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Double major in Math/Physics - possible? Interesting?

  1. Sep 15, 2012 #1
    So, I think I have done a thread here with some questions related to academic guidance before... when I was a tad younger.

    Well, I'm a Brazilian student, I'm in my senior year in high school. It is very likely that I will study Physics in college - in the beginning of next year I'll start the course here at University of São Paulo. However, I will also apply to some US schools - those that there is a considerable chance I get rejected - MIT, Caltech, Harvard, Princeton...

    One of the things that attracts me most in these institutions is the structure of the courses and the larger flexibility you have to design your own major. I have a slight preference for physics, but I do also enjoy math! While I don't think I could fit some Analysis and Algebra in my graduation here in Brazil, that seems possible in those US schools... Caltech's Math 1 Analytical is pretty much an Analysis (+ Linear Algebra) course, Harvard's Math 23 is also very enticing, for example.

    And as a young, foolish dreamer, I have analyzed the possibility of a double major. While I saw that it was somewhat manageable in Harvard or MIT, it was clearly impossible at Caltech. I wonder - is it common for young prospective physics students with strong math interest such as myself to dream about this double major but end up choosing one side or another? I mean, I sometimes think - oh, I should put a lot of effort into these applications, so I can study both math and physics, which won't happen here in Brazil... Is that plainly stupid?

    If not so... do you guys have any other recommendation of a school with a top notch math/physics program?

    A bit about my background - I have self studied computational single variable Calculus and Linear Algebra during some of my free time in high school. I also have a taste of what proof-based rigorous math is like, but I didn't go too deeply, since I know I would probably burnout, but I do find it enticing. If I enter an US school, I will already have the first semester of USP's Physics course, which includes Calc I (I think they use Spivak), a first course in Classical Mechanics, a course called "Vectors and Geometry", which covers Analytic Geometry in R3, Experimental Physics and probably introductory courses in Chemistry and CS.

    So, what do you guys think? Is the preparation good? Are my plans feasible?

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 15, 2012 #2
    People double majoring in math and physics is fairly common. It's probably more common to choose one of them down the road, though. A friend of mine recently dropped his physics major and I know someone who dropped their math major last semester. I've considered dropping my math major since I grew far more interested in physics. I decided to stick with it since I will only need to take a course in algebra after this semester for the degree (I do find the field of algebra interesting, though). I also like statistics.

    Still, I love physics a lot more and put more effort into my physics studies. I just put up with my math classes nowadays. I still give a somewhat honest attempt to learn the material, though, but the passion isn't there. I would say that near the end of your second year you will find out which one you find more interesting.

    Just a note: your higher level math classes won't have any application in physics. I'd say take classes in both and decide what you want to do a year or a year and a half in.
  4. Sep 15, 2012 #3
    I graduated with a double major in math and physics, and I probably know at least a dozen other people who did as well. It is a good choice if, like me, you just cannot decide between the two and didn't know what you wanted to go to graduate school for until your senior year of college. But most of the math you will learn in a math degree program won't help you very much with physics - too much focus on proving things and very little focus on calculating things. And the physics you learn will barely help you in your math classes. But if you love both topics so much that you can't see yourself not studying both, I think it is still worth it. It might also be worth it if you want to specialize in mathematical physics in graduate school - then there is slightly less to catch up on, but most mathematicians seem to get by just fine studying mathematical physics with no physics background.

    Definitely not true. I know at least three people at Caltech that are currently double majoring in math and physics, and one alum, and they seem to get by (though it probably helps that they are all freakishly intelligent).
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2012
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