1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Physics vs. Chemistry undergrad

  1. Jun 15, 2013 #1
    I'd like to pursue an undergraduate degree in either physics or chemistry, starting this fall in Europe (where students must choose what to study before commencing studies).

    Both are physical sciences that study matter, albeit from different perspectives.

    How could I decide which one to study?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 15, 2013 #2
    Which one do you enjoy more? Most of the people I know can quite easily pick one ; in fact they quite detest the other. Of course, this is just a trend I've noticed, not something which is absolute.
  4. Jun 15, 2013 #3
    I can't say that I've got a particular likening for any of them. They both have applications that I believe I'd enjoy working on.
  5. Jun 15, 2013 #4


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    Read three books
    One on group theory for chemists
    One on group theory for physicists
    One on group theory for mathematicians
    Then decide
  6. Jun 15, 2013 #5
    I skimmed through some group theory books for the said scientists, and I still am confused as to how to decide.
  7. Jun 15, 2013 #6


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    That is too bad books like Chemical Applications of Group Theory by F. Albert Cotton are a big part of why I game up chemistry. Who knows the symmetry group of buckminsterfullerene? That may say more about Cottons writing than chemistry though. I will say that chemists group theory books get to applications that would take a long time for a math book to reach. For example representation theory and determining a group by its symmetry. The physics books get to lie algebras and compact groups a lot faster than the math books. The math books while best could learn to get to the point quicker and have interesting examples.
  8. Jun 15, 2013 #7
    This is not helpful advice, given that most standard undergrad chemistry and physics curricula do not feature mandatory or even elective courses in group theory(I've never seen one that does, outside of a "theoretical physics" BSc as taught in some UK universities). Not representative at all of what the experience in either BS is like.

    I have a vocational degree in chemistry, worked at an analytics lab, and spent some time in a chemistry BS program (completed 1st year and part of 2nd year) before switching to physics, and I am 1 exam away from graduating.

    If you like working in a lab environment, have good fine motor skills, have an iron will working with dangerous chemicals, and like book-learning + have good photographic memory(not a requirement), you will thoroughly enjoy your time in Chemistry. A prof I had used to say if you can cook several things simultaneously without making a mess of your kitchen, you'll likely make an excellent chemist. Much of it will come very natural to you.

    If you like working on your own and have no aversion to mathematics, you'll feel more at home in physics. Mistakes in a physics degree will generally not release a cloud of lethal poison. You just cross it out and move on to the next line in your notebook and nobody gets hurt. Being impatient or careless in most physics courses will not get you killed or injured. :)
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2013
  9. Jun 15, 2013 #8


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    Wow I did not know so many schools were so bad. Group theory is so useful in all areas of chemistry. It is usually introduced first year along with the periodic table. A full course usually is a second or third year elective. Of course some people would not see it until second year if they take bonehead chemistry or courses in general education or another subject in first year. How would you do spectroscopy or quantum mechanics without group theory? Of course group theory is only the best 10% or so of chemistry. There is a lot of other stuff like really long titrations, reviewing calculus, learning about how to make ascorbic acid, being lost in a sea of hundreds of organic reaction mechanisms among other fun things. I do not see where an aversion to mathematics would be a detrimental to physics, they just do basic stuff like calculus and wrong stuff like renormalization anyway. The chemistry and physic curriculum have substantial overlap (2-3 of the 5-7 classes for the major are the same, physical chemistry and chemical physics are even closer with 7-8 of 8-9 classes the same) the interesting thing is the way each department teaches the same classes; quantum mechanics, group theory, statistical mechanics, electronics, and thermodynamics are the taught by both departments at many schools and they are very different. Many students take the courses from both departments to learn both perspectives.
  10. Jun 15, 2013 #9
    Here are some "bad schools" that lack group theory as a course:

    Oxford Physics: http://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/study-here/undergraduates/the-courses

    Imperial College London chemistry: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/ugprospectus/facultiesanddepartments/chemistry/structure

    Do you see how silly your assessment sounds? There are no "general ed" courses in most European universities, I take it you attend an American university by your choice of this term. Higher education in most of Europe is very different.

    Group theory is irrelevant to chemistry as it is really practiced in the lab (what a university chemistry degree mostly consists of) or in a work environment. A bachelors of Chemistry is not meant to instruct you in the ways of high-level purely academic theoretical chemistry research. This is also true for physics, ask the physics undergraduates here if they've taken a course in group theory.

    An aversion to math will not be very helpful in physics. A proper physics course has several more mathematics courses and most of the upper level courses like a full semester course of statistical mechanics or fluid dynamics use a lot more advanced and diverse math than anything anyone will ever see in much of a course in Physical Chemistry, Organic and Inorganic Chemistry, Organic and Inorganic Synthesis, Analytical Chemistry. Calculus, linear algebra, statistics and ODE's? Sure. PDE's, special functions, integral transforms and complex integration? Probably not.
  11. Jun 15, 2013 #10


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    ^The main point was not that group theory is most of what one does, but that by seeing how each subject uses a common tool we can understand their way of thinking. I suppose reading a quantum mechanics (statistical mechanics, electronics, or thermodynamics book) from the perspective of each subject would do that as well to a lesser extent.
  12. Jun 15, 2013 #11
    I don't see how that would help the OP in determining which degree he/she would enjoy more (pedagogy style over a subject they probably won't even get to take). A better representation is what the core mandatory courses are like:

    A year's worth of Inorganic and Organic chemistry: mostly book learning.

    A year's worth of Physical Chemistry: in-depth thermal kinetics problems, thermodynamics, some stat physics, one of the more quantitative 2nd or 3rd year courses.

    At the very least, 4 courses of synthesis (organic and inorganic, 2 of each), and at least 2 years of analytical chemistry, which boils down to book learning and/or lab work (experimental and pen-and-paper courses may be separate).

    As opposed to Physics:

    A year's worth of electromagnetics: circuits, statics and dynamics, EM waves, initial condition and boundary value problems.

    At least a year's worth of mechanics: calculus-based Newtonian physics, analytical mechanics, relativistic dynamics, waves and oscillations.

    At least a semester of optics: geometric optics, instruments, modern/electromagnetic optics.

    At least a semester's worth of thermal and statistical physics (hopefully one of each): some overlap with physical chemistry, more mathematical approach to 1st year thermo problems.

    Probably at least twice as many mathematical methods courses.

    At least a year's worth of quantum physics/mechanics: postulates, mathematical methods, QHO and QAM, approximation methods.

    Also, I took a spectroscopy course for physicists without having ever taken group theory and did just fine. It is not a requirement.
  13. Jun 15, 2013 #12


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    I was not talking about vocational chemistry whatever that is. I am not concerned with what classes are called or how they are organized. I a school wants to call there group theory class symmetry theory, or they want to cover group theory in their courses on spectroscopy, analytic, organic, inorganic, biological, physical, quantum mechanics, bioinorganic, or whatever chemistry classes they have that is there business. If the student at any school have never heard of group theory, then yes, that is a bad school. Again I do not even know how you could teach any course without it. Maybe you just say "our lab data cannot be explained, just do not worry about that."
  14. Jun 15, 2013 #13
    Neither am I, I am talking about university chemistry.

    Have you taken core chemistry courses? Worked in a chemistry lab? Spoken with active academics and industrialists in chemistry and seen their work? They do not use group theory ever. Maybe the odd up-and-coming Linus Pauling at the Caltech theoretical chemistry department does, but most chemists don't. Yes, we all know quantum mechanics and all of its mathematical glory is at work at some fundamental level in all chemical reactions. But when you're designing an alloy for barrels that resists corrosion or measuring cyanide contamination of industrial waste dumps, group theory is about as irrelevant as you can get.

    Please don't post because you clearly don't know what you're talking about on this matter.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2013
  15. Jun 15, 2013 #14
    Unfortunately, my experiences in chemistry and physics labs at school were horrendous and boring. I guess my math skills are ok and I could deal with chemicals though.

    I studied basic group theory in the last 2 years of high school, by the way.

    For instance, this website lists a number of applications of physics which I find so intriguing. But they could likewise be approached from a chemistry perspective, hence why I find it hard to choose one science over the other.
  16. Jun 15, 2013 #15
    If you don't like working in the lab (as I didn't after a while, but I never got far into synthesis so that may have been much different than all the analytics I did), then you might not enjoy chemistry.

    The first, fourth and fifth applications on those list are nearly fundamental physics research (especially the first and fifth), these would be accessible to you after a post-graduate course. Bear in mind that for any technical job in physics you will most likely need more than a BS.

    For the rest, engineering may be a better course of action. The first and fourth may be also attainable with a chemistry degree, but likely after a postgraduate course.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2013
  17. Jun 15, 2013 #16


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    It is quite unusual to take 4 years of synthesis and two years of analytical, some schools do not even have that many, only someone with an emphasis on synthesis would take that many. Students in Europe take 2-3 times as many major courses as American students since they tend not to take general education or related field courses. They also tend to be more specialized. None of that is really important to how they think. I said the math in chemistry and physics is similar in that it is mostly calculus, which you "disproved" by listing some calculus topics. Chemistry does PDE's, special functions, integral transforms and complex numbers. How would you teach quantum mechanics without them? The main difference I have seen is that physics courses tent to use more algebra and chemistry courses seem to do a bit less math gymnastics than physics. I do not care how many maths methods courses there are. Any school should touch on the major areas of there subject, but there is great variation in the relative focus. School A might have a chemistry program 30% organic 20% physical 10% inorganic 10% analytic 10% biological. School A might have a chemistry program 25% organic 35% physical 15% inorganic 20% analytic 5% biological. Which again is not important. For that matter many physics programs do very little optics which makes me a bit sad.
  18. Jun 15, 2013 #17


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    This has gotten a bit of track. I just mentioned what a useful and fascinating tool chemical group theory is. It really caught my attention in first year courses. Am almost as surprised by your stories as your rudeness. Sure many chemists use little group theory. It depends on ones specialization. One cannot deny it is a useful tool in many areas. I just think back to the hundreds of times some reaction or spectroscopy data would be explained in terms of symmetry groups. What do all these chemists that have not heard of symmetry give as explanation?
  19. Jun 15, 2013 #18


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    It is hard to judge by school labs. Chemistry comes of a bit better in terms of demonstrating interesting facts with basic equipment. Physics has many incline planes. Later chemistry lab courses have sessions of dripping goo into other goo for five hours. This was very exciting to the others, but it was a signal to me to get out.
  20. Jun 15, 2013 #19


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Pronghorn, if you cannot decide between physics and chemistry because you would like them both equally and would be equally good in both of them, I would recommend you... to throw a dice. I am not joking, I actually did the same thing when deciding for a field of study.

    The truth is, this is a big decision and the results of this cannot be prognosticated. Once you've cast your decision, you will never know what the other way would have brought. But it *is* save to assume that you would have both liked and disliked major aspects of both fields. Just go for one and then stick with it.

    As for the group theory thing: I do not think that considering this is very helpful.
  21. Jun 15, 2013 #20
    Deciding by throwing dice would be the antithesis of what I'm trying to achieve -- to decide rationally what is it that I want to study!

    To recap: both chemistry and physics are physical sciences; they study matter from different perspectives. One could argue that chemistry is more 'micro', whereas physics can be 'micro' AND 'macro'. Should I decide what perspective I want to study things from? It's hard to say: I would probably enjoy working on developing some substance, but likewise working on some technology such as the ones listed here.
  22. Jun 15, 2013 #21
    You are not focusing on the important things: what you'll be doing most of the time in your undergrad work and your future job prospects. My explanation of the coursework in a chemistry and physics degree is pretty faithful to most programs in Europe. And I meant to say 4 semesters of synthesis, not 4 years.

    If you want an industrial career and like lab work, go with chemistry or an engineering discipline.

    If your goal is fundamental academic research or if you care more about the "why" questions, go with physics or chemistry and continue on to graduate studies.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2013
  23. Jun 15, 2013 #22


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    There are issues which cannot be decided rationally, and "which subject choice will be a better life decision" might be one of them under the premises you gave. In such cases you just have to guess, because *some* decision needs to be cast, and there is normally no "right" one. All you can do is to try to avoid casting a wrong decision (that's not the same) from the information standpoint you have. Since you have looked up what those programs mean, and you still have no clear preference, that likely means that both of them would be fine for you. Even if there actually was a difference, and one would be 83% correct and the other 85% correct, what consequence would that have?

    Regarding the scale issue: Both chemistry and physics can work anywhere from atomic scale to massive industrial plants, and can take any perspective in-between. Chemistry is, of course, more focused on chemistry (that is: making and analyzing substances and developing methods for making and analyzing substances), while in physics the road to real-world technology might be more open. But unless you have a strong preference for one or the other, I do not see how this would help in making a decision here. You could also take the perspective that chemistry is much more focused on *making* new substances, rather than just analyzing them as usually done in physics. Again.. will it help? Hard to say. If that is a deciding factor, some engineering discipline might also be a good choice.

    You could have a look through the courses offered in the complete study program in both subjects, and see if you particularly dislike any of them. But even that can be misleading. I certainly would not have predicted that "Theoretical Physics I (Analytical Mechanics)" and Physics Advanced Lab would have become the courses I liked most in my entire program, while I didn't even attend the lectures to Quantum Mechanics I or II despite the fact that I intended to go into theoretical chemistry research after graduating in physics (which I did).
  24. Jun 15, 2013 #23


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    :smile: One of my good friends (who also uses this forum) is doing theoretical chemistry at the graduate level. His course work is quite mathematical and the graduate courses he has taken from the chemistry department have also been as such (granted his graduate school is a haven for mathematicians so maybe it isn't surprising that his chemistry courses were also mathematical xP). He took proper (i.e. from the math department) algebra courses during his undergrad (he was B.S. chemistry) but for the sake of the mathematics, not necessarily for application. I'll let him know to drop by this thread and share his experiences/opinions.
  25. Jun 16, 2013 #24
    This is about as shallow and one dimensional as you can get: let's decide a career by reading a book which approaches some theory, which may not actually be at all relevant to the career. There would be different approaches to group theory from those books. What then?

    Somehow you managed to twist the conversation into one about prestige (less theory = "bad" school) instead of actually addressing the personal concerns.

    No ****.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2013
  26. Jun 16, 2013 #25
    I have a similar background to your friend so I'll give my input.

    If you want to do physical chemistry I recommend going with physics and taking chemistry department physical chemistry and electives. Chemistry course work is generally not as challenging and will not push you as much to improve your problem solving skills. There also too many large gaps in chemistry undergraduate curricula that turn out to be important at the graduate level ie upper div. level E&M, classical mechanics and applied math. Just as an observation, with few exceptions, the top students in my graduate program all have physics or math double majors.

    Also, there is a lot more to chemistry, physics and math than group theory. That should not be a deciding factor on what you want to do, in my opinion.

    Most chemistry departments will not have a class on group theory. It will be taught in an inorganic chemistry course.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook