# Do chemists think differently than physicists?

Summary: Do chemists think differently than physicists? And should I Change my subject in University...

Hey guys,

I'm asking myself this question in hoping to find myself in life… some advice and ideas would be really helpful.

I'm from Europe and I'm actually studying chemistry. I still Need like 1 to 1,5 years to finish my bachelor. I'm not really struggling with the Curriculum, I'm struggling with keeping my interest in the subjects of chemistry.

Before I started studying chemistry I was choosing between Physics and Maths and chemistry. I opted for chemistry as 2 Friends of mine were studying it and I thought I would probably be too stupid for the other two.

Anyways, while studying chemistry it turned out that I'm way more interested in the subjects related to Physics (physical and theoretical chemistry) and I'm also better in them than in the chemistry related subjects… and tbh I'm sick of chemistry related subjects. I hate the way reaction mechanisms are written and how you have to think in order to anticipate them… I mean it's mostly just by memorising stuff and connecting These factors. Granted some of the stuff works on Logical principles... but then you still have to "memorise" some Things to make up the Logical principles (i.e. what defines a nucleophile etc).

Now I love theoretical Physics and I also really like physical chemistry, but the Problem for me is.. These subjects are only treated superficially. The Maths behind it, the derivations etc etc. This really Bugs me... and also I don't want to stop thinking at the Level of "theoretical chemistry" which is basically the Level of electrons. I want to dig further into subatomic particles and understand the Maths etc behind it...

Now I feel like I'm wasting my time since I'm just learning stuff which my brain wants to Forget as soon as it has learned them (organic and inorganic chemistry stuff) and I'd rather invest my time in complex analysis or sth… Should I just switch? xD

I guess physicists think differently than chemists... chemists are sort of the lawyers of science related subjects I feel (like they learn all those different factors about different Elements and compounds and make judgements from thereon) while physicists are more like philosophers... oh damn what should i do... Im def not a chemist in my heart...

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#### berkeman

Mentor
Anyways, while studying chemistry it turned out that I'm way more interested in the subjects related to Physics (physical and theoretical chemistry) and I'm also better in them than in the chemistry related subjects… and tbh I'm sick of chemistry related subjects.
Im def not a chemist in my heart...
The decision seems obvious. Glad to have been of help.

The decision seems obvious. Glad to have been of help.
This really isn't an easy decision for me as Society moves Forward while I'm moving backwards, but on second thought I'm Maybe not really moving backwards at all...

Thanks berkeman… you are probably very Right...

Sorry for not formatting correctly and writing in a stream of Consciousness sort of style!

*Edit: Also, I have the Feeling that while physicists "understand" stuff, chemists just "know" most of their stuff and understanding very Little... but I have a huge respect for my organic and inorganic Profs! it takes a hell of a mental effort… but I just don't want to know what they know xD

#### Henryk

Gold Member
Don't lose heart. At the high school level chemistry and physics are different subject but at the more advance level, there is an overlap between chemistry and physics. There is physical chemistry which deal with thermodynamics of reactions, etc., there is also theoretical chemistry and quite a few theoretical chemist use quantum theory and sophisticated math to calculate things like structure of elements, bonding strength, etc.
There is definitely more to chemistry than memorizing reactions.

#### symbolipoint

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Gold Member
Summary: Do chemists think differently than physicists? And should I Change my subject in University...

Hey guys,

I'm asking myself this question in hoping to find myself in life… some advice and ideas would be really helpful.

I'm from Europe and I'm actually studying chemistry. I still Need like 1 to 1,5 years to finish my bachelor. I'm not really struggling with the Curriculum, I'm struggling with keeping my interest in the subjects of chemistry.

Before I started studying chemistry I was choosing between Physics and Maths and chemistry. I opted for chemistry as 2 Friends of mine were studying it and I thought I would probably be too stupid for the other two.

Choose your major field based on YOUR interest, and what kind of career YOU want after undergraduate; or for after an advanced degree. Also be very careful about judging yourself on a "stupid-smart" spectrum. All individuals differ and you might have a temperament making you best for Chemistry among the chem-phy-math choices; or you might have a temperament making you not best for chemistry among that set of choices.

#### symbolipoint

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Anyways, while studying chemistry it turned out that I'm way more interested in the subjects related to Physics (physical and theoretical chemistry) and I'm also better in them than in the chemistry related subjects… and tbh I'm sick of chemistry related subjects. I hate the way reaction mechanisms are written and how you have to think in order to anticipate them… I mean it's mostly just by memorising stuff and connecting These factors. Granted some of the stuff works on Logical principles... but then you still have to "memorise" some Things to make up the Logical principles (i.e. what defines a nucleophile etc).

Now I love theoretical Physics and I also really like physical chemistry, but the Problem for me is.. These subjects are only treated superficially. The Maths behind it, the derivations etc etc. This really Bugs me... and also I don't want to stop thinking at the Level of "theoretical chemistry" which is basically the Level of electrons. I want to dig further into subatomic particles and understand the Maths etc behind it...
You might need to spend more time on Physics and on what supports Physics. You show a strong desire to use Mathematics to explain and understand. Are you in a position to not be allowed to use major field of Physics but include elective course choices in Chemistry?

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A good part of the undergraduate curriculum in physics consists of an advanced course in electricity and magnetism, and an advanced course in optics, especially interference and diffraction theory, and also a course or two in quantum mechanics. To describe it as studies at the atomic particle level is really not a good description. If you are mathematically inclined, you might find these courses I just mentioned to be quite an adventure. There is also some thermodynamics and statistical physics which shares some things with physical chemistry. In some ways, I think you are missing out on some neat stuff if you stay with chemistry topics that you are finding slow-going, but it is your decision, whatever you choose. $\\$ And on a lighter note, if you present the number 13.6 to them, the chemist is likely to recognize it as the density of mercury in grams per cm^3, while the physics person will recognize it as the value of the Rydberg constant in eV's.

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#### Tghu Verd

Also, I have the Feeling that while physicists "understand" stuff, chemists just "know" most of their stuff and understanding very Little
Oh dear, don't base your decision on that basis!

Both disciplines have lots of things that are known but not understood. Indeed, a lot of the outstanding questions in physics - the dark twins, reconciling GR and QM, what is time and why is there an apparent arrow, what really happens within the BH event horizon, etc. etc. - are 'known' in the sense that we can detect the effect, but we've no idea the 'why' that leads to an understanding.

But what do you want to actually do with your life? What topics fire you up? What do you spend your spare time thinking about, or working on, or reading up about? It sounds like particle physics and/or quantum mechanics excites your soul, so go with that. Live your passion, or don't, but reconcile yourself to that decision. And whichever path you choose, give it your 100% best effort. That's the only useful advice I can offer, because the decision itself is yours alone.

#### Choppy

It sounds to me like what's happened is that you started studying chemistry because you thought you would like it, and then when you really dove into it, you found it wasn't really as interesting as you thought it would be. And now something else -- physics -- seems like it's far more interesting.

One major flag to watch out for in a situation like this is whether your interest is genuine, or is this simply a case of the grass appearing greener on someone else's lawn. I'm not saying that's what it is. I think it's quite common for students to discover that their true passion lies in a different path than the one they choose immediately after high school. But it's also common for students to loose interest when the coursework gets tough and when they realize that they're going to have to slog through a lot of boring, monotonous material to get to the fun stuff.

So that's a question back to you. It's not an easy one to answer. But it's worth thinking about as you consider switching majors.

#### Wrichik Basu

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2018 Award
In short, if you love physics and you're frustrated with chemistry, there is no use of clinging to chemistry.

Physical chemistry has fields like spectroscopy that are truly interesting. (Actually, for spectroscopy, there are primarily two branches: one is working on molecules and using whatever technology is already available, and the other is working on the technology itself to make it more powerful and precise. For a person who is on the physics side, the latter will be more interesting.) But then there are fields like particle physics that chemists often miss out as a whole.

If you want to change over to physics, you will have to keep in mind that you are almost at the end of your bachelor's degree. If in masters you go over to physics, it will be expected that you know whatever was taught in physics in the bachelor's course. If you shift now, then also the same will apply.

Keeping in mind that you accept to study physics in the language of maths, check out if there are topics in physics that you haven't studied yet, but your friends in physics have already studied as a part of their curriculum. If you decide to change over to physics, study those topics such that you will be able to apply them in other places (maybe not necessarily at the level of an exam). In your case, it will be important for you to be able to apply previously studied concepts to advanced topics.

Have a word with professors in physics who you think are kind enough to listen to you and give good advice. Learn from them what the physics courses are like, and you'll get an idea of what you need to study in order to be at par with the rest of the class.

Also, as a side note, don't think that I am discouraging you or scaring you. As I said earlier, you cannot go on with something that you don't like (I don't like chemistry either). But when you shift over to physics, you will need to cope up with topics that you've not studied. If you have physics as elective (which you are supposed to have), then you are already in a good state. Just find out important topics that you don't know, and learn them up.

Best of luck!

Wow, thanks for all the shared thoughts and ideas. Didn't expect so many People to answer. Thank you all very much. After lying in bed thinking the whole night I came to the conclusion that I'm going to switch over to Physics. I'll answer you guys individually later as I don't have a lot of time Right now. I really appreciate all of your Input!! thanks!

#### sophiecentaur

Gold Member
should I Change my subject in University..
There has been a steady stream of similar posts, over the years, from members who aren't sure what they should be doing. There are no hard and fast rules here as it depends on the individual and their abilities and nature. The best decision would be based on what level you hope to be working at in the future. If you are confident of getting into academia and research then choose what you find most interesting. Otoh if you are being realistic, would you perhaps be aiming at a job in industry? It's easy to scan through the job adverts (academic and industry) these days and you could find out what's available in the various fields and what sort of qualifications and experience they're asking for. A happy hour or two on the jobs pages might give you some ideas.
You have a problem these days, which I and my cohort didn't have in the 60s and that is the companies want people to hit the ground running and they tend not to want to waste (!!!!?) too much time training new people. That means you will probably need to commit yourself early. However; whatever job you end up in, you must make a point of throwing yourself into it. Amazingly enough, many apparently unpromising jobs can turn out to be interest and fulfilling. If you are any good, you will probably end up Managing People and that job's pretty much the same wherever you are. Good luck with it.

#### SchroedingersLion

Mate. Switch to physics.
You might be able to get credit for some of your chemistry or physics related courses you have taken thus far, so you will not have lost a lot of time. And additional chemistry knowledge is useful for physicists anyway.

#### sophiecentaur

Gold Member
Mate. Switch to physics.
You might be able to get credit for some of your chemistry or physics related courses you have taken thus far, so you will not have lost a lot of time. And additional chemistry knowledge is useful for physicists anyway.
Not long ago there was a PF thread which seemed to conclude that Physics Degrees were not as useful as you'd imagine. That was information from recent graduates. Of course it would all depend on the individual and the actual course.

Don't lose heart. At the high school level chemistry and physics are different subject but at the more advance level, there is an overlap between chemistry and physics. There is physical chemistry which deal with thermodynamics of reactions, etc., there is also theoretical chemistry and quite a few theoretical chemist use quantum theory and sophisticated math to calculate things like structure of elements, bonding strength, etc.
There is definitely more to chemistry than memorizing reactions.
Hey, Henryk thanks for your advice. But I'm not in high school anymore, I already attended lectures of physical chemistry as well lectures of theoretical chemistry. The thing which really bugs me is that for example the maths and derivations of formulas is only covered superficially. E.g. we didn't dive into complex analysis even though this is an important part of the Maths behind Quantum Physics (e.g. theoretical chemistry). So Right now i would really love to dive into this stuff, but I am hindered by the other subjects (organic, inorganic etc chemistry). It really feels like a waste of time for me to learn all this chemical stuff instead of just Focusing on the stuff I have interest in and which I didn't cover until now (derivations of maxwell equations, complex Analysis etc etc). Furthermore in my opinion physicists are better suited for physical chemistry or theoretical chemistry than chemists… so the Question I started to ask myself was... what sense does it make for me to continue studying chemistry only to go into theoretical chemistry which I find is better suited for phyisicists anyway.. and also... I actually intended to try to go from theoretical chemistry into some physical Department in the University... but this won't be easy... It's way easier for a physicist to enter theoretical chemistry or physical chemistry than a chemist trying to enter into the world of particle Physics or theoretical physics..

Also be very careful about judging yourself on a "stupid-smart" spectrum. All individuals differ and you might have a temperament making you best for Chemistry among the chem-phy-math choices; or you might have a temperament making you not best for chemistry among that set of choices.
Yup… this "stupid-smart" Thing was Pretty stupid of me to talk About, but this was just honestly the Feeling I had about Physics before I started studying chemistry. I basically didn't have any Knowledge About Physics and I thought that I would probably be too dumb or sth to understand the Maths etc.. (even though the Questions of Physics interested me more than the Questions of chemistry). But I realized I'm def more of an Abstract thinker than … umm... what chemistry is About... I have respect for the people etc and it's definitely not an easy subject. But I have to me honest to myself… it doesn't interest me as much as Physics and Maths does and I'm just not a chemist in my heart... I hate all chemistry related subjects in uni (from organic chemistry, to analytical chemistry to inorganic chemistry etc etc). I guess I hate them cause they hinder me from pursuing what I really want to... While studying chemistry (I already switched to physics btw xD) I Always told myself that I would go into theoretical chemistry and try to get into Physics from thereon... but this would be just a huge waste of time and accumulated Knowledge.. because honestly… These reactions don't interest me a bit.. I also hate lab work… I like to think... I'm not really practical.. I'm def not a chemist lol xD

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I think there are two areas you would do well to work very hard on: $\\$ 1) Electricity and magnetism at the advanced undergraduate level,
and
2) Optics and Interference and Diffraction theory at the advanced undergraduate level.
$\\$ These two subjects are very much at the core of the physics curriculum. If you can do well with them, you can do very well as a physics major, but if you find them too difficult, you might be better off in chemistry. I wish you much luck=if you find these subjects to be an adventure, then I think you are a physicist at heart.

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You might need to spend more time on Physics and on what supports Physics. You show a strong desire to use Mathematics to explain and understand. Are you in a position to not be allowed to use major field of Physics but include elective course choices in Chemistry?
I don't really understand the last part of the Question, I think. Here in Germany if you study chemistry you have to attend the lectures as stated in the Curriculum. The most part of your time is going to be spent on organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry and also physical chemistry. So you just don't have the time to dive into complex analysis or real physics stuff. These Imo are the Major fields for chemists. With Major fields: i mean These are the lectures which take most of your time when studying chemistry in Germany. The Maths (and physics) lectures for chemists (which I already attended) are very… ehm… superficial. It's not really Maths at all. you learn how to apply Maths for chemists.. would be my way of describing the Maths lectures for chemists. Not much concerning mathematical Proofs etc.. (only thing we had was "mathematical induction"). And this sort of stuff just Bugs the hell out of me. Same with physical chemistry… statistical mathematics (boltzmann) etc is quite important.. yet we didn't really spend much time with it.

And even if I get my master in theoretical chemistry (which was my way of trying to Escape chemistry I guess) and would want to Change into a Major field of Physics... this wouldn't be easy here. My Knowledge About Maths and Physics as a master Student of chemistry is way lower than a master Student of Physics... So I'd probably have to write some exams concerning the physical field I'd want to go into, but first I'd have catch up with the Maths... so in the end like 70% of the Knowledge I accumulate during my chemistry studies would be a waste for me... These organci and inorganic stuff won't help me a bit in a Physics related field xD

A good part of the undergraduate curriculum in physics consists of an advanced course in electricity and magnetism, and an advanced course in optics, especially interference and diffraction theory, and also a course or two in quantum mechanics. To describe it as studies at the atomic particle level is really not a good description. If you are mathematically inclined, you might find these courses I just mentioned to be quite an adventure.

On my way towards the adventure :) Really Looking Forward to it.

I think you are missing out on some neat stuff if you stay with chemistry topics that you are finding slow-going,

Amen!

And on a lighter note, if you present the number 13.6 to them, the chemist is likely to recognize it as the density of mercury in grams per cm^3, while the physics person will recognize it as the value of the Rydberg constant in eV's.

This one made me smile. You seem to know both, but ya mercury is kind of interesting xD. Tbh I wouldn't have connected anything with the number if you presented it to me, but I know I did some calculations with the Rydberg-Constant and I remembered an exercise in the first Semester concerning the Derivation of it.

This was a really nice read the morning after I had a Pretty chaotic night mentally skimming through the Options. Thanks :) Same goes for symbolipoint :)

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@needsomeadvicemb And if you want to do Physical Chemistry/Thermodynamics, @Chestermiller is our resident expert here. We also have a chemistry PhD. on here= @Borek It might be interesting what advice they might give for you. $\\$ And for me, I had a very solid one full year of an honors chemistry sequence in college that also had an extensive laboratory with it. The professor used the book University Chemistry by Mahan, and also taught us quite a lot of thermodynamics. All of that I had as a first year college student, before any physics courses. My plan was to major in Physics from the start, but the Chemistry background helped quite a lot. (For your own entertainment, see this application of $PV=nRT$ along with Archimedes Principle: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/lifting-a-man-with-100m-3-of-helium.943829/#post-5972396 )$\\$ One thing I haven't mentioned previously is the math courses=a good background in calculus along with a differential equations course is very important to make your physics studies much more workable.

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Oh dear, don't base your decision on that basis!

Both disciplines have lots of things that are known but not understood. Indeed, a lot of the outstanding questions in physics - the dark twins, reconciling GR and QM, what is time and why is there an apparent arrow, what really happens within the BH event horizon, etc. etc. - are 'known' in the sense that we can detect the effect, but we've no idea the 'why' that leads to an understanding.

But what do you want to actually do with your life? What topics fire you up? What do you spend your spare time thinking about, or working on, or reading up about? It sounds like particle physics and/or quantum mechanics excites your soul, so go with that. Live your passion, or don't, but reconcile yourself to that decision. And whichever path you choose, give it your 100% best effort. That's the only useful advice I can offer, because the decision itself is yours alone.
Ya lol, thanks for pointing out my stupidity. This was indeed poorly worded. What I tried to say was I guess that chemists don't really understand the Physics and Maths behind the Physics-related subjects of chemistry which Kind of Bugs me cause These were the most interesting subjects for me as a chemistry student.

And chemists "stop" asking themselves Questions at some Points. Or rather they ask different questions than I like to ask myself. All the questions you asked up there just really speak to my heart. The Questions organo chemists are asking themselves just don't really interest me. They are useful for Society etc, but they are not fundamentally interesting. I mean… the core Questions of Physics speak directly to us… and e.g. the creation of alcohols and differences (while interesting cause i like to consume one sort of alcohol from time to time xD) is just not fundamentally interesting. *Edit: I have to correct myself. There was one subject my organic chemistry 3 prof was/is (not sure Right now) working on that was kind of interesting cause it centered on the Question of the creation of life. It was About self replicating systems. But It's just not a subject my heart speaks to… so.. hats off to my ex prof :)

Thanks for the words! This also really helped me in my decision making. Your second Paragraph.

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#### symbolipoint

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symbolipoint said:
You might need to spend more time on Physics and on what supports Physics. You show a strong desire to use Mathematics to explain and understand. Are you in a position to not be allowed to use major field of Physics but include elective course choices in Chemistry?
I don't really understand the last part of the Question, I think. Here in Germany if you study chemistry you have to attend the lectures as stated in the Curriculum. The most part of your time is going to be spent on organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry and also physical chemistry. So you just don't have the time
Then you are saying the answer is "Yes, I am not".

Better wording of my question could be, "Are you not in a position to choose Physics as your major field and to include elective courses in Chemistry"? You then indicated that , correct: you are not in such a position.

Your interest is more in Physics, so you may want to earn a degree in Physics. I would guess that the treatment you receive about instruction on Chemistry to be somewhat superficial compared to if your major field were Chemistry.

#### Borek

Mentor
They say physics is just an applied math, and chemistry is just an applied physics - there is a bit of truth to that, there is a progression of "practicality" as opposed to "theoreticality" when you move. So yes, I agree with your feelings that these are different approaches. Choose whichever suits you best.

Are you at an university, or a technical university? Even these differ when it comes to chemistry, university approach is much more detailed when it comes to theory (general case is xxxx, from that you can derive practical formula that works if this and that), technical university teaches approach that is much more practical (use this formula, don't worry about the derivation). At least that's how things work in Poland, but as far as I am aware our systems don't differ much.

#### symbolipoint

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To just respond the the title topic
Yes, chemists think differently than do physicists. Chemists are interested in reactions, identity of substances, and properties of substances, sometimes depending on goals and what been studied, synthesis of compounds, and oftenly physical characteristics related to them (substances, compounds). Physicists may be more interested in relationships of matter and energy, but not always unassociated with chemistry.

#### epenguin

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You never know where anything may lead.

One woman got her qualification in calculations about a long-standing fundamental problem of chemical physics, predicting the rate of chemical reactions. (I do not know what the present state of art is).

Her present job – Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
I do not know whether her first work advanced or retarded her career.

"Do chemists think differently than physicists?"

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