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Can a physicist learn his math tools from wikipedia alone?

  1. Mar 9, 2007 #1
    Now that we have established that physicists do not need to study math proofs or do rigorous math problems, but rather just understand the math tools well enough to use them, I was wondering if a physicist can just get by in learning the math tools in a qualitative, prosaic, way as in wikipedia. No proofs are given in wikipedia, just definitions, qualitative descriptions, and simple examples, and many results--results that the physicist needs to know. Is that good enough for them to be familiar enough with the math tools for their physics problems?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 9, 2007 #2
    No way. Even though non-mathematicians may not learn the proofs, they still need to learn from a quality source, and more importantly,a pedagogical source. You don't see that in Wikipedia. It is a bunch of articles, written by different people, that are being edited almost on a daily basis. Some articles may be rigorous, while others may be much less so. Wikipedia in most cases (or all?) does not even provide you any insights. You can't say the same thing about a book like Boas'. Even if it so happened that you had no option but to choose a web source, I would recommend a site like Mathworld, Planet Math, or Hyper-Math over Wikipedia.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2007
  4. Mar 9, 2007 #3
    Ok, what I meant was: can a physicist learn his math tools from an informal source that gives definitions, qualitative explanations, simple examples, and states the most important results. No exercises, proofs, or rigorous treatment. Just learn the hardcore facts. Wikipedia was just the first example I thought of.
     
  5. Mar 9, 2007 #4
    That pretty much sounds like a description of the text of Boas or Arfken and Weber...
     
  6. Mar 9, 2007 #5
    I sometimes use Wikipedia to refresh my memory on various concepts in math, and even sometimes in physics. But it wouldn't be my first choice for learning new concepts in math. I hate to say it, but nothing beats a textbook.
     
  7. Mar 9, 2007 #6
    What's the use then? No proofs, no exercises, no use*. Its sounds more like one of those books with integral tables and such.


    *To someone who wishes to become a physicist.
     
  8. Mar 9, 2007 #7

    JasonRox

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    Just extra jargon a crackpot can use in his proofs.

    From the mathematical model so-and-so we see that the big bang was contructed through the continuous dynamical so-and-so.

    Note: And the funny part is when it comes to a crackpot, is that because he learned on the mathematics on Wikipedia and did no exercises or proofs. He has no idea how to apply. So it's no surprise that when a crackpot puts "mathematics" into his "model" it makes no sense.
     
  9. Mar 9, 2007 #8

    ZapperZ

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    Compare Wikipedia with (1) Mary Boas's "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Science" and (ii) Arfken's "Mathematical Physics". One would be out of one's mind to dump those two in favor of a very dubious and unverified source that Wikipedia is.

    This fascination and obsession with Wikipedia needs to go out of fashion very quickly.You also have a very strange understanding about "mathematics" and the skills that one would need to be proficient in it. Skills can only be acquired, not taught. To acquire skills, one requres practice. There is no shortcut.


    Zz.
     
  10. Mar 9, 2007 #9
    I personally find Mathworld to be a very valuable resource, and much more reliable than Wikipedia.
     
  11. Mar 9, 2007 #10
    I consider learning to use a book like Abramowitz & Stegun or Gradshteyn & Ryzhik to be one of the milestones in a physicist's professional development.
     
  12. Mar 9, 2007 #11
    I didn't say it wasn't. :) We are discussing a milestone that comes before one starts using such resources. In a sense, it's like learning to play the violin and learning to play a tough musical piece on the violin.
     
  13. Mar 9, 2007 #12

    radou

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    You don't need to hate to say it, since it absolutely true.
     
  14. Mar 9, 2007 #13
    What's going on here? We just finished a long thread on whether a physicist should study math proofs and the general consensus was "No", "We don't have time for such rigourous treatment", "We only use them as tools, we don't study the tools."

    So now I ask if physicists can use an informal source to learn the math tools, a source that avoids the rigour and gives the basic facts, results, and a nice general overview. And now you guys are saying that it's not enough, you must study from a textbook, contradicting the first answer.
     
  15. Mar 9, 2007 #14

    ZapperZ

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    Since when is a rigorous study of the TECHNIQUE implies one way or the other?

    Think of a tradesman building a house. Do you think it is fine to grab someone off the street, tell this person what each tool does, and then let him go build a house? If you think this is fine, I'd like to build your next house, and I'm CHEAP!

    You have to LEARN how to use mathematics properly. Mathematics is not a subject in which you can simply sit back and read! It requires SKILL. You need to have a FEEL for the mathematics to know what to do and what not to do. These techniques should almost be automatic by the time you have to use it in solving a problem. You do not get such skills simply by reading!

    For some odd reason, you simply refuses to look into one of the mathematical physics texts that I've mentioned here and previously elsewhere. Why don't you? You seem to have such difficulty grasping what really is required as far as mathematical skills goes for physicists. Why won't you open these texts and see for yourself to what extent is the mathematics skills and knowledge that is needed here? You could have saved a lot of time and effort by simply satisfying this curiosity yourself.

    There IS a LARGE SPACE in between "Learn proofs from ground zero" to "learn mathematics simply by reading Wikipedia". I can't believe that you only think that there are only these two extremes that exist.

    Oy!

    Zz.
     
  16. Mar 9, 2007 #15

    AlephZero

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    To use an analogy, you can't learn a foreign language just by buying a dictionary.

    And Wikipedia is an incomplete "dictionary" with lots of typos...

    Wiki is OK for quick reference, provided you know enough to spot the mistakes - at least the truth of maths propositions are not a matter of opinion, unlike some other parts of Wiki. But it's not a teaching tool, and not intended to be one.
     
  17. Mar 9, 2007 #16

    nrqed

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    Doing physics is a bit like playing violin. The physics is analogue to th emusic produced and the maths are analogue to the instrument being used, the violin. It is NOT enough to read about what a violin is and the basic idea of how it is used to play music if you want to become a violonist! You have to PRACTICE. It's as if you are talking about becoming a violonist just by reading about the principles of how a violin is played on Wikipedia. If you are then handed a violin, you will not get anything worthwhile out of it this way! You would have to practice for thousand of hours before being good at playing. The same thing for maths in physics. You have to do thousands of exercises and calculations before you start mastering enough the maths to be able to actually use them to do physics.
     
  18. Mar 9, 2007 #17
    This is simply not true, a few well thought out exercises are often sufficient to be able to work out any future cases which one encounters.

    We are talking about Math, why should we be concerned with figures of authority? If an equation from wikipedia contains errors, big deal, you can see them and you can fix them when things don't make sense, this is an important skill for physicists. Anyone who blindly obeys Arfken without mentally testing the formulae for sensibility is in danger of making an error, just as is the case with Wikipedia.

    If we are talking about students, then who cares if what they learn is incorrect in some minor detail? Will their skills evaporate when the detail is corrected? Unlikely, in fact any time spent concentrating is good for the student, even if the object of their concentration contains elements of nonsense/incorrectness.

    This phenomenon of established authority figures bashing wikipedia has got to stop. Physicist are no longer human computers, and absolute correctness need not be such a high priority as it was in the last generation, those details can easily be checked in any case that "actually matters".

    To the OP, I would answer that yes, one can gain the knowledge of a working physicist with an undergraduate education from wikipedia alone. This is because (in America) the undergraduate experience is merely backround information to prepare one for on the job training.

    In the same vein, I know professors of Mathematics who have far less general knowledge then would a student of wikipedia, and whose research is a sham designed to maintain a career built off of what they got out of their graduate advisor. In this sense, Wikipedia is better than good enough for some mathematicians.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2007
  19. Mar 9, 2007 #18
    After making a side by side comparison of wikipedia and mathworld, I find wikipedia to be much more thorough in content, examples, and links. I don't know why people here are bashing out at wikipedia so much. Is it because wikipedia is for the general public, while mathworld is not?
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2007
  20. Mar 9, 2007 #19

    ZapperZ

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    Are you hijacking your own thread?

    If you wish to talk about the "validity" of wikipedia, please join the existing threads in General Discussion.

    Zz.
     
  21. Mar 9, 2007 #20

    ZapperZ

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    Are you saying what I think you are saying? Are you putting texts such as Arken on the SAME level on the same topic that you find in Wikipedia?

    I'm sorry, but this is nonsense. Any instructor can tell you the pain and suffering one has to go through in correcting wrong information and impression that a student has gained.

    This is highly dubious. It is the DETAILS that differentiate between a superficial knowledge of something and understanding something well. And what exactly would one use to "check" these details, since you have dismissed "authority figures".

    Right.. and we really don't care if your background information is correct or not.

    This is absurd. You are using anecdotal instances and exceptions, and turning them into a rule.

    Zz.
     
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