Need some insight into switching from social science to physics

  • #1
maxstronge
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Hello. First of all, I'm really glad to have stumbled across this community. You guys seem amazing, and I can't wait to keep lurking (and hopefully, one day, participating).

I'm in a strange situation and I could really use the guidance of some people with experience. If the explanation is unclear, it's probably because I've only recently figured out myself exactly what it is that I mean, so apologies in advance. It said to include as much detail and support as possible, but there is a TLDR at the bottom. Here's the story:

(This paragraph is technically skippable, but provides context for why I'm asking this question.) I'm a Canadian student currently in the second year of a political science honors major. I got into political science, and the social sciences more generally, because I'm really fascinated by human behavior, human interaction, and the ways that individual humans come together in these really complicated patterns like states, economies, etc. I love what I study, and I don't regret choosing this as a major, but I've come to the conclusion that what I'm really passionate about lies closer to the domain of physics and mathematics. Here's what I mean: I'm somewhat dissatisfied with the inability of social science to come to definitive conclusions about the definitive nature of reality. I like learning about different theoretical approaches to things like war and politics and international relations, but eventually it seems like there's just nowhere to go, no way to progress in our knowledge. While interesting, social sciences do not have any means (as of right now) to actually understand the true nature of reality. I'm a scientific realist - I believe that because human beings, and all the phenomena associated with them, are fundamentally the result of certain arrangements of particles and energy. Therefore, I believe, even though we collectively don't understand it yet, that things like market operations, warfare, or migration, can be explained as the result of physical laws of the universe. Even though I'm technically in the faculty of arts at my university, I've always been passionate about and attracted to science, because I want to understand the universe. I'm sure all of you can relate.

Over the course of independent reading and such, I came across a number of books that showed me some places that social science and physical science interact. From what I can understand, given a regrettable lack of mathematical literacy, these works are in the domain of complexity theory, chaos theory, and quantum theory. Specifically, many of the books come from the Santa Fe Institute (https://www.santafe.edu/). They talk about the implications of theoretical biology to social behavior (using equations from epidemiology and mathematical biology to understand things like arms races, revolutions, the spread of drugs in a community, etc.) Another one, by Alexander Wendt, explores the possibility that consciousness is explainable as a quantum system, and what implications that might have (Though I've been informed that most physicists don't put much stock in this theory, which is grounded in the work of Roger Penrose). Basically - I found a bunch of interdisciplinary work that looks at the fundamental nature of things from a physics perspective, rather than trying to explain things strictly from within the social sciences. The most interesting books are on complexity, how emergent phenomena like consciousness, biospheres - looking at things like ecology, evolutionary theory, and human behavior from the lens of complexity and chaos (and sometimes quantum theory).

For a much better description of what I want to get into, assume that my ultimate goal is admission into this STRUCTURES program: https://www.thphys.uni-heidelberg.de/~structures/index.html

I feel like the type of work described in the last sentence is the thing I've been searching for my entire academic life. I don't care how hard it is, I don't care how long it'll take, I'm going to do it. So the question is:

TLDR: What do I need to do to get from point A (social science student, limited post-high school math/physics understanding) to point B (able to work in and understand the paradigms of complex systems, analysis, complexity, and chaos)? How do I get from where I am now to where I need to be?

From what I've been able to understand just by looking into this on my own, my best option might be to restart my undergraduate degree in physics with a minor in mathematics so I can build up the toolkit I might need to do this type of work. I'm a disciplined student, I'm moderately intelligent, and I'm willing to do whatever work I need to in order to achieve these goals. I'm currently in the process of self-studying calculus for the first time and building up some strong foundations for when I start to make the switch. I don't care about money as much as I care about trying to understand things about our universe: as long as I can get to a place where I can make enough money just to literally survive, I'm satisfied.

Is there anyone on this forum that works in complexity/chaos/complex analysis that can offer insight into how I can maximize my chances of working in these fields?

Sorry for the long long write-up, and thanks in advance for any insight you can give,

Maxwell
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
symbolipoint
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Study and learn as much Mathematics as you can handle. A degree in Physics (undergraduate) requires a minimum of Algebra (Elementary/Introductory, and Intermediate), Trigonometry, three semesters of Calculus+Analytical Geometry, and a combination course of Differential Equations & Linear Algebra. A truly honest Physics major student needs more. Also very important will be some courses from computer science, and other scientific or technical courses.
 
  • #3
Choppy
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As a first step, you might want to speak to an academic advisor and figure out what you need to do in order to switch majors. If you didn't do senior level math/physics in high school you might have to enroll in some kind of catch-up course. An academic advisor is probably the person in the best position to figure out your A to B path with the minimum level of frustration within your school's system.

Once you figure out what the first step is, you'll then have to decide if you're going to dive in head first, or test the waters. By testing the waters, I mean maybe taking an introductory physics course as an elective. It's great that you're interested in chaos, complexity, theoretical biophysics, etc., but you're going to have to do a lot of "student on a ladder against the wall at angle theta about to slip" problems first. This will let you know if this path is really for you, but at the cost of the time it takes to get through the course. Maybe consider a summer course.
 
  • #4
maxstronge
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Oh yeah, I didn't mean to suggest that I would just jump into that type of stuff - that seems like it's all graduate-level material. I'm currently enrolled in some low-level physics courses through MOOCs and such (classical mechanics is about as much as I can handle without having a good grasp of calculus) and I'm definitely strongly interested in all the things that would come along with a Bsc. in physics. I may take your suggestion and try a summer course in a real university to get a better understanding of what it's like in a classroom setting.


Thanks for your input!
 
  • #5
maxstronge
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2
Study and learn as much Mathematics as you can handle. A degree in Physics (undergraduate) requires a minimum of Algebra (Elementary/Introductory, and Intermediate), Trigonometry, three semesters of Calculus+Analytical Geometry, and a combination course of Differential Equations & Linear Algebra. A truly honest Physics major student needs more. Also very important will be some courses from computer science, and other scientific or technical courses.


This is definitely my priority right now. I've done a pretty comprehensive recap over the last little while of all the pre-calculus math that I did in high school, and I find I'm still pretty comfortable with it.

Do you think it would help or hurt to use online resources like MOOCs to gain an introduction to things like calculus and linear algebra before I see them for the first time in a classroom?

Also could you maybe expand on what you mean when you suggest that I take some computer science courses? I know that a lot of the calculations done in experimental physics are done via computer - what computer science courses/methods are the most relevant to work in physics?
 
  • #6
symbolipoint
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This is definitely my priority right now. I've done a pretty comprehensive recap over the last little while of all the pre-calculus math that I did in high school, and I find I'm still pretty comfortable with it.
That's very good.
Pre-Calculus, as an official course, is usually something more advanced than Intermediate Algebra, and includes most of the course of Trigonometry.

Do you think it would help or hurt to use online resources like MOOCs to gain an introduction to things like calculus and linear algebra before I see them for the first time in a classroom?
No. Neither. You could try that if you want, if something is available.

Also could you maybe expand on what you mean when you suggest that I take some computer science courses? I know that a lot of the calculations done in experimental physics are done via computer - what computer science courses/methods are the most relevant to work in physics?
Other members can do this for you better than I.
Eventually, most students of Physics will want or need to connect their work to computers for some data input and data processing. Very possibly, a program to do what YOU want with YOUR DATA does not exist, and YOU need to design it.
 
  • #7
maxstronge
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Thanks a lot for your insight!
 
  • #8
StatGuy2000
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To the OP:

One of my classmates during my undergraduate years had finished his BA in political science and philosophy (with a minors in computer science) at McGill and worked for several years in software development before returning to school to earn a second degree in mathematics at U of T. He eventually finished his Bsc and pretty much finished his PhD in math, and is now back to working in the tech sector.

So your path is not unheard of, and certainly can be done. I would concur with the other posters that you should consult an academic advisor on your path forward. I would recommend if at all possible to see if you can take introductory math classes available at your current university.

Most universities that I know of in Ontario offer class equivalents to high-school level math, including pre-calculus, calculus, and algebra, and I assume that it's similar in other provinces. You did state that you are Canadian -- are you attending a school in Ontario, or in another province?
 
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