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Is physics for me?

  1. Sep 5, 2008 #1
    I'm currently a high school senior who is thinking about the future, and realizing that he may like to go into physics in college. But unfortunately, I realize I'm also doubtful about a few things, most particularly with the maths a physics career entails.

    While I often like to ponder and think about math, I don't believe I'm actually all that good at it. I'm currently in second-yea calculus and am finding math esoteric and, in many ways, confusing. My struggle through calculus makes me truly appalled by the idea of taking years of math alongside physics. I simply don't feel comfortable with specializing in a subject that's not my strongest.

    Yet despite my mixed feelings about math, I love physics. Though I've never taken an actual physics course until this year, I've always been impressed with the profundity of areas like quantum mechanics and optics. And there's a certain thrill, unique satisfaction in solving a complex physics problem which is simply and utterly fascinating about physics. This is something I never really experienced with any other subject in school. For sure, I would go into physics if math wasn't such a intrinsic part of it.

    Because college apps. are impending, I feel it quasi-necessary to finalize the general realm of study I will be going into. I want this realm to be physics, but I'm uncertain. I know people say math is important, but if you struggle with math, are there ways to improve while in college?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2008 #2


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    Don't trick yourself. Physics on university level is essentially mathematics - that is, you need to be very fluent in the math that has to be a second nature to get to the physics behind it.
  4. Sep 5, 2008 #3
    Mathematician not always understand physics, but Physicist to a certainty be versed in math.
  5. Sep 5, 2008 #4
    Don't do it unless you're really confident in your Mathematics. There's always time to retool and clean up your skills while in College so don't scare yourself off from Physics. But if you hate Math now, you're gonna hate it even more when you start to take your Undergraduate courses in Physics.
  6. Sep 5, 2008 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    I think the above replies are more indiciative of the current problem in physics education- namely, that physics is somehow subsumed by, or defined by, mathematics. And that there's slight difference between a physicist and a mathematician.

    Having deficiencies in math will make a course in Physics more difficult, that is certainly true. But a good physics program will emphasize that mathematics is a tool, one of many, that physicists use to solve problems. Just like engineers. And accountants.

    In the end, as long as you work at the homework and apply yourself, you will improve your ability. Study what you like to do- that's how you will be sustained through the tough courses.
  7. Sep 5, 2008 #6
    I don't hate math; I really enjoy learning it and understanding it. It's just that I'm far from proficient in it, which I attribute mostly to the simple yet colossal mistakes I make while solving problems.

    In what ways can I improve my math skills?

    That's good hear. I still wonder how my skepticism about math will affect my college choice, though.
  8. Sep 5, 2008 #7
    In both physics and math, understanding the big picture is just as important is being able to understand the details. If your problem takes half a page to solve, but on line 10, you subtract x from y instead of adding it, you'll get the wrong answer.

    But that's ok. Everyone makes calculation errors. When you work too quickly, you will copy your equations incorrectly. When you work too slowly, you lose track of the big picture. So when you only have one shot to work on a problem (such as on a test), getting the right answer is very, very hard.

    What's important is that when you become aware your answer is wrong, you have the flexibility to go back through your work and see where you made your mistake. If you are unable to figure out your mistake, *that* is when you have failed to learn the concept.

    Use them. Expand them. For physics work, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus are king. Calculus is the really important one, and to some extent requires the other two. Practically all of newtonian mechanics is applied calculus.

    There is a lot to math, and certain topics are more useful in physics than others. Linear algebra - the study of vectorspaces (sets of vectors), and linear transformations (matrices) - is another important topic you'll want to pick up early. We live in a three dimensional universe, and vectorspaces allow us to talk about three dimensional space.

    Complex analysis is another useful topic. Complex numbers are kind of awesome. They reveal fascinating relationships between the exponential function and trigonometric functions. They are also isomorphic to vectors in two dimensional space and allow simplification of some theories (for example, they are used in simplifying the mathematics for certain kinds of electronic circuits).

    Good luck.
  9. Sep 5, 2008 #8


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    I am not so sure. I've never been very good at math but I always liked physics; when I was and undergraduate I simply had to work harder than most in the math courses. Moreover, although I did pass the exams in e.g. linear algebra etc I didn't really "get" it until I started using that knowledge in the first quantum physics course.
    So for me it was the other way around, I learned math by first understanding the physics.

    Also, most physicists are experimentalists meaning you can have very successful career without being very good a math; you will of course need to understand the math that is relevant for your field in order to be able to read and understand papers etc but that is still not the same thing as the kind of mathematical problem solving you do as an undergraduate.
  10. Sep 5, 2008 #9
    Applied Math....Mind you.

    I personally hate all the BS is traditional math that you will learn and NEVER find a use for.
  11. Sep 6, 2008 #10
    Thanks everyone for your responses.

    While I have a chance, I suppose this would be a good time to get everyone's input on which schools are good for undergraduate physics!
  12. Sep 6, 2008 #11
    Math is important, but you can learn to like it more if you like to do physics a lot. When I was studying physics, a fellow student was not good at math at all. He hardly knew what an integral was. So, I thought that he would drop out very soon. But he was so interested in physics that he started to like math as well and he did do quite well.

    The reverse is also true. Another student I knew was a math genius at high school; he had participated in the international math olympiads. But he could not motivate himself to study, and he dropped out.

    You have to realize that the entire high school math curriculum amounts to almost nothing. At university you'll cover much more in just a few years. The reason why "you are not good at math", therefore cannot have anything to do with some inability on your part to understand it. It simply has to do with the fact that you haven't studied it well enough yet, perhaps because it is not taught well, perhaps because so far you haven't been motivated enough to put a lot of energy into it.
  13. Sep 6, 2008 #12


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    Honestly, I think it's hard to truly gauge your interest in a subject based on a few high school classes. Maybe math would be more interesting with a better teacher or at a more advanced level, or maybe you'd find physics to be horrible when it starts requiring tons of math.

    You don't really need to finalize your decision on what you'll major in in college yet. If you're not sure yet, look for schools with good physics programs, but ALSO that have a varied core curriculum to try out other courses so you can make a better decision once you see how it goes. Maybe other sciences will appeal, maybe it'll be something else, or maybe you'll find that you're completely fascinated by math once you start taking it in college and get a different experience.
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