Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Bad at maths but good at theoretical physics?

  1. Possible

    7 vote(s)
  2. Not possible

    19 vote(s)
  1. Aug 20, 2008 #1


    User Avatar

    There been some discussion about whether good at maths implies good at physics.

    I like to ask something else. Can someone be bad at maths but good at theoretical physics?

    bad obviously means not as good compared to most of the maths people. And not just bad as in knowing less but also bad as in lesser mathematical ability, in general. Have a vote and discuss.

    If possible then give us some examples. Maybe Einstein was one. Any more recent ones?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 20, 2008 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    It depends on precisely how you are defining bad. Nowadays, though, theoretical physics includes a lot of maths.
  4. Aug 20, 2008 #3


    User Avatar

    what about possible but very unlikely?
  5. Aug 20, 2008 #4
    It depends on what you mean by 'but'.
  6. Aug 20, 2008 #5
    This question shows a clear misunderstanding of physics.

    It's like asking a deaf person to speak several langauges.
  7. Aug 20, 2008 #6
    I don't get this. The OP didn't ask anybody to do anything. And some deaf people do speak several languages.
  8. Aug 20, 2008 #7
    You cant speak a language-(physics) if you can't hear it-(math). Math is the language of physics.
  9. Aug 20, 2008 #8


    User Avatar


    And just like some theoretical physicists could do well without being good at math, a deaf person could speak multiple languages.

    It's just extremely unlikely.
  10. Aug 20, 2008 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    A good analogy is like a diagonal frog. (Kai Krause)
  11. Aug 20, 2008 #10
    What's meant by a diagonal frog?
  12. Aug 20, 2008 #11

    if you look at the threads in the 'Physics' area---a lot of them don't have 'math' in them. A lot of 'ideas' are worded rather having 'math' as analogies---math can be the summation of the idea (words)---look at Newton.

    A lot of abstracts, texts, etc. will explain something as much as possible, then finalize that explanation with a proof or equation.

    'theoretical' physics vs applied 'physics' too
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2008
  13. Aug 20, 2008 #12
    Einstein was pretty amazing at mathematics...
  14. Aug 20, 2008 #13
    That's his point... ;-)
  15. Aug 20, 2008 #14
    I kinda figure my analogy was not good after posting it. Oh well....:frown:

    So long as my point is understood, that's all that matters.
  16. Aug 21, 2008 #15

    He was not just an experimental physicist, he came up with the concept of fields. His theoretical imagination was purely visual, or at least purely non-mathematical. Also, the young Einstein visualised riding on a light beam. That was theoretical, not experimental :-) Of course, the slightly older Einstein was good at math, but certainly some of his main theoretical investigations were not mathematical, at core.
  17. Aug 22, 2008 #16
    Many mathematicians would say that theoretical physicists are bad mathematicians. I once received a Referee report on an article submitted to a math journal in which one of the Referees wrote that he didn't like the paper. He complained that the paper was written by "physicists" in a very "physicist" style. He then clarified what he meant by "physicist" style. He didn't have much positive things to say about that. :smile:

    The paper was accepted for publication, b.t.w.
  18. Aug 26, 2008 #17
    Well, maybe you can be a good philosopher of physics and others can use your work to guide the direction they take with their mathematics, but I don't really think you can be a theoretical physicist without being good at math.
  19. Aug 26, 2008 #18
    Well, what does "math" mean? I've found it's actually possible to be very good at math while simultaneously being very bad at math. I think you can be very bad at arithmetic while simultaneously being very good at topology and differential geometry, for example :)

    I think that a lot of theoretical physics, in particular, is very very heavily dependent on mathematical concepts. Yes you can usually get by in a lot of ways with just analogies, but some of the time the analogies can deceive.

    But you usually do not need to be able to do the calculations yourself just in order to understand what is happening with the concepts, I don't think. What is probably most important is understanding the funny math vocabulary and getting a good intuition for what that vocabulary means.
  20. Aug 26, 2008 #19


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    Arithmetic isn't math. When I was younger I had the impression that mathematicians were all mental calculators. I suppose quite a lot of people who never did much math often confuse math with simple arithmetic calculations.
  21. Aug 26, 2008 #20
    Actually, I have the opposite impression about being able to calculate things well. I think that theoretical physicists are bad mathematicians, but they outperform mathematicians when it comes to be able to actually calculate/estimate something.

    A physicist won't be bothered by minor details that makes his results nonrigorous. What counts is the fact that an answer can be obtained. What you often see is that mathematicians then steal the work of physicists and develop a rigorous theory. Examples are:

    Calculus: Invented by Newton, made rigorous much later.

    The theory of distributions: Pioneered by Dirac, then made rigoroius by others.

    Renormalization group/Conformal invariance appied to statistical mechanics and QFT: When applied to 2d models, all the exact expressions you obtain for critical exponents are conjectures. Only in a few cases have rigorous results been obtained. Of course, this theory was invented by physicists.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook