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Will a Math degree be applicable to Physics research?

  1. Nov 17, 2011 #1
    Hello Everyone. I am currently working on a BS in Mathematics and I am also doing some physics coursework. I am fairly sure that I am going to pursue Math up to the graduate level. My ultimate goal is to do some sort of research that adds something to our understanding of the physical universe. I know that is the job of a Physicist but I was curious if a Mathematician could do the same in some way. I would even consider getting my degrees in Mathematics and then returning to pursue Physics at a later time since a double-major isn't feasible for me as of now. So the short version of my question is how can a Mathematician help to discover new ideas about the physical universe and how could someone with a Math degree transition into graduate Physics? I appreciate any insight!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 18, 2011 #2
    In my opinion, the short answer is yes with an asterisk. Mathematical physics, and in particular the study of PDE's, is directly related to physical problems. One of mathematics professors in the analysis group at my university has a NSF grant to study energy decay of the wave equation on black hole backgrounds (apparently a hot topic in analysis right now), and others in the group study the Schrodinger equation and other such physically inspired problems.

    But I say with an asterisk because these guys are mathematicians through and through. There is no overlap (besides the fact that physics and math are in the same building). They couldn't wake up the next day and decide they'd rather be a physics professor. And not just because the academy doesn't work that way, but because they're literally that far from being a physicist. For instance, I asked one of them about the physical implications of his problem, what it really means physically, and he was basically like "I have no idea nor do I care."

    Not saying that in a bad way, you just have to understand that mathematicians care about things in a different way than physicists. They don't find it interesting because it represents reality, they find it interesting just for the hell of it. And physicists don't really care if it makes logical sense, just as long as it agrees with experiment and gives the correct result in the range of values they're concerned with.
  4. Nov 18, 2011 #3
    And to answer you question about switching over to physics later on, I'd say the only way this would be possible is if you still take a lot of the lab courses at this level.
  5. Nov 18, 2011 #4
    "I am currently working on a BS in Mathematics and I am also doing some physics coursework."

    It's quite simple, actually. Do plenty of physics coursework, and you'll be a double major in math and physics. Assume that every physics course you miss now is something you'll have to make up for later on. Make up for what you miss, and you can do research in physics. (This isn't always the case, but if you plan on going to grad school in physics it's a good rule of thumb.)
  6. Nov 18, 2011 #5
    I object to this characterization, it's far from the truth. It sounds like "physicist" for diligence has the same meaning as "experimental physicist" (and then still...), which would also explain his 2nd post encouraging lots of lab work: lab work is quite inessential for theoretical physicsts.

    So yeah, theoretical physics and math are very close, and contrary to diligence's claim, it's perfectly possible to start in math and become a professor in physics (proof: some of my physics professors). Just take the core physics courses: classical mechanics, EM, quantum, relativity, statistical (if not now, then at least eventually).

    That being said, what I have said and can say isn't very specific.
  7. Nov 18, 2011 #6


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    If you want to do research in physics, then an undergraduate degree in physics would be best. Is it possible to do what you're proposing? Sure. Have a look at the following thread:

  8. Nov 18, 2011 #7
    Thanks to everyone who has replied to my question, the answers have been very insightful.
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