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How do mathematicians work alongside physicists?

  1. Aug 4, 2009 #1
    Title says it all: how does a mathematics BS/MS holder work alongside a physicist? Do they share work? Who gets what type of work?

    Any advice. I still don't understand this...
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 4, 2009 #2
    They don't usually? Physicists can consult a mathematician if they're a theorist and need to know if the math for theory x looks plausible but beyond that I don't see many opportunities for working together. The two fields are VERY different.
  4. Aug 4, 2009 #3


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    Nonsense, some of my math professors do research in string theory (among other areas). Plenty of mathematicians do research in mathematical physics.
  5. Aug 4, 2009 #4
    And my math professor did research in harmonic oscillators. I didn't say there was no overlap at all, but many people have a severe misconception that math and physics are basically the same (except physics is 'all word problems'). Certainly mathematicians and theoretical physicists are similar but I can't think of any situation where one would be interchangeable for the other.
  6. Aug 4, 2009 #5
    Similar about what ? one is specific the other is too general
  7. Aug 4, 2009 #6
    I don't think it goes both ways, for one. Some mathematics is so interwoven with physics, the two are nearly indistinguishable, though most mathematics has no counterpart in physics, like MakeUpPlz has to say.

    Needing some mathematical basis to develop some physics, I've implored a few mathematicians for some help. The vast majority of what they have to offer I find unfathomable :bugeye: . I think physicists in most cases would have a much harder time doing mathematics than mathematicians doing physics, without getting giggled at...
  8. Aug 4, 2009 #7
    Heh, the old physics/math debate is one that's been going on forever. I will agree that theoretical math seems to be a lot harder than theoretical physics but I don't much authoritative experience in either. Anyways, I don't think I can answer the OP's question very well without fudging some details. Hopefully someone else will have a better response.
  9. Aug 5, 2009 #8
    Well there is a fine border between the two, which includes, as an example, quantum field theory. QFT is a very strong physical theory, but needs a lot of backing up in terms of rigorous mathematics. Topological quantum field theory is something I just recently read about and is more of the mathematics side of QFT, whereas as QFT is more physical. But they share ideas, concepts, and tools. They play off of one another. Physicists readily use the Feynman path integral, but to my knowledge, has not been shown to be a completely rigorous technique, especially compared to the mathematical techniques applied in quantum mechanics, which are very rigorous. So there is an example of the physicists using something that was introduced physically, but can be bolstered mathematically, giving even more credit to the physical theories it's applied to. They are different fields, but are very closely related, at least on the borders of theoretical physics.

    Physics is really very special in that it can attack problems in two very distinct ways. It has experimental techniques, and it has theoretical techniques. Where one falters, the other can pick up until the other catches back up. It's really a fantastic interplay. For general relativity, the mathematics came first, which was then bolstered with experimentation. For the Higgs boson, it has been predicted mathematically, but is waiting for the experimentation. Things like Heisenberg's uncertainly principle was sort of discovered on a physical basis, but now there are strict and rigorous mathematical proofs of the uncertainty principles. Faraday and others observed the interplay between electricity and magnetism experimentally and then the observations were supplemented by the mathematics developed later on which came to the discovery of Maxwell's equations. Maxwell and his peers originally had somewhere around 23 equations, which were whittled down to 4. Now, using the mathematical development of differential forms, Maxwell's 4 equations can now be stated in extremely simple terms in just 2 equations. This discussion could go on and on, as the interplay between math and physics is fundamental. Even David Hilbert, a great mathematician and theoretical physicist who independently discovered general relativity, suggested as one of his 23 problems to provide an axiomatic development of physics, similar to what was done for mathematics in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  10. Aug 5, 2009 #9


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    Okay, but there's much in between 'are basically the same' and 'are VERY different' :approve:
  11. Aug 5, 2009 #10


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    The boundaries of applied mathematics and theoretical physics overlap by an incredible amount. In fact, a lot of theoretical physics is done in maths departments. For example, the Lucasian chair of mathematics (in the department of applied maths and theoretical physics. cambridge) is held by one of the most famous theoretical physicists in the world!
  12. Aug 5, 2009 #11


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    OK, show of hands. How many physicist here work with mathematicians regularly? Some time? Never? (I vote "never" for myself).

    How many mathematicians here work with physicists regularly? Some time? Never?

    This is an "unscientific" survey, I know. But it's better than guess work!

    Before we go off on a tangent on mathematics versus physics and the interplay between the two, note that the OP did not ask about the subject matter but the PEOPLE and interaction between these two group of people.

  13. Aug 5, 2009 #12


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    My impression is that theoretical physicists correspond with mathematicians regularly, but they don't usually work together on the same problems.
  14. Aug 5, 2009 #13
    This is just kind of a difficult question because the distinctions aren't always as clear as your question implies. For example, you don't see people walking around the company or the University wearing a tag that says "Mathematician" or "Physicist" underneath their name. Many times the mathematicians work on physical problems (e.g., "applied math") and yet you will find as well, physicists working on mathematical results.

    For the sake of discussion, let's just assume it's all black and white and clearly demarcated between "math work" and "physics work". (To reemphasize: this is not at all accurate.) Then the partitioning of work between these people really all depends on the project, people's personal background, and so on and so forth. There is one key difference in that the mathematician is typically expected to have less intuition for the physics of the problem. Thus the mathematician will typically work on more methodological aspects (e.g., programming, numerical stability, etc.) which do not require a physical interpretation. The physics person will be more responsible for analysis of the data results and interpretation of the "conceptual meaning" behind whatever is going on.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2009
  15. Aug 5, 2009 #14
    I think the answer depends a LOT on what area of physics you work in. Particle theory, QFT, cosmology ... all have both mathematicians and physicists approaching the subject from different angles, and they will end up talking to each other. In my university the "centre for particle theory" is a 50-50 split of people drawn from both maths and physics departments, and some people are lecturers in both departments. At Cambridge, you have DAMTP- department of applied maths and theoretical physics, which suggests that they see very little difference between the two save the subject matter.

    By contrast, why would a mathematician be (professionally) interested in engaging in, say, experimental astronomy? It's important physics, but it's not maths, and you don't need all that much mathematical theory to do it. (I originally had condensed matter in there- hence Zapper never working with mathematicians- but then remembered that there are condensed matter theorists, about whose work I know precisely zilch.)
  16. Aug 5, 2009 #15
    Learn Physics.

    Mathematicians make great physicists.
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