Suppose you want to learn upper level physics. Do you have to use a physics textbook or a lecture? Is that the only way to learn?
What Is Upper Level Physics? —————————-
Traditionally, there are three big things in the physics curriculum:
Electricity and Magnetism
At the introductory level, student typically study classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism (EM). The upper level physics courses focus on quantum mechanics and then more advanced versions of EM and classical mechanics. Yes, there are other things thrown in there too – like computational physics, thermal physics and stuff like that.
If you want to answer the question: how can you learn upper level physics, you need to first answer: what is the goal? Why do students take upper level physics? I can think of two possible reasons.
Understand what has already been modeled in physics. In this goal, physics is sort of a history lesson. What are Maxwell’s equations? What is the the Lagrangian? What is a wavefunction? These ideas are typically present to students in either a textbook or a lecture (or both). Of course, that’s not usually enough for students to actually grasp these complicated ideas. They need to continue to wrestle with them in the form of homework, projects, group discussions and test. Confusions happens – but confusion is the sweat of learning.
Practicing Making Models in Physics. What if you aren’t really concerned about what has been figured out in physics before? What if you just want to practice model building? As an example, you could try to figure out how gravity works in Angry Birds Space.
Of course, upper level physics isn’t either of these two things. It really should be a combination of these two things (at least in my version of the upper level course). Sadly, I suspect that many physics programs just focus on the “what has already been figured out” part of physics. Surely, to make further progress in physics we must stand on the shoulders of giants and build on what has been built. But we should still build more (model).
Almost Impossible: The 110 MPH Fastball
Learning Resources ——————
Let’s say that the upper level physics course is a combination of modeling and standing on the shoulders of giants. Really, it would be difficult to make models without any shoulder standing, right? I don’t think anyone would disagree that you could learn this “previous physics” with either a lecture or a textbook or both. But what if neither of those two things worked? What other options are there?
Videos. If you do some simple searching, you can find a bunch of good stuff youtube. Here is an example of an excellent upper level physics video.
Sure, there are some bad ones online (you know who you are) but it is possible to learn all of the old physics with videos. But how are these different than an in-person lecture? They are inherently the same thing. You can pause them and reply them – but you can’t ask questions with immediate answers. But it’s still someone going over the ideas.
Group Work / Study Groups. Suppose some students gathered together on a regular basis. During their time they would discuss physics. Would this be different than a lecture or textbook? If the students are trying to stand on the shoulders of giants, then at least one of them would have to read a textbook or attend a lectures. Sure, they could re-figure out all the existing models of physics, but it would take a long time. I think meeting in a study group would just be like a lecture except that the students are the lecturers.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). There are plenty of free online physics courses out there on the internet. Maybe you could say that technically these are not lectures – but come on. They are a form of lecture.
Physics Play. I think this is the only thing that is not a textbook or lecture of some type. What if you just gave a student some sensors, a video camera and a computer. Could they play with this stuff and re-build Maxwell’s equations from scratch? I say yes. It might take quite some time and they might not get to the same place, but it is possible.
So, can a student learn upper level physics without a textbook or lecture? Yes, but the answer depends on what you mean by “upper level”. Most of the answers are really just different versions of a textbook or lecture.