Need Advice on Choosing Physics as a Major

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  • Thread starter SBE0010
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  • #1
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Hi,

I am very interested in Astronomy and want to take it to a Masters level or further. I have been researching about the requirements and realize anyone going into Astronomy must have a core education on Physics. I read most people major in Physics and then go into Astronomy at a Masters or PhD level.

I want to change my major to Physics, which will better prepare me for Astronomy. However, I have never taken a Physics course in high school. I have only studied Algebra in high school and Statistics in college. I am terrible at math and have struggled with it in elementary school. I did real well in Algebra, only because I studied real hard. I know mathematics goes hand in hand with Physics.

My question is, should I still try to go into this field even though I lack the skills in math? Which math courses should I take in college that will introduce me to what Physics will entail? Should I go straight to taking introductory Physics courses? If I study real hard, will I be able to grasp the material? or is it a subject catered for people who excel in mathematics?

I am good at Biology and Chemistry, I realize if I study I can grasp the material fairly well. I am just worried about the mathematics part and which introductory courses would be good for me before I take actual Physics courses.

I would appreciate any input I receive concerning my dilemma.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
IMO, just work really really hard at the mathematics.
 
  • #3
eri
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An astronomy major requires quite a bit of physics, as will a masters program - you won't be able to escape from physics in astronomy, so you might as well major in it to be better prepared for graduate school. No, you can't just take intro physics now - you need calculus-based physics for astronomy or physics, which means you need to have taken calculus either before or during that physics class. And if you only took algebra, you're probably a years worth of math classes away from starting a physics major.

You don't need to pick a major right now. Try taking a few of these math classes first and see how well you can do in them. Remember, it's not just about passing the class - you'll need to use this math all the time as an astronomer.
 
  • #4
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Math is important, but not *that* important. Most of the math you need gets covered in the physics class itself, and physicists tend to concentrate on different stuff than the mathematicians do (i.e. I've never had to prove existence or uniqueness explicitly in a physics class, but it's much more important to know the general picture of what you are doing when you take approximations).

BUT you WILL need Calculus (up to vector calculus) and linear algebra. Without those you absolutely cannot be a physicist so I'd recommend piling up those math class. They're hard and, IMO, really boring, but you need to be able to do all that stuff without having to think about it too much. If you go into class without those tools you will have a very hard time.
 
  • #5
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Only you know just how hard mathematics is for you. You will need to learn things like multivariate calculus, linear algebra, and partial differential equations.

Edit: I'm not sure what DukeofDuke means my math not being important. I guess he means in the pure math sense, i.e. rigorously constructing proofs. As a physics student, you will spend all day every day doing math.
 
  • #6
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Thanks so much for the advice. I plan on following it next semester. I'm going to try out the necessary courses before I get into the Physics field in actuality.
 
  • #7
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I am terrible at math and have struggled with it in elementary school.
Dude, forget about how well you did with math in elementary school. It's totally and absolutely irrelevant.
 
  • #8
lisab
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Dude, forget about how well you did with math in elementary school. It's totally and absolutely irrelevant.
True. I had a horrible time with math in my early years, but for some reason when I turned about 19 it got suddenly easier, and even enjoyable. Before then, it felt like my brain just wasn't ready - sort of like trying to teach a two-year-old how to drive a car.

So for the OP: what General Sax said is true, you may find you have the ability to do math now.
 
  • #9
I wanted to go into astronomy at the Master's level as well and that's (partly) why I chose physics as a major. However, there are other degrees you can pursure. It depends on what you want to do with astronomy. If you are interested in astrobiology (i.e. possibility of life on other planets), you can get a degree in Biology or Chemistry and then the graduate astronomy program you choose can be like planetary science. It all depends on which school. One of the grad schools I'm considering takes just about any science degree to get into their astronomy program - biology, chemistry, geology, even just math. Look up the grad schools you think you might attend.

I'm not that great at math myself but it's fun because it's like a puzzle to me - I like the process of solving, even if I don't always get to the correct answer. I don't believe you need to be an expert in math or anything for physics (at least from my experience in college so far), but you need to be familiar with and understand at least the basic concepts such as vector calculus and differential equations - we use those in physics courses quite a bit. So it's okay if you were never great at math before - just practice a lot, do the homework every single night (even if it's not required to turn in). Doing the "suggested" homework even tho it wasn't due for a grade really helped me boost my grades up as I continued through math courses, I strongly suggest that.

So my point is, look at the grad schools you might consider in the future, and ask them. If you go into astrobiology or astrogeology, there won't be too much rigorous math involved, although you will still be involved with math. However, if you're planning on going purely in astronomy, as in astrophysics, like black holes and planetary movement and whatnot... then definitely go with physics! Don't take the first calculus-based physics course without taking Calculus I first... it will make life much easier for you if you take the math class before the physics class that requires it. At least that's what I hear from many people.. for me, I took the math classes concurrently. However, after the semester was over, I realized how much more I could've understood had I taken the math class earlier.

Good luck! Work hard - physics is more about practice and hard work, you can do it!
 
  • #10
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Hi SBE :) Are you good at self study? The Math and Science Learning Materials subforum on this site has tons of good resources for learning various types of math and physics. I'm not sure what level of algebra and other math you've had, but usually you need Algebra I & II, geometry, and trigonometry prior to calculus. If you did well in Algebra, I don't think you should let the past stop you, just try to study beyond what you've learned and see how well you do. As others have said Astronomy requires a lot of math as well as physics.
 
  • #11
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As people have already said maths in school at least in the UK is almost a different subject than maths at college and then university. There is a very different set of skills involved with many of the more esoteric areas of maths and even between calculus and the basic arithmetic of school.

Physics these days is mostly maths and little else beyond fitting models to a real world situation, sure conceptualising is a major part too but without the maths the conceptions will be much more difficult.

TBh I find calculus more about following rules and the building of intuition involved with learning when to apply and when not. I think most people with practice can master these skills, although they often get turned off by the language at first glance. Of course you will need a basic understanding of maths, arithmetic, algebraic manipulation and various log and power rules you would of learned at school. But assuming you have that, then maths at the calculus and beyond level is more about learning how to visualise numbers and apply rules based on this, than the endless rote arithmetic of much of our school education. Plus adults learn differently from kids, kids are like sponges at certain ages they just soak up rote learning (although of course I don't mean to suggest that should be all they do). With more adult courses they start going into the whys and wherefores more often to give you the tools to think for yourself and even formulate new approaches to situations and solutions as you go. It's a different experience in and of itself further education.

First buy a text book at the level of study, a good A' level style book for school or college depending on where you live in the world, or use the resources here, then just practice, practice, practice and don't give up when it seems hard, give up when it all seems easy, hopefully at the end of your course. :wink: :biggrin:
 
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