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How much math?

  1. Mar 23, 2009 #1
    Right now i'm a freshman physics student, interested in eventually going to grad school for theoretical physics. I may transfer and go for a mathematical physics degree at another schppl, but I can't help but wonder how much math is acutally needed past partial differential equations. Will things like advanced algebra, fourier series, proofs or number theory help? And what if i'm forced to choose between classes in these and things like electromagnetic theory 2 or thermal and statistical physics 2?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 23, 2009 #2
    All the theoretical physics requires a lot of math. The bleeding-edge of theory I'd say you need to know as much as a PhD candidate in math...
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2009
  4. Mar 23, 2009 #3
    Absolutely as much math as possible, but it depends what kind of theory you are really talking about. CMT, you'll probably never need to care about most number theory, but for cutting edge high energy/gravity, you probably should, now adays. Honestly, I'd do a pure math undergrad for theoretical physics prep.
  5. Mar 24, 2009 #4

    Take the courses you're interested in. Theoretical physics is a big area. Look into the subfields and identify one or two that you want to throw your chips in... and then take courses that support those areas.

    I think that advanced physics courses will be immeasurably more useful to you than some math courses if you want to do theoretical physics. Math is great, and the more math the better... but clearly not all subjects in math are as valuable to the theoretical physicist as others.

    For instance, many graduate math courses are of use to the theoretical computer scientist as well. I would say that, for the most part, the kinds of math the physicist and the computer scientist do can vary a good deal.
  6. Mar 24, 2009 #5
    You'd still want to have a solid preparation for passing your first year classes in a graduate physics program (and qualifying exams/comprehensive exams) however... I'd try to balance the two fields and definitely take two semesters of EM and at least one semester of thermal physics with statistical mechanics.

    Some possible ways to get around course conflicts: When I was an undergrad, I sometimes was able to take some math courses independent-study when they weren't offered during the terms I needed them (though it always depends on the size of the school and the willingness of a faculty member to supervise the independent study). At one point when two other courses (a physics and a required honors course) conflicted, I only attended the prelab in a physics laboratory course, then left for my other class; I was given the key to the facility to do the experiments on my own time during weekends.
  7. Mar 24, 2009 #6
    I'm actually an mathematics major, planning on double minoring in physics and astrophysics.....and am hoping to attend grad school for Theoretical Physics.

    I've spoken with the graduate advisor of a school I'd eventually like to apply for and he seemed to think it was almost BETTER to be a math major for theoretical physics.

    I was led to believe that the math majors that may need an upper level physics course or two upon entering grad school tend to perform better than physics majors that need a little math help upon entering grad school.

    I'm just an undergrad, so I don't have much personal experience, but from what I've been told, you should try to get "too much" math if possible.
  8. Mar 24, 2009 #7
    Q: "How much math?"

    A: "All of it"
  9. Mar 24, 2009 #8


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    A lot. There are many areas of advanced math that you have to master before you can call yourself a theoretical physicist. Also, if you're doing research in theoretical physics, you will be learning new math all the time.

    Those are very basic things, especially abstract algebra and Fourier series. You must definitely know these.

    You'll have to learn all of these to an advanced level eventually.
  10. Mar 24, 2009 #9
    thnx for all the help everyone, it definately sounds like i'm gonna go the mathematical physics route, or maybe a dual major (BA in physics and math) at the college im at right now.
  11. Mar 24, 2009 #10
    Depending on your college, a dual major can often be a bad choice. At my college, a double major in math and physics meant taking a fairly watered down version of a math and a physics major together. For me, it was smart to be a math major and just get permission to take the upper level physics courses that were of interest to me from the department. Only do a double major if it means taking senior core math and physics courses.
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