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Good with math, but poor with physics?

  1. Mar 13, 2012 #1
    For some reason, I keep getting an A+ on all of my math classes with very minimal effort (linear algebra and calculus) but am doing relatively poor in physics (scoring a B- with loads of effort). I've done practice problems, believe I understand the concepts to an extent, and yet my instructor throws a difficult problem that I wouldn't have the slightest clue in where to begin.

    Anyone else currently in my situation or have been in my situation? What do you suggest I do to improve my grade? And for those that are great at physics, when do you feel confident you understand the concepts and how do you go about doing this? I seem to lack the basic physical intuition that most physics majors have and it seems no amount of doing practice problems will change anything...
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 13, 2012 #2
    I wouldn't say I'm great at physics but I've done well enough as an undergraduate and I would say I never feel super confident I get the stuff but I read tons of different text books, I talk things over with friends and professors and do problems.

    Do you use office hours?
  4. Mar 13, 2012 #3


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    Me too! I suck at physics and rock at math, relatively anyway. I recommend staying with physics as long as possible though because they are so in synch with reality, and have so much intuition that turns into good math. hang out with physics geeks and try to see how they think.

    the problem i had was that physics is not precise, but that means that to do it well, you have to grok what fuzzy descriptions of situations should mean, and learn somehow to just roll with it. i.e. you have to learn to make sense out of vague situations. this is a good skill to acquire.

    I.e. it takes a kind of courage to do physics, and imagination, as well as intuition. this is very valuable.

    but listen more the people here who do get physics.

    by the way, have you read the zapper's thread above?
  5. Mar 14, 2012 #4
    I'm in a similar boat (on bubble for A/Bs in my physics classes, upper and lower division, with clear As in my math classes). In my math classes, I was often an 'outlier' in performance (with most of the class getting Cs). In my physics classes, I'm just barely above average (and it's bothersome).

    One thing that I am trying to get used to: working with others. There's a difference on my graded homework and projects for physics when I work with others and when I do it alone. I'm used to just sitting down for a few hours, cranking out math homework, but that doesn't always work with physics. Sometimes hearing another's interpretation helps solidify my own understanding in Physics (and prevent misconceptions). This is especially important, I think, in the upper division courses.
  6. Mar 14, 2012 #5
    I'm an undergrad working through calculus and intro physics/chem classes right now. Last year I literally straight-up flunked physics.

    What did it for me what Mege above me said, I found the physics tutor room, and started learning with other people. Eventually I caught up and started TEACHing other people, in my own classes, now acing physics. If you can teach it, you understand it so much more than if you can just regurgitate it.

    Try that!
  7. Mar 14, 2012 #6
    I'm an undergrad working through calculus and intro physics/chem classes right now. Last year I literally straight-up flunked physics.

    What did it for me what Mege above me said, I found the physics tutor room, and started learning with other people. Eventually I caught up and started TEACHing other people, in my own classes, now acing physics. If you can teach it, you understand it so much more than if you can just regurgitate it.

    Try that!
  8. Mar 14, 2012 #7
    I've had my times where physics just didn't make any sense. But every time it happened, my persistence won out and it clicked-- followed by a "physics is easy" feeling. This cycle is perpetuated by the introduction of new concepts. For example, right now I'm trying to understand capacitors in parallel or series. And for me, it really isn't clicking and I'm kind of just following the formula right now due to time-pressure (test tomorrow afternoon -.-). But at the same time, I get the feeling that there are a lot of missing details in between theory and practice, so its not completely my fault.

    What helped me with physics is the realization that its much different than mathematics. To me, all the physics equations are like sentences. They are sentences that describe relationships between different things, with conjugates, verbs, etc. This is very important to notice, because all of physics is the study of relationships of different phenomena, of which can be stated in an innumerable amount of ways. (An aside: In fact, physics is the pursuit of finding more basic relationships of nature, the ultimate grail of physics is to find one relationship that will ultimately describe everything.) Sometimes the relationships are more convenient to be stated in a certain form, because it gives you insight or it just makes more sense-- and that is the statement that is passed on in your textbook. Kind of how sentences are more convenient to be stated in a certain form, because it wouldn't make sense to write it backwards. It is then helpful to realize that in physics, different variables can mean different things in different context /situation. It is akin to how words have multiple meaning in dependence of context. And actually, its where I see people doing the most mistakes-- trying to apply the same thing to a different concept.

    The way to get good at physics, then, is to understand relationships in terms of what the equation is really saying. What physics is good at, is saying a large amount of things in terms of a few letters. Try to pick apart the formula and peek at what its really saying. For example, ask yourself "what happens if this dependent variable changes, how will the relationship change?" Or "why is it defined this way, is there a different way to define this relationship?

    I didn't understand the whole basis of electric fields until I let the formula speak to me. At first it seemed like a lot of hand-waving, but I then realized that the field concept is an ingenious way of stating a relationship of nature. Once you let the formulas speak, you start to develop a relationship with the physics, so to speak. As a consequence, I was motivated to explore physics and I'm now working on a project to state a commonly accepted notion in a different paradigm and seeing where it takes me and what interesting or helpful relationships I can find.
  9. Mar 14, 2012 #8
    I am the exact opposite of you. I can get through math classes we reasonable grades, heck I did a double major with physics and math, but I never really felt like I intimately understood what was going on in math classes. The endless chain of reasoning and pure abstraction can get me pretty lost.

    The reason I'm good at physics is because when I see a physics problem I never think of the math first. I always think of the physical situation then after I feel my intuition is correct I proceed to the math. To learn the concepts I usually just read through the book and then try to find some experiments that showed the concept. Learning what experiments proved what is vital to my understanding of the concepts. Physics without experiments is philosophy and philosophy is confusing.
  10. Mar 15, 2012 #9
    I am the same way. I have aced all my calc class, LA, and DE (I really like DE). I even got an A in my first physics class, however, I have a new teacher this quarter and I am probably on a border line B/Cish in Electricity and Magnetism, kind of scary for me. The funny thing is I'm an EE and so far have aced all of my EE classes, but for some reason magnetism is throwing me for a loop. I will say though that this quarter my teacher has multiple choice questions and I HATE those, with a couple of partial credit type questions, which I do reasonably well on. WHO KNOWS!
  11. Mar 15, 2012 #10
    It is frightening if you hadn't had any Physics course as a high school student. OP, is this the case with you?
  12. Mar 16, 2012 #11
    A lot of people talk about how math and physics are different, but I can't see it, personally. To me, they are more or less the same thing, and I did pretty well in both. Physicists are just less rigorous, and they do experiments. That's about the only difference I can see, other than subject matter, and even there there's a lot of overlap.

    Maybe it's the way I do math. I'm a very visual, intuitive, and physical thinker.

    You haven't done real math yet, so it's not clear that math, as such, is that easy for you. Linear algebra is sort of halfway real math, depending on how it's taught.

    It can get everyone pretty lost, including math people, but often, they don't care to admit it. As Arnold put it,

    "It is impossible to understand an unmotivated definition but this does not stop the criminal algebraists-axiomatisators."

    I didn't really understand rings until maybe a few months ago, and I almost have a math PhD. I knew the definition, knew 10 million examples of rings, could prove lots of theorems about them. Why would you write down such a stupid-looking definition in the first place? I didn't feel it in my bones. If that doesn't happen, I'm not satisfied that I understand it. It's easy to think that you do understand, just because you know the definition, examples, and can solve some problems. But, to me, if that's all you have, then, you're a follower, not a leader. It's not your own. That is what Arnold's comment means to me.

    Well, maybe it's pure math. It's only confusing (to me, anyway) because people keep making unmotivated definitions all over the place without explaining the psychological origins of the definitions, and often the proofs, as well.
  13. Mar 16, 2012 #12
    homoemorphic, you surprise me. If you're a pure math person then aren't your professors burning you at the stake for not accepting their ways? It seems all the pure math people pride themselves on their overly abstract methods. That was actually the sole reason I didn't pursue math in grad school. There weren't many intuitive, concept-oriented math professors at my undergrad but the ones that were made me hang around to the end.

    I agree with you that you do have to go your own way to deeply understand something but I felt there was so many unnecessary abstract blocks that it wasn't worth the effort. They can keep their pure math castle. I'm glad there is someone making an effort to rip down those walls because honestly I couldn't.
  14. Mar 16, 2012 #13
    I guess I'm less cautious about what I say on here. Maybe they would burn me at the stake if I were more vocal in real life, not so much because they oppose my general philosophy of doing math, but more that it's hard for people to accept criticism. It's not as if the math community is divided into two camps, one of which is intuitive and conceptual, and one of which is not. Mathematicians just fall somewhere along the scale. And the way they teach doesn't always match the way they think. Probably most of the professors where I am would at least see where I'm coming from, although most of them also don't seem to fully grasp the problem.

    Some of the most respected mathematicians like Arnold or Thurston are saying the same things that I am saying, and I'm probably getting it partly from them.

    The only way in which I am being threatened is that I am having to spend too much time rethinking math to put enough effort into my thesis. So, they are not happy with me because of poor performance in research (mainly just being slow) and teaching. But there's a reason for that. With teaching, I just don't know how to please fussy undergrads.

    I didn't want to let them deter me.
  15. Mar 16, 2012 #14
    How much does reading other textbooks really help? I wanted to start reading other texts (have them on my computer), but just skimming through them and they seem no different with the text my professor uses (pictures all over the place and they don't get to the point when introducing a concept).

    As for office hours, I used to go but not anymore, as it just doesn't seem practical anymore. I do a lot of problems and get stuck on a lot of them, and it takes just under the 1 hour to show him the problem, show my reasoning and various diagrams and doodles I drew and then for him to walk me through the problem, show me where I went wrong, what I applied incorrectly, and then to actually work through the problem. That would be great if I had the time and weren't taking 5 other courses.

    I don't even know why some people advise that doing as many practice problems as possible is the way to go. Working through these problems can take anywhere from 10 minutes (very straight forward problem) to 30 minutes for the difficult ones.

    I just need a more efficient way of learning physics, as it seems the generic "do as much practice problems" just doesn't work for me...
  16. Mar 16, 2012 #15
    If it takes you more than 10 minutes for a straightforward problem, then you really need to solve many more, so that you get sufficient practice.
  17. Mar 16, 2012 #16


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    to begin to see how physicists think, check out lewis carroll epstein's book, thinking physics.
  18. Mar 20, 2012 #17
    Interesting to hear from a mathematician struggling with physics. Is this a rarity amongst other mathematicians or is it more common than most think, Mathwonk?

    One thing I don't understand is why many, including my physics professors, automatically assume that being good at math instantly translates to being good at physics.

    When I'm asked to prove something in my problem sets for my math classes, I know instantly what theorem to use and how to prove it. But as for physics, there have been many times where I've been clueless at how to attempt a problem or even imagine exactly what is going on.
  19. Mar 20, 2012 #18
    What do you consider a straightforward problem? Are you talking about those problems where you just have to plug in numbers into a few equations? I can solve those in a few seconds...
  20. Mar 20, 2012 #19
    What do you consider a straightforward problem?
  21. Mar 20, 2012 #20
    If that happened for you yet with math, then, trust me, you just haven't done difficult enough math.
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