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Subject: Physicists and mathematicians

Author: Tord Romstad

Date: 00:49:45 08/19/98

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>P.S.  Here is an interesting story about physists and mathematicians....
>There was a famous physist (I can't remember his name) who claimed to be
>able to tell a physist from a mathematician by how they answered the
>following question:
>  Two brothers live 10 miles apart.  They both leave their houses one day,
>  at the same time, and walk on a straight line towards one another.  Each
>  brother is walking at 4 miles an hour.  One brother has a dog who leaves
>  his house with him.  The dog is running at 8 miles an hour.  When the dog
>  reaches the other brother, he turns around and goes back to his owner.
>  When he reaches his owner, he turns around again towards the other brother.
>  The dog keeps up this back and forth travel between the brothers until they
>  meet.  How far has the dog traveled?
>The fellow found that physists will reply with the correct answer instantly,
>while mathematicians will take several minutes to sum the series before
>giving the correct answer.  He found this to be an excellent descriminator
>between physists and mathematicians.

Being a mathematician myself, I feel slightly offended by this one.  :-)
I found the "physicist solution" instantly, and I am sure most other
mathematicians would solve it equally fast.

My personal experience is that mathematicians are generally much better than
physicists at spotting "tricks" which solve mathematical problems without
any calculations.  Most mathematicians I know also dislike calculataing.
Faced with your problem, a mathematician would instantly see that the
problem could be solved by summing a geometric series.  However, she would
not want do go through the labor of actually summing the series, and would
therefore spend a second looking for a simpler solution.  She would certainly
be able to find the trick.

Physicists are usually much better than mathematicians at making concrete
calculations.  Like the mathematician, the physician would also quickly
discover that the above problem could be solved by summing a geometric
series.  The physician, however, having confidence in his abilities to
calculate quickly and exactly, is much more likely to start summing
whithout looking for a simpler solution.


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