(re)Learning Physics

So I’m (re)learning physics. As a part of this new endeavor to think theologically about the implications of space exploration and a human presence on other worlds, I’m starting to learn physics again. I’ve seen enough sloppy theology to know how unhelpful the results can be when someone in an unrelated field learns a little theology—enough to make a mess of things—but not enough to say something really worthwhile. The truth is, serious theology is hard work. It requires a lot of time, energy, and personal investment. You have to be trained to do it well, and you have to read and think a lot to make a helpful contribution.

The same is true for science. Serious science is hard work, and you have to be trained in order to do it well. I don’t want to be the guy who learns a little bit of science—enough to make a real mess—but not enough to say something useful and meaningful. So, if I want to think about physics and theology, there’s really no way around it. I have to do the hard work of learning the physics. My goal is to be able to pick up peer-reviewed academic articles on astrophysics and understand them. I imagine it will take several years to get there.

Thankfully, I’m brash enough to think I can do it. So there’s that. And I’m not diving into it completely cold—I minored in physics in college, and even though I’ve forgotten a lot, it’s at least somewhat familiar territory. And I still have a lot of my old textbooks (which is good, because dang those are expensive). But most importantly, there are a lot of great resources available online to help independent learners like myself. I’ve been able to access lecture videos from university courses in physics and math, not to mention well-written descriptions of physical laws that are easy to understand. There hasn’t been a better time in human history to take initiative and teach yourself something.

So how am I going about it? First, I’ve cracked open my old calculus textbook. It’s going slow, but I’m learning about limits and derivatives and their practical applications. Next up is integrals, then differential equations. I’m also trying to learn about some more advanced mathematical concepts like tensors. I have no idea if I’m in over my head. Which means I’m probably in over my head.

Second, I’m reading physics textbooks. I started with Volume 1 of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, which are available online for free at the CalTech website. These are based on lectures Richard Feynman gave at CalTech to first- and second-year physics students, and after they were published they served as physics textbooks for a number of years. CalTech’s decision to make them freely available has been a godsend. Next up is the mechanics chapters out of University Physics, a popular college physics textbook. My ambitious goal is to get through the mechanics and electricity chapters out of that book and the next 2 volumes of Feynman’s lectures before the end of the year.

Third, I’m working problems. Just calculus problems right now, but as I get into University Physics a bit I’ll start on problems in physics. I’ve done some of those from Feynman’s lectures, but those were mostly following his equations rather than solving my own.

And fourth, I’m writing this blog. The weekly (ok, almost weekly) process of writing is helping me stay disciplined about reflecting on what I’m learning. By holding myself accountable to the process at regular intervals, it’s helping me stay focused and committed to doing the rest of the work. I actually find myself tempted to procrastinate from writing…by working calculus problems and reading physics. And the process is helping me learn and retain information by forcing me to think through it in terms of things I know well, like theology and the Bible.

It’s a slow process, but it’s working. I find myself understanding things and building knowledge a step at a time. Hopefully as the process continues, the results will appear in this blog as a more sophisticated understanding of physics and its relationship with theology.

So what about you? What are you learning, and how are you going about it?

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