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Theoretical Physics or Applied Mathematics?

  1. Feb 14, 2007 #1

    I've searched the forums and have seen similar questions come up, but no direct answers. So sorry for bringing up a topic which may seem to some of you, talked to death!

    Anyway I'm in the first year of my undergrduate degree programme at university, studying theoretical physics (basically 80% physics, 20% maths and computing for theoretical physicists). I'm doing an MSci at a UK university, but I'm not really enjoying my course too much and have landed myself in bit of a quandary. Why? I don't feel there is enough (interesting) mathematics in my course. I've been considering changing my degree programme to a mathematics degree with theoretical physics [75% math, 25% physics]. However, will doing this severely impair my ability of becoming a theoretical physicist? I've heard conflicting arguments from mathematicians and physicists (obviously with their bias). The mathematicians tell me that the important theories being developed now are very mathematical (such as string theory) and that doing an applied maths course is the route into proper theoretical physics. However, theoretical physicists tell me that they've not had to use abstract mathematics for their physics and that a theoretical physics degree is fine (also all the abstract mathematics I need to learn I will learn during my PhD, which is when it will become relevant). OK, these are the opinions of undergraduates and I am hoping to get a PhD after my degree and then go into a career of research.
    So to summarise my ramblings, should I continue my course in theoretical physics or essentially waste this year and start again with an applied math course, if I'm a budding theoretical physicist/mathematical physicist?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 20, 2007 #2
    I'm not sure I understand the UK system. I gather you're either a senior undergraduate or a masters student, right? It seems odd, you would say you study "theoretical physics" as an undergrad, but what do I know.

    I have similar issues to you. My issue, is I want to be a mathematician and a theoretical physicist.

    So, I know some theoretical physicists, in String Theory and SUSY stuff. Lately, I've heard a couple have gotten wild about quantum computing too.

    I went to a younger one recently, probably about my age, 30ish. Though he's a Ph.d, and I'm an undergrad. He told me the hardest part was the math. And that the physics concepts are relatively simple to learn on your own compared to learning the math on your own. That's just his opinion, so no flaming me. (I know finding these physics concepts is the hardest part of theoretical physics)

    I don't know what you want to study. But if you're thinking of trying to understand what Ed Witten is doing, well, you're going to be learning the math one way or another.

    A solution I have been considering to this problem, is getting a masters in pure math and then my ph.d theoretical physics. At most US schools, correct me if I'm wrong guys, mathematical physics belongs to the math departments. But I have also considered the other side too, i.e. enrolling in a ph.d math program for mathematical physics, and getting a masters maybe even eventually a ph.d physics.

    I don't understand the ratios I either my friend. 80% to 20% verse 75% to 25% seems like nothing. I say maybe 60% 40% sounds like a change. But I don't know anything about the system you're in.

    In the end, it can't hurt to learn more math, really, it can't. If you can handle doing a ph.d in physics and a masters in math, that's probably best. And if not a masters in math, maybe at a minimal you can minor with you ph.d and take the 1st year graduate courses in math.

    Best of luck. Please let me know what you decide. I'm interested in how you solve this.

  4. Feb 21, 2007 #3


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    Normally, the weighting of maths/physics will change from year to year-- have you looked into what you will be doing for your next three years? I don't know any universities that do theoretical physics degrees; I've only ever heard of Mathematical physics degrees. What univeristy are you at?
  5. Feb 21, 2007 #4


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    If you're only in your first year, that means you've been going for what 5 months?

    If so, I'd say switch to the maths department now if you're not enjoying the physics.

    You may even be able to not waste that year - I guess most core math subjects are shared between physics and maths departments... (at least, they are, ime).
  6. Feb 21, 2007 #5
    I am currently an undergraduate (first year) at a UK university studying for Physics with Theoretical Physics. Apart from me, there are only two other people in the first year studying the same thing I am! So it does seem quite rare, but there are universities which offer it.
  7. Feb 21, 2007 #6


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    Are you at nottingham by any chance? (I'm taking a guess based on your user name!) I've just looked on the Physics website, and I never knew we had a theoretical physics degree-- I knew we hada mathematical physics degree, but i reckon theoretical is probably a new(ish) thing. However, Im in the school of maths (mainly studying math-phys), so that may be why I never realised!
  8. Feb 22, 2007 #7
    Another thing I would say is worth finding out would be exactly whats covered in the applied maths course. At the University I attend anyway, applied math is basically just bare backbone physics, covering far less mathematics than the pure math course does.

    I imagine you have available an adviser of studies? If she/he is someone in one of those departments at least they should be able to offer more precise viewpoints - I saw my adviser when I was in year two, with a dilemma - i didn't know whether I wanted to finish in physics or applied mathematics with physics (something like 20% physics) because I had enjoyed math quite a bit more in second year (I chose to do physics, since it covers the math that I would've in applied but in a physics way of thinking, which is where i want to go).

    Also! It's certainly worth mentioning that in the first couple of years of a degree, the mathematics covered doesn't really have much scope to be 'interesting' - the reason being that generally the physics (any other science, i suppose too) department rely on the mathematics department to teach all of the basic math tools to teach their course, so in fulfilling their duty to everyone else, they're only able to scratch introductory courses.
  9. Feb 23, 2007 #8
    Sorry, you might've missed a little nuance - it's 80% physics vs. 75% maths. But the way you can choose your modules, I think in the later years it may become something like 60% maths, 40% physics.

    For the person asking me what university I'm at, I'm currently at University College London. Here is what the mathematics with theoretical physics degree looks like - http://www.ucl.ac.uk/mathematics/un.../DetailedDegProgStructs0607/degmathswthph.htm

    However, this change will only be possible if the mathematics admissions tutor actually allows the change, as I'm currently in the physics department!
  10. Feb 23, 2007 #9


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    So you don't really do any physics until the 3rd year?

    Particularly, if you don't choose the options of Quantum Mech or Elec and Magnetism.

    I'd think there would be scope to change to a purely maths degree if you still feel unsettled after your first year - which basically looks like maths core subjects.
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