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Physics Resources

Physics Resources

I’m not an Officially Declared Physics Major yet, but by this point in sophomore year a lot of people have a decent idea of the direction in which they’re headed, and I’d count myself among those people. My recent late night deep dives into the Environmental Studies major requirements, Math minor requirements, et cetera probably suggest otherwise, but no matter.

The standard track for a sophomore planning on physics at Carleton is Atomic and Nuclear Physics in the fall, Analytical and Computational Mechanics in the winter, and Electricity and Magnetism in the spring, and so far that’s what I’ve followed.

This term’s course, colloquially referred to as “Classy” (Classey? Class•E?), appears to cover similar material to what is commonly referred to as a “numerical methods” course at other schools. As such, it’s introduced me to a few new computational tools that should be at my disposal as a physicist, promising many more to come.

The basic idea of the course seems to be a second, deeper look at classical mechanics, in which we look at problems from the perspectives of how differential equations can help us solve things more intuitively, and how computational methods can help us make approximations when such an approach fails, respectively. My professor, the inimitable Jay Tasson, often talks about adding things to our physics “toolbox” in this auto summary tools class. So today I’ll be sharing with you all what’s in my toolbox so far.

Computation padsCome to think of it, ~paper~ probably doesn’t exactly count as a “resource” . . . ? Maybe I should’ve titled this post “Physics Tools”?? Meh.

You’ll want a lot of these. I use TOPS’ Engineering Computation Pads. They’re literally just graph paper that’s easy to write on. The grid keeps you organized, which becomes exponentially more important as your problem sets become longer and more computation-heavy. I go through about one of these per term, probably more when I’m taking a physics course and a mathematics course simultaneously.

A graphing calculatorYou’ll also definitely, definitely need a serious graphing calculator. The classic choice is something from trusty old Texas Instruments (I use their TI-84 Plus CE, linked above), but there are other options as well. Just be sure that it can do everything you’ll need it to (which will be a lot!). Desmos also offers what is basically a digital version of one of these, but be careful how you use it. It’s easier to do some things but a lot less obvious, if not outright impossible, to do other things with it.

A trusty reference textSee if you can guess which images relate to mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and relativity, respectively! Or at least I think that’s how those images were chosen…Physics curricula can sometimes be a little weird in that they’re made up of a lot of very different and seemingly distinct courses and topics, yet study of the field is nevertheless quite cumulative. What I mean by that is, if you decide to pursue a physics major you’ll find yourself studying a lot of different things, but those different things will often loop back and reference or build upon past topics in surprising ways.

It’s thus pretty important to keep a good handle on all the material you’ve covered in the past – a challenge in and of itself, often compounded by the fact that different textbooks for different courses often follow totally different conventions when it comes to notation. Therefore, I’ve found it immensely helpful to have one big, reliable textbook whose with a familiar pedagogical and formatting style that can serve as a reference for all your other classes once they decide to throw in some pesky little topic you haven’t covered in a while.

For me, that textbook is Physics for Scientists & Engineers with Modern Physics by Giancoli. In my opinion, it’s a beautiful, expansive treatment of the most fundamental physics topics, and the clarity with which it elucidates trickier concepts can be downright comforting at times. Of course, you’ll have to figure out what works best for you, but I guess what I’m saying is that when it comes to a reference text, what you should primarily be looking for is a useful combination of completeness and readability.

WolframAlphaHere’s where things get a little more specific. I think all physics students should familiarize themselves with WolframAlpha. It’s this magical data-based search engine of sorts that uses some algorithmic wizardry to turn things like the words-and-numbers-mixed query in the image above into workable questions. It then (usually) spits out pretty much everything you’d need to know about the matter. It’s like getting to text some sort of Wikipedia-calculator hybrid that understands what you’re looking for and is always there to help. It’s an invaluable tool for quickly working through menial calculations, conversions, and references.

MathematicaAnd then there’s Mathematica, the terrifying older brother of WolframAlpha. It’s a more ~pro~ (note: it’s ridiculously expensive, but at least at Carleton, the College pays for it) and math-centric (no way!) version of the engine. Although I’m just getting started with it, a lot of Analytical and Computational Mechanics seems to be dedicated to working through how this single resource can be used to obtain useful approximations of important physics things where our classic analytical methods come up short. All I can say is that using Mathematica makes me feel . . . powerful.

Dangerously powerful.

So there’s that! All physics educations are different, and my list is definitely neither entirely complete nor universally applicable (except maybe with the calculator and paper stuff), but I hope it gives potential students a good idea of the sorts of tools that will become part of their daily lives in the study of physics.

Happy number crunching!

Lucas is in his sophomore year at Carleton, bringing with him a passion for all things nerdy and a talent for overthinking and awkwardness (and self-deprecation). He hails from Pasadena, California, and yes, he realizes it gets cold out here. He currently sees himself majoring in Physics, although he hopes to explore Cinema and Media Studies, Chemistry, Economics, and Computer Science (and Environmental Studies? and Mathematics?? and???) as well. He misses his bearded dragon. Meet the other bloggers!

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