General Question

Haleth's avatar

Can you teach yourself math and science?

Asked by Haleth (17758 points ) July 13th, 2014

I’ve had some luck teaching myself new skills, but in every case I’ve had some sort of knowledge base first. Like, teaching yourself a new foreign language from scratch is difficult. But understanding the basics of grammar and pronunciation, and then teaching myself more advanced vocabulary, is pretty easy. Right now I’m trying to learn French from books and videos. I took a couple years of Spanish, and so far the grammar seems nearly identical, so it’s going ok. I’m also teaching myself insanely detailed minutiae of the wine world, pretty successfully, and that’s what got me thinking about this.

My last math class was probably high school algebra, and I don’t even remember that much of it. I think my last science class was high school chemistry. (I was an art major.) It feels like unfinished business- like the most advanced book I ever read was Twilight, and then I stopped there. That sucks!

I can’t really afford community college classes right now, but I’d like to find something with some instruction or explanations to it. Do you have any specific recommendations for my (kindergarteny) knowledge level? I’m especially interested in astronomy and physics.

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45 Answers

jerv's avatar

Algebra is actually enough for much of physics, and you can teach yourself. I myself forgot quite a bit of algebra, but still know enough to rearrange equations; F=mv2—> F/m=v2—> (Fm)^0.5=v.

But the tricky part is visualizing it, which is why Conceptual Physics is nice. It is a little lighter on the math, and more about teaching the principles of physics rather than just giving you a list of equations without any real context.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

Sure you can teach yourself math and science. You just gotta apply yourself and don’t stop once you get started.
And be sure to get started.
Try “Physics for Dummies.”

There thousands of books on Astronomy at used book stores.

snowberry's avatar

I know there are a lot of home school books out on these subjects. These books are generally available over the Internet, and you can often find them in stores for teachers.

Mimishu1995's avatar

Science, yes. Math, no.

snowberry's avatar

Oh, and I forgot to mention that you should be able to pick up answer books (or teacher’s books) in the same place.

LostInParadise's avatar

I give you a great deal of credit for wanting to teach yourself math and science. If you want to learn science, you should know basic high school math. Taking an online course can be helpful. I took a course at Udacity and I liked their approach. They break the topics into short lectures and give online quizzes so that you can test your knowledge. One helpful feature of online courses in general is that they have user forums where you can ask about the material. I took a glance at the Udacity course they call college algebra The material is really for basic high school math. There are no prerequisites beyond knowing arithmetic. The one thing that they left out is trigonometry. You should learn the basics of trig after covering the other material.

flip86's avatar

Why learn algebra at all? Especially now. It is useless for 99.9% of the human population.

cazzie's avatar

I find it easier to learn science than math on my own. I’m always reading. The conceptual physics, like @jerv mentions is about all I’ll grasp because of my huge gaps in math knowledge.

@flip86 Algebra is NOT useless. I remember the first time I had to use algebra at work to calculate a portion of an insurance premium that didn’t contain sales tax. I was just a lowly assistant office administrator who got a C in algebra in school, but I worked it out. Impressed the hell out of my boss. I never thought I would ever consider myself part of the 0.1%, but perhaps I am?

I find geometry more useful, especially in conjunction with metrics. I often need to find the volume of a container if it isn’t listed in the manufacturer’s description. Being able to do this with both square and round vessels is essential in my work.

If you are baking a cake and have 450ml of cake batter, being able to work out the volume of your cake pans, especially if they aren’t standard, is a good, everyday skill to have.

I’m part of an international group that meets every Friday in Second Life. We listen to the NPR show, Science Friday together and discuss the topics and anything else that we feel like. Sometimes it dissolves (devolves) into political BS, but this last week was really great. There was a section about statistics involving sports and two of us were able to teach the points the guest was making to those who weren’t understanding. Past weeks, I’ve had graphene better explained to me as well as how GMOs are affecting insects and bees. We have entomologists, physicists, biologists, robotics specialists, a huge selection of tech people, and we all sit there in virtual reality and chat and pick each other’s brains. Best way I know how to spend a Friday night.

dappled_leaves's avatar

The answer to your question is yes, but to figure out what materials you need, we need to know what your goal is. Do you want to be able to use it school or work? If so, you’ll probably want a more structured learning process.

At the university level (which is mainly self-directed learning anyway), it’s easy to find course catalogues (to see which things need to be learned in which order), course outlines (to see how to organize your learning of a specific topic), textbooks and even lectures (for actual content). All of this stuff is online for the students, so inevitably some of it will be publicly visible for you.

But before the university level, it becomes harder to find lots of free information, because a lot of this is not published online. It’s also harder to trust the quality of information at this level, and you won’t have the ability to discern whether what you’re looking at is good or not. In high school, you’d learn up to algebra and trigonometry. Usually, you would move on to calculus in college.

The problem with learning math and physics on your own is that there’s less motivation to do the hours and hours and hours of problems that are required to develop an intuition for using these skills. My advice is that if you want to use these skills outside of your daily life, you should take classes. And yes, algebra is totally a daily life skill – though trigonometry and calculus are not.

If you are doing this purely for personal interest, I think you don’t need to work at becoming skilled at problem-solving. This is going to limit what you can do with math and physics, but it will keep you from wasting those hours and your keenness about how it all works.

There are a zillion good popular science books that will explain what calculus and physics (of all flavours) are all about. I would suggest that you start there, and see where that interest leads you. This should probably be a separate question in itself, although if you enjoy astronomy, I think you should begin with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which touches on all of your interests, and is fun to read. A walk through the bibliography would give you some great leads on other titles.

flip86's avatar

@cazzie Algebra most certainly is useless for just about everyone. Who is actually gonna figure the volume of their pan for a recipe? Nobody. They’ll read the recipe and get the size of pan required. No math needed. Just some basic reading skills and the ability to follow a recipe.

El_Cadejo's avatar

With math if I understand some of the basic concepts I can teach myself more complex things. Science I’m much more apt at teaching to myself, though I will say, the way some papers are written almost feels like they’re making it intentionally hard to understand.

It really depresses me when people say algebra or other basic math skills aren’t necessary…

dxs's avatar

I’m sure you’ll find use in math, @Haleth. I use algebra every day and, hell, I even use Calculus from time to time. Knowing how to apply it is what makes it useful. It’s hard for me to say whether or not I could teach myself algebra because I already know it, but I remember all through my schooling I never understood textbooks. I needed another source, most of the time that being a teacher. I don’t think math is meant to be in textbook form. If you can’t afford college classes or tutoring, consider internet videos. There’s a ton of them. Purplemath is pretty useful because they also give you a guide on what to learn.

cazzie's avatar

@flip86 I’m sure you find no use for it because you don’t try to or want to. For some of us, it’s fun. We enjoy doing things differently to challenge ourselves. We also recognise situations where it can be used, where, if you aren’t interested, you wouldn’t even notice. Algebra, like any tool, is useless if it isn’t in your toolbox.

dappled_leaves's avatar

Perhaps the usefulness of algebra should be a separate question. I find it useful on a daily basis (I’m talking about outside of my work), and I am willing to bet that most people do, whether they recognize it or not. If they don’t recognize it, then they are using it intuitively. Nothing wrong with that.

Michael_Huntington's avatar

I’ve heard people having success with Khan academy for both math and science. Wolfram Alpha is a good resource too.

flip86's avatar

@cazzie Name a real world application for algebra that doesn’t involve a career in mathematics, physics, or other sciences.

People do not think in terms of a word problem. They break things down to their most basic. If I only have 25 dollars and I need gas, I’m gonna think, I want to keep 10 and put 15 in the tank. No algebra, no thinking about how many gallons my 25 dollars could get me. Just some basic subtraction. I’m not saying basic math is useless. Just that algebra is useless.

Haleth's avatar

Hey guys, thanks for all the answers so far! @dxs a good online video sounds like the perfect place to start, so I’m definitely going to check out Purplemath.

To answer a couple questions in this thread, I want to have better math skills, but mainly for my own personal enjoyment. It seems like if you want to learn a more advanced subject, like physics, you need to have a solid background in math first. I’m actually ok with hours and hours of studying. I mean, most of us watch TV or surf the internet for hours every day, so there is time. I just want to learn how stuff works, you know?

dxs's avatar

Truth: I do math for fun. It’s a blast.

gailcalled's avatar

I used algebra the other day. I wanted to figure out how far I walked in a particulary time period. I retraced my steps in the car for ¾ of the route (the last quarter was on a private, road where I could not bring the car.)

My odometer told me that I had walked .65 miles; my watch told me that it had taken me 15 mintues. How far had I walked in 40 minutes? ¾x = 1.3.

x = 1.7333 miles…the distance of my daily walk.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

@flip86 “Name a real world application for algebra that doesn’t involve a career in mathematics, physics, or other sciences.”

Example 1. You open a small business and are required to withhold 6% sales tax on every transaction. You prefer not to charge the 6% in addition to the sales price, but to embed the tax in each sale. This approach is easier for you, appealing to your customers, and not at all unusual.

You sell something for $100. You recognize sales revenue of $94.34, and you owe $5.66 to the state for sales tax collected. It takes some algebra to get those numbers:

x + .06x = 100
1.06x = 100
x = 94.34

That might seem like a very simple calculation, but you’d be amazed how many people are incapable of doing or even comprehending it. They think, “So, I have $100 gross sales receipts to declare, plus I owe $6.00 to the state for sales tax.”

cazzie's avatar

^5’s all the fun fun math people in the group! I gave an example. I was just a lowly assistant. I needed to fix a problem and I did it with Algebra.

flip86's avatar

@SadieMartinPaul Right. So you admit that people do not use it. There are computer programs and calculators that can do it for them. As well as accountants.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

@flip86 You asked us to “name a real world application for algebra that doesn’t involve a career in mathematics, physics, or other sciences.” I just gave you such an application. Please don’t try to turn around your question and pretend that I didn’t answer it.

Here’s another real-life example that has nothing to do with a career in math or sciences:

Example 2. An employer wants to give each staff member a $500 holiday bonus. Under federal tax law, the bonuses are includable in income and subject to FICA withholding (6.2% OASDI and 1.45% Medicare). The employer wants to give $500 checks, net of the mandatory FICA withholding. When the employer pays a staff member’s share of FICA, that’s additional taxable income. What to do, what to?

x – .0754x = 500
.9235x = 500
x = 541.42

The taxable income is $541.42. The employee’s share of FICA tax is 7.65% of $541.42, or $41.42. After the FICA’s been withheld, the net check is $500.

Complicated? No, this is very simple algebra. And, no, employers don’t have computer programs to gross-up wages, nor would it occur to them to ask accountants for help. They just get it wrong.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

^^^ Please use your linked worksheet to solve my Example 2, and then post your results at Fluther.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

^^^ Actually, I think you’re right that this particular spreadsheet could solve the example, because it begins with net (not gross) pay.

How many people would know to search for and find this aide? “Deny it all you want.”? I speak from 30 years of experience as a CPA.

flip86's avatar

This is by the company Intuit. Which produces QuickBooks. A very popular accounting software.

dxs's avatar

@flip86 At my work, it’s all by hand. The only computer is the credit card machine. A computer won’t always be handy, either. The other day, I was at the store buying soup and for some reason the unit prices weren’t lined up equally. One can was $1.89 for x amount of liquid, and the other was 2 for 4 for y amount of liquid. The $2 can had more liquid, so my instinct told me they were, if anything, the same. But I don’t trust intuition with math, so before just snatching the $1.89 can, I made a proportion to calculate the cost per oz, and it turns out the 2 for 4 one was significantly less per oz, so I bought that one.

PhiNotPi's avatar

[Mod Says] Please keep this discussion helpful and on-topic. This question is about teaching yourself math, not the usefulness of math in buying sodas or taking walks.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

@flip86 FYI, I helped design the most recent versions of QuickBooks and ProSeries, which is Intuit’s professional tax preparation software. I participate in a users’ advisory system for upgrades and improvements, and I contribute often and successfully.

Thank you for lecturing me about QuickBooks and what it is. I’m truly grateful to be enlightened.

By the way, Intuit Online Payroll isn’t especially popular. There are a number of competing payroll services, and a handful of companies dominate the industry; Intuit’s product isn’t among them. I currently work with 150+ employers, and I’ve worked with countless other employers over the years. I’ve never known a single client who’d chosen Intuit Online Payroll, been satisfied, and stayed with it.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

@Haleth You posted your question to the General Section so, as a moderator recently mentioned, we should keep our replies on topic.

I think it would be difficult to self-teach certain areas of math. For example, once you get beyond basic linear equations – simplifying and solving them – Algebra can be quite challenging to learn. Doing calculations with exponents and radicals; polynomials; systems of two equations; absolute values; like most things, they’re easy after you’ve learned them, but some guidance along the way is helpful. Mixture problems (You need a 15% solution, but you have 10% and 30%. How many liters of each do you use to create 10 liters of 15% solution?) are migraine-inducing for people who are otherwise good with math!

At least for me, Geometry was easier to teach myself. All those shapes, sizes, and relative positions, which can be drawn, are more “real” and simpler to grasp. It’s comparable to viewing data in a graph rather than making sense out of a column of numbers.

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

@Haleth I need to confess something that might encourage you.

I’m good with mathematics. Algebra and Geometry were fun, and I breezed through Trigonometry and Calculus.

Well, I can’t do arithmetic! I have a condition called dyscalculia, which is an inability to comprehend or learn arithmetic facts. It’s a Herculean struggle to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. I can’t do any of those operations in my head; I need to get a pencil and piece of paper, and I still have to count on my fingers. Way back in grammar school, I memorized the multiplication and division tables, along with all my classmates, but I could never retain or use the information. Ask me to solve 7×9 or 6×8, and I honestly can’t do it.

So, if someone such as me can do well with high school and college math, I bet you can, too! Best of luck with your studies.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

I was a straight A student in all of my Algebra classes (and most other classes too, for that matter).

Don’t let anyone sway you from learning Algebra. If you never use actual equations therefrom in your entire lifetime, believe me you will always be basing many many of your life decisions on logic you developed learning Algebra (which is one of the specific things intelligent people garner from their studies in the world of Algebra).

gailcalled's avatar

^^ Can you teach yourself math?

Haleth's avatar

@flip86 Why would you want to argue for knowing less? What purpose does that possibly serve? Please watch

MollyMcGuire's avatar

Sure. It’s possible.

flip86's avatar

@Haleth It isn’t about knowing less. It’s about wasting time on something that is largely useless and frankly, one of the major reasons kids fail in school.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@flip86 I totally agree. Math classes are just FAR too hard here in the US. We really need to start making them easier so we can get on par with the rest of the world. Oh….wait a minute

jerv's avatar

Largely useless?
* Looks at paycheck *
About double what it’d be if I blew off Algebra like many kids do… but money is useless.

RocketGuy's avatar

@El_Cadejo – our kids got beat by Vietnamese kids in math?! Didn’t we blow them up in the 60’s?

LostInParadise's avatar

@Haleth , Ignore all the nay sayers. Studying math and science will expand your mind and change the way you look at the world. Once you get past algebra, consider taking a first year course in calculus. It is like nothing else you will have studied and a very important tool for making sense of nature.

talljasperman's avatar

I tried and failed…. I even watched Physics a World in Motion and Math Factor… and It hasn’t helped.

jerv's avatar

@talljasperman It strikes me that you have issues thinking ahead or seeing anything but the immediately obvious; you live in the moment, and cannot see “behind the curtain”. You’re smart, but (for lack of a better term) near-sighted. Slow down, dig deeper, and it’ll all make sense.

RocketGuy's avatar

Just need to ask: how does that really work?

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