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Some mathematical insight please.

  1. Feb 23, 2012 #1


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    Hello, I am new to the forum and I have made an account to ask this one simple question.
    Am I good at math or not?
    I have been deciphering whether I am or not for some time now. It's like a pendulum, I can pathetically fail a math test but answer immense logic problems easily. I taught myself physics, and I can understand almost every Theory(physics). When I'm in math class everything makes sense it's almost tediously easy, but when I begin the test however, I have great expectation's and I end up with embarrassing scores. I just don't understand how I do so bad when I feel so confident. Does anyone know the answer?
    I would love a career in Physics or cosmology, but this math dilemma is causing second guesses.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 23, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    The key question is can you do the problem sets correctly without help? if so are you then having test anxiety where you forget what you need to know?

    The second question would be is your understanding of Physics based on having read the various theories or in having done the problem sets?

    Which reminded me of an old Abbot and Costello joke: Costello says I can understand every language in the world except Greek. Abbot speaks to him in French and Costello replies its all greek to me.

    The saying is far older than I thought:

  4. Feb 23, 2012 #3


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    But can you do the math? Every mathematical science uses mathematics, be definition. If you can't do the math you are not a mathematical scientist.

    A professional piano player was asked what is the difference was between an amateur and a pro. He replied "an amateur practices until he gets it right. A pro practices until he gets it wrong."

    What the difference between a cook and a chef? A chef can cook under the pressure of a clock. Over and over again.

    You write "tediously easy". Fine. But how many problems do you do?
  5. Feb 23, 2012 #4
    It's pretty hard to say. Even if you aren't good at math, maybe you can BECOME good at math.

    It would be hard to rule out the idea that anyone could ever become good at something. In some cases, it would appear implausible, but you never know.
  6. Feb 23, 2012 #5
    Do you have issues doing the problems on tests? Or do you have test anxiety? What do you think is the problem?

    One thing about math is that it's very easy when reading it to think, "Oh I understand this," but once you try to do actual problems, it's not as easy as it looks. That's why someone asked if you're doing enough problems.
  7. Feb 23, 2012 #6
    This is so true. Personally, I find most math lectures are very simple to follow. But that's not what math is about. The definition of, say, a topological space isn't trivial but it's not a ball buster, but then taking the definitions and theorems and constructing your own proofs - that's hard.
  8. Feb 23, 2012 #7


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    True for physics too.

    Often, enthusiastic people will read a book about string theory, or something by Stephen Hawking, and decide they want a physics career. That's great, I wish them the best! But many aren't expecting freshman math and physics classes to be *so hard*. I mean, physics was easy to understand in those books they read!

    It's a bit of a harsh wake-up call.
  9. Feb 23, 2012 #8
    It's very important in science to be aware of how well you understand something. Quite often, people assume that being able to understand what the teacher/text book author did is the same as knowing the material really well. I knew a guy in high school who would always be upset that he did poorly on tests because the teacher solutions made perfect sense to him after the fact. He wasn't terrible at things, but he wasn't able to make the jump from understanding what the teacher did to being able to apply the methods to new problems.

    To avoid something like that, it's important to know if you really understand the underlying concepts, or if you're just at a point where what the prof does makes sense to you. The best way to check that is to just do as many practice problems (preferably difficult!) as you can. Chances are, you'll find that you don't suck at math, but rather you just need to work harder to understand things than you thought.
  10. Feb 25, 2012 #9
    Sometimes you can be good at doing something but not good at learning it. I've always had problems with math exams, because I can do the work with the book in front of me, but I haven't cemented it well enough to remember it in a test scenario.
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