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Is additional maths eating out my time?

  1. Jan 31, 2010 #1
    Hi all!

    I am studying physics in my 2nd year now (3rd semester) in Munich, Germany. I'm interested in theoretical physics (solid state and condensed matter physics). I know from school that understanding maths helps you a lot in dealing with physics, esp. theoretical disciplines. That's why I took upon doing the math-bachelor courses from the beginning as well. I think I'm doing well by now but I sometimes doubt it worths all the effort..

    As a main goal I set functional analysis and differential geometry (which I will be able to attend the next two seemsters) The point is, if I do all this stuff, I'll be missing 3 or 4 courses to obtain a bachelor degree in maths (parallel to this in physics) which I consider a rare opportunity. On the other hand, I could use my time specialising in physics, or concentrating on getting some better grades in physics, which also sounds very meaningful to me.

    With respect to the future, there is a very good master degree program in theoretical and mathematical physics at my university, which I would like to attend. Haven't thought of PhD yet, but I'd like to do it in the USA - although I'm not pretty sure how I'm going to finance my studies there...

    So, I would be glad to hear some different opinions. Perhaps there is also someone gone through a similar dilemma that could help me.

    Thanks for the advice,

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2010 #2
    Only you can know how much you can handle. If you don't know ten there is no reason to not try. The worst that can happen is that you have to drop some courses but since you intend to do a mathematical physics master you will benefit from every scrap of knowledge you get in the subjects anyway, even if it isn't enough for you to take a the whole course.
  4. Jan 31, 2010 #3


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    I have, actually I'm still in it. I did a physics bachelor, and just like you started taking mathematics courses. First my primary aim was to do lots of mathematics in order to help my understanding of physics. But by now, my interests have shifted toward math. At the end of this year I will (hopefully) have two bachelors, in math and physics. I always wanted to do a master in theoretical physics, but now I'm in dubio. Right now, mathematics gives me much more satisfaction than physics, and I would love to go further in pure math. On the other hand I'd still like to take courses like quantum field theory and general relativity; I still find theoretical physics very interesting.

    So I don't really have good advice. I'm just following my interests, and will see where they lead; I'll have to choose and specialize once, but I hope te delay that decision as long as possible :)
  5. Jan 31, 2010 #4


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    Hi marin,

    What I would tell you is decide whether you really want to focus on the math or the physics. What do you find most interesting, what are you really going to want to study or work with after you graduate? (I'm not saying you have to decide right away, but it's going to be hard to make meaningful plans until you do) The reason I say this is that many topics in advanced mathematics are not particularly useful in physics, or mostly useful only in specific subareas of physics. For example, differential geometry gets used in general relativity, but not so much in other areas like condensed matter physics. If you decide to go into theoretical CM physics, differential geometry will probably not be particularly relevant to your work. (At least, I think not, but condensed matter is not my area of study so I don't know exactly what sort of math they do get into)

    By the way, in the US it is exceedingly common that while working toward a Ph.D. in physics, you will be employed as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant by the university. The pay is not very much but it is enough to cover living expenses. So if you do decide to get a Ph.D. in the US, you probably won't need to worry about financing your education.

    :) David
  6. Feb 1, 2010 #5
    Thanks to all of you for your answers!

    I guess it won't be an easy decision to take.. I have to reconsider everything once again carefully.

    I was also wondering if this is going to help me for example in applications for master or phd programs or perhaps for later ones, or maybe not? I can imagine the people considering the applications thinking: 'ok, this one has done both but he probably has no idea of either' or similar..

    I would actually go for doing both but I need to reassure myself this is not a knife with two blades (or at least not with to equally sharp ones).
  7. Feb 1, 2010 #6
    I am also interested in theoretical physics so I used to have the same problem. I asked several theoretical and mathematical physicists about it and they all said that taking math BSc-oriented classes is useless because they are full of stuff that is irrelevant to physicist.

    However if you like math more than physics you can consider doing BSc in this field.
  8. Feb 1, 2010 #7
    That is so not true. Just about all maths you can read at a BSc level is relevant for theoretical physics. If you want to do some applied physics, experimental physics or the nummerical side of theoretical physics then you don't need most of it for your job, but if you want to really understand what everything says or if you want to do mathematical physics then it is fundamental.
  9. Feb 1, 2010 #8
    It's not about books (which are more or less the same) or about core material but about lectures at math faculty which are very mathematicians-oriented (so they focus on specialistic aspects useful in math fields not in physics). Some aspects of EE and CE are important in experimental and computional physics but it doesn't mean that you need 2nd major to do it. At least in EU you have many special math/EE/CE courses for physicists. I am not very familiar with US through. If he wants to do physics then (imo) he should focus on physics and its connections with math. He can do pure math for fun in his free time.
  10. Feb 1, 2010 #9
    I thought being a T.A or R.A for a university means that you don't have to worry about tuition. I'm really curious about these things because I definitely plan to go to graduate school right after my undergraduate studies.
  11. Feb 1, 2010 #10
    Well, when you come up to the higher levels of theoretical physics what is covered in those "mathematical methods of physics" courses is far from enough. When I said that almost everything is used I really mean it. Different parts of physics uses most things covered in bachelor level: Abstract algebra, Functional analysis, Differential geometry and Algebraic combinatorics. Number theory is about the only thing you can read that you don't use in physics, otherwise you use it all.

    Mathematical physicists are physicists who mostly tinker with the mathematical structures of physics and as such they need the proper teachings that you get from the real mathematics courses. Most theoretical physicists are not mathematical physicists, but it never hurts to know more about what you actually do so even it if it isn't a requirement for your job it helps with your understanding.
  12. Feb 2, 2010 #11
    I also think that if you want to understand what really happens in theoretical physics, not only to do wild calculations, you can make good use of undergraduate bachelor courses in maths.

    Does anyone know what kind of mathematics (in particular) solid state physics and condensed matter physics use?

    Any ideas and/or opinions on this issue are also welcome :)
  13. Feb 2, 2010 #12
    It depends on the subfield, but you can find basically anything in condensed matter, from category theory to algebraic topology to differential geometry. Even number theory finds applications in condensed matter!
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