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Deciding if I should major in physics

  1. Oct 29, 2011 #1
    Sorry to intrude. I really need some advice. I have a dilemma on my hands and need to get some feedback from experts like yourselves :)

    Please permit me to give you a little background about myself. I am 34 years old. I have about 82 college credits (none of which involve math and only one science class: environmental science).

    I will just be open here and describe my experience. I had been planning to return to school and I was contemplating which field to enter (most of my credits cover most of the general requirements at my local college). I was really perplexed because none of the subjects I was considering (psychology, etc.) seemed to deeply interest me. Then, I had this amazing experience. It was like I came to myself. I realized in a flash that I loved science (I have a strong religious background which steered me away from science for about 16 years). And then the word "physics" popped into my head. I didn't even know what the word meant. I had been that alienated from the scientific community (how sad). I might add that I just recently discovered that I am an INTP and extremely visual-spacial (I just had assumed everyone thought in pictures). The intuition that comes with being an INTP probably brought this to the surface. I went to my local library and checked out some books on physics (my favorite was Lee Smolin) and COULDN'T PUT THEM DOWN FOR HOURS. I was instantly hooked! Totally fell in love with it and felt like my mind was finally being challenged! All the theories that Lee Smolin described, I visualized and created symbols for in my mind. I was mentally watching it unfold and it was so beautiful! After discovering this I don't think I can be satisfied with anything else.

    Well now that you have read my love story of how I met physics I desperately need advice... please please please! Again, I am 34 and I am concerned about starting into math at my age. I am willing to take Algebra, and trig and pre-calculus before starting a physics major. Time is not the issue. I just worry if my brain is still young enough to be proficient in this. I was told that math is the language of physics and I totally respect that. In school I hated basic math. I hated the repetition. I liked geometry and algebra intrigued me: not because I was trying to answer the equations, but because I wanted to understand how they came up with the whole system of algebra in the first place. That really peaked my curiosity. Because I am a visual-spacial thinker I hope that calculus will appeal to me. I must be solid about my choice of a major because there is no wiggle room left and I have just barely have enough financial aid to complete a major (with no switching). Can someones awe and fascination with physics get them through the math? I don't really worry that I'm smart enough, I just hope I will like it. When something interests me enough I can just loose myself in it, so I'm not afraid to spend a good 5 hours a day studying a subject I enjoy. This actually brings me great satisfaction. I know you can't read my mind, but I hope some of your responses will help to paint the bigger picture. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 29, 2011 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    you love the subject

    no math

    Good news: almost all physicists hate math the way mathematicians do it. As a result, the math you need to understand basic physics is quite easy to learn and the rest you can pick up as you go along.

    Do you like puzzles?

    You've read some of Smollin's stuff - have you had a go at basic physics primers? Physics courses are very into the analysis and building tools for use in later courses so they can be pretty mathematical and puzzley.

    If I were you, I'd take stock - there is generally not much money in physics, it can pay but not normally.
  4. Oct 29, 2011 #3
    Simon Bridge,

    Thank you for your reply! I'm really happy to read your description of the math involved. That helps a lot! I can stomach the beginning stuff, as long as I know the end result will be pleasurable. You're comment: "almost all physicists hate math the way mathematicians do it" sounds like the math that would be involved in a physics career is more abstract than systematic. That's more my cup of tea :) About employment: I am somewhat of an artist by nature, which means I must love what I'm doing! I'm even willing to be the... well not the "starving artist" but maybe the impecunious one. Once I get my Bachelors that will open up more financial aid for me to complete a Masters. And, well now I'm dreaming... but I would love to complete a PhD. Theoretical physics is what I would probably like best. I did purchase a college physics book and I see what you mean about the puzzles. It seems to me that things will get more interesting the more I get into it. The hardest part about assessing this is knowing what the math will be like before I learn it. But I think I'm starting to get the idea. Thanks for your help!

  5. Oct 29, 2011 #4
    just go for it, maths for physics is just a matter of practice, you just do problems until it becomes automatic, like writing in english. Anyone can learn it really, the only people that fail are those that give up when the going gets tough (it will). If you've got the desire to study physics then it would be a crime not to, you're missing out massively if you don't bother. As for your age, there were people older than you in the same year as me when I was an undergraduate, and many of the staff at my university are still doing it well into their old age. Also, there might not be as much money in physics as, say, medicine, but I'd say the understanding & appreciation you gain is priceless.
  6. Oct 29, 2011 #5
    I dunno, but the language of physics is mathematics, and so if you want to join the culture you will need to be fluent in the language. If you hate the mathematics, or don't understand and appreciate it's intrinsic beauty and order (and you only get this by doing it, practicing it even if it seems repetetive), it would be surprising if you would do well in physics. Not necessarily finishing a degree, but actually doing something useful with it afterwards. You don't have to love mathematics, but most of the physicists I work with (and me, too) do enjoy a good math problem if it's there for a reason, i.e. it's part of a physics problem - this is how you ground everything, how you show that if this is true then it follows that that must be true.
  7. Oct 29, 2011 #6
    Thanks for the responses! I may find out that I love the math. This has been the hardest deciding factor for me because I've only had a little bit of the very basics so I don't really know if I will like it or not and I don't think I really can know until I really get into it. The best comparison that I can make is to art. I absolutely love art and appreciate beauty. As I said before, I am a visual thinker. More than once I have heard people speak of math in terms of beauty and I find that very fascinating. If I can see the beauty in it, perhaps I would come to love mathematics also, especially once I get into more complicated forms.
  8. Oct 29, 2011 #7
    I also like the way you refer to mathmatics as a language. I am facinated with languages both spoken and visual. I have learned Russian and American Sign Language. Perhaps learning math would not be much harder...
  9. Oct 29, 2011 #8
    I don't know about this. A lot of mathematicians hate the way other mathematicians do it, too. I'm a mathematician, by the way. A wanna-be mathematical physicist, you could say. It is probably true that less concern for rigor makes things quite a bit easier in some ways. That's what makes mathematicians so slow compared to the physicists. We can't keep up because we are too busy dotting our i's and crossing our t's, and the physicists don't care so they just run ahead. However, what's more problematic to me about this statement is that I was essentially chased out of physics (not that anyone went after me, I just hated their approach) into math because I was a visual thinker (as is the OP) and maybe it was just one bad experience, but there are a lot of physicists who made things very difficult for me because I wanted more intuition. Math is ultimately where I found the intuition that appealed to my visual imagination, although I have had equally bad or worse experiences with mathematicians. And I'm speaking here about physics, actually, not just math--I found good visual intuition about physics because I know advanced math. To me, it's not about whether it's a physicists approach or mathematician's approach, but whether it's an intuitive approach. My experience with physicists is limited, but from what I've seen, mathematicians probably have more of a tendency towards visual thinking than the physicists, overall, though it probably has more to do with personal preference, rather than whether you are into physics or math. Plenty of visual-thinking physicists, too, like Feynman or Einstein. Just beware of profs/books that don't suit your style, I say, whatever the subject.
  10. Oct 29, 2011 #9
    OP, you do like math. I can tell already. If you like Smolin's stuff (I haven't read his books, but I know what kind of stuff he does), you'll like math because the same stuff that you like about physics is in math, too. Maybe the two communities have drifted apart in the last century or so, but really the two subjects are still very similar and still have close connections.

    Math can be a very visual subject, some branches more than others. Unfortunately, there are a lot of mathematicians and physicists who are not visual thinkers, and they may make your life difficult and unpleasant if you should happen to take a class from them. It can be quite a challenge to navigate around them. One possible defense is to sort of keep an eye out for good books and good authors that you like. Shop around to find the best one.

    I say go for it. You still have plenty of time to change your mind if you decide to do something else. You need basic math and physics for many different majors, so you won't lose anything if you decide it's not for you after a few classes. There are a lot of different directions you could go with it if you stay longer. Engineering could be an option.

    It's never too late to start. My mom is in her 50s and is trying to get a PhD in Economics. She's not doing too well with research, but she got all the way up to the "all but dissertation" stage and she did okay up to that point.

    One thing I will say, though, about both math and physics is that they are both really overwhelming. When I started college, I was impressed that the math profs could teach a few different classes, not just one like the high school teaches usually do. But, it turns out, that's nothing. It just goes on and on, and you study for 10 years, and you still don't know enough. The problem never really gets solved. No one feels like they know enough. No one. To become a real expert, you have to learn an INSANE amount of stuff. That's probably true of any scientific field. I don't mean to discourage you, but doing science is a huge undertaking that is not for the faint of heart. But there are different levels of physicists.
  11. Oct 29, 2011 #10
    I suggest you look for an AP physics B review book (or AP physics C if you know some calculus) and go through some of the chapters just to see if you like it. You need to know the fundamentals very well to perform in physics.
  12. Oct 29, 2011 #11
    Probably not, but doing homework and exercises definitely will. Ask for help whenever you need it. :)
  13. Oct 30, 2011 #12
    I need to get more information out of you concerning this. :smile:

    I'm also a visual learner and need to find what fields within math and physics fit well for me. Even though I'm an early EE major (sophomore), I have a strong interest in math and physics. The first 2 months of this semester was incredibly disappointing for me in math. My linear algebra class lacks no intuition and it was driving me nuts, it's just the professor talking with an endless chain of reason and proving theorems. I finally bought a better book with simple 2x2 matrix cases that explains the geometry of linear algebra and things are finally starting to click.

    With all that said, what specific areas of math and physics have you found to cater to us visual people? Any good books too? Also, what area of math are you in?

    I've talked to a couple math professors about this before but they more or less just say "well math can be visual but usually it's not." This is beyond disappointing to me. But like you said I think it just depends on the professor, which I have yet to find.
  14. Oct 30, 2011 #13
    I also started out in EE, then got interested in physics and math, but math kind of worked out better for me. Maybe there is intuition there, but it's sort of concealed from you. If you don't like theorem-proving, you would probably be better off in physics or staying in EE. I hear in engineering grad school, there is a lot more theory. But you might not want to write off theorem proving just yet. For me, the proofs are important, but they are secondary. The most important thing is the ideas.

    It's kind of hard to say because, even with different fields, there are diverse problems to work on and different approaches. Plus, I'm only familiar with a limited amount of math--I know a lot, but the subject is vast. Geometric topology and graph theory seem to stand out in my mind as perhaps the most visual. Complex analysis is a good one, too. Differential geometry can be, but a lot of geometers are obsessed with gruesome calculations, so I would be wary. But there are visual things that come up in most fields, if you know where to look. Even subjects that don't have necessarily have so much visual content in an of themselves like category theory or abstract algebra can become sort of visual by association, just because of the things that you can apply them to. There are also very abstract subjects that are kind of half-way visual to me, like maybe functional analysis, but the pictures are kind of vague and abstract. It also depends on what approach you take to the subject.

    Books: Visual Complex Analysis, Geometry and the Imagination. Anything by V. I. Arnold (difficult and requires a lot of thought to understand, but good). A Geometric Approach to Differential Forms. Also, John Baez's website has a lot of good stuff on it.

    I want to start some sort of blog or website of my own, and I have written a little bit of material already, but it needs some polishing and it's pretty limited right now. I'm busy trying to finish up my PhD right now, so not much time to spare. I'm interested in low-dimensional topology (that is, dimensions 1, 2, 3, and 4), quantum topology, mathematical physics, and topological quantum computing.

    Ask a low-dimensional topologist or a graph theorist. They would probably say what they do is pretty visual. Some fields of math aren't really that visual, but there are a lot of appealing ideas that aren't necessarily so visual. Intuition is more fundamental to me than visualization. There's algebraic intuition, too. But, also a subject like game theory, although I have not studied it, sounds like a lot of fun, yet not necessarily visual, per se. At least not really very geometric. And, a lot of mathematicians just aren't that imaginative, so they don't have the same powers of visualization as someone like me or other visual mathematicians like Bill Thurston, Roger Penrose, V. I. Arnold, or Tristan Needham.
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