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Subject: Re: Physicists and mathematicians

Author: Dan Homan

Date: 02:27:07 08/19/98

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On August 19, 1998 at 03:49:45, Tord Romstad wrote:

>>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.
>

I'm sure you are right.  The story was actually told to me by a
mathematician who was relating stories of Jon Von Neumann's calculational
powers.  I hope you noted the ending (which is clipped above) where
Von Neumann leaves the famous physicist astounded.

>
>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.
>

Agreed.

>
>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.

I'm am not sure I agree here :)

 - Dan

P.S. To show you that we physicist can laugh at ourselves....  Here is the
"Physicist's Bill of Rights", I am not sure who the author is ....
(probably a mathematician :)

(I know this is getting of topic, but I can't resist, perhaps someone
  would like to write a chess programmer's bill of rights.)

  We hold these postulates to be intuitively obvious, that all physicists
  are born equal, to a first approximation, and are endowed by their
  creator with certain discrete privileges...

  I.   To approximate all problems to ideal cases.

  II.  To use order of magnitude calculations whenever deemed necessary
       (i.e. wherever one can get away with it).

  III. To use the rigorous method of "squinting" for solving problems
       more complex than the addition of positive real integers.

  IV.  To dismiss all functions which diverge as "nasty" and "unphysical".

  V.   To invoke the uncertainty principle when confronted by confused
       individuals.

  VI.  To the extensive use of "bastard notations" where conventional
       mathematics will not work.

  VII. To justify shaky reasoning on the basis that it gives the right
       answer.

  VIII. To cleverly choose convenient initial conditions, using the
        principle of general triviality.

  IX.  To use plausible arguments in place of proofs, and thenceforth
       refer to those arguments as proofs.

  X.   To take on faith any principle which seems right but cannot be
       proved.


>
>Tord




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