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Courses Can a computer illiterate graduate in theoretical physics?

  1. Mar 9, 2015 #1
    I have recently taken up mathematics at home and found that it does not pose any problems for my future aspirations in becoming a physicist. However, I am not mechanically inclined and can't use a computer to any sophisticated degree. It's all about abstract thinking for me. I fear mechanical mastering will be part of a modern theoretical physics program (advanced computer usage that is) and that I will lag behind the rest when the day comes.

    So, is the computer element of modern theoretical physics large enough for one to instead favour pure mathematics - probability theory and statistics, or is this really a non-ussue?
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  3. Mar 9, 2015 #2
    It's not a big issue, but it's not a non-issue either. Almost every mathematician or physicist uses computers nowadays to some degree. This might be to do computations, or just to write papers. You're going to need the computer sooner or later. And any undergrad program will make you work with the computer eventually.

    So bite the bullet and learn some advanced computer usage.
  4. Mar 9, 2015 #3


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    So, how do you function day to day?

    Do you write out everything longhand? I gotta tell ya, I still got calluses on my fingers from handwriting as a kid, and I don't miss it one bit.

    If you have to look up something or do research, do you shlep to the library?

    If you want to develop a mathematical model of something physical, do you whip out your trusty abacus and go to town on it?

    If you want to communicate some insight to your colleagues, do you write out a letter and wait for the snail mail to take it to its destination? I bet you still have one of those phones with a dial or something on it. Even Western Union caught up with the times and stopped using funny little guys tapping out Morse Code.

    Man, it's 25 years past Hammer Time! You gotta keep up with the times, otherwise, you'll get left behind. It's not 1890 (1790?) anymore, and quill pens and parchment are getting hard to find.
  5. Mar 9, 2015 #4
    Alright then. I do question however how a pure mathematics degree - which is really formal just logic with numbers, would entail any mastering of computer language?

    Here's the deal. I was brought up without a computer untl the age of 18. I know nothing about computers aside from googling. I work with a Sony Vaio (rest in peace) laptop.
  6. Mar 9, 2015 #5


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    Here's what I'm seeing. I see someone who is set in his/her ways, and who simply do not wish to learn something new, even if it opens a whole new avenue and capabilities that can easily be a tremendous asset. Instead of putting in the effort of acquiring new knowledge and skills, he/she is trying to find ways of not doing it.

    So I will ask myself, what else will he/she not wish to learn. If I were to give him/her a topic in a completely new area, will he/she do the same thing and try to go around it, rather than tackle it head on?

    This has nothing to do with learning computer skills. It is more of a reflection on your attitude towards acquiring and learning new things. I would not hire you not because of your lack of computer skills, but rather what I perceive as someone who would not care to learn something new. As a scientist (and maybe even for a mathematician), this is an extremely undesirable trait.

  7. Mar 9, 2015 #6
    I am perfectly willing to learn it if they teach me the basics. I am quite sure a physics instructor, however, wouldn't. I am being pragmatic about these issue. If it's of secondary importance I will probably manage anyway. You seem to have a very optimistic view of capabilities. Remember that Albert Einstein failed his electrical engineering studies. He was not mechanically inclined, as he himself stated, yet brilliant.
  8. Mar 9, 2015 #7


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    You have to be really desperate to use Einstein as a role model here. Using an extreme exception to justify anything is awfully weak. How that applies to you, and the times we are living in, is puzzling. When you are that type of an exception, sure, you may write your own ticket. But do you think you are even in the same league to be able to get away with it?

    Good luck!

    BTW, you ASKED for opinions on here. But it seems that you have a response and excuse to everything that were mentioned. You already made up your mind on this matter, so what the point in all this?

  9. Mar 9, 2015 #8
    You're right, he wouldn't. And there is so many things that he won't teach you. If you're serious about physics, then you need to be able to self-study. Nobody is going to keep holding your hand.
  10. Mar 9, 2015 #9
    I have aspergers syndrome and suffer from the exact same weakness in mechanical abilities as he did. This is a fact. What I ask of the physics community is to take this into concideration. I don't do very well in pretty much any practical application. I also tend to make things more diffcult than they really are.

    I don't know if you notice but I did write: "alright then," which basically means that I accepted the answer, though not the second part of it...
  11. Mar 9, 2015 #10
    i think not since many recent developments in theoretics are based solely on the discovery of the transistor and beyond. but i believe it depends on the will to succeed
  12. Mar 9, 2015 #11


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    No one is asking you to become a hot shot software developer. A computer can be a handy tool for those who never programmed a line. You're communicating with an online forum, so computer use is not totally foreign to you.
    And you're not the exception in growing up without having a computer to use, either.

    I didn't get to use computers growing up, because the personal computer really didn't take off until after I got out of college. But once small business computers became common in the office, it was either adapt to the new reality or fall by the wayside.

    I got to know a lady who lives in a retirement community, no technical background whatsoever, in her 80s at least, and she could manage to use a computer for emailing with her friends and family, surfing the web, playing games and what not. If she got stuck with something, she would ask her nephew or one of her friends to give her a hand in figuring out what to do.

    People can learn to drive a car without knowing much how they work under the hood. Driving a car, using a computer, it's learning to use a tool to help you accomplish a certain task more quickly. If you want to be an academic, even one in a theoretical field, you have to use some modern tools. You can't be like Archimedes, drawing stuff in the sand.
  13. Mar 9, 2015 #12
    It might be harsh, but a lot of people won't care about your aspergers syndrome and your mechanical abilities. Sure, in undergrad you might get some extra benefits, but down the line people will take it less and less into consideration. If you don't do well in practical application, then you need to work on it. If you're in grad school and say "I'm not gonna solve this equation with mathematica because I have aspergers," then people will not react very understanding to that. Yes, aspergers is a big problem and I do sympathize, but if you want to be competent in research, then you'll need to stud the practical stuff.
  14. Mar 9, 2015 #13
    Whatever job you take, if you want to operate at a 'high level', you need to be computer literate.

    Physics or math degrees are not CS or software engineering degrees, like some people here want to suggest.
    Depending on what you do, programming becomes important to very important. In other areas, other subjects become more important, like technical skills.

    If you are going to give up on a high level education just because some skills you need to develop don't come naturally to you, you aren't going to amount to anything.
    You say you didn't grow up with a computer. So what does that say about your natural ability to learn how to use one?
  15. Mar 9, 2015 #14
    None. But I don't want to fall behind my peers in class. If fear the programming part is a bit too much for a complete noob. Pure mathematics does not require programming of any sort. But if the programming aspect is fairly self explanatory I see no problem ahead.
  16. Mar 9, 2015 #15
  17. Mar 9, 2015 #16
    Please elaborate which type of programming a pure mathematics degree would require. Pure mathematics must have evolved then, despite not being a scientific discipline.
  18. Mar 9, 2015 #17
    It depends on what kind of math you're going to get into. But whatever you will do, you will end up writing mathematical documents. For that you need to know LaTeX. It's not exactly programming, but not very easy either. If you're going into group theory for example, you will need programs where you get to manipulate algebraic structures like GAP. This is a full programming language. Maybe you will need to solve equations with matlab or mathematica. There's so much a computer can be useful for. I could not have done my research without knowledge of computers!

    Maybe an undergrad degree in pure math will even require a programming course (it did with me).
  19. Mar 9, 2015 #18


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    Basically any math major is going to be required to take at least an introductory computer programming course. And many math majors will either be required to take, or strongly encouraged to take some classes in numerical methods and/or numerical analysis. These courses are very good for physics majors to take as well. Just about any physics degree will require at least introductory programming. Either of these majors is likely to require at least some technical papers involving some degree of mathematics, which involves learning to type the language of mathematics.

    Like it or not, these are essential parts of doing mathematics or physics today. We have tools available today that simplify many tasks, and using them is an essential part of working in these fields. Equations that can literally take days to solve can be solved almost instantly with computers. This is a valuable skill.
  20. Mar 9, 2015 #19
    Computers use the exact same type of abstract reasoning as mathematics. In fact there is no mechanical aptitude in computer usage. Every mathematician I have met (under the age of 60) can code as well as any computer scientist. I don't get how you can separate it honestly, computers are math. If you can't get computers, I really suspect any advanced physics experiment is bit beyond your reach.

    Programming is input->expression->output. Its math on wheels. I'm really breaking my brain trying to imagine someone good with high level mathematics that couldn't program. Its like trying to imagine someone who can run, but falls when they walk.
  21. Mar 9, 2015 #20


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    I'm a bit confused by your description of computer programming as a mechanical skill. The only mechanics involved in programming are the movement of ones fingers across the keys. A mechanical skill would be designing and building the computer itself. You might find that you'll take to programming much more easily than you're imagining.
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