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I can't connect my mathematics with reality

  1. Nov 26, 2009 #1
    I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    I'm in a school where we work a lot with electrical circuits, which include a lot of math. Sometimes the teacher tries to connect the circuits with reality, like giving them a "physical" meaning, like trying to explain how a stove works. When he does this, many of my fellow students go "Ahh! Well then It makes good sense." They can connect our material with reality somehow and make sense of it, and from there see that this can work, and not that.

    Me on the other hand, I can't make real-life sense of anything we work with (Well, almost, just the tiny ones). To me it's just mathematics. Plain and simple. That works because it follows a strict set of mathematical rules, which are not to be bent. But the funny thing is, I can usually solve almost all (Not all, of course) of the problems the teacher comes with, and the realists can not. I'm blowing my own horn, but I think I'm kind of blessed with this ability to see things as pure mathematics. But on the other side, I think I'm kinda cursed. Because If I can't connect mathematics with reality, how can I ever figure something out, without It being written in a mathematical language? Does this mean, I will never really understand physics for example?

    My "problem" is very difficult for me to explain. But I'm gonna try to give a example (A far fetched one):

    Say I want to be an astronomer. I apply to a university, where I get a MS (Phd, post-doc ect ect.. all the gravy) in astronomy. I get good grades, but that is only because I'm good with mathematics. And when I apply as a NASA scientist, and finally get to do some real astronomy work, I can't figure anything out, because I'm only good with maths, and I can't connect maths to cosmology, because I can only understand what others have done, and never do anything self.

    Maybe my final question is, the people who come up with theories about the universe, are they experts at mixing real life with mathematics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 26, 2009 #2
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    What are you studying? Are you an electrical engineering or physics major or something else? What class is this that is giving you this trouble? Give specifics or otherwise it is difficult to give specific advice.

    Why give a far-fetched example instead of one from your own experience?

    Electrical engineering isn't just mathematics. For example, things like Ohm's law and Kirchhoff's voltage law were most likely found by experimentation. They can also be derived from Maxwell's equations, but Maxwell's equations originated with experimentation and are only described or encapsulated with the mathematics. Something like Kirchhoff's current law makes intuitive sense, because what flows in must flow out. Maybe that will help you if you think of these electrical circuits as a flow (which they are anyway).

    Although I haven't used the book myself, I have heard that The Art of Electronics is a great book that builds up your intuition rather than teaching you a bunch of mathematical theory. This or a similar book that teaches the meaning or intuition behind electronics could help you.
  4. Nov 27, 2009 #3


    Staff: Mentor

    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    I don't understand your quandary. If you work with electrical circuits, you are working with real-life things. Or maybe you're not actually connecting physical circuits, but are instead working with them in a theoretical sense, and not actually connecting the components, applying power to them, and measuring the resulting voltages and currents.

    Whether you are doing hands-on work with resistors, capacitors, inductors, IC circuits or not, the theoretical work makes it possible to predict the behavior of the real-life circuit. The connection between the mathematics and "real life" would seem pretty strong to me, much more so than in more abstract areas of mathematics such as, say infinite-dimension vector spaces.
  5. Nov 27, 2009 #4
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    It's kinda hard to describe my education. I'm studying to be an machine chief (The ones they use on board ships), and It involves a lot of electrical circuits.

    The far fetched one was to describe my "problem", If i could ever make sense of what I do with reality. Maybe it's not a problem anyway, just something i made up in my head:tongue2:
  6. Nov 27, 2009 #5
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    I guess It's as real life as it gets. I just thought the other students see more what is physically possible, while I see what is mathematically possible in a circuit. I think that was what I'm trying to say.
  7. Nov 27, 2009 #6
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    In terms of physics the standard to theories is something like:

    Come up with axioms that seems to fit data/make sense
    Then derive the math of that theory
  8. Nov 28, 2009 #7
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    That's exactly it! I can understand mathematically how a system works, but I can't make sense of it. I came to think about this in our last lab test. I don't think that I learned anything, or what I learned I couldn't make use of in class.

    But then again, this may very well just be me being paranoid.
  9. Nov 29, 2009 #8


    User Avatar

    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    Interesting... but it seems to work for you, so I wouldn't call that a problem at all! Everyone learns and understands things differently, and if you're comfortable working in just math, all the more power to you. It seems like you occasionally envy those who can visualize concepts in every day examples, and I'm sure such people envy you in return. From what I gather, everyone has their own unique advantages and disadvantages - people who are successful have just learned to take advantage of their strong points.

    Yeah, it's 2:30 AM and I'm rambling... lol
  10. Nov 29, 2009 #9
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    Wow, I understand your feelings very well. You're trying to understand how things can work practically. You're trying to get the complete picture. Well, I also try to do the same thing when I study physics. Think of the whole thing, i.e., the system which you are studying, as a computer simulation, or, a computer game. Imagine the current moving through the circuit in a game.
    Actually, it has a lot to do with you're intution. In physics, we study nothing but how nature works. So, when you create your simulation in your mind (for example of the curent in the wire), let the current go in the direction that seems natural. What seems natural will most probably be right- it will be in accordance to the laws of nature.
  11. Nov 29, 2009 #10
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    When people make theories, this is how they begin: with what is natural. But the main aim is to make it understandable to others. This can be accomplished by using the language of mathematics. For example, even a little child can imagine how a light ray would be reflected from a mirror. But, to reprsent it in terms of mathmatics is the job of a physicist. So, in a way, you're ability is a boon to you. As a physicist, you'll do better. You just need to learn where to start. For that, I think my 'computer simulation' technique might help.
  12. Nov 29, 2009 #11
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    All you gotta do is ask the application of anything that you learn.

    For e.g if you're learning something about a circle, you can see that it's used in making wheels, makes spokes of the wheels, wheels covers etc...lots of them.

    So just think about the applications.

    With maths, the applications don't come directly, but if you're working on something suddenly it's application pops up (many times) and so you see it's utility and connect it to the real world.
  13. Nov 29, 2009 #12
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    Another way to address your problem is to take things theoretically.

    So if you see a relations between 2 variables, convert it to a real life scenario "if this increases, then this decreases...or if this stuff changes, it won't have any effect on this thing".

    It's also a good ideal to question why.

    Mathematical formulas, derivations etc... become very complex to analyze this way, so just think of it as..."this variable depends on a few other variables or these other variables will govern this consequence; thus to compute the consequence I need to know these variables and ways to manipulate it"...if you understand what I mean.
  14. Nov 29, 2009 #13
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    There's a safe bet that you'l be working with a team of people and you'll be the math part of it more than anyone else, but others will contribute and help you, i.e. - pick up where you leave the idea, or take what you have and apply it.
  15. Nov 29, 2009 #14
    Re: I can't connect my mathematics with "reality"

    Most people do not have an intuitive understanding. Most people are limited to the formalism and get very defensive when people ask questions that are not part of their per-programmed understanding. As far as getting along in life and work you will do fine even if you never understand deeper than the formalistic level. As far as how you feel about your self and the universe if you can not reach an intuitive understanding that is up to you. Good luck.
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