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Math majors that suck at physics?

  1. Nov 22, 2013 #1
    We all know that majoring in physics require mathematical talent. However, I often feel that the converse is not true.

    Yet, how many chose to major in mathematics because they sucked at physics, and somehow excelled in mathematics? Or is there only a lack of interest involved?
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  3. Nov 22, 2013 #2


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    Ignoring subjective measures like "sucked", I think one of the things that separates math students and physics students is that physics students will tolerate a bit of mathematical hand-waving for physical intuition, whereas math students are often disgruntled by the hand-waving and want to see more formalism.
  4. Nov 22, 2013 #3


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    Looking at the physics undergrads coming out of my school I'm not so sure this is a given :tongue:
  5. Nov 22, 2013 #4


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    :biggrin: I was always amazed at the lengths to which some physics-types would go, just to avoid a bit of gnarly math.
  6. Nov 23, 2013 #5
    I used to be really good at Math and did pretty badly at Physics.

    I thought it was because I was good at Math that I did poorly on Physics. It turned out that I did poorly on Physics because I didn't do the Physics practice questions. Once I practiced a bit more on Physics, I became good at Math & Physics.

    The same thing happened to me in Chemistry, Biology, and pretty much every single subject including subjective subjects like English. It turns out I did poorly because I didn't practice - nothing else. Once I practiced a bit more, I realized I can become proficient at pretty much anything.
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2013
  7. Nov 23, 2013 #6


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    It was the physics "labs" that did for me. I took forever compared to other students to carry out the experiments and never seemed to get the right answer. I remember one lab on optics in particular ...

    Anything practical defeated me!

    It's a shame, because now I wish I'd done more physics and not retreated to the relative safety of pure maths!
  8. Nov 23, 2013 #7


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    Jesus Christ how hard is it to recognize that the kind of math that a physics student encounters is incomparable to the kind that a math student encounters? I know physics students who couldn't even prove basic results in topology let alone claim mathematical talent.
  9. Nov 23, 2013 #8
    Math is still a physical necessity... they may not be that great at proving mathematical statements but you still have to know how to use math to solve physics problems. You still have to know how to use linear algebra, calculus, O/PDEs* and that's a subset of what I define as mathematical talent. The ability to prove results is another subset, which is nevertheless included in my definition of mathematical talent.

    *Or, as I say, NEO/PDEs, for non-extraordinary ordinary/partial differential equations; extraordinary differential equations, or EO/PDEs (depending on how many variables are there in the equation they are either extraordinary ordinary or extraordinary partial), are equations that contain a function and at least one of its derivatives, at least one of the derivatives must be of a non-integer order.
  10. Nov 23, 2013 #9
    Math and physics are very different things. I know physics PhD who can't solve a separable first order equation and mathematicians who know absolutely zero about physics. Physicists can get by with some fundamental applied math and a mathematician has no need to learn anything about physics.
  11. Nov 23, 2013 #10


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    I have to say that I find applied mathematics classes an annoying superposition of hand-wavey like physics and over-rigorous like pure math.
  12. Nov 23, 2013 #11


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    And this in and of itself makes your entire argument moot.
  13. Nov 23, 2013 #12
    I get rather excited when my math is applicable to a physicsy situation, but generally my desire to do math stems from mostly non-linear thought processes and and other ramblings. My thoughts don't seem well suited for the focus required in other subjects. I am sure that if I had latched on to physics as my obsession instead, it would be a similar situation. As it is, I tend to have a tough time with physics, but I suspect it is because of this:

    Then again, I wouldn't say I am particularly talented in mathematics, either.
  14. Nov 24, 2013 #13
    I understand that pure math require a different skillset vs. physics (or even applied math) but I suppose a different mindset is also involved...
  15. Nov 24, 2013 #14
    I aint qualified yet to have a serious opinion on this but from my own reading and stuff I don't like the distinction between the two. I feel if you want to be excellent at physics especially theoretical physics you really gotta know your maths. Now someone qualified can come in and nay say me on this but history has proven me correct sure didn't einstein have to utilize mathematics like noether's work and stuff just to get his theory of the ground. As in develop new mathematics like tensors etc

    And from my reading his field equations are quite difficult to solve so I wonder what order you would classify them under.
  16. Nov 25, 2013 #15
    In my degree (physics and applied mathematics/engineering physics) everybody thinks the maths is easier than the physics (despite that our math is proof based) and because of this most stray fron the pure path and specialize in maths instead of technical physics during our 3. year. So I guess one of the reasons is that physics is just plain harder than the "easy" norml math, as it demands a math intuition as well as (more importantly) a sense on how to apply it to the real world.

    PS: I am fully aware that the more useless the math is the harder it gets. I'm only talking about purely applied math here.
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2013
  17. Nov 25, 2013 #16
    I tend to think that if mathematicians wanted to, they could do better than the actual theoretical physicists. Experimental physics is a whole other ball game, and computational physics is somewhere in the middle, but given how mathematical theoretical physics has become, I'd honestly surprised more mathematicians haven't put physicists out of work.
  18. Nov 25, 2013 #17
    From my experience, math students don't take so much interest on the disciplines as Physics students do. In Physics, me and my colleagues are always trying to understand the "bigger picture" in Physics and Maths disciplines, while on Math most of my colleagues (I'm taking a minor in Maths) are happy just knowing how to do the exercises and proofs. A calculus professor told me the same as well, Physics students take worse grades in calculus than math students, but they're much more interested in the subject.

    I don't know of any example of a Math major that "sucks" at Physics, but I imagine if that happens, it's just because he/she doesn't have much interest in Physics, because the intellectual capacities to understand Physics are there. I think Maths majors today have an advantage over Physics majors in advanced theoretical physics topics, as they learn the Maths in a much slower and paced way than physicists do. But that's not the case for most mathematicians, most of them just don't care about Physics, as many in Physics don't like to learn Maths just for the sake of it.
  19. Nov 25, 2013 #18
    That's because there is an insanely big difference between mathematicians and physicists. A good mathematician will not always make a good physicist.



    In fact, I even suspect that knowing math rigorously like a mathematician is actually quite harmful to be able to do physics.
  20. Nov 25, 2013 #19
    In my ODE class we had tests that required some knowledge of physics. And don't some math classes get into div/grad/curl and Fourier stuff?
  21. Nov 25, 2013 #20
    They are different disciplines. Math is all about internal consistency, in physics the criterion is whether it works in the real world. Albert Einstein said that the math for GR was not hard, the difficulty was showing that it corresponded to the real world. Physicists need lots of complex real-world knowledge that mathematicians haven't learned. Mathematicians are shocked by what physicists get away with in their logic.

    Once physicist get some math that works then they can start worrying about internal consistency and mathematical elegance.
  22. Nov 26, 2013 #21

    Yes and how often to modern theoretical physicists actually do that? Have you ever seen a modern theoretical physics paper? I don't see much connection to the real world with things like string theory, and it seems like a lot of theoretical physicists don't even try.

    I've always thought that experimentalists were better at physics than the theoreticians, because experimentalists do have to understand what it all "really means" in a very intimate way in order to be able to design and interpret experiments. Many theoreticians just play with their toy models and in a way are wanna-be mathematicians IMO.

    Note: I am in no way shape or form an experimentalist - I plan on and have had most experience doing computational, this is just my perception based on people I've met.
  23. Nov 26, 2013 #22


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  24. Nov 26, 2013 #23


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    This post just comes off as extremely ignorant that's all I can say; you thinking that math as used in theoretical physics is somehow equivalent to math as used in pure math only reinforces that, not to mention you seem to think that "theoretical physics" necessarily means theoretical HEP, string theory, and the likes. You should open up a proper pure math text before talking.
  25. Nov 26, 2013 #24


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    Here maybe this will help clear up some misconceptions:
    Math is a formal science.
    Physics is a natural science.

    Many math majors never take anything beyond an intro to physics course, so yes they're not going to know how to do physics.

    Many physics majors learn the parts of math that are needed on the fly, while doing physics. Many physics majors never take anything beyond undergrad math courses, without any proper proof based mathematics. So, therefore, many physics majors equally don’t know how to do formal math.

    They aren't even in the same category of science, why is it always assumed they're so interchangeable?

    Now, to interject something my sociology professor once said:
    “Math leads to physics leads to chemistry leads to biology leads to psychology, and since they all are humanistic logic, they all derive from sociology, queen of the sciences.”

    Yeah he went there.
  26. Nov 26, 2013 #25


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    The unknown author claiming to be Sir John Mandeville gave a pretty good answer to the OP, almost 700 years ago. Human nature hasn't changed much since then. (My translation of an old English version into modern English).
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