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New member (and a few questions)

  1. Nov 13, 2003 #1
    First of all I'd like to say hello to everyone.
    I've just started my first year physics course at the university of Brussels and after 2 months I have to say that it turned out completely different than I expected. I knew I would get a lot of math and physics, but I expected something different. For example: I thought that we would mostely occupy ourselfs with solving several types of integrals and differential equations or that we would start with the basics of kinematics. Instead of that we get a whole different kind of math and physics. For instance: in math we started to describe the real numbers and it's density. Later on we described n-Dimensional Euclidean spaces, balls and environments. (I'm not really sure if that's the correct English term) In linear Algebra we study things like groups and fields and sertain types of spaces and it's properties. In physics we get a lot of difficult exercises which can only be solved with differential equations and I've never solved one in my entire life! I hadn't even seen one. Actually all these things are completely new for me and I can't get a hang on it because it's all too abstract.
    Now my question is: Does a course in physics allways go like this?
    Is there maybe a way I can study these subjects in a better way and are all these things I mentioned above really necessary for more advanced physics? because I'm getting the feeling that we're all doing this just for the math and not really for physics.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 13, 2003 #2


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    Welcome to the forums Flukkie,

    The approach to each topic can vary among professors and institutions, but some topics will require differential equations no matter what.

    As to the math, you definitely need it if you want to pursue more advanced courses. The better you understand it now, the better you will grasp the meaning in later physics courses. There is no way around it.
  4. Nov 13, 2003 #3
    Ok now that's cleared up I guess there is no other way.
    That means you can expect a lot of questions from me :)
  5. Nov 13, 2003 #4
    In the first year of an American university, a student typically starts out learning single-variable calculus. In the second year, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations. Physics problems therefore usually don't involve differential equations until the second (or sometimes even third year). Also, the mathematics courses are not as abstract --- no real analysis (topological properties of Rn, no abstract algebra (groups, fields). (Usually only math majors take those.)

    European physics programs are well known for being heavy on formal mathematics, compared to American programs. American physics programs, I have heard, have more emphasis on lots of problem-solving, and laboratories.

    So, in short: no, a course in physics doesn't always go like yours, and your complaints are not unheard of among European physics students. (Which is not to say the American programs are necessarily better; they can go too far the other way, in terms of not enough mathematics. Many American physics majors are never required to take an abstract linear algebra course, and in my opinion, the problems they are required to solve do not exercise their mathematical skills enough, even when they've learned the math.)

    To be honest, though I've studied a great deal of mathematical physics myself and have a mathematics degree, I think the average physicist doesn't use a lot of formal, abstract mathematics. Knowing more math never hurts, though. But the core mathematical topics (other than ordinary calculus) that a physicist will use the most are differential equations, multivariable calculus, matrix algebra, some complex analysis, and maybe group theory.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2003
  6. Nov 13, 2003 #5
    Hi Flukkie,
    I can only speak about Germany, and it's very similar here. In fact, the 1st year courses are almost the same for math & physics students. I asked myself exactly the same question that you ask, and I was quite desperate then.
    However, in 2nd year there's classical mechanics and classical electrodynamics. In these, you will be very thankful if you can handle calculus properly. Don't worry so much about differential equations, since most of them are so complicated you will have to look up the solution anyway. Get a good compendium (e.g. Bronstein), it has most of what you need.
    Then, as you enter quantum mechanics, you will be very glad that you have learned about linear operators, vectorspaces, eigenvalues, and so on. An understanding of linear algebra is IMO crucial in quantum theory. Plus, you also use a lot of calculus again, epecially Fourier theory.
    I agree there is too little experimental physics at the university. They expect you have done that at school... well. A good idea is IMO to get a student job in a physics lab. Gives you some money, but more importantly you can learn a lot about actual physical experimenting from the people who work there.
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