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Physics Major vs Theorical Physics Major.

  1. Dec 10, 2009 #1
    OKay there is a problem. I am a senior and going to college next year and I want to become a theorical physicist.

    Here is the big problem, I signed up for Physics, but I noticed that at another university, there is something called Mathematical Physics and just Physics. Obviously I want to take the mathematical one, but the university I am applying to doesn't have one.

    In case you are wondering, i am applying for the University of British Columbia.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 11, 2009 #2
    You could consider a double major in physics and math.
  4. Dec 11, 2009 #3


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    Staff: Mentor

    When you apply for grad school, they're going to care about what courses you took as an undergrad, not on what the degree is called, per se. So just take as many theoretically-oriented physics and math courses as you can as electives, beyond the minimum requirements for your physics major.

    As a guideline, you could look up the list of courses for a mathematical physics major at the other school, and use that as a guide for what to take at your actual school. They probably have pretty much the same courses, it's just that one school chooses to package some of them specifically into a separate "mathematical physics" major.
  5. Dec 12, 2009 #4
    If you go to UBC, take MATH120 and MATH121 in first year - or whatever the honours classes are. The standard first year math classes at UBC are a joke.
    And I guess it goes unsaid that you should go for the honours stream PHYS 107/108(?) as well.

    Unless you're going for Science One
  6. Dec 13, 2009 #5
    Hi Flyingpig. Chck what I'm about to tell you with the school you're applying to, just to make sure we're all speaking the same language.

    Most physics departments don't offer majors in theoretica versus experimental physics. That distinction is made only in grad school. Actually the undergrad degrees at most schools are biased towards theory. At my university we took a lot of classes that involved learning theory, but only three semesters of classwork on experimental methods. Most of the exprimental stuff I've learned, I've had to pick up as an experimental physics grad student. So if you just do the physics major, you'll be fine for theoretical physics. During our senior year of college, you'll likely have an idea of what you want to do for your graduate work, and that might be a good time to tailor your last few courses to that end (e.g. if you want to do cosmology, you could take undergrad cosmology).

    A mathematical physics degree, unlike physics, is usually offered by a school's math department, andis mathematics rather than physics. Basically, mathematical physicists are mathematicians, whereas theoretical physicists are physicists. At least that's how it's always been explained to me.
  7. Dec 13, 2009 #6
    Not that Im far enough along in my education to really know, but it seems to me (based on what Ive read here, and in other places) that the more theoretical your work in physics is, the more you need in terms of mathematics, simply because the level of abstraction goes up. Subjects like Group, Ring and Field Theory, Topology, differential geometry and such are not subjects most physics majors take as an undergrad, but I know that a lot of modern physics has been able to be developed by using this more abstract level of math (as opposed to say just using linear algebra and diff eqs).

    I could be wrong though. Anyway, as far as grad school goes, Im sure if you cover essentials in your Mathematical Physics degree (classical, e&m, quantum, thermo and stat mech), you'll be fine to go into grad school. Most schools offer some sort of Mathematical Physics courses which are usually required anyway.

    I gotta take at least 2 of these mathematical physics classes for the major, and Ive taken one so far and all it really was was just the entire contents of Calc I-III through lower div Lin Algebra and Diff Eqs in 5 weeks (it was a summer class, so normally it woulda been 10 weeks). SO while intense in trying to cram that many topics in such a short time, most if not all of this shoulda just been review to someone about to take upper div physics classes.

    I do have to say that after taking a couple of upper div math classes, I still have NO CLUE how any of this Abstract Algebra stuff (group theory) can be applied to a problem in physics...but I know it is, because Ive read it to be so. So if there was such a major as mathematical physics offered by my school, offering classes which actually "melt" higher math with physics, id much rather do that, then my current double major in math and physics. The math classes taught for the sake of math, and the physics classes present the math as "this is the concept and this is how you solve it" rather than going into it any deeper than that.
  8. Dec 13, 2009 #7
    Oh just so everyone knows I am taking AP Calculus BC right now; but I do not think UBC will allow me to skip the course, but they will grant me credit.
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