Study: Math scares everyone, even physicists

"We were surprised by these findings, as physicists are generally skilled in mathematics," said researcher Andrew Higginson.
By Brooks Hays   |   Nov. 11, 2016 at 11:56 AM

EXETER, England, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Math is hard, even for physicists. New research suggests physicists are less likely to lend their focus to theories underpinned by complex mathematical details.

The findings -- detailed in the New Journal of Physics -- are compelling because they suggest a "fear," or at least an avoidance, of math is prevalent even among scientists well-trained in high-level mathematics.

"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," study co-author Andrew Higginson, a researcher at the University of Exeter, said in a news release.

The new study and resulting hypothesis is based on analysis of 2,000 papers published in a leading physics journal. The researchers tallied citations of previous studies in each paper. They found studies with an abundance of mathematical equations on each page were less likely to be referenced in new papers.

Researchers suggest the disconnect is a problem of communication, not knowledge or skills. Therefore, the solution is language. Authors of the new study recommend physicists find ways to better communicate complex math -- find ways to explain what complicated mathematical formulas mean.

The math aversion of physicists isn't exactly fear in the traditional sense; many may simply be trying to save time and avoid confusion.

"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," said co-author Tim Fawcett, who is also an Exeter researcher. "It takes time to scrutinize 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."

Whether the aversion is explained by fear or time-management, the lesson is the same for physicists as it is for schoolchildren. Restricted access to mathematical ideas isn't good for anyone.

"Unfortunately, it seems valuable papers may be ignored if they are not made accessible," Higginson said. "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."

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