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Rising college freshman, physics major?

  1. Jul 12, 2010 #1
    Hello. I'm a recently graduated high school senior who is attending an Ivy next fall (I don't know if there's a forum decorum issue about naming which one). I need advice on what career path to take.

    I'm currently planning on majoring in physics, since I feel that physics and chemistry are the two things that I really "get" when it comes to material/coursework.

    Here's my problem: I'm good at math. I can do math well, and I can apply it to physics problems accurately. However, I'm not a math prodigy. I'm not one of those kids who won international math competitions from the cradle or who scrawls mathematical proofs on the back of napkins. I like math, and I like learning math, but outside of some sort of application to the real world, it loses my interest.

    I feel like a lot of the major, groundbreaking discoveries that are left to be made in physics involve brilliant mathematical reasoning, which is something that I just don't have. I feel like, unlike a lot of the more talented physics students I'm sure I'll encounter next year, my interest in physics has more to do with experimentation. I built a Tesla coil my freshman year, and I do all sorts of crazy home science projects. I'm more inspired by the people like Tesla and Faraday, who just played around with things and discovered new phenomena, than I am by Maxwell, Heaviside, or other more theoretical scientists.

    I don't know what to do, because, at least at the school I'm going to, physics is not something I can just switch in and out of. I know this sounds cliched, but I want to actually invent and discover new things. I feel like I won't be able to do this if I pursue physics because of my lack of math genius. Engineering doesn't seem right to me, since I am more interested in the hard science, I just prefer it in the context of making/discovering new things.

    Any suggestions on what to do? If you think physics is still appropriate, what degree/career path should I consider?

    Thank you for reading this, and thank you for any replies.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 13, 2010 #2
    I don't think you should let your math "abilities" discourage you from doing what you enjoy most.

    If you find out you don't like physics, then I don't see the problem switching majors. People do it all the time. At worst it'll take you another semester or two (depends).
  4. Jul 13, 2010 #3
    Do your undergrad in physics if you feel interested in it. I'm sure your math ability will be enough to get you through that. Then go to grad school in applied physics and get involved in experimental research. Once you're in grad school, people from all different backgrounds can be in the same research group. My group now has physics (the PI), chemistry, materials science, and EE people. At a lot of schools, it's all a big melting pot of research when it comes to experimental science.

    Your physics undergrad will help you a lot with the basic theory, but you will be able to join a research group that has the right balance of experiment and rigor that suits you. But for now you just need to take classes that interest you, you don't need to worry about whether you are capable of making a mathematical breakthrough.

    Theory vs experiment is a spectrum, and you can always find people who have the same values as you in terms of what to focus on.
  5. Jul 13, 2010 #4
    Since you enjoy experiments a career in experimental physics(or other experimental sciences) might be a good career path. The physics is very interesting and does not usually involve deep mathematics compared its theoretical counterpart. There are many interesting experiments in Condensed matter, particle physics, gravitational and astrophysics. Even experiments chemistry and biology involve a lot of physics. As brushman says you always have an option of switching majors.
  6. Jul 13, 2010 #5
    Not all brilliant physicists/mathematicians started out as child prodigies. Michael Faraday started at his job as basically a janitor, moving up the ranks to one of the greatest experimental physicists ever.
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