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How do I survive high school physics?

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I love physics and study it on my own time, but I'm bored with what we're learning in class. How do I make it through another half year of a subject I love but a class I'm not into?

#physics #high-school-classes #high-school-students #learning

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Greg’s Answer


As a physicist by training myself (though no longer practicing), let me start by saying it's awesome that you love it and are actively trying to keep interested despite a seemingly less-than-awesome teacher!

While it's true that some of the early topics in physics can seem a bit tedious because they're so basic, keep in mind that they're foundational concepts that will end up supporting an immense edifice of knowledge--classical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, astrophysics/cosmology, etc. For example, a mass on a spring ("F = kx") might seem ridiculously trivial, but it turns out that its (simple harmonic) motion is identical to that of a planet around a star (considering the "x" and "y" motions separately) or of an atom in a crystal lattice (considering x/y/z motions separately). And there's a good reason for that! But you won't necessarily learn it until you study Taylor series expansions in a calculus class. (In fact, high school physics can be even slower than the college version if it avoids any use of calculus at all. More powerful mathematical tools are like more powerful vehicles--you can go much farther much faster.)

Ideally your teacher would relate the basic things you're probably learning about to interesting applications you might not have recognized. For example, that trivial spring is directly related to the "R" (resonance) in MRI scans: an oscillating magnetic field from the machine causes hydrogen nuclei in your body to begin oscillating (just like a mass on a spring when you poke it at or near its resonant frequency), and those excited nuclei then emit radio-frequency photons at a known rate for a given excitation level. By varying the strength of the field across the slice through your body, only a particular location of hydrogen nuclei can be made to resonate, and scanning that location back and forth is what allows reconstruction of a full 3D map of your brain or body.

Similarly, wave motion not only shows up in water and air (sound) but also in light waves (visible/IR/UV/radio/xray/gamma), particles (that's how electron microscopes work), and even the fabric of spacetime. (We've now detected several pairs of black holes colliding and even one pair of neutron stars--which, by the way, is where most of the gold, silver, and platinum in our jewelry comes from: very cool stuff!)

In the absence of a regular supply of such connections and news items from your teacher, there are some great bloggers out there that you can follow. One of the best is Ethan Siegel, whose "Starts with a Bang" posts show up on Forbes first but then on his medium.com site a week later. Here's his post about today's big news, the localization of the origin of a super-high-energy cosmic neutrino (detected in a huge telescope buried in the ice of Antarctica) to a quasar 4 billion light-years away whose jet happens to be pointing almost directly toward us: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2018/07/12/a-cosmic-first-ultra-high-energy-neutrinos-found-from-blazing-galaxies-across-the-universe/ (Ethan's got a weekly podcast, too.)

Another good blogger is Brian Koberlein, whose posts are a bit shorter and simpler: https://blog.briankoberlein.com/

There's also https://astrobites.org/ , which is written by recent(ish) college graduates who are now in grad school; every day there's a post summarizing some recently published astrophysics paper. (Today's item is another take on that same neutrino story, except written by someone who was actually involved in the observations, but previous ones cover the gamut from dark matter and dark energy to primordial black holes to the motions of dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way to gravitational lensing of galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang.) Some of them can be a little denser than the other blogs, but you can get the gist of all of them, and don't worry about skipping over the more technical parts or the topics that don't interest you.

And then there's Randall Munroe's "What If" blog, which answers all sorts of weird questions asked by readers, using physics and cartoon drawings to do so: https://what-if.xkcd.com/archive/ . (His xkcd comic strip is equally awesome, though in a more generically nerdish way.)

There are also some YouTube channels with similar content, though I unfortunately haven't kept an explicit list. Minute Physics is wonderful, with hand-drawn cartoons showing the concepts: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUHW94eEFW7hkUMVaZz4eDg . Physics Girl does a lot of fun experiments: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7DdEm33SyaTDtWYGO2CwdA . It's OK to Be Smart covers all sorts of science, not just physics: https://www.youtube.com/user/itsokaytobesmart . And another fun one that's not specifically physics-related but often involves physics is Smarter Every Day. A search for "physics" or "astronomy" on YouTube will turn up others.

Greg recommends the following next steps:

  • Check out one or more of the links above. There's sooo much cool stuff going on in physics these days!
  • Hang in there. :-) Some teachers/professors are better than others.
  • If there are other students who are also interested but bored by class, consider doing things with them--sharing cool blogs and videos, going to a science museum, trying out fun experiments at home, etc.