1. Not finding help here? Sign up for a free 30min tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Programs Can't think like a physicist

  1. Sep 13, 2017 at 6:47 PM #1
    Hey, so I started my first year of physics and astronomy at uni on September 8th, it's been about 3 classes so it hasn't been long by what's been bothering me is how everyone else thinks and answers questions vs how I do it.. They know what details to use to reason out their answers while I don't even know that those details matter, or they think of things in terms of physics like our professor wants and I think of them in terms of math- like today he was asking us for the d-t graph for a certain a-t and v-t graph and wanted to know whether it was a positive curve up or down- I used derivatives to explain myself and someone answered him after me talking about velocity and displacement in a physics sense which he said he wanted. It makes me feel stupid because everyone knows how to think and I don't, I don't know what to do to develope that mode of thinking.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2017 at 7:20 PM #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I would just recommend that you not stress about it -- it's WAY too early to worry about this. Just enjoy your classes and learning so many new things, and think as you go along about what the best ways are to approach problems.

    There is nothing wrong with approaching physics problems from a mathematical viewpoint if that is more natural for you. You will learn to add in more physical mental views as you go along. Both approaches have advantages, but neither one is wrong to use first or second...
  4. Sep 13, 2017 at 7:59 PM #3


    Staff: Mentor

    I don't see anything wrong with explaining things from a mathematics perspective. In fact, based just on what you said, it seems to me that your explanation was the more reasoned one. After all, mathematics is the language of physics, so understanding the mathematics goes a long way to understanding the physics concepts.
  5. Sep 13, 2017 at 8:32 PM #4


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    You learn to think the way needed as you practice and study. This is an adaptation that may take more than just one semester.
  6. Sep 13, 2017 at 9:18 PM #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I agree with berkeman; less than 1 week into your freshman year is way too early to worry about this. Besides, the purpose of the course is to help you learn the material. You are not expected to know it already! If others seem to be a little ahead of you don't worry. Just keep up with the readings and assignments, work at gaining an understanding of the physics (may require more than just the reading and homework), go to office hours to ask questions, and you will most likely be fine.

    Enjoy college!

  7. Sep 13, 2017 at 9:55 PM #6
    I keep telling myself that once I'm back into the gist of things, I'll start thinking like I'm supposed to- my grade 12 physics teacher was good so the problem sets and assignments that I've gotten now are pretty much the same as the ones I got in grade 12, and I knew how to think using physics but I can't anymore, the math makes so much more sense and actually helps reinforce the physics concepts for me :/
  8. Sep 14, 2017 at 2:48 AM #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I agree with all the previous replies, but I would like to reinforce this:
    and this:
    There is not "a (one) physicist", as the thread title suggests. As you progress, you will meet many breeds of physicists and their approaches will range from highly physically intuitive to highly mathematical.
    You are not. Just learn, gather much more experience than you have now and see what fits you best. (Perhaps you are starting to see this already.)
  9. Sep 15, 2017 at 12:35 PM #8
    I can't think like a physicist either. I'm more of a hybrid between a biologist and an applied mathematician (number cruncher). I've learned to recognize this difference in how I think and use it as a strength rather than a weakness. Most research is done by teams, and there have usually been other team members to help with my weaknesses.

    I did manage to think enough like a physicist to pass all my classes, do OK on the PGRE, and the PhD quals. But there were some touch and go moments. Hard work and some prayer helped me get trough those.
  10. Sep 15, 2017 at 4:13 PM #9
    I want to weigh in here because I went through something similar last year (during my fundamental physics courses) except in the opposite direction. My physical intuition and mental image of the mechanics has always been pretty reliable, but my mathematical intuition is often lacking. Sometimes I felt stupid for not reaching a solution as fast or in the same way as my classmates.

    The key for me was just to diligently apply the math I was learning and had already learned to the physical situation which I already understood. Now the physics concepts and the equations describing them are inseparable to me, at least for the ones I really understand. I've never felt like I truly understood a math topic until I apply it to a physical situation anyway; for instance, differential equations frequently lose me but solving them for population problems or damped harmonic oscillation seems natural and easy.

    If approaching the mathematical aspects of the problems is easier for you, just have the patience to diligently consider what is physically happening in each case and you will be fine. In both cases, the common denominator is rigorous logic. If you can identify exactly what you're trying to solve for and find a logical way to get there, you are thinking like a physicist.
  11. Sep 19, 2017 at 1:24 PM #10
    Thank you so much for this ( as well as everyone else, thank you!) sorry, I wasnt able to see the replies- got busy but thank you all, I don't feel too bad about it now actually, I've started to think mathematically but translate what I'm thinking into physics-y answers like my professor wants and its actually helping me come up with the proper reasoning for whatever situation we're analyzing in class :') so I guess it's not a bad thing after all!
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted