1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Do you need to do calculus to be a good physicist.

  1. May 14, 2007 #1
    hi there,

    i was just wondering if you need to do calculus, or also if it helps alot to succeed in physics?
    i really like physics and maths but i am going to have a hard time getting into calulus or getting a reccomendation into it from my teacher.

    i am in the highest class for physics(science) but in maths i am in the third class, i am getting the top marks but still having trouble asking my teacher if i can do calculus.

    Today after an algebra based test i asked him what our class would go into next year and he replied that possibly applicable maths or discrete maths. He asked me what i would like to do after school and i lost big faith in saying that i wanted to be a physicist because he doesnt think i can do calculus. i said well i really enjoy physics but i think you should do calculus to do physics and he laughed and said no i wouldnt do that.

    This really got me down maybe im not cut out to do physics?
    i was just wondering how i should handle it or how i can try more effectivley to do calculus if i need to.

    thankyou, sorry for being so long.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2007 #2
    The chances of doing physics without calculus is as good as living the rest of your life without a supply of oxygen[lame analogy, but it's true!]. It doesn't matter whether you become an experimental or theoretical physicist, a knowledge of calculus is essential.

    You may want to go through the So you want to become a physicist? thread by ZapperZ in this career guidance forum.
    Last edited: May 14, 2007
  4. May 14, 2007 #3
    Physics can be done in the algebraic setting.
  5. May 14, 2007 #4


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    even IF you can do calculus (like me), that doesn't mean you can do physics well either. :smile: You should be looking at it at a wider angle than that (if possible). In general, some form of calculus is essential because many physical theories are formulated in that language. Yes, maths is like a language of science. You can imagine how hard it would be to read a book in a foreign language than you don't actually know, even if the information contained is for a 5 years old.

    but if you try hard, it may not be too late to start learning now...go pick up a book and start reading and doing. good luck!
  6. May 14, 2007 #5
    How old are you?

    You are going to have to be good at maths to be good at physics, and you will need to take calculus at school before you go to college/university. I find it very strange that even though you're clearly good at science, your teacher isn't convinced you'll be capable in maths; they tend to go hand in hand.

    Personally I feel that calculus should be mandatory for all students everywhere. I can't imagine not knowing, and can't see how anyone can understand anything without knowing it. I don't clearly remember a time before I'd studied it.

    Tell us more about where you are in school and what you're currently doing in your maths and science classes.
  7. May 14, 2007 #6
    ihopeican ,

    Don't ask youself such questions.
    Just enjoy.
  8. May 14, 2007 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    1. Maxwell equation involves differential equations. If you don't know calculus, you cannot do E&M.

    2. Classical mechanics involves differential equation of motion. You will need calculus whether you do straightforward Newton's Laws, or Lagrangian/Hamiltonian mechanics. Without calculus, you cannot do classical mechanics, and certainly nothing beyond simple, baby mechanics.

    3. Schrodinger Equation is a 2nd order differential equation. You flat out cannot do QM without calculus.

    4. The Maxwell relations and the Legendre transformation from one state function to another involves differential equations. Without calculus, you will not be able to do thermodynamics of even moderately complex systems.

    So no, if you do not want to do calculus, you cannot do physics.

  9. May 14, 2007 #8


    User Avatar

    OTOH the best way (in my experience anyway) to learn calc is to use it in Physics. When I started Calculus I was a little lost until we applied it in Physics. It made it much more clear.
  10. May 14, 2007 #9
    Maybe it's just me, but I think I read this question differently than many of the previous posters.

    It's certainly true that physics and calculus are inseparable... if you study physics in college, you will have more than your fill of calculus there.

    However, if you don't take calculus in high school, this is not the end of the world. While it would be better if you could take it, there is still a lot of interesting physics you can study without it. Just plan on taking a lot of calculus and related math courses as soon as you get into college.
  11. May 14, 2007 #10
    I was in a similar situation, I had to beg to be allowed to take high school calculus.

    It was so worth it. Don't let the bureaucrats stop you, study the stuff on your own so that you know calculus going into university, it will make physics much easier.
  12. May 14, 2007 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    yes you need to learn calculus. after all newton created calculus to do physics. no you do not need to do so in high school. college courses in calculus are taught by better qualified people, and go into more depth. you can get it there.
  13. May 14, 2007 #12


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    You certainly don't need calculus in high school in order to eventually become a professional physicist.

    Calculus is an essential subject for a university physics education. In fact, as scary as it might sound now, calculus is an elementary subject compared to the other kinds of math you will eventually need to study to become a working physicist.

    Don't be afraid, though -- with the right instructors and the right resources, you will have no trouble learning anything you wish to learn. It takes diligence and patience, but you will get there if it's important to you.

    - Warren
  14. May 14, 2007 #13
    yeah but they wouldnt hire you for an algebra-based job. they'd just get an engineer to plug in the numbers. there are so many more things you can understand with more ease if you know calculus

    dont worry, if you cant get it now then just study it in college. no pressure
    Last edited: May 14, 2007
  15. May 14, 2007 #14


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Yeah, because that's all engineers, are, right? Failed physicists who can't do math?

    - Warren
  16. May 14, 2007 #15
    I wasn't talking about elementary algebra.
  17. May 14, 2007 #16
    :rofl: not what i meant :rolleyes:

    Even if it's not just elemetary algebra, I think most industry-level physics sans calculus probably wouldn't require them to hire a full-time physicist to solve. Most other types of engineers have some training in physics, so why not just save money and delegate it to someone else

    anyways, dont just rush into calculus without knowing what you're getting into. taking your time would be more beneficial than signing up for something you wont be able to go through with. if you think you are ready, by all means go for that course. we'll be right here to help you if you need it :biggrin:
  18. May 15, 2007 #17
    hi there,

    thankyou so much for supporting me. i am going to try to have ameeting with my maths teacher to see how i can achieve it but because of you replies i know that it isnt the end if i cant do calculus within weeks because i can try in university.
    I was just wondering if calculus in high school is harder to grasp than physics in high school.
    i am in year 10.
  19. May 15, 2007 #18


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    That is a question with no answer really, since different people find different things harder! I'd say, though, that it would be harder to learn calculus in high school than the physics in high school.
    What country are you from, just out of interest?
  20. May 15, 2007 #19
    hi there,
    i am from Australia.
    also in the physics unit this year we did optics, nuclear physics(fission/fusion) newtons laws, and energy and change(1/2MV^2=MGH)
  21. May 15, 2007 #20
    try biophysics
  22. May 15, 2007 #21
    In fairness to you, I never did calculus until I was 17 - year 12. The basics of it aren't dreadfully difficult and I imagine with a bit of effort it won't be at all hard to pick up. It does get very complicated indeed later on, but you can pick this up as you go.
  23. May 15, 2007 #22


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    It's also possible that you'd have a much easier time learning calculus from a university professor, since, well, the honest truth is that professors are, on average, better lecturers than high school teachers.

    - Warren
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook