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Does A Scientist Have To Be Good At Math?

by Melanie Fine (edited)

The short answer is "It can't hurt." The physical sciences, such as Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry, all require a great deal of math to master. That is often why these disciplines are referred to as the "hard sciences." When it comes to high school sciences, however, the level of mathematics knowledge required is relatively minimal. One could successfully complete AP Chemistry with only seventh grade algebra skills and an understanding of base ten logarithms.

High school and AP Physics: requires algebra and knowledge of trigonometric functions sine, cosine and tangent.

AP Physics C: requires Calculus

AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2: requires Algebra and the trigonometric functions sine, cosine and tangent.


However, it has been my experience that a student who is not at, or above, grade level in mathematics, will struggle in these courses. This is not because she hasn't been exposed to the prerequisite skills, but because there is either some aspect of number sense that has not yet been fully developed, or the perpetuated belief that they aren't good at math. If at any point in her elementary years a child is falling behind in mathematics, get her the help she needs immediately. Chalking it up to "not being good at math" is the greatest disservice you can do to your child's education, and will stunt the budding scientist within her.


There are some fields of science in which math is not paramount, such as many of the biological sciences. Whereas I firmly believe that mathematics facility can only serve a biological scientist well, high school Biology will place minimal demands on a student's math skills. In college and beyond, where research is a necessary component to biology, mathematics competency will prove itself not only valuable, but necessary many times over.


"If your level of mathematical competence is low," explains biologist E.O. Wilson, "plan to raise it, but know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice about specializing in fields that require alternation of experiments and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry. For every scientist, there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence."


Temple Grandin, the great animal biologist, barreled through her required finite math courses with the help of tutors, and devoted hard work in order to achieve her science goals.


In short, if math isn't your thing, then make it your thing. After all, any skill can be mastered through diligence and hard work. Then, whether or not math is an essential component of your career, it will not be a stumbling block for you.



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