Thursday, April 04, 2013

Studies checkpoint

I see before me Book One of the Open University's S377 Molecular and Cell Biology course. The four-volume half-credit course covers how cells work, how they reproduce and how they go wrong (now of non-academic interest to Iain Banks). With my 23andMe results due next month, it's time to get my head around how genes work, (I bought the four volumes via Amazon).

So here's an interesting test. I've got a good background in maths and physics but I have never formally studied biology. So how accessible is a final-year undergraduate course likely to be? My feeling is that, unlike maths and physics, biology is not deeply hierarchical or cumulative - with some background reading (for example on cell substructures) I'm confident that I can get through it. I'll let you know if such confidence is misplaced.

When I first started the Open University's Calculus of Variations course - M820, the foundation topic in the MSc - I was completely bewildered: it was like entering a foreign country where I knew nothing of the language, customs or ways of life. Now I'm about to start Chapter 13 of 14 and I've grown familiar with the apparatus of stationary values of functionals, the Euler-Lagrange equation, natural boundary conditions and the like. Today I was working through the solution to the brachistochrone problem in the presence of air-resistance and friction (separate cases): mountains of dense algebra but I was fine with the general techniques being used.

The course finishes with Sturm-Liouville theory and the Rayleigh-Ritz method: both are relevant in physics so I'm budgeting another month or so to complete.

The calculus of variations is a technical prerequisite to the application of Emmy Noether's theorem in physics, and I have a book about that next on my list. In parallel I'm going to work through a first course on differential geometry, a prerequisite both for Dr Einstein's more general theory as well as quantum field theory (my holy grail of interest). I guess I should finally mention Consistent Quantum Theory which is conceptually dense but accessible - it's a path which leads to concepts such as density matrices and decoherence, critical to the modern understanding of what quantum mechanics actually means. So far, I'm about halfway through and feeling the enlightenment!