Sunday, September 5, 2010

Circumnavigating the Wall: Astrophysics, Cosmology, and Multivariable Calculus

From the time I was 10 or so I wanted to become an astrophysicist. I fell in love with looking at and reading about the solar system when I was four, but that was followed by a brief period where I wanted to join the CDC. By the time I was 13 I was voraciously reading any book I could understand about cosmology and quantum mechanics.

One summer, I did a program at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, One of the books that was assigned to me (that I never got around to reading) was the Archives of the Universe.

Archives of the Universe: A Treasury of Astronomy's Historic Works of Discovery

The book looks fabulous. It teaches about the history of astronomy through compiling selection from the revolutionary texts that changed the history of astronomy and the way that humankind views the universe. I did try to read it before, but I am embarrassed to say I had some difficulty with visualizing some of the mathematical moves made in Chapter 4: Measuring the Earth's Circumference. Recently I asked Cerinthus if he would read it with me, but unfortunately he had to leave for his adventure before we got the chance. The book is currently on my reading list, but I am not sure how long it will be before I get to it.

This image was taken by Alan, the leader of my summer program at PARI.
Teaching my SAT class reminds me how much I love theoretical math and science. Although I cannot get enough of both classics and the friends I made studying it, I sometimes wonder whether I should have continued down the other path. I just had trouble tolerating the way that Physics 100 was taught. I know that mechanics are radically important to physics, but I wanted to learn about the interactions of stars and galaxies, not the movement of a piece of wood attached to a spring. The only part of college physics that I really enjoyed was Special Relativity.

I also hit a wall in math. Although I took Introduction to Real Analysis and Introduction to Number Theory, both of which I adored, I could not understand my professor in Multivariable Calculus. I found single variable calculus in high school to be a breeze and it really made me love math. I recommend taking calculus to all of my students because it is such a fascinating subject. But I do not know whether it was my book or my professor, but I remember not being able to understand anything at all in my multivariable class and eventually dropped it. I plan on teaching myself both more math and more physics (and I would love book/website/etc recommendations, if anyone has any), but I sometimes long for a way to break back into the world of math and science.

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