Advice for DS on studying Pure Maths

(30 Posts)
polgareth Sat 27-Oct-12 13:06:06

Some background. DS1 just started 6th form. He got 7A* and 5A at GCSE and is doing Maths, FM, Physics, Chemistry and Biology for AS.
He was always good at Maths and on G&T for it. Sadly despite my best efforts I never managed to get the school to extend him in Maths with the result that he has spent years being bored at it.

So he turned his attention to physics. Loves it and has read very widely ( as recommended by people on MN wink ). He wanted to study physics in some form and to try for Cambridge.

Since starting A levels he has found a renewed love for pure Maths, less so for applied Maths. He has been buzzing about Maths since he September, for the first time in his life he is being stretched and challenged and has a teacher who gallops along at his speed. He's also getting very good grades. He is nothing like as excited about physics, which may be down to the curriculum.
I have said to him, and he agrees, that it seems to me that he ought to think about Maths as a degree. Any advice on some suitable reading or research for him would be very welcome? He was also wondering whether doing a Maths degree would rule out doing a post grad in Physics?

bruffin England Thu 08-Nov-12 18:23:21

Ds chickened out this year. He doesn't get on with it as he is a cautious type and won't answer questions he is not really sure of as they deduct points if they get it wrong.

polgareth Thu 08-Nov-12 17:30:29

bruffin thanks.
DS found out about the Maths challenge on Monday and had a go at it on Tuesday. He reckons he did enough for a Gold but not to get through to the next round. It's a pity he wasn't told about it before (it was mostly second years who did it) as he would have spent half term preparing for it. He's very competitive and plans to nail it next year grin.

I sent off for a load of University prospectuses and he's looking in detail at what different Maths and physics courses cover.
He has no real idea what he wants to do.

bruffin England Tue 06-Nov-12 06:05:34

The senior maths challenge is today.

VintageRainBoots Tue 06-Nov-12 05:35:34

I have a bachelors and masters degree in physics and am deciding between a PhD in physics or maths (though I'm inclined towards the maths PhD since there are so few jobs for physics PhDs).

Though physics is full of maths, a pure maths background alone isn't sufficient preparation for postgraduate studies in physics. Your son will need to have taken some undergrad physics courses in order to be prepared for graduate-level physics.

Your son is still quite young, but does he know what he wants to do as an occupation? Professorships are very, very hard to come by in both the UK and the US (e.g., several hundred qualified applicants for every academic job opening). A maths or physics PhD allows one to work in finance, for example. Those with physics PhDs in the more applied areas can get jobs in engineering. And, of course, programming ("coding") is always an option for physics PhDs.

Yes, that's what I was thinking of, thank you! I just remember enjoying them. Sorry to have got the names the wrong way around.

I didn't mean to offend by describing pure maths as 'narrow' - I did only mean it in this context. It would be daft of me to knock it since I have only (huge) respect for them as can do it! grin

gfrnn Tue 30-Oct-12 23:27:39

LRD - yes, I think what you're thinking of is called the senior challenge. the olympiad follows from this and is rather more formidable. I would be inclined to make sure A level / STEP is under control first. I agree pure and applied would be a more direct preparation for physics and can avoid premature decisions for someone who is undecided. My difficulty with describing pure maths as "narrow" is that it might convey the impression that what is studied is restricted or lacking in breadth - not so: the material and mindset acquired are about as general as it gets; what gets squeezed is contact with practical applications. I'm in a (very) applied field and have no axe to grind.

gfrnn - oh, no worries, sorry if I've used the wrong term - is it the challenge at the early stages? The one qualifies you for the other IIRC, but as I say, his school will know about it. I mean the one you can just sit down and do.

A degree in Pure Maths would be quite narrow, I think: it's not a standard degree course for a reason. I did ask my brother (who lectures in Pure Maths) about that bit, and his view was that you'd be making yourself too narrow too early on. I expect that people who choose to do it do so for a reason, but it doesn't seem well suited to someone who thinks they might want to be a Physicist.

I agree with you about going from more theoretical to less theoretical.

gfrnn Tue 30-Oct-12 01:07:43

IShallWearMidnight's information agrees with mine - STEP is designed to be tough and early preparation is advisable.

LRDtheFeministDragon - I do not intend to be argumentative but my view on one or two points differs from yours. Anyone who gets anywhere in an olympiad will typically have done an awful lot of training as the olympiads are extremely competitive. Also, a primary degree in pure maths is far from narrow or restrictive - it's a degree in problem solving in its most abstract/general form.

One further observation : it's much easier to move from a more theoretical discipline to a less theoretical one: going from pure to applied or from applied to physics is straightforward, but going the other way is hard.

polgareth Mon 29-Oct-12 16:03:12

It's all Greek to me grin but I'll show DS when he gets home.

At college they are encouraged to do a few none exam related subjects to broaden their education. I suggested maybe Drama or Philosophy, and while he did see the girlfriend potential of doing something lighter he chose to do........ Scary Maths and Scary Physics.

Btw: that is only one person's view - thank god not everyone speaks like that or gestures like that! grin It is just a bit fun to see if he thinks this makes sense or not.

This may be useful - though it is, I believe, designed for students a year older than him. But there are several podcasts on the same page that might also help give a sense of what maths at university involves. Here's the first:

www.themathsfaculty.org/a-levels/item/194-should-i-be-a-mathematician?

He sounds very like my big brother! grin

I've just thought - does his school do the maths/physics olympiads? They're competitions you can take, you don't have to do any training, they're just puzzle-solving. It's not a big thing and certainly not anything comparable to STEP, but they are interesting because the questions tend to be phrased and set up rather differently from the A Level style, so it's quite a nice way for him to see whether or not he gets a strong feeling of enjoying this sort of maths, or not.

School will know if they've done it before, I think.

polgareth Mon 29-Oct-12 11:07:55

Programming shock he's a technophobe. I have told him about STEP. I think he needs to ask at college about it as well. He likes doing tests though hmmso will have a go at some and see what's involved. They do A level maths in 1st year and A level Further maths in second year at his 6th form so it's quite intensive.

advice from DD1 (studying Maths at Bath) - if you need STEP - start working on it NOW, with as many practice questions as you can possibly fit in. She left it till Y13, and found it pretty tough. Also depending on your course, it may be possible to fit in some Physics modules into a Maths degree - Dd has dropped a maths module for a physics one this year, as she reckons it was easier and didn't involve programming.

polgareth Mon 29-Oct-12 10:09:44

Thank you LRD, really useful for me as not only did I not go to university myself, I know nothing about Maths or Physics.

I will show him this thread and I think it should give him food for thought. I've also sent off for some prospectuses (?) so that he can see the content of different Maths / physics courses.

Ah, I see. That is tricky, because physics shades more into the applied side, so he's really wavering between two quite different sides. I reckon a pure maths undergraduate degree would be really, really specialized and to be honest, quite narrow and restrictive. But if he did a normal maths degree with some pure and some applied in it, he could easily switch in to physics at postgrad.

polgareth Mon 29-Oct-12 08:54:44

mummytime I think that so far he hasn't covered anything in Physics that he didn't already know, mainly because he has "studied" it as a hobby, whereas at last in maths he's learning new stuff.
LRD I mean pure Maths as in not applied Maths. So engineering doesn't appeal.

Do you mean 'pure maths' as in, just maths not a combined course, or 'pure maths' as in, not applied maths?

Most university maths courses are a mixture of pure and applied. If he did that, he could then specialize in the second and third year (depending on the course), and that sounds like a good bet for him, as he might change his enthusiasms again.

Lots of places would might let you change course mid-way through, though it'd not be something to rely on. It might be worth knowing that if you go to Cambridge, you can do a Part I in one subject (first year, or first two years) and a Part II in something else - so he could, if he liked, do Part I of the Maths tripos then Part II/III of the Physics?

I'm just suggesting in case he is wanting flexibility rather than the breadth of a combined degree, which is what it sounds like.

mummytime Belgium Sun 28-Oct-12 19:15:50

My DS is also enjoying Maths at present far more than Physics, I wonder what the problem is with the courses?

kingprawntikka Sun 28-Oct-12 19:07:54

Has he considered doing an BEng in some type of engineering. That combines physics and maths nicely.

polgareth Sun 28-Oct-12 14:15:45

Thanks gfrnn.
I have tracked down most of those books so he will have some heavy reading to do.

gfrnn Sun 28-Oct-12 00:23:48

some schools/sixth forms offer support for STEP; others do not. There are a number of free resources on the web for it, e.g. the guide by Stephen Siklos is a good start. For reading around maths: other than the books by Dunham/Mason which I mentioned in the previous post, you could try something by Eli Maor, or maybe "How to Solve it" by Polya.

boomting Sat 27-Oct-12 20:47:15

Has he considered doing a combined maths and physics degree? It's not offered at Cambridge (although all physics courses comprise a substantial bit of maths) but others do offer it.

polgareth Sat 27-Oct-12 20:10:15

gfrnn Does he do STEP through the 6th form college?
He has read quite a lot of Feynman but not the Mills, will look at that. Do you have any suggestions for reading around Maths?

gfrnn Sat 27-Oct-12 18:59:19

I have professional experience in both disciplines and would agree with FraterculaArctica's comments and confirm a maths degree would not close the door to physics, but it is likely to result in a career involving theory / modelling based work rather than one involving experimental / practical skills.
Regarding maths at Uni, he may need to think about doing STEP in addition to further maths to get into one of the top Uni's. This would be good experience in any case for tackling more difficult questions. For reading outside the curriculum, the books by William Dunham ("Journey through Genius") and John Mason ("Thinking Mathematically") would be a good start.
Regarding physics, Muncaster is a superior course text which will stretch a brighter student. For further reading, the various popular books by Richard Feynman are good reads, as also is "Space, time and quanta" by Robert Mills.

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