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Mathematical Physicist

  1. Jun 21, 2005 #1
    I was wondering if anyone here is a mathematical physicist. The field sounds interesting, and perhaps I might head towards it in college. However, I can find virtually no information on it, besides the things that it studies (Quantum Field Theory, Statistical Mechanics etc.)

    If anyone here (especially if you are one) can answer these questions, it would help.

    1)Where do you work? I don't really know where a mathematical physicist would work. Perhaps at a college as a professor?

    2)Do you enjoy your work? What appeals to you most about this field? I for one, think being a mathematical physicist would be intriguing because they are able to explain physical systems with rather beautiful formulae.

    3)Is being a mathematical physicist related to being a theoretical physicist?

    and finally of course…

    4)How much dough do you make? I hear lots of physicists are filthy rich, and perhaps the same applies to mathematical physicists.

    By the way, if any of you have seen me around the Homework help forum, you will know I am pretty bad at math. However, I am working to get better because it is actually becoming interesting. I used to think it was some abstract concept, but it can explain the real world in such a beautiful and (sometimes) simple way!

    Anyways, thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 21, 2005 #2
    This is not true. That is of course unless that person is a nobel prize laureate.

    Here's more on this but how much they make is simply not the case. I think it's safe to say that no one should study pure and applied physics for money.

    Last edited: Jun 21, 2005
  4. Jun 22, 2005 #3
    90k a year is what I thought it was. I guess I said filthy rich because I compared it to my parents, who make 90k a year combined. Of course, we live in an 800 sq ft house so…

    Of course I wouldn't do it just for the money. I asked the question last because it mattered the least to me :) I find physics and mathematics very interesting (even though I have a hard time understanding them, especially calculus), enough so that I am seeking an occupation that utilizes both. Mathematical physics would seem like an interesting occupation then.
  5. Jun 22, 2005 #4
    Well, the only mathematical physicist I know of is John Baez, his webpage is here:

    The thing about physics is if you go into the field you have to learn to speak its language, just like if you went to Russia, you would have to learn to speak Russian. The language of physics is math. All physicists must be at the very least proficient in high level math (yes, even experimentalists must pass the qualifier and their courses). So, any subfield of physics will require a good amount of math. Therefore, you do not have to limit yourself to "mathematical physics," which is a small field in the physics world. I hope this clears up what I think may be some misconceptions you may have about physics as an occupation.
  6. Jun 22, 2005 #5


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    Make sure you read the second half of the second paragraph of moonbear's comment on https://www.physicsforums.com/archive/t-61901_How_much_money_do_Physicists_make?.html. That 90k is almost certainly not an entry-level salary in academia...unless you're a superstar. Even after tenure, it really depends on the school that you're at. You might have better luck in industry (e.g., an oil company).
  7. Jun 22, 2005 #6
    Hmm, if physics is all going to require rigorous mathematical knowledge, what singles out mathematical physics?

    I figured 90k would not be a starting salary, they mentioned most start out making 50k or less. It wouldn't matter to me really. Money is nice, but doing what I enjoy for a living is worth more to me.
  8. Jun 22, 2005 #7
    There is a decent wiki article that explains the difference here:
    Mathematical Physics

  9. Jun 22, 2005 #8
    Very interesting…I still wonder where mathematical physicists get hired.
  10. Jun 25, 2005 #9
    my guess would be at universities...

    new question: does a mathematical physicist get a phd in math or physics? one school--i forget which--had the "mathematical physics" subcategory in the mathematics program.
  11. Jun 25, 2005 #10


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    This lists where some graduates have gone on to http://www.physics.uiowa.edu/graduate/math.html
    That's a physics department webpage... and here's the math page
    which has some overlap in faculty.

    Which department to choose? It might boil down to which program you get into and what TA/RA/fellowship support you could get.... and (possibly worth thinking about) which set of core courses you would like to take and which qualifier you would prefer to take.

    Of course, that's just one example. There are lots of places to choose from.

    However, I don't think that you have to go to place that has a named program in Mathematical Physics... but do pick a place that has strong Math/Applied-Math and Theoretical-Physics research.... and preferrably one that has a strong interaction between the two groups.
    For example,

    Most importantly, pick a place that fits you and has [some] faculty members that are interested in what you are interested in.
  12. Jun 25, 2005 #11
    I don't know about other universities, but in University of Waterloo they offer two mathematical physics UNDERGRADUATE degrees, one is offered by the falculty of science and one is offered by the falcuty of mathematics. I don't know the exact differences between them and this is one of the reasons I didn't go there.
  13. Jun 26, 2005 #12

    thanks for the info.

    but something i'm having difficulty wrapping my head around is, for example, the options presented by u-chicago.

    you linked the applied mathematics program. but i also checked the physics department's graduate page, and they said that "interdisciplinary research leading to a Ph.D. degree in physics may be carried out under the guidance of faculty committees including members of other departments in the Physical Sciences Division..." where mathematics is included.

    so this gives one the option of applying through the physics department and doing research under an adviser in the math department, OR applying through the math department and doing work in applied mathematics.

    some other universities, including some that you linked, have this same sort of option.

    which of these two is preferrable? does it really boil down to what core classes i find more interesting? would i have to take core courses from both programs?
  14. Jun 26, 2005 #13


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    My guess is that your "official" advisor will be in the department you join.
    However, as it says, you could have folks on your committee from other departments.

    As to which is preferable, I think it really depends on what you are interested in and who you would be studying with. Specifically, what do you want to study?
  15. Jun 26, 2005 #14


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    edward witten got a BA in history at brandeis i believe.
  16. Jun 26, 2005 #15


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    Certainly, he is an exceptional case.
    His father (Louis) is a relativist.


    I stumbled upon this speech which (about midway) briefly discusses Witten and his various meanderings
    "...history major in college, and a linguistics minor... economics... politics... mathematics... physics..."
  17. Jun 27, 2005 #16


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    In many schools, especially at UofC, the Ph.D program can be extremely flexible. It is up to you and your academic advisor to tailor the program that is agreeable to your advisor and you. In many cases, you can petition the dept. and/or the dean of your college/school to allow for even more drastic changes that are not included in your requirements, if you can made a good argument for it.

    My advice in this matter is always, and has always been the same: go talk to someone at that specific school and ask. Because of such variety and variations from school to school, it is difficult to give a blanket statement on what can and cannot be done.

  18. Jun 30, 2005 #17

    That is the funniest yet most shocking thing I have ever heard. But all I ask is, how does this happen? When does he start taking math? Has he always been taking math as an arts major?

    Of course he devotes his life to a theory that he may not be able to solve. This guy is truely strange.

    "I am reminded of a friend from the early 1970s, Edward Witten. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. He decided that what he was really meant to do was study economics. And so, he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. And, after only a semester, he dropped out of the program. Not for him. So, history was out; linguistics, out; economics, out. What to do? This was a time of widespread political activism, and Ed became an aide to Senator George McGovern, then running for the presidency on an anti-war platform. He also wrote articles for political journals like the Nation and the New Republic. After some months, Ed realized that politics was not for him, because, in his words, it demanded qualities he did not have, foremost among them common sense. All right, then: history, linguistics, economics, politics, were all out as career choices. What to do? Ed suddenly realized that he was really suited to study mathematics. So he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at Princeton. I met him midway through his first year there--just after he had dropped out of the mathematics department. He realized, he said, that what he was really meant to do was study physics; he applied to the physics department, and was accepted.

    I was happy for him. But I lamented all the false starts he had made, and how his career opportunities appeared to be passing him by. Many years later, in 1987, I was reading the New York Times magazine and saw a full-page picture akin to a mug shot, of a thin man with a large head staring out of thick glasses. It was Ed Witten! I was stunned. What was he doing in the Times magazine? Well, he was being profiled as the Einstein of his age, a pioneer of a revolution in physics called "String Theory." Colleagues at Harvard and Princeton, who marvelled at his use of bizarre mathematics to solve physics problems, claimed that his ideas, popularly called a "theory of everything," might at last explain the origins and nature of the cosmos. Ed said modestly of his theories that it was really much easier to solve problems when you analyzed them in at least ten dimensions. Perhaps. Much clearer to me was an observation Ed made that appeared near the end of this article: every one of us has talent; the great challenge in life is finding an outlet to express it. I thought, he has truly earned the right to say that. And I realized that, for all my earlier concerns that he had squandered his time, in fact his entire career path--the ventures in history, linguistics, economics, politics, math, as well as physics--had been rewarding: a time of hard work, self-discovery, and new insight into his potential based on growing experience."
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2005
  19. Jul 3, 2005 #18
    Well, since this thread is related, I guess I can ask my questions here:
    I'm a Physics-Math UG student. I would like to carry on with my studies both in Math and in Physics (that is, 2 Phd's). So, I would like to know:
    1. Is doing 2 Phd's "normal", accepted? Or am I going to have a hard time pulling it off?
    2. What universities would you say are truly the best in Mathematical Physics and in Mathematics?
    Thanks in advance!
  20. Jul 3, 2005 #19
    i may not be the most qualified to answer this, but ...doing two doctoral programs simultaneously is probably impossible.

    however, for example, my calc II prof got phds in both computer science and mathematics. just at different times.
  21. Jul 4, 2005 #20
    So I am going to have a hard time pulling it off.
    Why do you say impossible?

    And could anyone tell me if he ever "bumped into" this situation before?
    It's very important to me to go through both Phd's.
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