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Undergraduate College Trouble-Physics and Mathematics: Harvey Mudd and Cornell

  1. May 15, 2012 #1
    Hi Physics Forums.

    I recently committed to attending Harvey Mudd College to pursue a major in Physics, with the possibility of pursuing either a joint major in math and physics, or simply doing both majors. However, I was also on the waitlist at three separate schools: Caltech, Cornell, and Harvard. Caltech did not take anyone off the waitlist this year, Harvard has not replied, and Cornell let me in off the waitlist. Because of this, I am uncertain of which school to pick.

    To give you more information, I have visited both of the schools and loved the environment at each(despite that the schools are very different). So what I'm really thinking about, is to see which school has a better program for physics. I, personally, am mostly interested in theoretical physics, particularly particle physics (though I'll concede I'm not even attending college yet, so things may change). I do plan on continuing in physics and getting a Ph.D.

    With all this in mind, what do you all think of these two schools? Do you think there are any differences in terms of: classroom opportunities, research opportunities, faculty contact, focus on particle physics, ability to study both physics and mathematics, and ability to get into a top tier graduate school?

    Thanks for any help you can give, and thanks for your time.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 15, 2012 #2
    I can speak for my alma mater (Cornell), somewhat (I'm a math major with a potential minor in physics depending on bureaucratic issues)

    There are loads of opportunities to do things here. Professors are pretty open to letting undergrads do research so long as they're competent, you just have to make sure you approach them. I don't know what's available in physics as my research is in math, but I do know a few people that did a lot of really cool stuff. We do have a particle accelerator, if you're interested in that...someone I know started working there when she was a sophomore, so, yeah, you should be able to find something you'd like here. Faculty are fairly open in my experience, though for your first semesters, most of your experience will probably be dealing with TAs...unless it's research oriented.

    The major itself is notorious for being not flexible. If you want to major in physics, start as soon as you enter. The first four semesters are basically intro courses, one per semester (though you can take other courses after the fourth). Courses don't double count, so if you decide to take another major that requires physics classes (say, math with a physics concentration), any courses that you take for your physics major will NOT count for your math major, so, you have to do more work on the side. They don't make exceptions for this.

    It's important to note that there are two paths to the major...the regular intro sequence, and the honors sequence. If you can stomach it, take the honors. It looks better on your transcript, the material is more rigorous, and the curve's are a lot better. It's not for everyone, though, as the problems can take a lot of time/can be quite difficult. It's worth a shot, at least. You can always drop down afterwards...and you can avoid the mess that is 2214 (at least I thought it was a mess). It's also nice because you have one less class to take because special relativity is taught in the first honors course, where it's a separate course for the regular sequence.

    As far as your ability to study math cocurrently, it depends on how good you are at balancing your time. It's possible to take the more rigorous courses in both at the same time, but, be prepared to spend a lot of time on problem sets (the honors algebra sequence alone will be a bit of a time drain). It depends on where your interests primarily lie as well. The more theoretical math courses here will skimp on some computational stuff that you'll need in physics, but it should be pretty easy to make up for it. That being said, if you take the more computational courses, you have to deal with some nasty curves, particularly for engineering math.

    Physics program here is highly rated. AEP (applied and engineering physics) is among the top of its kind in the world. The pure physics program is also quite good, as is the math in my experience (it won't be on part to, say, Harvard or Princeton, but those programs are primarily designed for those that can basically already do undergrad math).

    That being said...do keep in mind that you don't necessarily need to go to the greatest undergrad to get into an awesome grad program. It's really what you make of the resources you're given. You've gotten into two fantastic programs, so, just make the most of what's around you. The same goes anywhere.

    Hopefully that helped you somewhat. Sorry if it was incoherent.
  4. May 16, 2012 #3
    Thanks! I'll keep that in mind. I've been talking to a few people in the departments also, I think I'll have enough information to make a solid choice quite soon.
  5. May 16, 2012 #4
    I go to HMC, and am doing a physics/math double major. The faculty here is probably the best part, as there is usually no problem with faculty contact, and many students do research one-on-one with professors. None of the classes are taught by TA's, and once you get out of core, the class sizes are very small (around 10-15).

    The physics major here does not require a huge number of specific classes, so you can take a good deal of math even if you don't double major. There are a lot of factors that go into a decision like this, and a small college like HMC is very different from a college like Cornell in almost every way (socially, etc.) Feel free to ask more directed questions, or PM me.
  6. May 16, 2012 #5
    Yeah, I think I'm going to follow in your footsteps with this one. I'm interested in exactly the same thing. I think I've decided to stick with Harvey Mudd and not Cornell. I'll definitely PM you, though.
  7. May 22, 2012 #6
    Hey there, I'm entering Mudd in the fall as a prospective physics major and I was wondering if you have any recommendations for me (for when I'm at Mudd and for this summer). I've got vol. 1-3 of the Feynman lectures and plan to read through those, and I will solidify my single variable calculus knowledge over the summer. Should I learn to program in my free time? Thanks! :)
  8. Jun 22, 2012 #7
    Alright, I will answer your questions for my roommate. I think you should learn as much math as possible. With only single variable calculus, it is difficult to do much in physics. Also I heard that Feynman lectures are not good textbook books. They are very good at enhancing your physical intuition and understanding, but if you want to learn some real stuff, there are better textbooks. At Mudd, you should pass out of the core as much as you can, because the core really wastes your time, or at least half of them do. You will have much more fun at upper classes. As for CS, you should learn Java, it's easier to deal with than C++, thus easier to learn (Of course, Python is even easier). A more practical reason is that with enough Java experience, they let you skip the first course in CS, which is nice. But they did let Broccoli21 skip the course anyways, although he didn't know Java. (By the way, he actually highpassed the next course.) Also you should audit a bunch of classes in the first semester. It's pass/fail and you will a ton of free time.

    Finally, you will learn an incredible of amount of stuff in your first year, if you really try. But you can also just drift along. Welcome to Mudd.
  9. Jun 23, 2012 #8
    Thank you very much for your response, this paints a better picture and lets me know what to expect. If I practiced writing some java in eclipse using youtube tutorials this summer would that be sufficient, considering I have very little programming knowledge? After the first year I'm probably going to do summer math to get the core math done before the second year. Do you have experience with the summer math program, and if so, do you advise taking it? If I remember the prerequisites correctly, I should be able to take intro differential geometry in the fall of the second year, followed by Fourier analysis in the spring.
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2012
  10. Jun 23, 2012 #9
    I only took one math core, and that was in the first semester. So I don't have much summer math experience. However, I do hear that they go over material pretty fast. I don't know if this is optimal with your memory patterns. But it is indeed pretty time efficient. As for differential geometry, I will be taking it next semester and I'm reading the book. It seems that you need a very solid analysis knowledge. (Regular surface is defined in pretty much analysis way) The knowledge of homeomorphism, inverse function theorem, etc. is assumed. I don't know if they cover these in the core, because I didn't take any. But I doubt it. Therefore, you should take analysis in your first year. It is definitely doable and not as hard as you would think. As for fourier analysis, I had it this last spring. It is a pretty normal class. The material is interesting and extremely useful. However, if you like math a lot, you should take PDE instead of fourier analysis. It is more rigorous. For example, the completeness of eigenfunctions of certain PDEs is only proved in PDE.
  11. Jun 23, 2012 #10
    As for CS, I don't how much experience one summer can give you. It really depends on the way you do it. If you do it 24/7. You are probably going to be read for data structure directly or even more. If you don't, then probably not.
  12. Jun 23, 2012 #11
    Definitely go to Cornell if you want to get research experience. They have so many undergraduate research programs, especially in physics.
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