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Need to decide: Math or Physics

  1. Dec 18, 2012 #1
    I just finished my first semester in an MS program in Physics. I have no physics background, so I'm taking upper division undergrad courses. I took Analytical Mechanics, Theoretical Physics, Physical Chemistry, and Probability. I took PChem because of my interest in the life sciences and eventually using physics to head in that direction. I took Probability because I interned last summer on a research project and realized that Probability and Statistics are immensely important in research (data analysis,...).

    My issue is that I was more interested in the Probability class than anything else. The other classes seemed to be more based in observation and problem solving, while probability was based in proof. The theoretical physics class was cool too; it introduced some pretty powerful tools and concepts that will be useful down the road. Again, though, the toughest parts were the math heavy parts, like solving coupled oscillators and doing Fourier analysis (not to mention the 3D Calc E&M stuff, which was not actually so bad for me). The teacher told us that if we take the General Relativity class offered at our school we'll see a ton of linear algebra. So... if physics gets tough when it starts relying on some pretty high level math, does it make sense to go straight for a math degree and hope that I can pick up the physics later, either in a PhD program or... somewhere else?

    I am also greatly interested in computer science, and I have been thinking that studying CS along with my main field (Physics, or Math if I switch) will be the ticket to a real job once I'm out of school. So... what's more powerful, math and CS or physics and CS?

    I'm not trying to start a debate about which field is more important or fundamental; I'm just trying to get some opinions from more experienced folks who have struggled with the same things. Will math be enlightening but useless in the end, since it's the engineers who get the jobs (and maybe the physicists after them)? Or could it somehow lead to the kind of job I've imagined enjoying, which involves the life sciences, computing, and the ocean?!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2012 #2


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    No. You'll find that if you started to focus on mathematics instead of Physics, a lot of the mathematics you learn will not be useful. It's very easy to get loss in the math world and prove very general ideas, when in physics you don't need general ideas, but rather how things relate to observable physical constraints. Thankfully, learning techniques on how to solve physics problems is a lot easier than learning why those techniques work.
  4. Dec 18, 2012 #3
    It seems that for any science, there is a branch called "mathematical + <science name>". This branch is mainly concerned with developing mathematics which is applicaple to the science in question, and finding new ways to apply math to solve problems there. Needless to say, this is inherently a research-heavy theoretical field. The more applied counterpart is usually called "computational + <science name>".

    I think mathematics is more useful to CS than physics. Theoretical computer science can make use of some heavy math.

    I think that if you are interested in multiple fields, finding some interdisiplinary field which incorporates bioth is usually possible. Here are some links that you may want to check out:
  5. Dec 18, 2012 #4
    Computational <science> is a very applied direction (mostly synonymous with "applied <science>"). Mathematical <science> is just a sneaky way to be a mathematician in another department; probably one would need all the usual math grad school courses to be any good at it.

    I have studied both math and physics at the grad level, and they are completely different styles of problem solving. Math is about truth and structure (proofs). Physics is about reality and models (solutions). From this student's comments, it sounds like they enjoy the math perspective more. Maybe "applied math" would be the best choice here since I believe it a nearly entirely computational field, it would go nicely with CS, and would give options later on for both directions.
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