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I'm an undergraduate now, and am faced with a genuine lack of ability when it comes to Physics. Seeing how my peers react to lectures and catch on faster, it's clear that the issue isn't my professors, but the way my mind takes (or doesn't take) to the material. I had similar trouble with high school Chemistry, and even in college, I completed all levels of Calculus and Differential Equations as well, and didn't struggle nearly as much in those. Doing the calculations in Physics or Chemistry is easy of course, but using definitions and formulas to relate real-world concepts to each other and work on them is extremely challenging to me.

Does anyone know why this might be? Advice is also appreciated on improving upon this weakness.

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    How are you at theoretical math that involves coming up with proofs or coming up with your own ways of solving problems? Also, you have compared your performance in various science subjects, but what is your interest and abilities in philosophy or literature? (In its original history as well as its methods, mathematics is a humanities subject, not a science one!) Sep 22 '20 at 6:36
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    I also find math to be easier, and for me it's because math is just so airtight and logical -- you can derive it all from axioms. And mathematicians are so careful about speaking precisely and filling in gaps in reasoning. Math is sort of easy in that regard. Also, to me understanding means mainly "how do I know, by my own logic, that this is correct" and that level of understanding seems easiest to attain in math.
    – littleO
    Sep 22 '20 at 6:42
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    I felt that I started to understand physics much better when I read an explanation from Terence Tao about how mathematical models work. I recorded it here. Before that, I got hung up on questions like "how do I define mass"? Now I have the view that mass is just a parameter one introduces in a mathematical model. One can make up any mathematical model they want -- it's a game we all can play (and maybe Newton was the first master of this game).
    – littleO
    Sep 22 '20 at 6:49
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    I would not put calculus in the "abstract" mathematics section. Sep 22 '20 at 11:19
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    Why should it signify anything?
    – user111388
    Sep 22 '20 at 11:46
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I have felt more or less the same about certain topics within mathematics and to an extent about physics, biology etc, so I thought I would share my experience and thoughts. My level is different from yours but the feelings are certainly similar.

In early years of high school, I did both math and physics competitions to the National Olympiad level but I picked math because I excelled at it much more than I did at physics. Continuing with the math, I competed at IMO's; however, the topics like combinatorics came much harder to me than the other areas. I have known a number of students who are way better than I was at combinatorics but overall did not remotely reach my level because of the other areas math. Nevertheless, I always felt that those students, if tried as hard and was interested in geometry, algebra, and number theory as much as I did, would have blown me out of the water.

Now I am about to finish my PhD and still feel the same way about topics like Algebra, Topology etc. They just don't come naturally to me as do Analysis or Probability. Venturing into non-math subjects, I failed art history and botany 101, the latter of which is often considered as a free-A class. On the other hand, I have heard similar stories from my peers who are doing excellent research in Algebra - they would struggle quite a bit in an introductory analysis course, for instance.

What I am trying to get at in my ramblings is that certain things are just easier for some people and not for others. This, compounded with the lack of interest you have in certain subjects, most likely lead to the feeling of "inadequacy" that you are perhaps describing.

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    Thanks for the answer. Now I know it's not just the OP and me, many others have similar problems as well.
    – Nobody
    Sep 22 '20 at 4:35
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    +1 I'll mention: Read-up on impostor syndrome. You can start on this site.
    – user2768
    Sep 22 '20 at 8:04
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    "I have felt more or less the same about certain topics within mathematics" --- This question and the comments below it should interest both you and @jlesk26. Regarding "I failed art history and botany 101, the latter of which is often considered as a free-A class", I got D's in several free-A classes as an undergraduate (sometimes, but not always, because I just couldn't get myself to study it at all) and I actually had to finish my undergraduate degree at another university, (continued) Sep 22 '20 at 9:36
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    despite otherwise satisfying far and above all the degree (and other) requirements for one field and nearly satisfying them for two other fields, due to a total ineptness in being able to satisfy a Foreign language requirement at my original (substantially higher ranked) university. Indeed, the requirement was not even a course requirement per se (but could be satisfied by 1 course), but rather a requirement (which students usually satisfied by getting an acceptable score on a placement test) to demonstrate a "2-years high school level" of competence that was one of the entrance requirements. Sep 22 '20 at 9:41
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That you are good or very good at abstract mathematics such as calculus but have less innate talent for Physics, Chemistry or so on. People have talents whether through nature or nurture. It is a fact (or axiom) of life.

I am partly the opposite by the sounds of it. I was very good at GCSE and OK at A-Level mathematics (so this is college for the UK but I think up to roughly High-School in the USA system). When I got to university and started taking maths courses as part of my engineering degree, I struggled in the maths modules. All the way through my education I was good at Physics and Electronics, including at the undergraduate level, but I could not do the maths when not applied.

All this means is that I am more easily able to be an electronics engineer than a pure mathematician, and that you are possibly more easily able to be a mathematician than a scientist or engineer. You or I could try to be something else but it may be easier for us to stick with our talents and we may do better in the fields we are naturally comfortable in.

If you have generally excelled in all subjects until this point you have a new lesson to learn. All people have limits to their abilities. These may be physical or mental and things get hard when you reach the limit. Some people learn early on that math or literature or music are not easy for them, some people only learn what one of their limits is when they reach undergraduate or post-graduate study when the challenge is great enough. Almost anyone can learn almost anything but not everyone finds it so easy.

Experiencing an academic challenge that seems insurmountable for the first time can be a life altering event. You have to come to terms with your limitations or find new ways to work around them or overcome them. It is OK to find things hard. It is OK to find some things too hard. All it means is that you are not as naturally talented, or have not found the way to think about something that works for you yet, or both.

What you choose to do is up to you. What you find easier to do is not up to you. What you are interested in doing is only partially up to you. It is your life, pick what you want to try and do and go try to do it :-)

P.S. Literature was not a talent for me so I hope those with more ability can correct my poor use of language and spelling in the edits.

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  • I am going to skirt a direct Thank you comment by poiting out that GoodDeeds was kind enough to correct various spelling and typographical erros in my work that I was blind to. They have a skill that I do not have but through collaboration we may have generated something better than we could have done separately. (also ty gd ;-))
    – TafT
    Sep 22 '20 at 14:42

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