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Which subjects in theoretical physics do undergrads find most difficult?

  1. Classical Mechanics

    9 vote(s)
  2. Quantum Mechanics/Intro solid state physics

    16 vote(s)
  3. Thermal Physics/Statistical Mechanics

    16 vote(s)
  4. Electromagnetism/Electrodynamics

    21 vote(s)
  5. Optics

    5 vote(s)
  6. Astrophysics

    3 vote(s)
  7. Special Relativity

    0 vote(s)
  8. Sub atomic/particle physics

    5 vote(s)
  9. Other

    0 vote(s)
  1. Feb 9, 2007 #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.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 9, 2007 #2
    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.
  4. Feb 9, 2007 #3
    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.
  5. Feb 9, 2007 #4


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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.
  6. Feb 9, 2007 #5
    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.
  7. Feb 9, 2007 #6
    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.
  8. Feb 9, 2007 #7
    Thermo seems to be a common class for teachers to torture students in, both in physics and engineering.
  9. Feb 9, 2007 #8
    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 .
  10. Feb 9, 2007 #9
    As long as I have the math down pat, nothing's been too difficult.
  11. Feb 9, 2007 #10
    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!
  12. Feb 9, 2007 #11
    Definitely stat-mech, I dislike it very much.
  13. Feb 9, 2007 #12
    The thing with astro is, if you don't like stat-mech there is ZERO way astro is possible!
  14. Feb 10, 2007 #13
    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).
  15. Feb 10, 2007 #14
    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!
  16. Feb 11, 2007 #15
    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 knowlege and it accumulates each year which is not good.
  17. Feb 11, 2007 #16
    EM, especially the last half of griffiths. also, quantum 2. ...if you use griffiths for your quantum textbook, that'd be the last half.
  18. Feb 11, 2007 #17

    Dr Transport

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    I had and still have the worst time with mechanics......
  19. Feb 11, 2007 #18
    Without a doubt, electromagnetism.
  20. Feb 11, 2007 #19

    How much of a disadvantage is for someone doing higher physics (i.e. final year undergrad) without having taken a classical mechanics course?
  21. Feb 12, 2007 #20

    Dr Transport

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    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 *****
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