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How do I know if I'm smart enough for physics?

  1. Nov 19, 2009 #1
    I'm currently a freshman undergraduate majoring in both math and physics, currently taking: first semester calc, chemistry, biology and english. My dream is to be some type of theoretical physicist. As far back as I can remember, I have always been very interested in science. My parents have told me that I was very intelligent and inquisitive as a child, but to what extent can I trust them!? :smile:

    From my interest in science, I very soon developed a passion for astronomy. I can remember as a child the first time I ever really "looked up" into the night sky. I am sure many people on this forum have experienced this feeling. I can't really describe it; it's a state of pure amazement and wonder. It just hits you that there is so much stuff out there to know and discover. (cliche, I know.)

    I kept up my interest in astronomy all through elementary, middle, and high school. However, during my senior year in high school, I had a very inspiring physics teacher that revealed to me how amazing physics and math really are. Up until that point, physics and math were just tools used to study astronomy. He made me realize that to truly understand, you have got to know the fundamentals. Unfortunatly, I was a bit of a slacker in high school, so my math background is pretty weak (I only took up to pre-calc in high school).

    For those of you that don't want to read my life story...
    I am doing well in all of my college classes--especially calculus--but I know that this reveals very little about my potential for a physics research career. I have heard that it is common to have doubts like this? Is there any way to know if you are even capable of doing something like theoretical physics? I know that there isn't some simple test I can take, and that it is a very competitive field; I am just wondering if anyone maybe has any input on this issue.

    Thanks for listening to my ramblings.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 19, 2009 #2


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    I think most people will tell you it's not so much being "smart enough" for it, it's whether or not you have the motivation and work ethic.
  4. Nov 19, 2009 #3
    I feel the same way, so hopefully I can look for ways to love physics and basically do only physics at the same time without having to become the next Feynman (looking to engineering or something..). But I realize that any amount of aptitude can ALWAYS be a product of the hours you spend studying, your discipline and perhaps your humility (trust me you need humility, sometimes I don't do a question because the a topic might be too "low class" for me, yet I know I should do it because it's good practise and you'll always need to keep up with your knowledge). As Pengwuino said, you'll probably need work ethic more than anything.. Unfortunately for me, I have none of that - I'm a total hedonist
  5. Nov 19, 2009 #4
    Yes, I have definitley been told that before, and I certainly have the motivation to learn, but surely it isn't that simple? Although, after thinking about it for a while, I guess there is really no way to know for sure if you can handle it. I have never taken anything like an intelligence test, but I can say that I did seem to catch on very quickly in my phyics class. This was only an algebra/trig based class though.

    And yes, wisvuze, I too used to be a hedonist. However, I turned my life around in my final semester of high school (A little late, perhaps?:rofl:). I realized that if I wanted to accomplish any of my dreams, I could not be a couch potatoe. It's hard though. I can remember in high school not doing any homework because I would be too busy learning about astronomy or physics. Oh, and don't forget staying up an entire night before school to watch Jupiter make one complete rotation in one night. :biggrin:
  6. Nov 19, 2009 #5
    Even if you had motivation, you would still need discipline and work ethic, or you'd be too sick of the work when it becomes tedious and when you have to drag yourself through it sometimes (that does happen). So, it's something like Success = WorkEthic*Motivation :rofl:
    without motivation, you won't succeed - but without work ethic, you won't succeed either

    But I think that catching on early is always a good sign.

    I don't think that you turned yourself around "too late", Lagrange started math when he was 17/18 years old! Faraday took his first class at the age of 20 or something..
  7. Nov 19, 2009 #6
    Try to get a Ph.D. in physics, if you get it you are probably smart enough.
  8. Nov 19, 2009 #7
  9. Nov 19, 2009 #8
    This is truly excellent advice. :biggrin:
    However, I wouldn't want to "waste" four or more years of my life! Although I would be learning what I love, I have to be at least a little practical. Upon starting college, I wanted to go to med school. I quickly realized, however, that this may have been too practical a goal. I really enjoy learning about elegant, profound things like math and physics. I do find all of science interesting, but c'mon.

    I also could not stand the attitudes of the pre-med students! I am pretty sure I actually saw one girl cry because she got a B on a Bio test.
  10. Nov 19, 2009 #9
    ...which makes you smart to recognize that you need work ethic and good study skills
  11. Nov 20, 2009 #10
    Surprisingly, it really is almost that simple. Motivation and work ethic will get you most places in life. Self-confidence helps and learning to seize opportunity is important too.
  12. Nov 20, 2009 #11
    It is just as simple as: The more lacking your smarts are the harder you will have to work.

    The only way to know is to do it to your limits, but usually you notice that it gets tougher and tougher the higher you get but this is very different for different people so you don't really know just from that. If you start getting really bad grades in your second/third year without slacking off then you know, I think.
  13. Nov 20, 2009 #12
    persistence and patience is THE key to get ANYTHING you want in life.

    persist and be patient.

    it's not about being smart.
  14. Nov 20, 2009 #13
    Not being smart is like being poor. Or living in poor country. Or in pathological family. Or being ugly. Or having just one leg.

    Unless you want to win a marathon, You can do as good as almost anyone else in life, it just might be harder.
  15. Nov 20, 2009 #14
    First of all, physics research career is not the same as physics professorship. You are probably not going to be a physics professor for the same reason that you are not likely to win the lottery. So the first thing to do if you want to be a physics researcher is to make the definition of physics reseacher as broad as you can so that you are likely to find something.

    Second, succeeding at research is more about persistence than intelligence.
  16. Nov 20, 2009 #15
    The one thing I would strongly suggest is to read ZapperZ's guide to becoming a physicist. A link to his essay is stickied at the top of the forum. It has some great information about what it's like on the road to becoming a physicist.

    Like others have said, it's not a matter of being smart enough. It's a matter of work ethic. That essay will give you an idea of the work that goes into it.
  17. Nov 20, 2009 #16
    Your intelligence will most likely only determinine how well you understand physics, and it's not enough to just understand it. As a theoretical physicist you need to know everything by heart as well as understanding it, and that is only a matter of practicing. Do physics/math exercises regularly so that you get used to such problem solving.
    Essentially, work ethic is the abilty that will determine the most.

    As people say, read "So You Want To Be A Physicist" if you are uncertain.
  18. Nov 20, 2009 #17
    It definitely helps that you're interested in physics to begin with. I'm a chemistry major (I love all the sciences, but chemistry especially), and it isn't half as hard to make myself do the work when it relates to things I actually care about. For example, I had to write out a comprehensive proof of the relationship between the Schrodinger Wave Equation and the de Broglie Wave Equation (I was allowed to use notes by the way, I don't want to make it sound like I'm a genius or anything), which took nine pages and around three hours to do. It would have been hell for someone who doesn't care about science. I'm not going to say it was fun or anything, but when I was done with it, I had a much better understanding of the information, which gave me a satisfaction I think most people here can relate to. In short, if you really want to become a physicist, you'll find a way to make yourself work hard enough to do it.
  19. Nov 22, 2009 #18


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    Try and find some undergraduate research opporunities and see how you do in them perhaps?
  20. Nov 22, 2009 #19


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    I think a never ending curiosity about something will make you an expert eventually. If you combine your curiosity with a environment that promotes learning and understanding, then you should start to see the rewards.

    My advice to you is take two steps forward and one step back every so often. So far I've found especially in a university setting that people are crammed with mathematical techniques, new methods of analysis, extensions of previous ideas in a way that doesn't really do justice to give "the big picture".

    Sometimes the big picture takes a while to get but if you begin to digest what you've learned, question it, and decode it for what its worth, you will probably do a hell of a lot better than someone who has just been trained to memorize things.

    Its like the difference between a student that asks why calculus is so important and another student who just does the exercises but doesn't reflect on what the hell they actually really setting out to do which is model analyze and synthesize systems that change in accordance to derivative or integral expressions.

    The one that realizes that through the description of how something changes, one gets important elements of information about a systems characteristics. For example in engineering you may find critical points at which say the stress of a material reaches a critical point at which it breaks.

    Now you might think "well duh thats obvious" and that is more than likely true. But from history and from my own experiences, its the ones who continually ask questions, who challenge themselves, and who don't just accept what they are told possibly for fear from ridicule or another such similar situation. Also physics like many other fields gets harder and harder and asking questions is more critical to solving todays problems than it used to be.

    Asking things like "What is energy?", "What are some possible connections between the macro effects that we observe and statistical mechanics?" or possibly "Is it possible to derive the inverse square law from either statistical or microphysical assumptions?" "Why is light fixed at the speed it is fixed?"

    You could become obsessed with a particular question and make that the driving force for your motivation and for your line of research. The thing is that there are so many important questions that we don't have answers to that even if you don't become the next Einstein or Feynmann, you will still have the ability to review what is already known and to ask questions.

    Taking two steps forward and one step back is critical especially nowadays as experiments are often expensive to perform and proper analysis of the results takes into consideration many factors. Also the fact that the best way to get your research out there is to go through a peer review process which by its very design allows other experts to look at it to spot potential mistakes so that they can be amended up until the paper is ready for publication.

    One more thing, do not get fixated on what you learn because in the sciences like physics and math we typically follow the procedure of teaching students the coarser grained approximations and then as they become more able, better approximating models
    are taught that help enforce the latest ideas in thinking and make an attempt to explain what is going on.

    Personally I find it harder to learn things the way things are taught because I have always had the "big picture" method of thinking and use generalizations about a specific system and tailor them to specific circumstances which start from a set of axioms or assumptions.

    Once you get the assumptions, its a lot easier to picture when you have experience with working with the models and analyzing what the assumptions do to explain behaviour or set of characteristics about what the system is trying to achieve.

    So just to summarize, remember question everything you learn and try and put it into some context. When you go deeper and deeper look at it from an initial set of assumptions that lends itself to hopefully giving the best description of a particular
    system or of the world. Take note of all assumptions and derivations used to prove
    particular situations or instances. For example in statistical mechanics we will assume
    that things take on distributions and that the microbehaviour indeed acts as a "statistically random" system. One question I would ask is if this assumption is indeed
    necessary and accurate? Of course the reason for this is to use the idea of randomness
    to simplify the calculations involved but again this is simply questioning what one is learning.

    Anyway I wish you the best in your endeavour and hope that your path may lead you to things that are exciting and challenging.
  21. Dec 18, 2009 #20


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    Your life story is pretty much the exact same as mine, except i am a senior in high school. Im glad someone else asked this question, because im having my doubts too. Im doing running start and im about to start calc and calc based physics, very worried. And i was also leaning towards astronomy more till an inspiring physics teacher this year showed me what its really like (scary huh) lol.
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