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Am I capable of study theoretical physics in the future?

  1. Dec 12, 2013 #1
    I am a philosophy student at candidates level. However, my dream is to study theoretical physics at a university.

    The ambition is NOT to become a great physicist (neccesarily). My goal is to be eligible for university studies and understand basic courses.

    So, is it required to be gifted in mathematics to understand A-level theoretical physics, and pass exams? Or is it possible, by sheer willpower, to eventually get there?

    I am very talented at chess and usually excel at my interests (I am autistic). But perhaps mathematics is simply not my thing? I know so little about math - I cannot even say if I am good or bad at it. My scholastic childhood was pretty dreadful and messy. I didn't even attend the math classes.

    Fast forward 5 years - I put in incredibe efforts into improving my math grades..... Give a probability figure of me, your humble correspondent, entering a physics class of a university!

    Remember that I am winner, but I don't know how much of mathematics is talent vs hardwork!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 12, 2013 #2
    A natural ability to understand mathematics once learned is a plus. More important, though, is that you should be eager to learn and fascinated by the subjects you are learning.

    As an engineer, I need a foundation in at least calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. I imagine that scientists need a stronger background in math than engineers.

    All you need before starting calculus is an understanding of high school algebra. Trigonometry would also be very helpful, but isn't strictly necessary as long as you know the definitions of trig functions and the Pythagorean theorem.

    My high school grades were decent, but not near as good as my current university grades. The difference between now and then is that I am actually interested in learning now. This makes all the difference in the world!

    Edit: To clarify the main idea, hard work trumps talent. Hard work is impossible without interest.
  4. Dec 12, 2013 #3
    I am willing to learn. My main fascination is with Quantum mechanics. I can ponder this subject matter in my head an entire night, forgetting to go to bed. Though of course playing chess and doing other stuff at the same time.

    I had no interest in any of this in school. Something awoke in me as an adult with philosophy. In particular theorys of theoretical physics. My verbal intelligence is very high. Some would say it's causally correlated (at such a level) to at least some type of mathematical proficency. It would be interesting to explore that theory.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013
  5. Dec 12, 2013 #4


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    You certainly don't need talent to do well in A-level mathematics. The only things you need are a solid foundation and enthusiasm. And with enthusiasm you can build a solid foundation.

    To build a strong foundation, you need a good mastery of algebra, which you can get by doing many algebra problems. And if you have the enthusiasm, you will challenge yourself and seek more difficult problems. Carry the enthusiasm and the strong foundation you built towards A-levels, and you will certainly do well there.
  6. Dec 12, 2013 #5
    Then I'm sure you can do it, and do it well at that. My advice for now, then, is to do some research on what theoretical physics do, how much income they bring in doing it, and what the projected job growth is for the fields that interest you. Be sure you know what to expect when you graduate, and be sure that that it is what you really want.

    Of course, choose your field first and foremost because it interests you. But, be aware of what your employment prospects will be.
  7. Dec 12, 2013 #6
    Physic is description of nature as possible as it can.Physicists try building appropriate models for to explain how nature works.If you want read poem of nature it must be usefull learn fundamental concepts of math.Because math is language of physic, without it nature probable dont show you its process.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013
  8. Dec 12, 2013 #7
    And don't underestimate those employment prospects either. An interesting field to work in is only an interesting field to work in if you can actually get a job in it. It wouldn't be very fun to spend 4 years earning an interesting degree and then end up working at Starbucks because your degree didn't make you any more employable.

    Of course a physics degree won't be that bad, but be aware that you might not be able to get a job as a theoretical physicist. Make sure you're okay with the "fall back" options.
  9. Dec 12, 2013 #8

    Sure, but I love physics for it's own sake. I am not a huge fan of pure mathematics, but applied to models of the natural world is an entirely different matter. The tradition of famous scientists stemming from Newton, Einstein, Schroedinger - these are about as tough as they come. I would be very proud of myself to end up in that discipline. It's seems intimidating.
  10. Dec 12, 2013 #9


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    I'm not sure I agree with 99% of what other helpers have said.

    To start off with, trig is required for physics and calculus beyond just knowing that sin is opposite over hypotenuse or a^2 + b^2 = c^2. You need to understand vectors, angles, the law of sines/cosines, polar coordinate systems, how to derive and manipulate them.

    Why do so many of these post descend into job prospects/outlooks, when the original poster hasn't even mentioned such things, or even came to a point in which it would be wise to worry about such things?

    OP, I'm not even sure I fully understand your question. If you want to apply a qualitative approach and reasoning to physics, then that's fine. You don't need math. At that point you're doing philosophy, which sounds like what you want to do. If you want to become a physicist, then yes, you need to do the math, and this will take you beyond just thinking about the conceptual nature of physics.

    So perhaps you should clarify, do you want to do philosophy with a conceptual and qualitative backing in physics, or do you want to do quantitative science?
  11. Dec 12, 2013 #10
    I suspect (without proof) that practically anybody can obtain a "reasonable" understanding of practically any topic in modern theoretical physics. I am at best a slightly above average student and I just finished my first course in General Relativity at the graduate level (Book was Carroll, which from what I understand is of intermediate difficulty); I don't know what grade I obtained but I'm anticipating an A or a B. Even if I get worse than that, my own appraisal of my abilities is that I know what's going on, can understand and perform main types of calculations, and understand some of the high end ideas which were discussed during the semester.

    That I probably could not have invented general relativity or established some of its central results (for instance, obtaining the Einstein equations, Schwarzchild metric or Friedmann equations) is almost certainly true; I don't think that if I studied it when I got to graduate school that I would be able to produce more than a modest thesis. But if an expert asked me to expound upon the central ideas I would be cogent.

    Does this help you in any way?
  12. Dec 12, 2013 #11
    Student100: Well, I got an A in calculus 1-3, physics 1 and 2, and differential equations without ever taking trig. I learned all the trig I need in algebra and calculus 1.

    I feel that it is important that students know to look into job prospects, because school recruiters won't educate students on this. My chemistry professor, a brilliant man, felt that he had simply been recruited to chemistry some fifty years ago, and would have done something else if he had known better.

    Edit: My point is not to boast - decent grades in a few sophomore classes is nothing meaningful. I'm just trying to say that trigonometry is not really a prerequisite because you learn the necessary properties of angles when they are needed in other courses.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013
  13. Dec 12, 2013 #12


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    That's a bad way to learn math, especially something as fundamental as trigonometry. I don't know how you made it through without understanding the unit circle or vectors in physics.
  14. Dec 12, 2013 #13
    I want to know if theoretical physics is something I will likely understand, with regard to mathematical models, or is it a certain kind of intelligence required? That's a question of mechanics - am I up for the job? Hard to answer, I know.

    Starting almost from scratch in mathematics- Is it realistic to have theoretical physics as a future prospect, or are those places only reserved for "monster mathematicans?" Is it a level I will never reach at such an old age of 25? Will it take too long for me, or simply be impossible? Am I crazy to even concider it, despite, according to a professor in philosophy "gifted mind".

    Remember though, I learned chess at age 18, and 4 years later steamroll everybody (including those that first laughed at me).I have even defeated modern computers, a few times.
    So, why should I think anything less of myself? Well, theres aloth of math ahead....

    I want to be both a philosopher and a theoretical physicist, in an ideal world. At worst, the ability to have studied physics in a university, and pass a few courses. I don't want to limit myself to philosophy.

    There are several scientists with Phds in both Theoretical physics and Philosophy.
  15. Dec 12, 2013 #14
    I do understand vectors, and I think of the trig functions in terms of the plots, not the unit circle. That works for my Ph.D calculus professor, and it works for me.

    Frankly, I take offense to the implication that I have learned poorly, when my experience tells me otherwise. I have understood every topic I have covered.


    Vectors are covered in introductory physics and calculus, angles are encountered in algebra, the laws of sines and cosines are just formulas to be memorized, and polar, cylindrical, and spherical coordinates are covered quite well in calculus.

    Even my mathematics professors, whom I have approached to ask whether I should fill any gaps in my knowledge by taking trigonometry, have told me that it is completely unnecessary at point. Who would know better than a mathematician with decades of teaching experience?
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013
  16. Dec 12, 2013 #15


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    Okay, I think I understand your question now. Anyone can do physics; it just isn't reserved for prodigies and savants. It takes work, and you will need to shore up any missing mathematical basis. You should be keen on algebra, plane geometry and trig before you advance on to calculus and classical mechanics.

    You’re never too old; you’re younger than I am. Logistically, I don’t know where you’re from, or if it’s even possible for you to go to university. If there are no hard fast barriers to your education, than I would suggest you do it.

    You don't need some special brain to be a physicists, anyone is capable.
  17. Dec 12, 2013 #16


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    Are you referring to the A-level system of the UK here ?
    If so then an A-level in mathematics covers both Trigonometry and Calculus and both of them are compulsory, so there is no need to worry about covering them. That's why he should focus on getting his Algebra background ready when starting the A-levels.
  18. Dec 12, 2013 #17
    I live in Sweden and this is not my native language. I already study philosophy at Lund university, and have easy access. I was standing next to the physics house recently and really envy those guys. I wish my childhood was different. I have to start all over again. But I think I can make some fast advancements on the way, if my goal is well defined and reachable. Supposing I don't suck at math!

    I don't think anywhere under 5 years is reasonable, before I will be able to set my foot in a physics university. I was just curious if this is a pipe dream. I will however dispute that anyone is capable of studying physics:) The average IQ of a graduate in physics is 133 (going by SAT-scores which correlate strongly) this is higher than any other field. I seriously doubt anyone could study even levels below that of physics at the university.
  19. Dec 12, 2013 #18


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    IQ is pointless, anyone can study physics.
  20. Dec 12, 2013 #19
    Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, had an iq of 120. Anyone can study it. Whether anyone can be really good at it is something else entirely, and actually not terribly relevant.
  21. Dec 12, 2013 #20


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