Which subjects in theoretical physics do undergrads find most difficult?

  • Thread starter pivoxa15
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Which subjects in theoretical physics do undergrads find most difficult?

  • Classical Mechanics

    Votes: 9 12.0%
  • Quantum Mechanics/Intro solid state physics

    Votes: 16 21.3%
  • Thermal Physics/Statistical Mechanics

    Votes: 16 21.3%
  • Electromagnetism/Electrodynamics

    Votes: 21 28.0%
  • Optics

    Votes: 5 6.7%
  • Astrophysics

    Votes: 3 4.0%
  • Special Relativity

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Sub atomic/particle physics

    Votes: 5 6.7%
  • Other

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
    75
  • #1
pivoxa15
2,259
1
Personally, I think Electromagnetism is the hardest although I am not through my undergrad degree yet. I found optics very difficult in first year and haven’t done much after that but it probably is hard. I heard many people say QM is difficult and unintuitive and no doubt it is but at the undergrad level we only seem to deal with before and after which is simpler than treating all the in betweens via fields in EM but QFT probably deals with the in-betweens but is not really undergrad stuff. This general trend of not dealing with the in betweens goes for many other undergrad physics subjects but with EM and optics you do even at first year which is what makes them hard. I could be wrong about this as I haven't taken all undergrad physics subjects.

If other please specify.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Sojourner01
373
0
I find statistical mechanics tricky - but I'm of the general opinion that it's a difficult subject to teach. I get overwhelmed by lots of lengthy differential equations that don't appear to have any basis in reality.
 
  • #3
quark80
61
0
Electromagnetism as well actually. But I found it most difficult because it was probably the subject I had the least interest in. And I was one of those students who just couldn't be bothered if I wasn't interested.
 
  • #4
dextercioby
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There's no difficult subject really, if it's taught by a smart professor and all the mathematics needed for the course is covered in class.
 
  • #5
phun
58
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I think a proper introduction to particle physics (at the level of griffiths) would be harder than most other because it assumes pretty thorough understanding of most other subjects (mechanics, E&M, quantum). For example griffiths goes over E&M in like 3 pages.
 
  • #6
arunma
927
4
I'd say that statistical mechanics (but not thermodynamics) was the most difficult subject I ever studied as an undergrad. When I took sophomore thermal, I understood the theory quite well. But my senior year, I took a course on stat mech and thermodynamics, and I had no clue what was going on. Neither did anyone else in the class.

Somehow we'd all get good grades. By working with other students and muddling through the exercises, I was able to do the homework. In fact I got an A- in the class (as did everyone else), so it's not as though it wasn't doable. But I recall that when my classmates and I left the final, we all said to each other, "wow...I didn't learn a thing." Obviously that's an exaggeration. But the problem with stat mech is that it's just a bit too detached from reality. Classical mechanics and E&M can be directly observed, and even quantum mechanics has indirect effects on the real world. All of these subjects have a well-developed formalism. Not so with stat mech. It's all just a bunch of crazy partial derivatives with subscripts to me. Heck, I'm afraid to take it again in grad school.
 
  • #7
kdinser
337
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Thermo seems to be a common class for teachers to torture students in, both in physics and engineering.
 
  • #8
imaplanck
23
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I found quantum physics the trickiest to grasp, although by far not the most tedious. We are all told that even professional physicists still don't get QM or SR, and they weren't wrong judging by most of the nonsense I see toted around .
 
  • #9
ballistikk
23
0
As long as I have the math down pat, nothing's been too difficult.
 
  • #10
HalfManHalfAmazing
54
0
Astrophysics! It's practially all the rest of the undergraduate courses thrown into one! If you have trouble with ANY of the others, astro is infinitely more difficult!
 
  • #11
mathlete
149
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Definitely stat-mech, I dislike it very much.
 
  • #12
HalfManHalfAmazing
54
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The thing with astro is, if you don't like stat-mech there is ZERO way astro is possible!
 
  • #13
^_^physicist
235
1
I would argue classical mechanics is the "hardest." It is perhaps the first upper-division, mathematically "rigourous" physics course taken by many physics majors (at least in my school), and since it is the first subject approached, both the adjustment to the rigor and the building of intuition are causes for difficulty.

With many of the other subjects, you experance them later on, once you already have the mathematics and a great deal of intuition built up (of course the intuition could come back and bite you for quantum).
 
  • #14
arunma
927
4
I would argue classical mechanics is the "hardest." It is perhaps the first upper-division, mathematically "rigourous" physics course taken by many physics majors (at least in my school), and since it is the first subject approached, both the adjustment to the rigor and the building of intuition are causes for difficulty.

With many of the other subjects, you experance them later on, once you already have the mathematics and a great deal of intuition built up (of course the intuition could come back and bite you for quantum).

I agree, though it was slightly different for me. Where I did my undergrad, the first course that required rigor was sophomore quantum (our first quantum class in the sequence). This was the first time I needed to work with study groups, in order to throw around ideas and learn the material. It's absolutely true that there's a certain mathematical technique that you learn in physics which enables you to do problems. And strangely enough, it's a technique that they'll never teach you in any math course!
 
  • #15
pivoxa15
2,259
1
There's no difficult subject really, if it's taught by a smart professor and all the mathematics needed for the course is covered in class.

This is from a point of view of someone who has already gone through undergrad maths and physics isn't it? I can confidently say no high shool subject is difficult, provided the teacher was compotent and recquirements set out clearly but back when I was actually in high school, things were very different. However, you could just be a clever person, I surely aren't. It could also be that there is a lot of gaps in my knowledge and it accumulates each year which is not good.
 
  • #16
Brad Barker
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EM, especially the last half of griffiths. also, quantum 2. ...if you use griffiths for your quantum textbook, that'd be the last half.
 
  • #17
Dr Transport
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I had and still have the worst time with mechanics...
 
  • #18
l46kok
297
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Without a doubt, electromagnetism.
 
  • #19
pivoxa15
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I would argue classical mechanics is the "hardest." It is perhaps the first upper-division, mathematically "rigourous" physics course taken by many physics majors (at least in my school), and since it is the first subject approached, both the adjustment to the rigor and the building of intuition are causes for difficulty.

With many of the other subjects, you experance them later on, once you already have the mathematics and a great deal of intuition built up (of course the intuition could come back and bite you for quantum).

I had and still have the worst time with mechanics...
Why?


How much of a disadvantage is for someone doing higher physics (i.e. final year undergrad) without having taken a classical mechanics course?
 
  • #20
Dr Transport
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Why?


How much of a disadvantage is for someone doing higher physics (i.e. final year undergrad) without having taken a classical mechanics course?

I wouldn't admit to having an undergrad degree without classical mechanics.

As for why I had such a hard time, my professor was forced into immediate retirement in my second semester because he had neglected not only my course but the freshman course he was teaching also. Instead of making us retake the course we got credit for essentially not learning a thing. I successfully learned enough mechanics to make it thru Goldstein but I had to work almost full time to make up the deficiency. Setting up a Lagrangian is something I had great difficulty with, once I got there I was fine, but getting the energies has kicked my *****
 
  • #21
Azael
257
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Id say intro solid state physics is the worst intro class I have ever taken. I got a A but I do not understand one single thing. Kittels absolutely horrid textbook sure didnt help either.
 
  • #22
FUNKER
121
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QM was very hard I found. We used a textbook by Mandl who also writes one for stat mech... is there a connection I am missing :p
 
  • #23
FUNKER
121
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P.S. the textbook was crap. In the intro he wrote that he tried to write a 'compact' textbook on intro to QM but it was ridiculous. He would say '.. and it follows that ...' but the follows part is half a page of working grrrrrr
 
  • #24
pivoxa15
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Astrophysics! It's practially all the rest of the undergraduate courses thrown into one! If you have trouble with ANY of the others, astro is infinitely more difficult!

I take your point, but your argument will lead to the claim that biology is harder than physics, since it involves all of physics and then some. However, studying (undergrad) biology isn't necessary harder than physics. This is because they don't expect the level of precision as in physics. Same thing goes for Astro. The models in undergrad astro are not as mathmematically difficult as some fundalmental physics course but it may cover more areas in physics. But for students, they still think astro is not as hard as some of the more fundalmental subjects as the poll suggest.
 
  • #25
pivoxa15
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I wouldn't admit to having an undergrad degree without classical mechanics.

Again, why? My uni dosen't make classic mechanics a compulsory subject. Does it make learning other areas of physics much easier and quicker?
 
  • #26
Dr Transport
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Again, why? My uni dosen't make classic mechanics a compulsory subject. Does it make learning other areas of physics much easier and quicker?

It can, people have told me that classical mechanincs is necessary for modern physics, I will say that i9f you do not have the proper mathematicsl foundation that mechanics offers you wil have trouble down the road. I'll give an example, rotation matricies, they come about in classical mechanics and that material will pop up in QM when you start talking about spin etc...

Just think about this, how do you think you will look when someone asks you a simple classical mechanincs question and you answer I didn't take it but I'll be able to answer any E&M question or QM question you want. I've at least tried to make up my short comings...
 
  • #27
K.J.Healey
622
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I found Stat Mech to be the hardest to comprehend at the time. I think materials science was tough too, thought now I feel like that material is cake.
Its weird how the classes I know best now were the tough ones. Mat Sci and Numerical Methods were my worst grades. Even Acoustics was bad, though I was taking Quantum at the same time and excelling in it.
Its all about the teacher...
 
  • #28
pivoxa15
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I found Stat Mech to be the hardest to comprehend at the time. I think materials science was tough too, thought now I feel like that material is cake.
Its weird how the classes I know best now were the tough ones. Mat Sci and Numerical Methods were my worst grades. Even Acoustics was bad, though I was taking Quantum at the same time and excelling in it.
Its all about the teacher...

Is Stat Mech hard because of the maths? i.e. not knowing how DEs or integrals are solved?

Is it more 'Its all about the teacher...setting exams that are very related to the course he/she teaches. i.e the example/problem questions discussed and in textbook very similar to the exam questions'?
 
  • #29
pivoxa15
2,259
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It can, people have told me that classical mechanincs is necessary for modern physics, I will say that i9f you do not have the proper mathematicsl foundation that mechanics offers you wil have trouble down the road. I'll give an example, rotation matricies, they come about in classical mechanics and that material will pop up in QM when you start talking about spin etc...

Just think about this, how do you think you will look when someone asks you a simple classical mechanincs question and you answer I didn't take it but I'll be able to answer any E&M question or QM question you want. I've at least tried to make up my short comings...

Good point, I should self-learn a bit of classical mechanics soon. But I'll probably need to learn it in conjunction with QM and EM subjects when needed.
 
  • #30
neurocomp2003
1,366
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Classical/Analytical Mechanics fun but hard...too much of teh lagrangian.
Needed a blend of CM and Programming course put in one. CM iwas one fo the most mathematically intensive science courses i took.

Astrophysics was fun and easy with Carroll and Ostlie's book.
 
  • #31
pivoxa15
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I just did stat physics and QM. I did maybe 10 times more work in stat physics then QM but pulled off smilar marks with a difference of 2 out of 100 in favour of QM. The reason was that I felt in QM the physical concepts are impossible to understand no matter how hard you try so all one needs is a good understanding of the maths. That actually meant less work as the maths in QM were relatively straight forward. Now I understand why Feynman said "No one in the world understands QM". One can only understand the maths of QM.

That is not the case with Stat mech. It is possible to understand Stat mech and quite an amazing theory one which I find deeply satisfying. To learn it one must be familar with the physics as well as the maths. Thats why I needed so much more time learning stat mech. It wasn't all just maths.
 
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