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Do I need to start liking physics?

  1. Oct 11, 2007 #1
    This is totally the wrong forum to ask this... but as I move in to graduate level math, with the idea of getting a PHD in the back of my mind, do I need to start getting interested in physics?

    I really just like math and applications are so boring... should I try to get over this attitude? The thing I enjoy most about math is the way that everything connects when you move from one context to the next-- In physics things always seem so ... situational... but maybe I've never had a good physics course... Should I take one as an elective? Or is it better to stick to game theory and computer science electives where I feel safe?
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  3. Oct 12, 2007 #2
    I think physics actually develops problem solving skills, it makes you think.

    Math to me I can do without thinking, the application is the tough part imo, the math itself is the easy part.

    I'm not a math major, but a Computer Science major and could get a math minor if I really wanted it with another math course and took Physics: Mechanics, Physics: E&M, Physics: Quantum particles and waves.

    I think most CS majors just take the first 2, but I found them all interesting and really helped me get into the mind set of solving difficult problems rather than just pushing around symbols.

    When I started physics I hated it, but that was before I sat down and tried to learn rather than just treating it like another math course.

    Of course, as it should... thats how the real world operates, nothing is the same.
    Thats what makes it challenging, so many factors come into play.
    Its not just, here's a formula, here's a few problems that use this formula, find a pattern, apply the pattern, get the answer.
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2007
  4. Oct 12, 2007 #3
    I never understood the mathematicians that like math but not its applications.

    Anyway, physics really does have a lot of stuff that is interconnected. I'm taking quantum mechanics right now, and things that worked in classical physics have their analogue in QM. The math is pretty much the same. And if you get the math, you'll get QM. If you try to tackle it conceptually... it won't go so well.

    However, physics is a different animal than math. It only uses math as a tool. The majority of the time I spend on a problem isn't trying to figure out the math, it's setting up the problem so I can solve it.

    Physics is a science, after all, and what you need is to figure out what it is you are dealing with and how you can test it. The math required isn't all that much for a BS degree. I've taken DiffEQ's, Multivariable Calc, Linear Algebra, and 2 quarters of mathematical physics, which covers stuff like Fourier series and transforms, and in general figuring out Diff EQ's in various ways, like series representations.

    But if you don't like applications... don't bother. I mean, why torment yourself? You can try sitting in on a class, if you really want to find out. You can't really go wrong with math + comp sci, anyway.
  5. Oct 12, 2007 #4
    Thanks these answers are pretty helpful. I guess I was wondering if knowing more about physics would help me understand math in "different" ways. Computer science has helped a lot.

    The last physics course I had was about 10 years ago and it was just like one thing after another "use this equation for this, use that one for that" but never why or how they were related...etc." so I just avoided it after that.

    Now that I have a more mature perspective I'm wondering if I missed out? Maybe I'll sit in on a course.
  6. Oct 12, 2007 #5


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    It's hard to give an answer based on "physics"; ie. the subject of physics is too broad.

    For example, I work in a physics department (but am an applied mathematician) -- the stuff I do, call it dynamical systems say, is very general, yet some of the other guys, for example, high energy physics, are very focused and use very specific mathematical techniques.

    I wouldn't want to use my maths for the latter -- I prefer the more general approach, not going down the route of solving one problem, for a fixed set of parameters, at a certain time...

    In this respect, I'd probably have hated doing a physics course to try to find an "application for maths" -- I'd suggest you look into mechanical or fluid dynamic type problems offered by your maths dept for some inspiration.
  7. Oct 12, 2007 #6


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    It's sometimes very enlightening to recognize some analogous mathematical structure in an apparently foreign field of study. For example, I stumbled upon the more mathematical economics books in the library... and recognized the Euler-Lagrange equations in different variables, under different terminology. So, with what I know in theoretical mechanics, I could understand some of those advanced topics in economics... in fact, one might be able to import more from knowledge in physics into economics or vice versa. One can think of it this way... one could use one's intuition in one field in a different field. Sometimes that's a "breakthrough" in another field.

    In a Physics I course, there are actually very few fundamental physical ideas presented... but it's [unfortunately] the special cases that get the attention... probably because those are exam-type questions. Of course, it's mathematics that is used to get to those special cases from the fundamental ideas.
  8. Oct 12, 2007 #7


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    Maybe I missed this, but I don't quite understand why you HAVE to like physics? I mean, you're not majoring it in, and from what I gather, you're doing graduate work in mathematics. So why would you have to force yourself to like or appreciate physics? I would be good to have such appreciation, but why do you need to like physics to progress in your field of study?

  9. Oct 12, 2007 #8
    I don't know, I'm EE. Should I try to get over my distaste for 18th century French poetry? I think a pure mathematician needs an appreciation for physics applications the same way I need an appreciation of neo-classical and romantic poetry: not at all.

    If you don't like it, don't study it.
  10. Oct 16, 2007 #9
    Have you taken differential equations? That involves a lot of phyics usually. You start with F=ma and work from there to solve a lot of different problems mathematically. I really enjoyed that class, because it gave me an appreciation of using physical data for math problems. I know a lot of pure math folks hated that class for exactly that reason though... Fields like number theory and other pure maths have very little to do with the physical world, though. If you're interested in fields that don't have any physical signifigance, then you don't need physics.
  11. Oct 16, 2007 #10
    Modern physics is a fertile area for new mathematics, but there's no need to worry if that doesn't float your boat.

    You might check out some classic books like
    Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics by Arnold and
    Semi-Riemannian Geometry With Applications to Relativity by Barrett O'Neill.
  12. Oct 16, 2007 #11


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    "Quantum physics for mathematicians" would be a much different course than "Quantum physics for engineers" -- similar things are true for other applied subjects. The things a mathematician would be most interested in seeing are often hidden behind waving hands, if mentioned at all, in such courses.

    Do you think an engineer would care about the difference between an everywhere-defined operator and a densely-defined operator, or that a fledgling physicist wants to see the definition of a rigged Hilbert space? But these are interesting mathematically!

    And because the mathematician has a different background than the physicist, a lecturer will often wind up giving detailed presentations of things the mathematician already fully understands (or doesn't care about), and then fly through something the mathematician has never seen before, but the physicist has. (or dosen't care about)
  13. Oct 16, 2007 #12
    If you sit a kid who doesn't like broccoli on a chair and try to force feed him the greens, he probably wont like it anymore afterwards than he did before. I doubt anyone will tie you to a chair and try to shove physics down your throat,(but maybe you should get some protection just in case.) :rolleyes:

    If you honestly don't like physics, thats ok, not many people do, but it probably wouldn't hurt to give it a second shot. You might gain a few useful skills and experiences in the process.
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