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I have a *bit* of a conundrum

  1. Apr 8, 2008 #1
    Long time lurker, first time poster. I'd like to preface this by saying that I've spent many an hour glued to my monitor due to the very thoughtful and often eloquent posts on this forum.

    I am an undergraduate physics major who until recently was an economics major. This semester I began climbing the physics coursework ladder with Gen Physics and finishing calc. It's fair to say that I always attempt to scrape by with the bare minimum in practically all of my endeavors (academic and otherwise.) It usually isn't my intention to do so, but there always seems to be a point in any prolonged pursuit of a specific goal that I say to myself, "Eh, screw it." I would argue that I use my philosophical outlook as a sort of crutch when it comes to allowing myself to give up so easily.

    My conundrum is that I really enjoy the concepts in physics and the philosophical implications that newer discoveries hold, but I find much of the formalism tedious and unfulfilling. I'm wondering if the mid-tier courses I've enrolled in for fall flow like Gen Physics where the emphasis is on the mathematical formalism and most of the coursework reflects this or if smaller class sizes and topics closer to the professor's area of research may dictate more in-depth explorations of concept and theory.

    Sorry if some of this was nonsensical, but alas, there has been no sleep for the weak.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 8, 2008 #2
    Unfortunately it's very difficult to make any significant contribution to physics, or really to even understand the concepts outside of some heuristic analogy, without a great deal of tedious formalism. If all you're interested in is concepts, there's no reason to make a degree out of it (one which you won't enjoy if you find the calculations unfulfilling). I don't mean for this to sound harsh, but you aren't going to escape the math ever, and it's only going to get more formal.
  4. Apr 8, 2008 #3

    Dr. Courtney

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    Except for lab classes, you can expect all your Physics classes to be heavy on mathematical formalism. Math is the language of Physics and it is not avoided in a sound undergraduate education.

    The flow of different mid-tier class varies a bit with different subjects, but the general trend is that the mathematical rigor increases up through mechanics, statistical mechanics, elecrodynamics, and quantum mechanics. Appreciation of the beauty of it all comes after lots of hard work. No physics major that I know of strings out "Conceptual Physics" or "Physics for Poets" for four years.

    If you want deeper Physics without all the math, change your major to a subject area where you are willing to handle the required rigor, and satisfy your longing to learn physics by reading the books "Physics for Poets" and "The Feynman Lectures in Physics." If you can manage to work your way through these, then you might read "QED" (by Feynman). Though I should confess that I've got a PhD (experimental AMO), and I think that I don't really "get" QED.

    Michael Courtney
  5. Apr 8, 2008 #4


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    Like the other said, maths is essential to really practice physics. This is a bit as if you were saying "I like the sound of the French language and I am considering learning the language but I find tedious to learn new words and to study grammar". But without grammar and vocabulary you can't learn to speak a language.
    There are beautiful ideas in physics and it's great to learn about them at the qualitative level (by reading books, attending conferences, taking physics classes designed for non-science majors). But do actually be a physics major and become a physicist, a firm grasp of maths and thousands of hours of calculations are necessary.
  6. Apr 8, 2008 #5
    I phrased what I meant badly, so let me retry. I think I could learn to like math a bit more if there was an equal balance of concepts. I know this sounds strange and it may just be my professor, but it seems his solutions always begin with the math and end with an extremely brief overview of what is happening in laymens terms. I always viewed mathematics as a tool for expressing what is happening in a more concise way than could be done with words, but naturally I don't have complete mastery of every math concept that's discussed.

    I think I could like math if it was presented in a less dry, abstract sort of way. Are my expectations too far off the mark to reconcile my interest with frustration? Thanks for the comments.
  7. Apr 8, 2008 #6
    If you don't enjoy the math at least a little bit, you will probably not enjoy being a physics major. It often may seem that the conceptual ideas take a back seat to the mathematics and if you feel this way you could always read up on things on your own (the Feynman lectures are a great supplement to an undergraduate physics education). You asked if there was an "equal balance of concepts." I think the short answer is no, as others have said there is only going to be more and more math in your classes. This is practically necessary for some subjects such as quantum mechanics where the concepts that we do "understand" aren't terrible revealing anyhow. Mathematics is the language of physics (and nature) and there is no getting away from that. There is simply no substitution for working tons of problems if you really want to understand the physics.
  8. Apr 8, 2008 #7
    Mathos, if you find that your math professor is a bit dry why not then try to study on your own. If this is impossible due to your textbook then I recommend getting a different one. Also as far as I know, concepts in mathematics is a large part of the field. Before I ever learned how to do a question or method, my professor/teach always taught us the concept or theorem first.
  9. Apr 8, 2008 #8
    I would also add that continual pursuit of an understanding of the math behind the physics can help one realize how beautiful the math really is. At least, this is how it was for me, and I started out an English major.
  10. Apr 8, 2008 #9
    I once had the same problem. All I can say is learn to love the math, get a math degree if that's what it takes.That's what I did and now I do well in all my physics classes even though I don't do so well in my math classes.
  11. Apr 8, 2008 #10
    What is it about quantum mechanics that makes "intuitive sense?" At some point, your intuition will fail you. If you don't have a way of understanding concepts without seeing the big picture or seeing the philosophical interpretation, your classes are going to get MUCH harder.
  12. Apr 8, 2008 #11
    This is actually quite comforting to hear, thank you. As I was reading the comments I caught myself feverishly trying to come up with rebuttals and defenses for my reticence in dealing with math. Just knowing that not necessarily one hundred percent of people in the field are super math robots makes me feel much better about continuing on my current path.

    Thank you very much for the comments!
  13. Apr 8, 2008 #12
    Don't misunderstand me, I work hard to get better and better at math. But you have to just tackle the math and then it's not a big deal when you see it in the physics classes. I just fight my battles in math classes so that I don't have to in my physics classes.
  14. Apr 10, 2008 #13
    I know, I think that sometimes the motivation for working hard escapes me. I think I'll take your view and just work very hard in my math classes from now on and hopefully I'll begin to like it more (or at least appreciate it to an extent that allows me to understand physics well.)

    You're probably right. I'll check them out. I remember reading Feynman in high school and getting a sense of wonderment at how bizarre a place he made the universe seem. One of the reasons I started seriously to think about a degree in physics.
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