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Do you have to be a genius to have an academic career in physics?

  • Physics
  • Thread starter nightflyer
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Main Question or Discussion Point

As some of you might have read in my other threads I am thinking about studying physics at the university, but I have not made up my mind yet. One of the things that worries me is that the math and the general abstractness of the subject will be too hard for me to grasp. Math was definitely my best subject in high-school, but I have this strange feeling that all the other students will be a bunch of Richard Feynmans who solve differential equations in their sleep, and have no problems whatsoever visualizing extra dimensions. What I am wondering - and I am turning to people who have experience studying/teaching mathematics/physics at the university here - is whether you need to be some kind of math prodigy to succeed in physics and possibly have an academic career? Or is a high IQ, vast interest in science and willingness to work hard enough? I remember seeing an interview with Brian Greene in which he said something I found a bit comforting. The interviewer asked him something like "how do you know about all these complex things?" and he answered "it really comes down to hard work". A quote by Paul Davies also comes to mind: "I believe that the reality exposed by modern physics is fundamentally alien to the human mind, and defies all power of direct visualization. The realization that not everything that is so in the world can be grasped by the human imagination is tremendously liberating."

Bottom line: please share your thoughts on how realistic it is for someone like me - intelligent, hardworking and interested, but not necessarily some kind of math prodigy - to start working towards an academic career in physics? Any input is much appreciated.
 

Answers and Replies

arildno
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"vast interest in science and willingness to work hard IS enough"
 
cristo
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nightflyer said:
I have this strange feeling that all the other students will be a bunch of Richard Feynmans who solve differential equations in their sleep, and have no problems whatsoever visualizing extra dimensions
I can assure you that this is not true!

You say you are interested in science, and willing to work, so, to second arildno, this is enough to take a physics degree. In fact, if you are as hardworking as you say, then you have more drive than a lot of Physics students I have met!
 
I graduated high school three years ago, with a 1.2 cumulative GPA, out of a possible 4.0. I finished 491 out of 508 kids in my high school and never even bothered to take my SATs.

I moved out to California from Virginia the summer after I graduated high school on my own with enough money for one month's rent, and got a job at a law firm here and worked for a year. Two semesters ago, I started attending San Diego City college taking their Algebra II class. I worked independently through Algebra II, Geometry, Trig and Calculus II on my own.

Anyways dude, basically when I started college, I had forgotten how to get the square root of x^2, I was that retarded. I worked through my Algebra II (making binders filled with detailed notes for each section) got a 100. I did the same for Trig and Calc II and so far, have gotten nothing but A's.

I start Mechanics this semester but I have already been working through the text.

I am at work right now (I work part-time as well), so this post is poorly written.

My point is, if I can teach myself algebra II through Calculus II and already understand the beginning of my first Mechanics class, in about a year's time -- I think you will be just fine man. I have a transfer contract with UCSD so after 64 credits, I transfer into their University automatically (Revelle to be exact).

Just start out working as hard as you can, and spend more time than you need to on everything. Once you start to get a grasp on what you are doing, you will be able to allocate time accordingly.

No one can visualize beyond 3-dimensions since our experience is limited to 3. We can not phathom beyond 3 spatial dimensions with six degrees of freedom, and I don't think one would gain much in doing so. There are 'tricks' one can try to use to visualize this, but I don't think anyone is capable of visualizing an accurate 11-dimensional calibi-yau manifold -- but again -- perhaps I am wrong.

Perhaps I am wrong.
 
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Bottom line: please share your thoughts on how realistic it is for someone like me - intelligent, hardworking and interested, but not necessarily some kind of math prodigy - to start working towards an academic career in physics? Any input is much appreciated.
What would you do if you couldn't have an academic career in physics? There ARE jobs available to people who have studied physics than in academia. Of course, maybe I misinterpreted your meaning and by "academic career" you mean, what you'll study while at school.

In either case, your best bet is to learn and study hard at the beginning so you have a firm grasp on the fundamentals. This will make your courses later on that much easier. If there is something you don't understand, ask. If you still don't understand, ask again (hopefully with something more to offer than "I don't get it"). Once you think you understand something, try working it out again.

The point is, hard work and dedication WILL get you far. And the only way to get good at something is to practice.

Good luck!
 
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If you want something bad enough and work hard, you'll eventually get there. Some people are gifted in physics, but not everyone. An old professor of mine told me to try and work with the students that appear to be gifted. By working with them, one can learn how they operate and thus incorporate that into their own studying.
 
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If you want something bad enough and work hard, you'll eventually get there. Some people are gifted in physics, but not everyone. An old professor of mine told me to try and work with the students that appear to be gifted. By working with them, one can learn how they operate and thus incorporate that into their own studying.
WORD!

do what you love and everything will follow
 
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You can easily visualise higher dimensional space but just have to adjust the degrees of freedom so they are no longer spatial.

For example, the easy way to picture 4 dimensional space is to associated 3 space co-ordinates and a temperature to each point.
 
You can easily visualise higher dimensional space but just have to adjust the degrees of freedom so they are no longer spatial.

For example, the easy way to picture 4 dimensional space is to associated 3 space co-ordinates and a temperature to each point.
This has nothing to do with manifolds or topological spaces.
 
acm
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I'm not brilliant and I'm a math major. I just enjoy maths and work very hard, If I fail all of my courses and bomb out of University I will still do maths regardless. Not terribly motivational, I know, but if doing your best doesn't get you a career in Physics then nothing will.
 
J77
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What's the obsession with being a so-called "genius" in this forum?
 
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I think it's a perception that is enforced by certain teachers/professors that if you want an academic career, you essentially need to graduate top of your class. That's not necessarily the case, but it's something that I've certainly come across personally. I had several university lecturers tell me that I'd never be able to take on an academic career because I didn't ace all my classes. So for a while I believed them, it knocked my confidence around for a while. Then I actually talked to a few other people outside my department and finally realised that getting the top marks isn't the be all and end all for an academic career.
 
J77
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Grades at undergraduate level don't give an indication at how good you'll be as a researcher.

For example, an important part of research is being able to communicate your ideas with people, both verbally and when writing papers.

You can't learn to do this by obsessively reading textbooks and doing exercises.
 
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The first year is the hardest, that one lays all the mathematical foundation that you need for later years and its not always obvious what you need the maths for.
I failed this year horribly because I never had to do one days hard work ever in highs school to get good grades. I expected university to be the same.
It was a wakeup call no doubt. The year after I came back and aced those math classes.

If your willing to put effort into it and get through the first year allright the fun starts and never ends.

I have never meet anymore so far in any physics class I have taken that is a true math prodigy and most of them including me is doing quite well. Hard work and dedication is most important.
 
J77
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...but the point is that "aceing" maths classes does not necessarily make a good researcher.

(But a good researcher generally makes for a good academic.)
 
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...but the point is that "aceing" maths classes does not necessarily make a good researcher.

(But a good researcher generally makes for a good academic.)
Ohh I dont disagree with that. I was responding to the original poster not your post :smile:
 
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(But a good researcher generally makes for a good academic.)
I don't know about that. I have met many professors at my university who are excellent researchers, and yet have a really hard time passing their knowledge onto students; granted, the number of professors like this is about 1-4 per department, but every department needs their "heavy-hitters" in my opinion to bring in the research funds.
 
I would think the 'great' researchers often times, must sacrifice their devotion to academia for their research, right? Aside from a few great minds (such as Feynmann), do 'great' researchers often have the best lectures as well?

Isn't that counter-intuitive to what you stated, J77?
 
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...but the point is that "aceing" maths classes does not necessarily make a good researcher.

(But a good researcher generally makes for a good academic.)
Well that's just it, isn't it? I'm a good researcher, but take a look at my undergrad record...It's not particularly spectacular. Since starting my PhD (which is due in June), I've had 2 papers accepted which are now "in press" and another 2 papers close to submission. I do prac demonstrations and tutoring for undergrads which has had good feedback.

But that still doesn't take away from the fact that certain people in academia continue to perpetuate the myth that you DO have to essentially "ace" your classes in order to make it in academia. At least this has been my personal experience. It might not happen everywhere or in every department.
 
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Sort of off topic, but Richard Feynman was, technically, not a genius; his IQ was only 125. However, it is obvious that he had some creative abilities not visible to any IQ test.
 
Chris Hillman
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To apply or not to apply, that is the no-brainer

I have this strange feeling that all the other students will be a bunch of Richard Feynmans
That's a very common fear. Geniuses in the sense you apparently have in mind are rare occurences even in the very best departments, but having a genius as a classmate would make great cocktail party conversation throughout the rest of your life, so why fear this possibility?

A more realistic possibility is that you will be thrown into the company of bright students. I think once you actually start talking with fellow enthusiasts, you'll conclude that the benefits of being around smart people far outweighs any fears that others with cast a shadow over your own efforts. Smart people are just a heck of a lot more fun to be around!

who solve differential equations in their sleep
No fear; for that there is CAS. (For example, Mathematica orMaple.)

and have no problems whatsoever visualizing extra dimensions.
No fear; for that there is homology (for example, Macaulay2).

What I am wondering - and I am turning to people who have experience studying/teaching mathematics/physics at the university here - is whether you need to be some kind of math prodigy to succeed in physics and possibly have an academic career?
Of course not; many leading mathematicians were not prodigies, although many were.

Or is a high IQ, vast interest in science and willingness to work hard enough?
Neccessary conditions, but you'd be surprised how few good math students there are even at the best universities, I think. That's actually a bad thing, since you can learn the most from the very best of your fellow students.

I remember seeing an interview with Brian Greene in which he said something I found a bit comforting. The interviewer asked him something like "how do you know about all these complex things?" and he answered "it really comes down to hard work".
Exactly. Although I'd add some other neccessary conditions, including basic character virtues like honesty and responsible behavior.

Bottom line: please share your thoughts on how realistic it is for someone like me - intelligent, hardworking and interested, but not necessarily some kind of math prodigy - to start working towards an academic career in physics? Any input is much appreciated.
If you get into a good program and work very hard, you'll be much too busy for this kind of counterproductive angst, so go ahead and apply.
 
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Chris Hillman
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I beg to differ

Hi, all,

I don't know about that. I have met many professors at my university who are excellent researchers, and yet have a really hard time passing their knowledge onto students; granted, the number of professors like this is about 1-4 per department, but every department needs their "heavy-hitters" in my opinion to bring in the research funds.
In my experience (at several leading math departments), the best researchers are also identical with the best researchers. I can think of a few fellows who is are superb researchers but terrible lecturers, but in my experience that is the exception.
 
J77
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I would think the 'great' researchers often times, must sacrifice their devotion to academia for their research, right? Aside from a few great minds (such as Feynmann), do 'great' researchers often have the best lectures as well?

Isn't that counter-intuitive to what you stated, J77?
Best lecures: I think so. Great researchers are good at communicating their ideas across - plus, if I think back to UG days, the best lecturers always threw in a bit of cutting-edge stuff, away from the tedium of curriculum. This is what I liked, university should be about learning about new, exciting ideas rather than plodding through a textbook.

It's not counter-intuitive because, ime, the aim of academia is to get funding to do research; the teaching sometimes gets in the way. However, this isn't to say that those who feel it gets in the way aren't good teachers, iyswim :smile:
 
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This is what I liked, university should be about learning about new, exciting ideas rather than plodding through a textbook.
I agree so much with this! I normally look to see what my prof does if they don't bother to mention anything about their work in class. Thankfully my physics profs normally mention they're research interests and delve more into stuff away from the textbook.
 
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hard work enough?

So, the question is: along these lines of having to be a genuis to do physics, what if you are one of only a couple undergraduates in a grad level math class? I thought I was just taking a more in depth linear algebra class and that I'd be okay until I walked in and the rest were grad students in math and physics. I'm just starting my junior year in physics and I've never seen most of the notation, let alone this kind of rigor... my question is, is hard work enough in the case that you start off behind everyone else? It's not that I'm dumb, but I just feel like I know so much less "basic" math like writing proofs and what-not.

And to pose another (perhaps silly) question, is it impossible to get into a good graduate school if you have any C's on your transcript? Thus far I've avoided getting any, but I think this linear algebra class will be impossibly had (it is so far). I guess I'd worry less if I had some assurance that there can still be a future after failing classes or getting bad grades in them... :redface:
 

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