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Is Natural Mathematical Ability Required To Be A Physicist?

  1. Mar 22, 2014 #1
    Hello, all. My whole life, I've had a passion for physics and understanding the universe in general. For years since I was younger I've read layman's books on the subject, reading articles and journals, etc.

    I have deeply thought about physics (theoretical physics in particular) as being my career, but there is one problem...

    I don't have a natural talent for math. I'm an abstract reasoner and visual spatial, but math was never my top skill... I am able to understand mathematical concepts if I try very hard, but this is simple high school math and college algebra. When you get to very high level math in theoretical physics, does there come a point where you NEED to have a natural math ability to succeed in the field, or can anyone learn how to do math like this? Some say artistic ability is something you're born with and is something you can't necessarily learn. Is this true for math?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 22, 2014 #2


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    If by "natural math ability" you mean a person born with a flair in math, then no, that is not needed. What is needed is a lot of motivation and hard work. If you can provide that, then you should have no problem with physics.
  4. Mar 22, 2014 #3


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    Yeah, Not all people working in theoretical physics are like Einstein. You also don't need to be. And that doesn't mean you're not going to be successful. Go for your passion and enjoy it. But prepare for doing lots of hard work.
  5. Mar 22, 2014 #4
    It's hard to tell exactly who has "natural" math ability. John Mighton has stories of tutoring severely math phobic people who later went on to get a PhD in math. To some extent, that seems to have been his own story as well. There are also stories of people failing calculus and then bouncing back to become math professors later on. I think most mathematicians would admit that they weren't great at math when they started (maybe it comes easily to some, but there were probably still gaping holes in their grasp of how to learn math at first).

    In my own case, although I did show some signs of having some natural talent for math, my performance before becoming serious about it was pretty uneven, partly due to not caring about it or trying very hard, but partly because I didn't have a very good idea of how to learn it effectively.

    So, there is a lot of evidence for the existence of people who are good at math, but their abilities are blocked. This doesn't mean that everyone is like that. Perhaps, some people are just not going to be good at it. But I don't think we can really tell that. So, I always remain agnostic about people's abilities. They could eventually learn to be great at math, or maybe they wouldn't. You just never know. As a math tutor, it helps me to imagine that maybe my students are secretly great at math. Even in cases where this might seem unrealistic, it is a helpful way to think, and there's always at least some truth to it. John Mighton has had success bringing entire classes of ordinary students up to the level of the top students, at least as far as elementary math is concerned.

    Well, the first point to make is that there are wildly differing levels of math that are used by different physicists. Some physicists are basically high-level mathematicians, and others are not very mathematical at all. Of course, there is a certain minimum level you have to have. You have to be able to handle calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.

    Here's a famous quote I made up: "Anything makes sense eventually, if you think about it long enough."

    So, it's my conjecture that most people can understand anything in principle, given enough time to think about it. But maybe one person can learn it in a year, and for someone else, it could take 20 years. That's my theory, anyway.

    That's complete hogwash, and I'm surprised the people who say that still haven't heard of books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that completely refuted that idea a very long time ago. Granted, that book is an extremely basic one. But I think the reason that people think it's hard to learn to draw is that the way people teach it is terrible. If more people were willing to work hard on REAL drawing books like The Natural Way to Draw, I don't think drawing would be considered such a magical thing that only really talented people are capable of doing quite so much. But how many people actually know about The Natural Way to Draw? Not that many. I suspect part of the reason for its lack of popularity compared to how good it is, is that the book asks you to work very hard to learn to draw and very few people are really willing to do that. They just want to take the magic pill and be able to draw. That's sort of what Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain does, which can take you from stick figures to realistic portraits pretty quickly, but it's really quite superficial and will not make you a real artist--it just teaches you how to copy what you actually see with some accuracy and removes some of the barriers that normally prevent that from happening for a lot of people.

    Similar things could be said for math teaching/learning.

    I think you might find this interesting (preface to visual complex analysis):


    Although, I agree with him, and I'm an extreme visual thinker, maybe he's over-stating it a bit, so take it with a grain of salt. It's possible to go a little too far with visualization if you try to visualize absolutely everything. Plus, you have to be careful with pictures, just as you have to be careful with any other kind of reasoning.
  6. Mar 22, 2014 #5
    I hate math, but love physics. Go figure. I like to know how the world works. I used to feel uncomfortable when I didn't know how a magnet could magically attract iron, for example. I like to know the theoretical stuff. I don't like doing the maths. My answer to the question in the title would be a no.

  7. Mar 22, 2014 #6


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    From your post, I understand two things:
    1- You don't know much physics.
    2- You're not going to know much physics.
  8. Mar 22, 2014 #7


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    I personally don't believe in things like "natural ability." Even those who do believe in natural abilities would generally agree that it is is outweighed by willingness to learn. So a better question would be: are you willing to learn the maths?
  9. Mar 22, 2014 #8


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    Of course there's a spectrum of innate abilities.

    Those on the lesser side of the spectrum have to put more time and effort into learning.

    Somewhere along that spectrum you reach a level of innate ability below which it becomes highly impractical to pursue a given goal.

    This is as true for physics as it is for anything else, I suspect.
  10. Mar 23, 2014 #9
    Innate ability does not mean all that much. Look at William Sidis, he had unreal potential yet he decided to become a clerk.
  11. Mar 23, 2014 #10
    Thank you everyone for your posts, they gave me quite a bit more confidence. I love reading things about this subject, but because I am math illiterate, I don't quite have a deep enough understanding of the subject matter. Knowing I can gain this kind of ability greatly influences me and makes me look forward to learning more.

    On another note:

    Does anyone know a good site where I can learn math in general? (algebra mainly, I am still stuck at this kind of level) I haven't quite started this class yet in college and I would like to prepare for it, and also because I am interested in the subject. So are there any places I can go online that have good explanations/lessons of mathematical concepts and functions? (And practice tests/quizzes would be nice.) Are there any books on math you could suggest to people like me?
  12. Mar 23, 2014 #11
    Math was my worst subject in high school but physics was always my best. There are many different kinds of theoretical physics, and you might find that some sort of theoretical applied physics or computational physics might suit you better than string theory or something along those lines.
  13. Mar 23, 2014 #12
  14. Mar 23, 2014 #13
    As I said, I like to know how stuff works. I don't want to actually do the math to know, for example, the ammount of kinect energy an object has. I just want to know that it would have more KE than if it was standing still. That just an example, however.

    I was awful at math too, but that didn't make me any less curious about the nature of things, about how particles behave and all those big questions out there. In my opinion, you need math if your job requires you to calculate the exact number that is necessary for a certain experiment. You can like the theoretical part of the topic.

  15. Mar 23, 2014 #14

    Make sure you find the exercises. It goes all the way up to calculus, I think.

    Tutors can also be good.

    Some of the issues I see that a lot of people are having in learning math:

    1) They don't retain what they learn.
    2) They are missing prerequisite knowledge and skills, but they are forced to move forward anyway when they would be better off filling in their gaps.
    3) They memorize instead of understand.

    Number 1 is a matter of using the memory you have effectively, more than having a good memory (here's just one hint to clue people in on what they might be missing: http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do).

    Number 2 is addressed by mastery-based learning, which you can try to enforce yourself by reviewing if your educational environment doesn't. Number 3 is the one where the most "ability" comes into play, and if you understand things better, they are easier to remember, too. However, it's not just a matter of ability alone. Understanding is something that I learned how to do, not something I was born with.
  16. Mar 23, 2014 #15
    if you cut the belief inside you that you aren't naturally good at math, maybe then you could be naturally good at math
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