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What it means really to understand an equation?


It will take you some time to understand what should happen in different circumstances. You will have to solve the equations. Each time you solve the equations, you will learn something about the character of the solutions. To keep these solutions in mind, it will be useful also to study their meaning in terms of field lines and of other concepts. This is the way you will really “understand” the equations. That is the difference between mathematics and physics. Mathematicians, or people who have very mathematical minds, are often led astray when “studying” physics because they lose sight of the physics. They say: “Look, these differential equations—the Maxwell equations—are all there is to electrodynamics; it is admitted by the physicists that there is nothing which is not contained in the equations. The equations are complicated, but after all they are only mathematical equations and if I understand them mathematically inside out, I will understand the physics inside out.” Only it doesn’t work that way. Mathematicians who study physics with that point of view—and there have been many of them—usually make little contribution to physics and, in fact, little to mathematics. They fail because the actual physical situations in the real world are so complicated that it is necessary to have a much broader understanding of the equations.

What it means really to understand an equation—that is, in more than a strictly mathematical sense—was described by Dirac. He said: “I understand what an equation means if I have a way of figuring out the characteristics of its solution without actually solving it.” So if we have a way of knowing what should happen in given circumstances without actually solving the equations, then we “understand” the equations, as applied to these circumstances. A physical understanding is a completely unmathematical, imprecise, and inexact thing, but absolutely necessary for a physicist.