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How do professional physicists think?

  1. Feb 2, 2013 #1
    Do professional physicists think in mathematical equations?
    Do they think in these mathematical equations first, and then come to a conclusion based on that math?
    Or do they think intuitively or visually about something first, then come to a conclusion, and only later prove it mathematically?
    Or do they think even differently?

    The main thing I want to know is, what comes first? The math, or non-math-based intuition?

    Because while looking at research papers in physics I get the idea they think in a purely mathematical way, which is strange to me.

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2013 #2
    It depends on the situation. Sometimes the physics discoveries are purely experimental. Then someone takes the data and comes up to some formula that satisfies it. Then other physicists come to some more abstract idea which finds the relationship between many things and explains both the data and the formula with mathematics.

    Sometimes when people try to mess up with the known mathematical constructions they come up to strange results which predict something unseen and sometimes it realy turns up to be true when the experimental physicist check it.
  4. Feb 2, 2013 #3
    Nowadays they are outsourcing their thinking to other people for lower resource investment. This way their gross profit margin increases resulting in high revenue. However to foster innovation in their thoughts, which the call as their flagship product, they employ management leadership in the process. However this way of conducting business may result in lower amount of quality validation. But as long as there is market need physicists are not considering any other options.
  5. Feb 2, 2013 #4
    I like this thread; it's a good question. Here's what Einstein had to say on the matter:
    And here's where math played into how Einstein thought:
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2013
  6. Feb 2, 2013 #5


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    A comprehensive discussion on how anyone thinks could take up multiple volumes of medical texts. Everyone is different and the way someone thinks may vary drastically from someone else even if they are doing the same work.
  7. Feb 2, 2013 #6
    If you work with a subject long enought you develop an intuition of how things behave and work out even without going through equations. This is extremely helpful when you have to show some relation or other using bullet-proof math. It tells you in which direction to develop the equations and where to start.

    No clue how this mechanism works inside the brain.
  8. Feb 2, 2013 #7
    Working with a variety of different physicists I've seen many approaches, as many as I've seen physicists I suppose. Some start from curiosity over a cool experiment, others spend hours and hours discussing the actual meaning of some equation, and then there are some who seem to rely on luck and the findings of hard-working ph.d.-students :-) Sadly, the majority of scientists have to consider applications and publications before anything nowadays...
    Intuition is good, but you need maths to understand and more importantly to make others understand your research.
  9. Feb 2, 2013 #8


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    I've read this quote before and wondered what was meant by "muscular" in the context.
  10. Feb 2, 2013 #9
    Yeah, it may read odd. But Einstein's primary (and only) language written and spoken was German.
    The best way to ascertain what Einstein's intention was when we read "muscular" would be to read the exact letter in German, provided you're well-versed in the German language. Cross-translations kinda screw us...
  11. Feb 3, 2013 #10


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    I'm not sure if the original text was german. I found a part of that quote in a german book, where it was translated from the english version.

    Using this part, I got a corresponding german version of the quote via google:
    That does not help, however, it is as puzzling as the english version. In addition, several variants of that quote can be found, which might be a hint that they are all translations.

    Anyway, I like the quote.
  12. Feb 3, 2013 #11


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    I don't even know a little German. :smile:

    Here is another quote too, from this article, on page 113, the page below the alluring underwear ad., after the heading, “Our Intellectual Democracy”-

    " If," he confessed to me, with a smile that was half wistful, half apologetic, "I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music."
    Thinking about the above quote, I’d even wondered if “muscular” was a typo for “musical”.

    I like the quote too. Thanks for considering the puzzle. I believe he mentions “visual and motor”, later on, so maybe he means something like thinking in movement. This is in writing-

    (It was a response to a questionnaire Jacques Hadamard asked of many friends, thinkers of the generation, written up here-
    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=...MCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y )
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2013
  13. Feb 4, 2013 #12
    I'm pretty sure this is different for each person, based on personality type and such. I myself think first intuitively in images and only secondly in maths to confirm/quantify the thoughts. But I have definately run in to people who think more directly in math terms, even to the point of us having difficulties talking about the same subject (which both know well) because we keep going around each other with how to explain things.
  14. Feb 4, 2013 #13
    It varies. Different people think differently.

    I was a graduate student in mathematics and concluded that real mathematicians thought differently than I did. They didn't need to relate the math to any model, and this was very helpful to them to not have to carry that baggage around.

    Physics is different. Albert E. said that the math of General Relativity wasn't that hard, the problem was showing that it related to the real world.
  15. Feb 4, 2013 #14
    It's here too.

    The grammar certainly looks German, it's not done by a translation robot, but the English translation is.

    muskulärer can alo be translated as robust, strong so that makes: (in a) strong way occasionally
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2013
  16. Feb 4, 2013 #15
    Okay, I reread and understood the Einstein quote in German. Essentially what he is saying that he thinks visually and dynamically, without words. When this leads to an idea, he has to struggle to find the right words to describe it.

    But I can translate the whole lot if anybody is interested.
  17. Feb 4, 2013 #16


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    I think that would be "muskulös".

    If that quote would not refer to physics: For sports, musical instruments and so on, the quote would make perfect sense.
  18. Feb 4, 2013 #17
    Indeed 'Muskulär' is not in my 1100 page hardcopy dictonary but

    Muskulär means 'concerning the muscles'

    And hence,

    "Die oben erwähnten Elemente sind in meinem Fall visueller und gelegentlich muskulärer Art."

    is perfectly explained by -as closely translated as possible to -

    The above/afore.. mentioned elements are in my case in a visual way and occasional in a way concerning the muscles

    which complexity is more the norm in 19th and early 20th century German writings.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2013
  19. Feb 4, 2013 #18


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    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 17, 2017
  20. Feb 5, 2013 #19
    That sentence might say:

    Visuelle und molekulare Vorstellungen bilden bei mir hauptsachlich die Rolle des Materials einer art kombinatorischen Spieles, welches das Denken (im embryonalen Stadium) ausgemachen scheint...

    An automatic translater is no good here. I think it translates to something like:

    "Visual and molecular images play for me primarely the role of material of a sort of combination game, of which thinking seems to be made of (in an embryonal stage)."

    I could make an effort trying to decipher and translate the whole script, but I would be surprised if somebody had not done that before.

    Let me rephrase that: I'll be happy to decipher and translate, if it's not available elsewhere.

    second edit.

    This is what I could decipher so far from the first part A.

    Die Wörter der Sprache spielen (bei?) meines Denken zu gut wie gar keine Rolle, wohl aber Zeichen *** ** klare Vorstellungen, die sich auf Komplexe von Zeichen beziehen. Die gröszte Rolle spielen visuelle Vorstellungen, die mehr oder weniger lose? mit klaren Begriffen verbunden sind, oder von denen ich fϋhle, dass sie sich mit Begriffen im logischer Sinne dϋrften verbinden lassen. Versuchsweises Op*** mit? Vorstellungdbildern, denen noch nicht klare Begriffen entsprechen.

    Now we need a German mother tongue to edit that.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 17, 2017
  21. Feb 5, 2013 #20


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    Part A is

    Die Wörter der Sprache spielen bei meinem Denken so gut wie gar keine Rolle, wohl aber Zeichen und unklare Vorstellungen, die sich auf Komplexe von Zeichen beziehen. Die größte Rolle spielen visuelle Vorstellungen, die mehr oder weniger lose mit klaren Begriffen verbunden sind, oder von denen ich fϋhle, dass sie sich mit Begriffen im logischer Sinne dϋrften verbinden lassen. Versuchsweises Operieren mit Vorstellungsbildern, denen noch nicht(?) klare Begriffe entsprechen.

    His handwriting is really hard to decipher sometimes.

    I would translate that loosely to:

    The words of the language do almost play no role at all in terms of my thinking, but symbols and unclear notions referring to complexes of symbols do. The largest role is played by visual notions which are more or less loosely associated with clear cut terms, or of which I feel that it should be possible to associate them with terms in a logical sense. Operating with conceptions, which do not correspond to clear cut terms yet, on a trial basis.

    I hope that makes a bit of sense. It was a bit hard to find a correct English word sometimes, and the usage of "term", "notion" and "symbol" might not be the optimal choice. I may have a look at the other parts, if you think that my translation makes some sense.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2013
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