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Is there a physics/math gene?

  1. Dec 8, 2008 #1
    I'm sure people are getting sick of me using this forum as a guidance session, but I must appeal to the minds of PF once more.

    Do you need a certain level of predisposition towards physics/math to be good enough to go far in the fields? How do you know if you have it? Are there just some people who cannot handle the rigor of an advanced physics or math education?

    Please use me as a case study to answer. I am very bright but have a history of being lazy which was reflected in my hs grads and my college grades the first few years. Eventually I started to smarten up.

    Currently as Major in CS my gpa would be roughly a 3.7, however I am not sure that being good in CS corresponds much to math and physics. At least, what my undegrad school considers CS.

    My only higher level math course at the time has been Calc I, I got roughly a A-/B+ in the course. This was my first exposure to Calculus and its concepts. IMO if the course graded simply based on understanding of concepts I would have gotten an A. Unfortunately, I tend to my typo/ silly arithmetic errors on exams.

    Maths lower Calc: Precalc,geometry,algebra and to some sense trig have always come pretty intuitive to me. In so much as I could usually find ways to solve problems without even learning the way prescribed in the book. Furthermore, when less mathematically inclinded students would ask me for help, I usually can not offer it in any real sense they can find useful. I just seem to conceptualize different than they do.

    On the physics side I do not have much experience but have coming to see that doing well in a physics seems to mostly follow being able to apply the mathematical tools to practical situation, ei modeling a situation.

    If it plays any roll my IQ was taken to be 136 @ age 10 but now 125-130 @ age 22. I don't know if it does but if you would like to consider it in your answer...

    So from this starting point how can I tell if I have whatever the necessary intangibles are to go far in Physics/Math? As I investigate changing my major I have began to wonder if there is some intersection of work vs reward where if it might no longer be worth it consider pursuing a physics career. I find my mid-level CS classes somewhat challenging but not too much so and obviously expect that if I did change the major the difficult would increase. However, if I was barely making it by in higher level math and physics course because I simply could not grasp the material, I would rather not go that route.

    Is there any way to predict such a thing?
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 8, 2008 #2
    Heh, you're looking for a relatively primitive biological reason for a complex mental process. Hard work, more than anything at all, determines success in the sciences and maths. Can you hack it would depend more on how many nights you're willing to spend hacking away at confusing problem sets until sunrise than what your IQ is. No, there is no way to predict it but if you're planning on finding a predisposition and then believing that that will be enough to allow you to succeed, I fear for your academic future.

    On the other hand, if you found out that yes, you have a predisposition for math and science than would you be willing to work harder at it? Go for what you're interested in and put in a lot of hours understanding and working out the problems.
  4. Dec 9, 2008 #3
    Naturally, I have taken into account that working hard is needed. But beyond that is there a wall where some people just cannot intuitively understand the material?
  5. Dec 9, 2008 #4
    In my case, I think a medical condition of insomnia (particularly present when there was an interesting problem to be working on) was probably the best factor for my success in science and math (note MissSilvy's point of being able/willing to work on a problem set until sunrise). 2nd factor: Probably my type-A perfectionist personality (note: you should be concerned about your lack of care for typo's and arithmetic errors... you state to be good at concepts... but don't you look at numerical solutions to be sure the units make sense and the number is within a reasonable range conceptually?)
  6. Dec 9, 2008 #5
    I am not so bad at typo's and errors but enough so to probably hold me back from getting a perfect score on a test. I have been working to improve in this regard. I am also insomniac as well but I do best in things when I get a good night sleep and have rigid schedule so I try to avoid staying up too late.
  7. Dec 9, 2008 #6
    The 'wall' that you are referring to is usually to shaky education in foundational math and science courses. For example, I would have a really really hard time at physics if I only learned Calculus I minimally. So no, there is still no genes. Curiosity and a commitment to actually understand and master the material is crucial, everything else is accessory.

    I wouldn't count on getting too much sleep (though all-nighters are avoidable if you plan correctly) but if you love physics or whatever your preferred subject is, you'll do the work and never regret majoring in it.

    physics girl phd: Right on :)
  8. Dec 9, 2008 #7
    As far as a specific gene being for math and physics, I dont know about that. However, I do know from experience that certain people, whether or not they share a certain interest in math, are better at it. I would love to think that we are all equal and that simply those that want it more, or work harder accel more, however, this is just not true. I think that it is in between both sides of spectrum, It is neither nature or nurture, but both. If you lack the natural ability to be good at math, you must make it up with the hard work aspect of it.

    This is just a belief of mine, I have no physical proof/source for this information, just going off of experiences in my short life.
  9. Dec 9, 2008 #8
    So, I essentially reduce math to the ability to find pattens in made up ideas. If you're good at that, then you'll probably be good in math too.
  10. Dec 9, 2008 #9


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    lubuntu, most people must work very hard to learn Mathematics; and learning to examine for and recognize patterns requires effort sometimes also - sometimes very much effort to find a rule for a pattern. Most people have the "genes" for Mathematics learning; an early start and a natural or acquired interest are most helpful (but this could be debated). EDIT: Add to this repetition and the curiosity to ask and try to answer questions are also most helpful.
  11. Dec 9, 2008 #10
    Interestingly, the people who I've seem consign themselves that "I'm not good at physics/engineering/math and I'll never be the best, because I don't have the genes for it" are generally failing and lazy. The people who pretend to do no work at all ("Oh yeah, I just studied for like, 10 minutes, dude!") are the ones pulling all-nighters trying to understand the material. The hypothesis that there is a biological basis for technical ability is strange and self-serving: if someone who sucks at math eventually goes on to get a Nobel prize, you say they had the genes all along. Weak hypothesis, potentially detrimental idea and not a scrap of experimental evidence to suggest anything of the sort. Choosing a major based on your biological strengths is just as silly as a future Olympian sizing themselves up: 'Now what sport should I do based on my body type?'

    No offense to anyone who holds the opposite opinion. It's certainly possible that at some point in the future we could find a 'gene' for something like math ability so I'm not insulting your intelligence if your view is contrary to mine. :)
  12. Dec 9, 2008 #11
    I think using the word gene in my title sort of scewed my meaning I apologize.

    The essence of what I was inquiring on is this:

    Given a set of initial condition to someone knew the world world of university physics and maths is a way to determine whether or not an individual has the ability to suceed in such a program. Of course we will take into account work effort but barring that is there a certain demarcation from those who are naturally able to thrive in physics & math and those who will string along trying to hard to grasp the concepts but never seeing the full picture.

    Some on the CS side of things have believe for example that some people are able to become good programmers or Computer Scientist while simply do not possess the reasoning skills and other aspects of a good CS grad are highly unlikely to be able to succeed in the field.

    My personal motivation for the question is that while I do value a challenge, look forward to working hard on a degree, and am very passionate about physics and astronomy; if I was only able to make it out of a an undergrad program barely understanding anything and getting a 2.x GPA doing physics, I'd rather just stick with CS where I am pretty sure I can manage an GPA >= 3.5.

    In asking this question I was trying to determine if there is any way to measure this before I decide to commit many years of my life to the pursuit, or is this a case of:

    "You won't know until you try"

    or further more is it a case of

    "If you are sufficiently motivated and work hard any intelligent person can succeed in physics/math"
  13. Dec 9, 2008 #12
    That does make it clearer. I thought you were trying to ask if there was a biological advantage that you might have in technical subjects. Perhaps, perhaps not. You seem to be asking if you don't need to work quite as hard to get the same GPA in Physics as you had in CS because you were doing well in CS. The answer is you will have to work harder. Why? Because you are learning a new set of skills in a new discipline. I don't doubt you're a smart student but any student, even the math genius geek, will struggle for a while when they change disciplines. Effective study habits and a good mindset usually help people heaps better than natural inclinations.

    I don't think anyone could tell you if you will do well in physics or not until you actually try it. Einstein couldn't read until he was 12 but he sure turned out alright. I don't think anyone could have predicted something like that and so no one can predict much about your future successes unless you go for it.

    If you love physics enough to work twice as hard as you did in CS, go for it. If you're not quite that passionate, stay in CS and save your GPA. There's no shame in being in CS and you'll probably have better career prospects. Physics is a calling because there's simply too much work and sacrifice to consider it merely a career path.
  14. Dec 9, 2008 #13
    the Chinese pick their olympic athletes that way though, just sayin.

    I do believe there are some people who have a predisposition for certain things, this includes analytical skills like math, I believe hard work can match talent though; I do agree that even those who are talented still should work hard to succeed at whatever they're doing.
  15. Dec 9, 2008 #14
    We saw how well that worked with the Soviets, didn't we now?

    So you're implying that someone who is talented and hard-working can't be matched? Hard work > talent.
  16. Dec 9, 2008 #15
    weightlifting is about the only olympic sport I follow, so I can only speak on that regard, but both the soviets in the 80's and chinese today dominate in that arena.

    all I'm saying is someone with talent has a clear cut advantage, it's up to them to take advantage of it of course; I agree that hard work is better than talent, those who struggle to figure out something versus the one who gets it easily due to predisposition make better teachers as well.
  17. Dec 9, 2008 #16
    I disagree in that regard if someone easily understands something right away they might not be able to express the concepts in a way that is easily understandable to someone who didn't have that insight. Whereas someone who struggled through understanding a concept but eventually mastered it would be better able to enumerate the thought process involved in understanding the concept.
  18. Dec 9, 2008 #17
    that's was what I meant, the one who struggled but eventually understood would make a better teacher.

    anywho, just to go along with what misssilvy said, if I had chosen my predisposition I'd be doing an art degree, lol
  19. Dec 9, 2008 #18
    I admit to this for sure, haha.
  20. Dec 9, 2008 #19
    You essentially just reinforced what the quoted phrase said. I think you misread it.
  21. Dec 9, 2008 #20
  22. Dec 9, 2008 #21
    What maze said. I actually remember reading that article a couple of months ago but damned why I didn't remember it in the context of this discussion. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again maze!
  23. Dec 10, 2008 #22
    I suspect that much of the "math gene" is just the family environment. I have a son who is in the process of applying to colleges... with a father with a CS background and a mother with a mathematics background, is it any surprise that he thinks he wants to study "some sort of engineering"? While we'll support anything he wants to do, of course he gets the most help and encouragement when it's something we actually know...
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