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Am I smart enough for Physics?

  • Thread starter jeremmed77
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I know, the title is stupid, but I didn't know how else to phrase it. Last semester I got a B in Calc 1, and didn't feel very comfortable with the material. I was taking Biology and chemistry so it was definitely a tough semester, but now I gave up on my physics major because I feel like I am not smart enough. Now I am having second thoughts about whether or not I should give up so easily.

Here is how it went for me. I tended to do better at solving the problems versus knowing why this is the way you are supposed to solve them. I remember making some mistakes when doing implicit differentiation at the beginning of a long problem and getting the entire question wrong because of the mistake (Although I found out later that most professors give you credit for doing the problem the right way). I never had to study for biology, only spent about 10 percent of my study time on chemistry, but the rest was all devoted to math.

Let me make this clear, I love math, but when you spend two hours on a problem and find out the reason you got it wrong was some basic algebra rule you forgot, it gets fustrating. Even though I love math, I didn't seem to be "naturally" good at it like some of my classmates. I had to put a lot of time into it, while others did not. This is the main reason I chose not to attempt a degree in physics. I was wondering if anyone else had anything similar happen to them? I just don't know if I should give up on my dream career just yet!
 

jtbell

Mentor
15,371
3,117
Have you taken any physics courses yet? If not, it seems to me rather premature to give up on physics. A B in Calculus 1 isn't the end of the world.
 

Pengwuino

Gold Member
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Physicists aren't smart. They're hard workers.

Well, ok, they tend to be smart, but that's not a pre-requisite. I've never seen someone drop out of physics because they weren't smart enough. Everyone who drops out of physics drops out because they didn't want to put the work into it (which many people confuse with not being smart enough!). You might need to learn how to be a better student, however. Talk to students who appear to be doing better than you and see how they do it. Try new study methods, talk to professors, talk to graduate students, talk to people with experience. Doing well in one subject does not mean you'll do well in another subject.
 
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I just wanted to see if anyone else struggled with calculus and still did well in Physics. I definitely agree, now that I am looking at what I did from a different perspective, that it was way too premature to give up on this. I came out of community college getting easy A's, and expected this to be the same. Everyone I know taking Calculus 2 and Physics 2 don't seem to be struggling at all! Is this normal?
 

Pengwuino

Gold Member
4,854
14
I just wanted to see if anyone else struggled with calculus and still did well in Physics. I definitely agree, now that I am looking at what I did from a different perspective, that it was way too premature to give up on this. I came out of community college getting easy A's, and expected this to be the same. Everyone I know taking Calculus 2 and Physics 2 don't seem to be struggling at all! Is this normal?
PFF, I failed 2 calculus classes. Now I'm finishing up my Masters with a 3.5 GPA and have received an A in every upper division math class I've ever taken.... although eh, with one exception. The fact of the matter is peoples study habbits change, their way of thinking can change, all sorts of stuff.

Don't expect the work load to stay the same, it just gets harder and harder. In fact, there's a good chance you might run into a physics class where you may flat out fail. What a lot of people tend to do is to think high school or community colleges or non-physics courses are ANYTHING like actual physics work. There's plenty of threads on this forum about students who were straight A's in high school and aced all their math courses and studied an hour or 2 a week and then ran into their first real physics course and were claiming to be failing it. The fact of the matter is to have a smooth, successful college career in physics, you have to just study a lot and never assume a course will be easy.

Also, don't worry about what other students are doing. They could be cheating for all you know.
 
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I just wanted to see if anyone else struggled with calculus and still did well in Physics. I definitely agree, now that I am looking at what I did from a different perspective, that it was way too premature to give up on this. I came out of community college getting easy A's, and expected this to be the same. Everyone I know taking Calculus 2 and Physics 2 don't seem to be struggling at all! Is this normal?
In Calculus 1 I had a 90 and I devoted 2 hours a night to that. Everyone else was scraping by with C's and F's and they weren't exactly stupid either. Pengwuino is right, the secret is hard work. I did fine in physics but that's another story.

There will always be someone smarter than you no matter how hard you try. So you shouldn't compare youself to others because you will always feel inferior.

The question you should be asking yourself is not whether you are smart enough but whether you are passionate enough to continue with physics and the hard work it demands.

...but when you spend two hours on a problem and find out the reason you got it wrong was some basic algebra rule you forgot, it gets fustrating.
I bet you will rarely make the same mistake again.
 
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Most of your classmates who are apparently 'naturals' are probably up all night studying their collective arses off.
 

Pengwuino

Gold Member
4,854
14
I bet you will rarely make the same mistake again.
And to add to the issue of making small mistakes at the start is the fact that there is one thing about physics that people don't take advantage of at the start of their academic careers. Checking yourself for consistency is one of the greatest time savers you'll ever encounter. Consistent dimensional analysis is a great method of making sure your work hasn't strayed.

Also, keep in mind physical limits. Are you dealing with a problem with an obvious singular behavior (say, finding the electric field of an electron sitting at the origin)? Well at every step in your calculation, you should find that the field at the origin should blow up. Do things happen at infinity? Are boundary conditions satisfiable? At your level you probably only need to worry about things like dimensional analysis, but ask around and learn the tricks of the trade. Ask professors. Remember, they were students at one point in their lives as well!
 
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I failed my first Calculus course 2 years ago.
Then again, it's an honor course.

It really depressed me.
I gave a thought on changing my major too.
But I didn't change my major.
Physics is fun. Math is fun.
Doing them requires effort (a lot).
Those are facts.

I am improving now, though I do not get a straight A.
Now I realize unsatisfactory grade means not enough effort.

Just try give my view.
 
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In addition to the above view, you should study what you like. The only reason I did well in physics was because I really enjoyed it: I payed attention in class, did all the homework, read the textbooks, and surrounded myself with physics. While I did work very hard at it, in hindsight, it was simply because I enjoyed physics so much. I found that this was the case with the other top students as well, while the less successful students were merely interested in physics, they didn't love physics. The top students probably appear to be naturals just because they immerse themselves in physics.

What I want to reiterate is that time is key, just as the others have said. However, if you do not enjoy the time you put in or don't feel yourself drawn to the studies, you will not succeed because you will simply view it as time spent and work spent rather than doing something you enjoy.
 
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In addition to the above view, you should study what you like. The only reason I did well in physics was because I really enjoyed it: I payed attention in class, did all the homework, read the textbooks, and surrounded myself with physics. While I did work very hard at it, in hindsight, it was simply because I enjoyed physics so much. I found that this was the case with the other top students as well, while the less successful students were merely interested in physics, they didn't love physics. The top students probably appear to be naturals just because they immerse themselves in physics.

What I want to reiterate is that time is key, just as the others have said. However, if you do not enjoy the time you put in or don't feel yourself drawn to the studies, you will not succeed because you will simply view it as time spent and work spent rather than doing something you enjoy.
Similar case with mathematics I believe.
Those so-called mathematical maturity (for maths) and physical intuition (for physics) are things built from experience.

Those excellent students spent so much time doing math/phys since they were young.
Not saying we can not do anything to catch up with them.
 
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I failed my first Calculus course 2 years ago.
Then again, it's an honor course.

It really depressed me.
I gave a thought on changing my major too.
\
It seems like I really jumped the gun on this one. My calculus professor made it seem that by asking her questions, which she thought were trivial, I didn't have the mathematical intuition to become a physicist. Anyway, you guys opened my eyes a little bit. I realised that I should have kept going, instead of give up. Unfortunately, it means that this semester's classes were a little bit of a waste lol.
 

mathwonk

Science Advisor
Homework Helper
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I got a D- in calculus, and may not be smart enough to be a physicist, but managed to be a mathematician, with a lot of work.
 
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I got a D- in calculus, and may not be smart enough to be a physicist, but managed to be a mathematician, with a lot of work.
Heh. In my mind, they're both equally as difficult, in their purest form.
 
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PFF, I failed 2 calculus classes. Now I'm finishing up my Masters with a 3.5 GPA and have received an A in every upper division math class I've ever taken.... although eh, with one exception. The fact of the matter is peoples study habbits change, their way of thinking can change, all sorts of stuff.

Don't expect the work load to stay the same, it just gets harder and harder. In fact, there's a good chance you might run into a physics class where you may flat out fail. What a lot of people tend to do is to think high school or community colleges or non-physics courses are ANYTHING like actual physics work. There's plenty of threads on this forum about students who were straight A's in high school and aced all their math courses and studied an hour or 2 a week and then ran into their first real physics course and were claiming to be failing it. The fact of the matter is to have a smooth, successful college career in physics, you have to just study a lot and never assume a course will be easy.

Also, don't worry about what other students are doing. They could be cheating for all you know.

This is very good advice. I used to worry a lot about this; about whether I was smart enough or constantly thinking that other students were more inclined. Nothing productive comes out of this mindset. There were a lot of kids in my last physics course that used to brag about "oh I never study" or "god this material is easy", yet when a problem set was due I would see them struggling hiding in some corner of the building because their ego they built up in from of everyone couldn't handle it. DON'T let smart asses intimidate you, because like others have said, more than likely they are at home studying all night.

Not only that, but I can not even count how many times I have heard "oh course X is easy", and then take this course and see these same people cheating on tests and on homework.

A B in calculus is a good grade. But I will say, if calculus is very difficult for you, then the upper level physics courses will be practically impossible, because they use a LOT of calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.

Lastly, I do believe that you really have to love physics to make it through the degree without basically killing yourself. Take your first physics course, try hard, think critically, and I am sure you will succeed.
 
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Heh. In my mind, they're both equally as difficult, in their purest form.
Yes this is probably true. At the graduate level at least, the physics majors I see look like they are about to pass out just walking past them in the hall sometimes! Good thing very strong coffee exists.:tongue:
 
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Also, don't worry about what other students are doing. They could be cheating for all you know.
This is very good advice. I used to worry a lot about this; about whether I was smart enough or constantly thinking that other students were more inclined. Nothing productive comes out of this mindset. There were a lot of kids in my last physics course that used to brag about "oh I never study" or "god this material is easy", yet when a problem set was due I would see them struggling hiding in some corner of the building because their ego they built up in from of everyone couldn't handle it. DON'T let smart asses intimidate you, because like others have said, more than likely they are at home studying all night.

Not only that, but I can not even count how many times I have heard "oh course X is easy", and then take this course and see these same people cheating on tests and on homework.
I don't really get why people put this much energy into hiding or obscuring the fact that there are people smarter than them. The correct way to handle encountering them though is not to think "I don't fit in since it seems like everyone else is smarter than me" but instead "Ok, I just have to work even harder!". If it turns out that they were just buffoons then ok, you just got some free motivation. But don't try to dismiss them as fakes since chances are that they are not. Learning how to handle that others can be smarter than you is one of the most important things if you want to go into physics or similar subjects since you will meet countless of them once you get a bit higher.
 
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I don't really get why people put this much energy into hiding or obscuring the fact that there are people smarter than them. The correct way to handle encountering them though is not to think "I don't fit in since it seems like everyone else is smarter than me" but instead "Ok, I just have to work even harder!". If it turns out that they were just buffoons then ok, you just got some free motivation. But don't try to dismiss them as fakes since chances are that they are not. Learning how to handle that others can be smarter than you is one of the most important things if you want to go into physics or similar subjects since you will meet countless of them once you get a bit higher.
It's been my experience that the smart guys are a lot more passionate about and hard-working in studying the subject.
 
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It's been my experience that the smart guys are a lot more passionate about and hard-working in studying the subject.
Compared to who? And how do you define "smart guys", those who get the best grades? Because of course, working hard and passionately correlates with grades so it is natural that most of those who score high will also be among the hardest working. But the correlation is far from perfect so you will find many odd cases as well. I am sure that you have met a few of those but you instead dismiss them as liars in either overstating or understating their amount of time spent so that they can fit your mental passion + time spent vs grades graph.
 
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Compared to who? And how do you define "smart guys", those who get the best grades? Because of course, working hard and passionately correlates with grades so it is natural that most of those who score high will also be among the hardest working. But the correlation is far from perfect so you will find many odd cases as well. I am sure that you have met a few of those but you instead dismiss them as liars in either overstating or understating their amount of time spent so that they can fit your mental passion + time spent vs grades graph.
What the hell are you talking about?
 
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What the hell are you talking about?
If someone who get really poor grades and flunks several courses says that he studies all the time and really loves the subjects, would you believe him?
And if someone who get really good grades states that he barely studies at all and don't really care would you believe him?

The problem with anecdotal evidences is that peoples memories aren't perfect and they sort away a lot of information that don't fit with how they view things. Especially in cases such as this when so much information about your peers activities is unknown to you.
 
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When I encounter someone 'smarter' than me I don't feel scared or inferior. The one and only thing that goes through my mind when I see such things is "I need to get my lazy *** off of physicsforums and work harder."

Ciao.
 
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When I encounter someone 'smarter' than me I don't feel scared or inferior. The one and only thing that goes through my mind when I see such things is "I need to get my lazy *** off of physicsforums and work harder."

Ciao.
True story.

Hey though there is one important thing you need to remember. There are 3 types of Physicists in this world, ones that can do math, and ones that can't.

Ok that was a joke and don't take that too seriously because to do physics you do need to learn how to handle mathematical concepts like Calculus, DE, Linear Algebra, etc. You do not need to be the best at those subjects, but you have to know how to use those tools effectively.

If Calc I caused you trouble and you don't feel you learned it quite enough, find an older math or physics student and get them to tutor you up on some of the things you feel you were struggling with. Don't be ashamed that you are not like the super humans that don't take notes or study much and make good grades. They will meet something that will force them to change their study habits eventually. Think of it as you having a headstart on knowing how to study.

As far as small algebra mistakes are concerned, those are gonna happen from time to time especially when you are learning a new concept. When you get so focused on the newer and more difficult parts of the problem, the easier parts of the problem will sometimes suffer. I know for me (I am actually a math major, well and physics) when learning integration at first, I would keep getting wrong answers. Not during the doing the integral part, but during the evaluating from one term to another. Simple subtraction! I'm majoring in Math! I told my teacher the day before the test in passing that it's the easy part giving me trouble. She simply responded with something along the lines of how she has been exactly where I was in that situation. She now has a PhD in Math from the University of Maryland, which has a really good math program.

Moral of the long story, if you get the tough stuff, but sometimes make mistakes on simple things, don't stress it. You will eventually piece it all together. Keep your chin up, continue to study, stay focused, you will come out smelling like roses.....er more like coffee and perhaps a bit of BO from long study sessions without showering.
 

lisab

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Gold Member
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It's been my experience that the smart guys are a lot more passionate about and hard-working in studying the subject.
That's been my experience also.
 
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A B in calculus is a good grade. But I will say, if calculus is very difficult for you, then the upper level physics courses will be practically impossible, because they use a LOT of calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.

Lastly, I do believe that you really have to love physics to make it through the degree without basically killing yourself. Take your first physics course, try hard, think critically, and I am sure you will succeed.
I am worried that because I didn't feel comfortable in calculus, I may have trouble with upper division physics/math. That's is the reason I quit last semester. I have to admit, I didn't spend a ton of time studying, which was probably a big problem. I should have studied as much as possible. Anyway, I think I am going to give it another shot. Thanks for the advice everyone.
 

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