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Do I need to be real smart to be a physicist?

  1. Sep 7, 2010 #1
    I was wondering if a student needs to be genius level to be a successful theoretical physicist. I get along well in my math classes but I don't think I'm even close to those "beautiful minds" kind of guys. So that's my question, do I really need to be really smart to get into grad school and study theoretical physics? :confused:
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  3. Sep 7, 2010 #2
    Depends on your definition of genius. I think that to do physics, you do need to be able to do partial differential equations, but one thing that you'll find once you get in is that a lot of people are *MUCH* better at math than you are.

    If you are doing fine in your pre-calculus and calculus courses, then I think you can learn enough physics to do useful things.
  4. Sep 7, 2010 #3


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    I would describe myself as being "good at math" and "enjoys math." I'd also add in "likes working in a lab" since I'm an experimentalist.

    I'm not a genius however. I'd consider myself basically a student of average ability in my graduate program, which is, I think, a decent, respected program, but not top 15 or at an ivy league. (Of course, being an average physicist is nothing to complain about, of course!)

    It's important to be "good" at math, but this does not mean being a prodigy. I'd say more important than having an innate ability for math is an innate sense of enjoyment from math and science. You have to enjoy it enough that you are able to make it through the times where things seem impossible, but I assure you, are not!
  5. Sep 7, 2010 #4
    It is true that only a small percentage of people who study physics and math will end up with a permanent job as a successful theoretical physicist. It is definitely not the case, however, that all the people who do are people who have always stood out as "geniuses". There are many factors that go into success--not least of which is luck--and there is absolutely no reason to be discouraged just because you see people around you who appear to be smarter than you.
  6. Sep 7, 2010 #5


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    True, and I'd add another *huge* factor that is needed for success is determination. If I had to choose between brute force determination and genius, I'd take determination any day.
  7. Sep 8, 2010 #6
    I don't agree, it depends a lot on what you want to do and what you are after. What is important to note however is that those aspects are comparable.
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2010
  8. Sep 8, 2010 #7
    I should add, since it seems like almost no one else did: there is MUCH more competition among theoreticians than experimentalists. So yeah, you'd need to be pretty smart to go far as a theoretical guy.

    However, like it has been said, I think the biggest thing is your ability/willingness to sit down and think things through deeply.
  9. Sep 9, 2010 #8
    I believe being a successful theoretical physicist requires a lot of imagination, determination, enjoys puzzles(All types of math is the greatest puzzle ever invented), and think outside the box. It really points down on how much do you enjoy thinking and using your imagination. Thus, be open minded to possibilities and let math be your art form.
  10. Sep 10, 2010 #9
  11. Sep 10, 2010 #10


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    Gawd certain people on this forum are right, people have god awful ideas about the type of people physicists are. The fact of the matter is if you don't have any work ethic, forget being a theoretical physicist, you'll be lucky if you can make a living.

    The problem, as many people have stated on this forum and other places, is that the layman sees physics and science in general as linear. They think science is just success after success after success and people like Einstein sit down one day and boom, out comes general relativity. Science is comprised of millions upon millions of man-hours of effort on theories that end up being wrong or dead ends that you NEVER hear about. There is an amazing underestimation of how much work is involved in being successful. I bet you won't find too many Nobel prize winners with mediocre intelligence, but I'm sure you can find many many people who are successful theoretical physicists that weren't child prodigies or are revered by their colleagues as another level of human intelligence.
  12. Sep 11, 2010 #11
    Hard work is the key.
  13. Sep 11, 2010 #12
    Yes, hard work is key, but also SMART hard work is more important. Too often people spout "work harder and you will succeed," and while it may help, it is often a misguided approach to problems. The best and "most successful" people do not get to where they are on hard work, or talent, or any combination of those two alone. They know HOW to get there, and use SMART strategies to accomplish what they want to accomplish with as little effort as possible. There is a huge difference between studying hard and studying "smart." The hard study will sit in a library for 8 hours a day without breaks trying to tackle a triple major. The smart studier will limit themselves, find their niche, and work really hard to become good at what they want without killing themselves in the process. The same applies to physics.
  14. Sep 11, 2010 #13
    But like others have said, EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE lives a relatively "mundane" life. Too often we liken nobel prize winning scientists, great businessmen, or young prodegies, to amazing human beings who are just born exceptional. That is NEVER the case. No one is born "A Beautiful Mind;" it is developed. Read biographies and really get to know some of these scientists and researchers. You will realize they spent years of their lives learning and exploring before they were ever even able to approach the level of making contributions in their fields. As Pengwuino said, Einstein didn't just sit down one day and come up with relativity. He spent YEARS and THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS OF HOURS day and night working on his theories. There are no shortcuts in life, and even for the gifted and talented, (of which raw talent is even debated) life is a struggle. Forget about the news hype, Hollywood glamour, or amazingly grandiose stories in the press. Talent requires an AWFULLY LARGE amount of hard work, effort, luck, determination, and a wee-bit of talent.

    "It's not that I'm so smart, it's that I stick with problems LONGER." - Albert Einstein
  15. Sep 11, 2010 #14
    You have to be exceptionally smart to be a theoretical physicist in order to grasp the necessary abstract concepts. This self esteem, feel good nonsense doesn't get you too far.
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