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To be a mathematician or a physicist?

  1. Feb 15, 2007 #1
    Here is my background: in tenth grade I was very average in the fields of maths and science. To tell the truth, I was far more interested in arts. But when I first discovered Newton's equations on motion, there was a big change. I was so intrigued by those that I started to read about physics, and the more I read, the more I was interested. I then bought myself a high school physics book, and went through it in about 2 months. I was unsatisfied: I was very bothered by the fact that I was blindly using formulas that I had to believe in simply because they were in the book. I soon realized that I didn't have the necessary mathematical background to go further. The following 18 months had been devoted to the study of university level mathematics. But here I am, I developed a tremendous love for mathematics, so much that I almost lost sight of physics. Now here's the dilemma: I like the study of physics allot, but I feel that if choose to be a physicist I will never become a masterful mathematician, which is something that I dearly wish. To which camp do I belong?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 15, 2007 #2
    Do a double degree in both and choose at the PhD level :)
  4. Feb 15, 2007 #3
    i've never really understood how people love math in fact like you i wasn't so big into math/science until my junior year of high school when i took physics for the first time and saw how well it applied to the real world. i didn't do a double degree in math/physics because i didn't really feel like spending my college years doing that much homework (1 hard degree is enough for me) but i've take a few upper level math courses above diff eq like real and complex analysis and i really hated how much the rigor of it all was emphasized and how abstract alot of the stuff was. of course when we did applications (especially in complex) it was infinitley more fun to me.
  5. Feb 15, 2007 #4
    Instead of doing a double degree, do a double major.
  6. Feb 15, 2007 #5
    To the OP:

    Determine what types of problems/subjects in mathematics you enjoy. If it is the application...either theortical or just plain ol' physics are the camps for you. If it is the "rigor," mathematics or mathematical physics are your choice of camps.

    Personally, I love the "rigor" in my Graduate level math classes; however, attempting to find an application to all of the "rigorous" work I have done is also quite fun...at least for me. And that is why I can't consister myself a mathematican, at least not yet.
  7. Feb 16, 2007 #6
    In math, I like the rigor and theory allot more than the application. I do not feel satisfied until I master a concept, in such a way that if someone asked, I could show him how we deduce this "truth" starting only with the axioms. Also I find myself to be allot more theoretical than experimental, so the fact that mathematics is an inquiry in which there is no doubt, and that it can be studied solely on paper delights me. What I like in physics however, is somehow similar; with base concepts (similar to mathematical axioms), we can deduce relationships that, without mathematics, are unattainable to our intuition. So the fact that nature can be described by mathematics interests me far more than the fact that it can be described, dot. I guess this is why I dislike biology so much :tongue:
  8. Feb 16, 2007 #7


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    I think you're being a bit too general...

    If you could be specific about certain fields/topics which you've enjoyed - not waht you think you will enjoy in the future - then advice would be easier to give.

    Plus - from your schooling, do you know what pure maths involves?

    Having said that, I'd go for the maths degree because it allows you to do some real pure maths and some applied maths - the latter like the maths you'd get taught in a physics degree anyway. Plus there are no experiments! :smile:
  9. Feb 16, 2007 #8
    What I like in math? Up to now, everything that I have seen. Analysis, linear algebra and probability, to be more precise. In physics I like: mechanics, relativity and electromagnetism. Also I'm interested into a "theory of everything" as you might say. I rarely care about the applications in math, if ever. I get allot more satisfaction from mastering the theory.
  10. Feb 16, 2007 #9
    I'm in 3rd year physics right now, and I always thought that I loved math. I liked calculus and all that other stuff. What killed math for me was when I took Linear Algebra II and learned about abstract and boring things like vector spaces. We just kept learning all kinds of things that seemed completely useless to me. I wanted to solve problems like I always did in math, not learn a bunch of axioms and then carry out unimportant proofs. Since then, I haven't taken another math class.

    That's why physics is just so much more for me. Everything we do has something to do with explaining the real world, and if it doesn't, then it's still a math problem that I can enjoy solving.
  11. Feb 16, 2007 #10
    Become a Carpenter :smile:

    Seriously, why not do say a degree in physics and a PhD in maths?

    I know someone who wasn't grand at maths at PhD so he went into astronomy instead of theoretical physics at the PhD level, now he's grand at physics and maths? Who says you can't learn more maths after you study physics or vise a versa anyway?

    Don't go saying that too loudly, mathematicians love their proofs, and there handy up to a point. Although to be honest like you I'd rather just figure out how things work then use them to solve real world problems or at least theoretical ones, I guess that's what seperates a mathematician from someone who's interested in physics. If you prefer to apply maths rather than mess around proving why x^i=y^2/1 pi rho for lim 1 to 3 etc, etc, then become a mathemetician, if you prefer working out the wave equation for particle a or the rotational speed of star x, become a physicist.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2007
  12. Feb 17, 2007 #11
    If you dont mind having a little extra work, I dont see why you couldn't do both.
  13. Feb 17, 2007 #12
    I agree with the others in saying you could do a double degree. But you could also take one in class and then take the other online. I also think they should make a course that combines the two of them into one schamoozle. That way, people like you would be happy!
  14. Feb 17, 2007 #13
    I strongly agree with those who say to do both as an undergrad; here are a few reasons why:

    - There is significant overlap in coursework so it is not that much extra work. Even if it takes you an extra year or a couple summers, I think it is well worth it.
    - Doing the math makes you better at physics and doing the physics makes you better at math. Beyond the simple overlap in content, the intuition developed in physics classes and ability to "listen to the equations" carries over into math and the ability to think clearly and abstractly which is developed in math carries over into physics.
    - This route leaves you with many options- not just math or physics, but you could make a transition into engineering, chemistry, economics, computer science, philosophy, etc. If you went straight out pure math, you'd have a hell of a climb to get into physics, chemistry, or engineering. On the other hand, if you went with just physics, it'd be tough to get into pure math, as the style of thinking required is not something that is cultivated in physics classes.

    With regard to the third comment, you should recognize that your feelings about math and physics will change (in some way) in the coming years as you learn/do more and start to see what they really are like. At this point, you simply don't have enough experience to effectively predict what you will want to do in 4 years. It may be that you set forth some plan right now and follow it through exactly, but I think that is unlikely and I definately reccomend against cutting off options this early. At some point a few years in to undergrad you may change your mind and drop one major to focus on another, but if you are indecisive right now, I think a dual major is the way to go.
  15. Feb 17, 2007 #14
    Hummm... Very hypothetically, say I get accepted to a prestigious college but that doesn't the double major, should I decline?
  16. Feb 20, 2007 #15
    I think your delima is relatively common. It is somewhat more advantageous to be curious about nature, in an evolutionary perspective. However, being interested in purely abstract stuff is not so. So many people find physics attractive and the average Joe if must choose between physics and pure maths will choose the former. However there are people who also like perfection, rigour which only pure maths offers them. As mentioned, a lot of these people are also curious about nature and that is where the dilemma comes, physicist or mathematician. I have this dilemma also.

    I find physics is excitment and pure maths is satisfaction. Both make me happy but I only hope I choose the right one when the time comes which unfortuntely is very soon. Although at times I find physics to be too restrictive and 'slack'. Using maths merely as a tool also makes me uncomfortable, it makes me think that physics is more of a professional subject whereas pure maths is more an art. However, what is really good about physics is when I realise the significance of the physical concepts and the connection to maths and also just relating physics to the rest of the world.

    Pure maths with it's more general nature may be the way to go for me. I have no compliants for pure maths other than that it is very challenging which is a good thing I guess. But the thing about maths is that it comes from the mind which exists in the brain and the brain is a physcial object in the universe so ultimately it's all physics.
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2007
  17. Feb 21, 2007 #16


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    From personal experience, I'd choose one or the other. People I remember who did joint math/physics always seemed to have a lot more work to do - plus never really integrated with the no-joint people; eg. different buildings to hang about in etc.

    Like SD said above do one at UG, one at PG.

    Tho', I'd do maths at UG :smile:

    Remember also that you don't need the whole of your life planned out - I did my first three degrees in math departments and now work in a theoretical physics department. Once you get the qualifications, it's easy to switch around fields.
  18. Feb 21, 2007 #17


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    I too like both of the fields.
    for me, usually the maths is more easy than the physics cause for maths you need logic, while for physics you need a lot of intuition which apparently i lack, but iv'e chosen to do a combined degree cause physics always intrigued me, since i think a young age (perhaps 10 years old).

    a disclaimer:
    i dont say that in maths you dont need intuition or creativity, but the main key to grasp maths is by logical reasoning, and also in physics you need this reasoning espcially in unintuitive theories such as qm, but still intuition takes place in physics.
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