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How hard is theoretical physics?

  1. Feb 21, 2009 #1
    I have to choose what I want to do in university and I was wondering how smart you have to be to do theoretical physics.
    I do maths , applied maths and physics in school and I'm good at all of them.
    Any help is very much appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 21, 2009 #2
    You have to work hard and have a good aptitude for math and physics, I'm sure you already knew that.
  4. Feb 21, 2009 #3
    I think that it's all about being interested in the subject. One of the winners of the 2008 Nobel prize in physics told a story about his professor once asking him (when he was still in college) "Why do you want to study theoretical physics, that's only for the bright students"
  5. Feb 21, 2009 #4
    I think

    1. you have to have right amount of intellectual level.
    2. you need to really, really enjoy it.

    I remember story where Feynman was very very talented at math but he could not answer question "What is this for?" Of course, any mathematician would say if you cannot answer that, you probably shouldn't become a mathematician.

    There's a lot of debate about how much intellectual skill you need. Unfortunately, I think only way to figure that out is to read and learn more.

    Sure, it's easier if you cannot add two numbers together because you will know you are not suited for it much quicker. For others though you just have to continue progressing.
  6. Feb 21, 2009 #5
  7. Feb 21, 2009 #6
    I have to somewhat disagree with that poll. Unfortunately here people are rather accomplished. We are not the right sample ;-)

    Given right intellectual level, you have to hard work. but not given enough passion, it would be meaningless.
  8. Feb 21, 2009 #7


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    Just clarifying, do you mean Einstein-like work where you spend all day working out new mathematical theories and stuff like that? (Basically what all the string theorists have been doing). Because I would consider working in theoretical physics also doing things like developing ways to detect the higgs boson, supposed forms of dark matter, etc.

    Where I'm going with this is that the pure theoretical jobs where you develop theories, from my understanding, are very hard to come by. You have to be the best of the best, and yes that means having both the talent (yes, talent. No amount of work will make you into an Einstein), and the passion.
  9. Feb 21, 2009 #8


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    Remember that the absolute majority of all physicists -including theoretical physicist- do not work with string theory etc.
    Most work with much more "mundane" topics, primarily in condensed matter physics (since this is -by a large margin- the biggest field in physics). That said, theoretical work in CMP can still involve rather "cool" techniques such as quantum field theory etc.
    The good news is that it is MUCH easier (albeit not easy) to find work in condensed matter physics than in string theory. In order to find work in the latter talent and hard work is simply not enough: you would need a LOT of luck as well (the funding agencies must decide to fund a position in string theory that year etc, not something you can influence; you need to be working on exactly the right problem etc).
  10. Feb 21, 2009 #9


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    Good point. Would you still agree that you have to be pretty top tier to get a position even working in CMP? I'm not very familiar with the field.
  11. Feb 21, 2009 #10
    its insanely easy
  12. Feb 21, 2009 #11
    YOu have to be very smart to understand it thoughly
  13. Feb 21, 2009 #12
    it is hard
  14. Feb 21, 2009 #13


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    I would wager a really good theoretical physicist needs to be just as smart as a really good experimental physicist. All the time you hear grad students say "I'm going into experiment because I don't think I'm smart enough to be a theorist." I like to say, "I'm going into theory because I don't think I'm smart enough to be an experimentalist." To be great at either you have to be really smart and hard working - but more importantly, I think you need a good imagination. Any theorist is going to be good at solving differential equations and crunching through integrals and any experimentalist is going to be good at building experiments and programing, but those aren't the things that make them great. A great theorist is going to have the imagination to come up with a plethora of new ideas for how this or that physical phenomenon might occur and how to model the problem, and a great experimentalist is going to have the imagination to come up with brilliant and clever experiments to test these ideas (and things theorists haven't even thought of). I'm inclined to theory because I have more of a mind for imagining abstract things, as opposed to more concrete things like how to measure this or that; however, had I chosen to try to go into experiment, I would not consider myself any less smart.

    So, if you think you're smart enough to be an experimental physicst, you're probably smart enough to be a theoretical physicist. You just need to determine which sorts of problems you'd rather solve: coming up with clever mathematical models to describe physical phenomena, or coming up with clever experiments to test investigate physical phenomena?
  15. Feb 21, 2009 #14
    Hahahaha, that reminds me of when Einstein was in college his professor once called him a "lazy dog" because he used to skip classes on subjects that weren't interesting to him.
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