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Math ability => physics ability?

  1. Jan 8, 2012 #1
    I was wondering, would a math genius also be a physics genius? Obviously if that math genius never learned physics, that would not be true. But if the math genius were to studiously learn physics, would it be practically guaranteed that this person would be good at physics? Because it seems to me that physics boils down to math + physics concepts. The math genius would be apt at the math component, and it seems to me that math concepts can require much more creativity than physics concepts, so I expect the math genius to also be able to master the physics concepts. After all, physics is applied math. What do you think? Any counterexamples? By the way, this is not to suggest that either is superior. I personally like physics and math equally much!
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  3. Jan 8, 2012 #2
    Math and physics are two different topics. One can be a genius in one topic, but bad in the other. I know many smart math people who just can't handle physics. It's a very different way of thinking and an ability in math doesn't necessarily help you out.
  4. Jan 8, 2012 #3
    Mathematicians tend to be slower, I think. A physicist can scrape by in quantum mechanics with a minimum knowledge of Hilbert spaces, but maybe a mathematician will want to go into gory detail with think tomes of functional analysis. Doing stuff rigorously slows you down. Of course, when I do physics, I tend to think like a physicist and when I do math I think like a mathematician.

    The style in physics is a little different, usually. You can try to do physics in a more mathematical way.

    Here's a quote from a math prof of mine from when I was talking to him about whether I should do math or physics. I can't remember it precisely, so I'll paraphrase. He said something to the effect that he had a friend who for whom physics was always just easier for some reason and for him, it was the other way around.

    Some people are good at both, some are better at one or the other. I think they are definitely correlated. Someone who is good at math is much more likely to be good at physics than some random person off the street, obviously. And vice-versa.
  5. Jan 8, 2012 #4
    I used to study math (with proofs) back then before I started with my physics. I found out that the derivations are very easy to follow probably because I started to get the hang of studying mathematical proofs and construction which I think is a bit harder.

    But problem solving wise, both tends to be different. Although the mathematics of physics is easier when you have a good background of mathematics itself, I tend to be dumbfounded at times to the physical intuition you should assume in doing problems. As I see it, math is more direct but abstract. With physics it's more of how you should model the problem mathematically according to the physical concepts.
  6. Jan 9, 2012 #5
    I'm the other way. Reasonably competent at physics, but terrible (relatively speaking) at math. What I do to learn math is to turn math problems into physics problems, which you can do some of the time, but not others.
  7. Jan 9, 2012 #6
    I'm am undergrad and I originally had no preference between math and physics. This past semester I found out how very different the subjects are. I found math to be much harder because I had no intuition, or physical reality to relate it to. It is very abstract. Physics is a study of nature that happens to use math as a tool more than any other field, but it is not math. In physics you have a lot of known relations, behaviours and principles to work from.

    Being good math certainly helps in physics, but by no means does it imply you will be good at physics. The problems solving methods are different,
  8. Jan 9, 2012 #7
    In short, no. Like others have said, being good at math certainly won't hurt, and a physicist needs math skills but it doesn't mean you will be good at physics. Physics has a lot of math in it, but it really isn't math. Just the same as engineering has a lot of physics and math involved, but in its own respect it is a different field and requires different skills and thought.
  9. Jan 9, 2012 #8
    Everything I could say has pretty much been said, but I'll add a few anecdotes:

    I know 2 math majors who were always very good at math but struggled with physics. One of them changed majors (from physics to math) halfway through, and surprisingly he was doing poorly on subjects that I know must have been mathematically trivial for him (electromagnetism).

    I did fairly well in my calculus/analysis/ODE/PDE courses but struggled a LOT with linear algebra because I could not manage to visualize most problems as I could do in physics and some math subjects.
  10. Jan 9, 2012 #9


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    Math is just the basics of everything you do....requires very little thinking once you get used to it and master it.

    Now let's take phyics....or basically any other class beside math. Math is just a tool to solve or design things. All of our thinking is used to solve the subject at hand.

    In grade school you have math problems....such as 5+3 = 8. In high school you get more like 9x +3 =36 + 12x. Then you start getting "story problems"

    In college, with the exception of math....all you get is "story problems"....including physics.

    Then you get a job......100% real life story problems....math is just a small part to help you figure things out.....90% of the problem is you thinking things thru and setting up the simple math equation!

    That being said....if you are ignorant in math....you are going to be in trouble!!!!
  11. Jan 9, 2012 #10
    Interesting stuff! So i guess math ability isn't a direct translation into physics ability. Thanks for all the input!
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