# Why do people think physics is so hard?

1. Feb 7, 2006

### Blahness

I commonly hear the words "Physics" and "Genius" combined in many sentences, which seems to be a bit of a misnomer, considering that most of physics is rather simple, and only gets complicated once you have to apply hundreds of possible changing factors in a problem.

Or am I just being pompous? X.x

2. Feb 7, 2006

### inha

If by most of physics you mean your average HS-level or intro level at university physics then yeah, I suppose it is quite simple if you have the right kind of analytical mind. But that's not most of physics. It doesn't even scratch the surface.

3. Feb 7, 2006

### Blahness

So I'm being naive.

Thought so. thank you.

4. Feb 7, 2006

### marlon

IMO, the most difficult aspect in physics is the fact that you need to translate a real time event into a mathematical formalism. This requires some "abstraction" intelligence. But indeed most theories start from a rather simple but ingenious realisation like for example the equivalence principle: when a 80 kg male jumps out of a window, he feel like his weight is 0 kg. What does this apparent contradiction imply ?

So not only do you need to start from an ingenious and simple idea, you also need to translate it into hardcore mathematics.

marlon

Last edited: Feb 7, 2006
5. Feb 7, 2006

### Dmstifik8ion

It's all relative to the reference frame.

6. Feb 7, 2006

### quasar987

I think learning physics is hard compared to mathematics because in a physics textbook, a minimum of explanation is usually given to justify an equation. So to understand it really, you have to do the in-btw steps, which are somtimes very complicated, and other times you simply don't have enough information to do the steps and you're just wasting your time.

The best example of this taken from my life is when I tried to understand Optics. There are tons of approximations made btw equations and you have to find them and justify them if you're to understand the subject (imo). I would often spend an entire day studying a single page of the book. Of course, at university level, it is not permissible to take so much time to learn material so I had to stop. As a result, I feel I know nothing more about optics than before I took the class. Well look at that I'm ranting again.

7. Feb 7, 2006

### Hurkyl

Staff Emeritus
I think that a lot of people don't realize that problem solving is a skill. They think they're supposed to be learning nothing but math in their math classes, learning nothing but physics in their physics classes, et cetera. So, these people never learn how to solve problems.

8. Feb 7, 2006

### quasar987

What do you mean Hurkyl? In the classes you learn new material, then you are sent home to do homework. This is when you develop your problem solving skills. It is like that since you began school in the first grade.

9. Feb 7, 2006

### D H

Staff Emeritus
You obviously have not come across the oft-stated remark in math texts and papers, "it is obvious that ...".

back on topic:

Physics and math are abstract. Simple word problems are the start of most people's misery. Physics and math require abstract thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Most of the engineers that I have studied and worked with have their thoughts bound in concrete. They tend to want plug-and-chug (their words, not mine) methods for solving technical problems.

I disagree that the typical homework problems assigned from the first-grade on stress problem-solving skills. Very few homework problems even stress finding and using the appropriate plug-and-chug technique.

10. Feb 7, 2006

### Pengwuino

Welcome to my math experience. In the last... probably 3 semesters, I've had 4 real life problems presented? My physics studies is better though. The current course im taking is probably going to end this whole idea of physics being physics and math being math.

11. Feb 7, 2006

### Hurkyl

Staff Emeritus
Yes, but you learn the material and how to solve these problems. People don't seem to bother learning how to solve problems in general.

I can't count the number of times I've had to suggest "What's the definition of that term?" when someone is completely stuck on a problem... and sometimes writing down the definition turns out to be all they need to do.

I think some people focus so much on "Okay, I need to do this step, then this step, etc." and never bother to wonder about things like "Why would I think to use this step?"

Then, they learn new things, and are expected to be able to apply the most basic of problem solving techniques to work out the simple things for themselves... and become completely lost.

12. Feb 7, 2006

### Staff: Mentor

I agree with Hurkyl - in high school, I took calc I and physics I at the same time in high school and being able to relate them helped me learn both.

edit: However, the math just gets harder after that...

Last edited: Feb 7, 2006
13. Feb 7, 2006

### Michael_E

I think that this is it in a nutshell. To take an ingenious idea, translate it into parts that can be described by mathematics, churn those equations around for a while and have it all relate accurately to something verifiable really does take the insight of genius as well as a tremendous amount of determination. The need to doggedly stick with an idea and see it through is what makes it really tough. There are plenty of people rolling around with high I.Q.'s, but you don't see many of them doing exceptional things.

This difficulty seems to be one of the big problems with people who want to understand this better and don't have the math background to "see" what the math points at. I don't even think that some ideas can be "thought" without using math to "think" them, since they are so far from our physical experience that there are no accurate analogies available to form those ideas. This is the basis for confusion about things like wave/particle duality, multiple dimensions and the need of some people to try to argue points in language when there would be fewer arguments if they could express those ideas with math, (here they either work or they don't). Very, very hard to move from everyday experience to that sort of mathematical imagination where you can actually relate the math to a vision in your mind and have it be in accord with what is known about reality. I have always wondered if those people who are deeply involved in expanding into new ideas feel as if they are writing "mathematical fiction", ( a plot, a few "characters" and hopefully a good ending), when they are developing their ideas and trying to tie it all to something that is "real" and testable.

14. Feb 8, 2006

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
We, physicists, try very hard to continue to promote this picture. It's our trade mark, you see...:tongue:

15. Feb 8, 2006

### Blahness

vanesch: Seems more like a signature of profession than a trademark, <laugh>.

Problem Solving, aka Applied Problems, are very rare in most of my math classes.

But when we get them, they take about... 3 seconds longer than a "normal" math problem. The 3 seconds involves writing down the information that is given, and figuring out what the question is actually asking.

However, many students in my graduation-required physics have issues applying the math they know into real-life situations. As Hurkyl (implied? I tend to misinterpret), they seem to be inable to figure out the "why", or how to translate worded information into an equation.

Speaking of which, what's the best way to go about proving that I should be in an AP physics class, instead of this normal one? I'm extremely bored intellectually, especially knowing that we're not learning anything more advanced then newtonian motion and thermodynamics. X.x'

"Conceptual Physics" is what it's called, and very light on the math, regular physics class usually is.

</YodaIam>

Last edited: Feb 8, 2006
16. Feb 8, 2006

### quasar987

Go see your teacher. Once he sees you're Yoda, he'll understand you've already mastered the concept of force. *po-dom pshhh!*

17. Feb 8, 2006

### Blahness

Unfortunately, he has a mosaic of Yoda posted on the side of his classroom, and I'm about 3.2 times less ugly then the picture, so that wouldn't pass.

X.x'

18. Feb 8, 2006

### Pengwuino

As opposed to physics where it takes 3 seconds to solve the questin and 5 days to figure out what the hell you're trying to figure out :rofl: :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:

19. Feb 9, 2006

### Mmx

Actually i think physics is harder then any subject? Cause 1 of them is using the right formula and term when solving the question. Actually getting the answer is not the point. The point is to understand the question and how to solve it and why.

Im starting to become crazy said my fren cost read too much of physics. I wonder how a good professor of physics teacher attitude looks like? But honestly i never got good grades for my physics and always get close mark to fail.

20. Feb 9, 2006

### Kazza_765

Applied problem solving is why I almost failed second year maths at Uni. Not because I can't do it, but because there wasn't any of it. We would get questions like 'Use xxxxxx's method to solve yyyyyy' and so on, or else it would be completely obvious what method is needed to solve the problem. Solving problems like this IMO requires no intelligence, all you are doing is going through a bunch of steps you have been taught in class, its like a friggin algorithm. The only way you can get it wrong is if you can't remember one of the steps, or you make a silly numerical error. So I just lost interest and stopped going.