. -- Jonathan Swift

Depends on the level of understanding desired (none / 0) (#39)
by Mad Hughagi on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 01:32:09 PM EST

I think that to really understand science you pretty much have to go through the process that most undergraduate science students are familiar with - that of tedious groundwork. I'm just finishing my 3rd year in an honours physics program, and we have barely scratched the surface of anything that is deemed 'popular science'. The trick with science is that there is no short-cuts, while you can memorize what other people have said and maybe have a descriptive understanding of things it is very difficult to grasp the true nature of many topics without having the foundation to clearly conceptualize the ideas.

One thing that really shook me up was the fact that like the poster of this article I spent a great deal of time 'reading ahead' before I began my formal studies at university. Once I had taken the introductory courses to many of these subjects (relativity, etc) it made me realize just how limited my previous outlook on the topics was - not because I wasn't as 'smart', simply because I did not realize all of the intricacies and whatnot.

In general though, I'm not going to claim that a traditional university education is the only way to develop a good understanding of science - If one is willing to trudge through much of the math and often mundane topics it will make the higher level stuff that much more meaningfull. And even if you are interested in obtaining a descriptive knowledge of science, (something I think more people in our society should consider, seeing as how much of it affects our lives) it will definately go that much farther in widening your outlook on a great variety of topics.

So I guess my advice to the poster of this article is to tread slowly (this is probably key, the main difference between diy and formal learning is that at school they make you work at a pace that will allow you to soak it all up, while on your own it is often easy to blaze through something overlooking things), take your time to learn the fundamentals (reading up on advanced things once in a while doesn't hurt though, it's probably the best thing for maintaining your intrest!) and then move on to the next step. Many of the other posters have listed a great selection of books, the Feynman Lectures are amazing, and it would definately help to pick up Halliday and Resnick or Serway, they provide a thorough base for introductory physics.


We don't make the products you like, we make you like the products we make.
[ Parent ]

I disagree (none / 0) (#40)
by slaytanic killer on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 01:49:05 PM EST

G.H. Hardy may have destroyed Ramanujan's mind by such notions. Ramanujan was a mathematician from India, who picked up a highschool algebra book and then proceeded to produce a huge amount of very strange mathematics, as well as reinvent a great deal of what was already researched. Hardy was responsible for bringing him to England, but though he did not have the same skill as Ramanujan, he often argued that Ramanujan have a very formal & conventional grasp of mathematics. It now turns out that Ramanujan was dissuaded from pursuing a great deal of very fruitful research, and instead went down some blind alleys with Hardy.

Einstein was told that he would never contribute anything of importance, when he was in college. He did a great deal of his work as a patent clerk, stealing time when no one was looking. Very similar to J.K. Rowling, now that I think of it.

Decartes hid a great deal of his work, which was only to be discovered after his death.

Feynman... was a kook. He was social, but a lot of his world was in his own mind. So that goes to show there are no stereotypes. People find their objectivity in their own ways, probably because they wish to find truth and not be stuck in the web of their own opinions.

[ Parent ]
Subjects to cover (none / 0) (#46)
by azaidi on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 01:18:20 AM EST

Could someone post a list of subject undergrad physics/chem and bio students cover in their 3-4 years?

It would make it easier to make sure that I haven't missed anything out.


Cambridge University stuff (none / 0) (#51)
by pak21 on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 02:34:46 PM EST

The stuff from my first degree in Cambridge, UK is listed on the physics department's web site; see the `Course Details' section. For reference, Part IA is 1st year, IB is 2nd, II is 3rd and III is 4th year. Yes, there is a good reason for this! :-)

[ Parent ]
A nice ressource (none / 0) (#48)
by tlv87 on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 03:25:17 AM EST

I recently found the usenet physics FAQ. Its very well written and quite complete : covers all interesting topics. It doesn't teach you how they reach the conclusion though.. http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/faq.html

The answer is: Math! (none / 0) (#59)
by phliar on Fri Dec 22, 2000 at 04:53:46 AM EST

but can anyone point me in the right direction? I want some reading material, something I can read like a novel, that will teach me the concepts I want to know. In my case, physics.
For "modern" physics - relativity, but especially quantum mechanics - there is no novel-like book that's not fluff. Without math you can't really get quantum physics. (And interestingly discrete math - abstract algebra - is used a lot.) You have to learn the math and you have to do the homework - solve simple problems. Once you start working with wave functions etc. everything starts to make sense. Well, that's too strong a phrase... it's said that you never really understand quantum mechanics, you just get used to it.

But if you're not quite ready to jump into the heavy math just yet, you can start with these:

  • The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose
  • Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) by R. Feynman
  • Six Easy Pieces by Feynman
  • Six Not So Easy Pieces by Feynman

(The Penrose book has a bunch of other stuff about AI, computation and the mind and stuff like that that I found tedious.) Do you get the idea that I like Feynman's writing? If you can afford the complete set of the Feynman Lectures on Physics do it! It isn't necessarily a good first exposure, but it's an invaluable reference to keep for the rest of your life. Feynman was just amazing in front of a classroom or audience. There are also movies of him lecturing at Caltech; if you get the chance to see them grab it!

Also very interesting is Quantum Theory by David Bohm. It's a little dated but it uses only classical math. Another decent Bohm book is The Special Theory of Relativity which is about, strangely enough, the Special Theory of Relativity. (Which is much easier than the General Theory of Relativity.)

Faster, faster, until the thrill of...

Is there any way to learn science on your own? | 59 comments (58 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!