Nav: Home

Even physicists are 'afraid' of mathematics

November 11, 2016

Physicists avoid highly mathematical work despite being trained in advanced mathematics, new research suggests.

The study, published in the New Journal of Physics, shows that physicists pay less attention to theories that are crammed with mathematical details. This suggests there are real and widespread barriers to communicating mathematical work, and that this is not because of poor training in mathematical skills, or because there is a social stigma about doing well in mathematics.

Dr Tim Fawcett and Dr Andrew Higginson, from the University of Exeter, found, using statistical analysis of the number of citations to 2000 articles in a leading physics journal, that articles are less likely to be referenced by other physicists if they have lots of mathematical equations on each page.

Dr Higginson said: "We have already showed that biologists are put off by equations but we were surprised by these findings, as physicists are generally skilled in mathematics.

"This is an important issue because it shows there could be a disconnection between mathematical theory and experimental work. This presents a potentially enormous barrier to all kinds of scientific progress."

The research findings suggest improving the training of science graduates won't help, because physics students already receive extensive maths training before they graduate. Instead, the researchers think the solution lies in clearer communication of highly technical work, such as taking the time to describe what the equations mean.

Dr Fawcett said: "Physicists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work, to explain the theory in a way that their colleagues can quickly understand. It takes time to scrutinise the details of a technical article--even for the most distinguished physics professors--so with many competing demands on their time scientists may be choosing to skip over articles that take too much effort to digest."

"Ideally, the impact of scientific work should be determined by its scientific value, rather than by the presentational style," said Dr Higginson.

"Unfortunately, it seems valuable papers may be ignored if they are not made accessible. As we have said before: all scientists who care about the dialogue between theory and experiment should take this issue seriously, rather than claiming it does not exist."
Comment on 'Are physicists afraid of mathematics? by Andrew D. Higginson and Tim W. Fawcett is published in New Journal of Physics.

The statistical analysis is free-to-view at

University of Exeter

Related Mathematics Articles:

People can see beauty in complex mathematics, study shows
Ordinary people see beauty in complex mathematical arguments in the same way they can appreciate a beautiful landscape painting or a piano sonata.
Improving geothermal HVAC systems with mathematics
Sustainable heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, such as those that harness low-enthalpy geothermal energy, are needed to reduce collective energy use and mitigate the continued effects of a warming climate.
How the power of mathematics can help assess lung function
Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new computational way of analyzing X-ray images of lungs, which could herald a breakthrough in the diagnosis and assessment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases.
Mathematics pushes innovation in 4-D printing
New mathematical results will provide a potential breakthrough in the design and the fabrication of the next generation of morphable materials.
More democracy through mathematics
For democratic elections to be fair, voting districts must have similar sizes.
More Mathematics News and Mathematics Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...