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Do you find that you intimidate others because you study physics?

  1. Apr 15, 2013 #1
    This is a long one, but here's the short and sweet version:
    I'm an exceptionally good and enthusiastic physics student in high school and despite being friendly, welcoming, understanding and helpful toward my classmates, I feel like I intimidate them with my intellectual capacity for physics (and math). I basically put a tenth of the time into school as many of my classmates do and come out with significantly higher marks. I try to not be complacent, and taking compliments isn't my strong suit either.

    Here's the long version, I tried to make it entertaining, but I'm a good science student, not a good writer :P

    I've been on this site for a few months and the resources here have helped me monumentally (outside my actual high school course) get a little ahead into some advanced physics.

    I have to say, though I have not been making many contributions myself (yet!) I have to dedicate this bit of screen space to say thank you to this awesome forum and its awesome community!

    Since my very first physics class I got excited about physics. I ended up finishing the grade 11 course with the highest mark in our school and one of highest in our board (except one person who has the course this semester, one of my good friends, who looks like he's going to beat me! :P).

    I followed the advice of my dad and a former teacher (who was an engineer before getting into teaching) to not become complacent. I took the advice to heart and I am not arrogant when it comes to physics. When people come to me for help (as they inevitably do) I'm as understanding as possible. (Though with the friend mentioned earlier, we have some intense discussions about physics, explaining systems too complex to be in our textbook to each other.)

    Generally (especially with motion problems) someone will come to me with a problem they've been stuck on and I've never seen before and I'll usually solve it within 5-10 minutes, and someone commented that I intimidate them when it comes to physics.

    But I don't have to write most of this, most of you have a similar love and capacity for this type of thinking, and most of you are probably a lot better at me than it anyways (our physics course is a little diluted so me getting the highest mark isn't that big an achievement).

    The thing is that I love helping people with physics, mostly because I generally like helping people and I like physics. It's a match made in heaven, so I'm a little off-put when people are too intimidated to ask me for help. The first comment I got was "oh my gosh I hate coming to you with physics, you intimidate me 'cause you know it too well."

    There might be moments where I unintentionally sound arrogant about it though. For example, I might see a problem and comment: "that's easy," subconsciously, as my classmates stare at it dumbfounded.

    I don't really know what my point or question is, but if anyone has any advice as to "dealing with" (for lack of a better phrase) being a good physics student, I'd really appreciate it.

    Thanks for the help everyone!

    P.S. I also don't know how to take compliments without sounding like a complete dork. My usual tactic is to flip over the conversation to something that the complimenter is good at. Ex: "OMG you're so good at physics." Reply: "...says the person who placed first in the math contest!"

    Though that doesn't always work, and I have to admit, to my shame, that I do enjoy the compliments.

    I suppose with all of the information these forums have given me, this community might be the cause of the problem. I GUESS it's only fair that you should try and solve it! (Just joking of course!)

    Thanks again everyone!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2013 #2


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    Don't be so egotistical. From first impressions it isn't your intelligence that is off putting but rather your ego-humility goes a long way.
  4. Apr 15, 2013 #3
    I don't really talk to people much outside of the physics students and forum posts.

    But does my class feel intimidated by me? We all are taking physics courses this semester (my graduating class), I am taking 4 courses, 4 credits each, this semester, and I have to say, they are pretty much kicking my *** now. I have mostly B-'s and one B (mid-term grade). The other kids, some are taking the same amount of courses, or more and are doing very well on it. There are 5 that will be graduating with honors next year because they are currently doing "original research" with one another, some others are on the verge to graduate with honors. I don't think I will as I have to get a cumulative GPA above 3.5, but my major GPA is fine but after this semester will possibly drop a bit. I don't think I will get all B's, I will more than likely get a C- in stat. mech., and a C+ in theoretical mechanics seeing my recent test scores.

    Most kids know of my situation and I was riding high last semester with mostly A's in physics courses, just these are too challenging for me to handle all at once whilst doing research that I'd like to keep up with. So no, they aren't intimidated by me, they are doing research taking the same or more courses and still doing well. I am the plebeian of the physics majors currently. I am depressed and eating a lot, gaining weight. I try to be happy but, not working.

    I come on here when depressed to get some happiness and get out of my addled mind of constant comparisons. I should have posted questions that I was having trouble on here, but at this juncture, it doesn't matter if I did, won't change much after receiving a test score of 60% on a stat mech. test. Asked my professor if I did well on the final if he could bump me up a grade, he said, "nope." At least I tried something... So, right now, I just call myself stupid and try to look smart on here so I can salvage some semblance of pride before the summer (not a joke). I'll have to do some restudying, note scrolling over the summer. Possibly try and help people on here with their questions on the same topics I am having trouble with after I restudy my notes etc..., and talk more about it. This isn't good.

    Don't be so egotistical.

    "Pride goeth before the fall." ~ Forgot who said it.
  5. Apr 15, 2013 #4


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    George Carlin (But he quoted Proverbs).
  6. Apr 15, 2013 #5


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    I've had this kind of thing happen with people outside of physics. I got to a point where I loathed the question, "What are you majoring in?" since answering "Physics" was often a conversation full-stop.

    To the OP - just explain that you really like helping people. It's the truth, and I think it's great. Have you considered teaching?
  7. Apr 15, 2013 #6


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    Every time I meet new people and we start talking about what I do. After I tell them I'm working on my MSc the typical response is always "oh wow. Well, I'm doing something much less impressive." I always cringe when I hear that.
  8. Apr 15, 2013 #7
    People surely are harsh on the OP here.

    I don't think I can blame him. I certainly thought the same way as him when I was in high school. Mathematics always was very easy for it. And I saw other people struggling with it. So a natural conclusion would be that you are somehow very good in mathematics.

    It is only later that you find out that mathematics and science courses in high school are a complete joke. In university, it doesn't take a long time to see that there are people who are way better than you. It doesn't take long before you start thinking that you are absolutely rubbish in science, while just a few years ago you thought you were a genius.

    No matter you who you are or how good you are, there will always be someone who is better than you and who will make you feel awful. Well, except if you are Von Neumann or Hilbert, I guess.

    So, I don't think the OP is egotistical. I think that his thoughts are just the product of a high school experience that does not portray reality. I actually feel bad for him, because just in a few years he will struggle with the math and physics that comes so naturally now. I predict that because it happens with everybody. There is always a moment that you start struggling, it might come in high school, or it might come much later. But it will come. A real scientist is a person who struggles through this and who doesn't give up.

    I think it's pretty fair to say that the people who know most about science are also the people who say that they know very little about it. Because if you know so much, then you also know a lot of open problems that you can't solve. And you know that humans have a very small grasp of the mathematical and scientific universe. So there is no reason to feel like you know a lot, because nobody does.
  9. Apr 16, 2013 #8
    This is probably the most constructive answer, though I probably tend to it because it defends me, and this is not to say that the other answers were not good are constructive --they were, so thanks for the insights everyone!

    Part of the reason I feel this way, is because when my friends make a comment "Omg you're so smart," for example, one of my first thoughts is "I wish, it's all going down the toilet in university."

    I'm sorry if, in the original post, I made myself sound arrogant and knowledgeable. I do read a lot of physics, but usually it's 'diluted' stuff like Hawking's book "A Brief History of Time" that doesn't require me to learn the math or apply the concepts. I only read because I want to (and this was the first physics-related book I read on my own time).

    I fully expect (because it is what I saw of my cousin) to realize that I am not all that good in science. My cousin went to a rather prestigious university, the University of Waterloo, and it is also where I hope to attend. He was a computer science major. Before going, he had been in a similar position, and he actually failed a math course twice before he passed it in university. It isn't hard to see why, and it's probably useless to point this out, but it's probably because the best science students are assembled in science universities, and the courses are designed to test the students. A non-science high-school student wouldn't survive in a university physics course, and the same would go for a physics student in a university history course.

    I'm not arrogant in real life, I just figured I could save a lot of typing if I got to the point (ironically: my OP is long, I know): it isn't hard to see that I am at least one of the top two physics students at my high school, so I stated that. I don't go rubbing it in everyone's faces, especially because physics itself seems to intimidate everyone else, even good physics students.
  10. Apr 16, 2013 #9
    I don't think anybody is good in science straight away. It takes effort for everybody. Sure, for some people, it comes more naturally. But they'll have to put in effort anyway.

    If you want be a scientist, then you'll have to put in a lot of work. That's the way it is. Many people fail science not because they're not smart enough but because they're unwilling to put in the work. This can be for various reasons, like they're not used to put in a lot of work. Or maybe they discover that physics isn't as fun as they thought it was.

    If you want to be a physicist, then I'm sure you can get there. But natural talent only gets you so far. Hard work and passion is far more important. If you don't want to spend hours and hours thinking on one problem in your homework assignment, then physics is not for you.

    I think the best advice I can give you is to get some university physics or mathematics books and start self-studying them. That way you can see for yourself what physics is really like and whether you like it enough. Self-studying is really a crucial skill in university, so it's something that you should master anyway.
  11. Apr 16, 2013 #10


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    I'm glad that you realize science books written for laymen don't represent 'real' science (whatever that means :wink:). Some of the saddest posts we get here go something like, "How can I be failing algebra, I read 'A Brief History Of Time' and I totally understood it!"

    Micromass is right. Things will likely be different when you get to university. When you get there, I hope you stick around here, and let us know how it goes.
  12. Apr 16, 2013 #11
    I absolutely will. Based on what you've told me, I'm gunna need all the help I can get :P

    I don't know if physicists reading this will take this personally, but it's actually engineering I want to study, but thus far, I genuinely love physics.
    I want to start reading books, but I'll pick up a physics book in the library and see a lot of complicated maths. Then, my first thoughts are: I don't know this math, I should learn it first. Then I think: what maths do I have to learn before I can learn these maths? And I usually put the book down. If I'm going to do self-studying, I'll probably direct a lot of it towards math first, then physics. I haven't touched calculus yet (next year) so it seems to narrow down my selection that much more.

    EDIT: Coincidentally, one of the suggested topics at the bottom of the page (after posting the above post) was about self-studying math before self-studying physics.

    EDIT 2: They're probably matched because they have similar words, but the point is the same :P
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2013
  13. Apr 16, 2013 #12


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    I don't doubt anything you say. I'm sure you're in the top 2 etc. All I'm saying is that, as micromass noted, high school can give you a very wrong impression of what it means to be good at math and physics. You noted above that you haven't touched calculus yet. Well "real" math won't start till you get into for example real analysis and calculus at the level of Spivak. At that point you can certainly judge things at a fair level. I'm only saying these things because I was in your exact same position less than a year ago when I was in my last year of high school.
  14. Apr 16, 2013 #13


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    It's a good idea to be very comfortable with algebra before starting calculus. Trig too.

    And no one here will blink if you choose engineering over physics -- I recommend it, actually. It's a much easier to find employment with an engineering degree.
  15. Apr 17, 2013 #14
    I understand that, of course, I meant to rebuttal the first comment, stating that I was egotistical. I probably am a little, but probably not enough to warrant a comment on it.
  16. Apr 17, 2013 #15
    I think it's just a matter of empathy (understanding other's emotions); if someone has been struggling with something for a while, and they come to you in an act of desperation, then it isn't very empathetic to dismiss it as a simple problem (even if it may be for you), because all that results is that they will be disheartened and intimidated by you.

    I think most people enjoy the feeling of helping others out, but whenever I help people out at school, I just ignore any side comments like, "you should know this," or "this one's simple" and all I try to do is explain how to do the problem to the best of my ability so that they will understand what to do. Nothing more, nothing less.

    If you do it right, then people won't be intimidated by you, but will simply appreciate your help.
  17. Apr 17, 2013 #16
    I don't find that they're intimidated by me studying physics, as if they think I'm a genius or something, I more feel envious of them that they're not having to go through the torture that I have to go through studying physics.

    And if they think for a minute that I'm smart because I study physics, I usually quickly put the nix on that, whether intentionally or otherwise.
    What about theater over physics? I'm switching soon. I hope no one thinks less of me for it.
  18. Apr 17, 2013 #17


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    Math and physics (science) education in high school is so disjoint it has frustrated the heck of our me for about 4 decades. I could see it 40 years ago, and I can't see where it has improved except where there might be an exceptional faculty. Fortunately, I had enjoyed a 6-week program in physics (blend of theory and experiment), which he taught during a summer program at a local university.

    At my high school, the head of the math department (the calculus teacher) and the head of the chemistry/science department were actually best friends, so they actually had some coordination. Unfortunately, during my senior year, the honors physics teacher was new (first year) and he was pretty clueless. The year before, the physics teacher was an alumni from the high school and a PhD from Caltech, and he knew the Calculus and Chemistry teacher from years earlier. Unfortunately he left at the end of the year before my senior year.

    Anyway, to answer the OP, yes, people (fellow students during university) were intimidated by the fact that I studied physics with an emphasis on nuclear and astrophysics, and later when I majored in nuclear engineering, the response was much the same. In my professional years, when I've encountered folks in the general population, and then disclosed my profession, I've invariably received more questions/comments about nuclear weapons than I did about commercial nuclear power. However, I do get some thoughtful questions about nuclear energy. Mostly, I spend my conversations dispelling misinformation.
  19. Apr 21, 2013 #18
    Come to think of it, I have used comments like that at least a few times. I think it was justified (remembering Newton's second law for example), but I hadn't thought of it that way. I think that will especially be useful. I mean this issue isn't something that's been devouring my mind or anything, but it has been nagging me for a little while. I really appreciate all the help I'm getting here.
  20. Apr 21, 2013 #19
    I live in Canada, and recently, a guy from California moved here and is a student at my (our) high school.

    He took physics in California, and told me that he finished with an 85%. He took physics again at our school and wound up with a 60%.

    I am not trying to compare Canada and the US as a whole, but this incident says something about the scientific education in both countries. I'm not an expert, but it seems that my teachers are a little more thorough and expect more than what he was used to. That said, he also commented and said that California's education system was underfunded. Again, I'm not trying to start a political debate (can't stress that enough!); I only pointed it out as a possible explanation as to why his mark might have dropped significantly: Education in California might not be representative of education in the US as a whole (apparently).

    Anyway the point is that we might have improved a bit compared to what you saw, though apparently they're diluting it again next year.

    EDIT: I'm sorry for the two consecutive posts, I'm used to the second one automatically adding to the first on some other forums.
  21. Apr 21, 2013 #20


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    Well getting back to the original question of the post, I can say with confidence that no one is intimidated by me just because I am a physics major. I am nearing the end of my first year of college and the closest anyone has gotten to even caring about me studying physics is when they have questions about stuff they saw on "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman".
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