Avoiding the Crackpot Trap: Tips for Amateur Physicists with Graduate Knowledge

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In summary, the conversation discusses the dilemma of someone with a BS/MS in physics and engineering who wants to keep their knowledge up to date and progress in their understanding of theoretical physics. They have self-taught themselves advanced concepts and are looking for advice on study techniques and ways to stay sharp without becoming a "crackpot." One person shares their own experience of returning to graduate school in their 50s and obtaining a PhD in physics, which has helped them get a job as a physics researcher. They also offer advice on keeping math skills sharp and finding a balance between theory and experimentation in the field of astrophysics.
  • #1
paralleltransport
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Hi all,

Here's my background:

I graduated with BS/MS in physics and engineering. At that point, I think I could have continued to grad school in theoretical physics at any top department, given I was doing quite well. For family reasons, I picked an engineering career. Having worked long enough in engineering, I realize I may be able to retire early. My true passion is theoretical physics, and I would want to return to it once I have saved up enough.

I had enough Quantum/stat mech/classical field under my belt probably at the level of landau lifshitz vol 1-3 and 5. I've also self taught myself QFT and statistical field theory. Enough to read papers from the 70-80's and understand them with some persistence and googling.

Here's my dilemma:

However, it seems I've reached the limit of what standard textbooks can teach me, and unless I pick up a research topic to keep focused, it's going to be difficult to progress or stay sharp. Most of the advice for "amateur physicists" is only addressing undergrad level knowledge.

1. For people who are "amateur physicists" with graduate physics knowledge, how did you keep your knowledge up to date? How did you keep progressing?

2. If I just pick up random papers on arxiv, I'd just be an amateur crackpot since there's no feedback mechanism for me to filter what is fundamental knowledge and what is the latest fad/incorrect. How do I avoid that?

3. Ideally i'd like to try small research problems as a side gig to stay sharp but it's a bit difficult to pick a problem without an academic advisor. I found working on a small research project really keeps my mind active and learning focused. I'd be curious to hear if anyone tried doing theory research as an amateur (maybe publish on arxiv?)

TLDR: self-learned grad level core. Would like to stay sharp (problem solving skills & research) with hope to return to academia one day, but not be a crackpot. Looking for advice on study techniques.
 
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Tl;dr or tldr stands for “too long; didn't read.” While the internet acronym can criticize a piece of writing as overly long, it often is used to give a helpful, witty, or snarky summary of a much longer story or complicated phenomenon.​
paralleltransport said:
I graduated with BS/MS in physics and engineering. At that point, I think I could have continued to grad school in theoretical physics at any top department, given I was doing quite well
I recognize that ! Went on to do a PhD in experimental HEP and only then went into industry -- rather late, that is.
paralleltransport said:
I realize I may be able to retire early
Envy you ! Had to work until thrown out because of old age.
paralleltransport said:
it seems I've reached the limit of what standard textbooks can teach me
That's quite a statement ! You must be either really brilliant or so inexperienced you lack all modesty.
paralleltransport said:
Most of the advice for "amateur physicists" is only addressing undergrad level knowledge.
Or perhaps just an arrogant physicist. 'only' ?:) !

TLDR:

Obvious: you want to become a science advisor on PF !

##\ ##
 
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  • #3
That's quite a statement ! You must be either really brilliant or so inexperienced you lack all modesty.
Maybe both, but probably just the latter. Maybe I can clarify.

Let's say I can keep reading books about pre-1980's physics and obtain more breadth. However I sorely lack depth. In school, I found it was more efficient to have a small theory research problem to work on to have the mind have peak focus levels.

Regarding most advice doesn't address grad level, this is from personal experience posting both on stackexchange and here. Here's an example: https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2016/8/13/so-you-want-to-learn-physics. I was already done with the list she has when I graduated. The question is what's next?
 
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  • #5
sysprog said:
@paralleltransport: Are you sure that you're "already done with" the Feynman Lectures? (which are linked on Ms. Fowler's list) . . .
Most of the topics in there have been covered in my undergrad physics in some way or another. I read vol. I & II in high school. Vol. III I skipped and learned from standard sources (griffiths).
 
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  • #6
I'll tell you what I did in a similar situation. After I retired early from my engineering job, I went back to graduate school and got a PhD in physics. I was in my early 50's. There's nothing like real courses and discussions and seminars with real physicists to help you learn the material correctly. Now I have a job as a physics researcher which I enjoy immensely.
 
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  • #7
phyzguy said:
I'll tell you what I did in a similar situation. After I retired early from my engineering job, I went back to graduate school and got a PhD in physics. I was in my early 50's. There's nothing like real courses and discussions and seminars with real physicists to help you learn the material correctly. Now I have a job as a physics researcher which I enjoy immensely.
Hi, that's really inspirational! I am tempted to do the same. In the meantime just keep my physics skills in maintenance mode. What difficulties did you encounter if any? And just curious are you doing theory or experiment?
 
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  • #8
I really didn't find it that difficult. I spent a couple of months studying for the Physics GRE so I could do well as proof that I could still do the work. It's important that your math skills are sharp, so if they have gotten rusty you need to work on that. I'm in astrophysics, so it's a mixture of theory and observations.
 
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  • #9
phyzguy said:
I really didn't find it that difficult. I spent a couple of months studying for the Physics GRE so I could do well as proof that I could still do the work. It's important that your math skills are sharp, so if they have gotten rusty you need to work on that. I'm in astrophysics, so it's a mixture of theory and observations.
OK great. I'm pretty confident about GRE i got perfect score last time I took it, most of it used stuff I learned in high school. I do assume a lot of engineering skills carry over if you have to do a lot of simulation/computer work.
 
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  • #10
Phyzguy's remarks were right on point. Also, do not just "maintain" your physics skills. If you have taken all the grad courses in physics from your work or employer supported, start taking courses in electrical engineering, mathematics, or aerospace engineering. "Extend" your math. You will not like to hear this based on your previous post, but it is important at times to broaden your focus. At times, knowledge in an allied area can allow you to go deeper in the area you wish to study. It is kind of like deep-sea diving, where you have to pause at certain levels to allow you to go deeper.
I also returned to school at an relatively advanced age. My Phys GRE, Regular GRE, were much better than they were when I took them as a senior undergrad. My GPA in courses were employer supported actually increased from my GPA while doing my masters. I expect this is why I was able to get into the graduate program again.

Accurate mathematical underpinning, reproducibility in results,not getting ahead of your skis (as is often quoted extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence), and conferring with more senior researchers is a good way to avoid being a crackpot

Best of Luck
 
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  • #11
Well you can still be a crackpot even with a PhD.
It depends really on what you have said/written and how does it resonate with mainstream community.
 
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  • #12
paralleltransport said:
Most of the topics in there have been covered in my undergrad physics in some way or another. I read vol. I & II in high school. Vol. III I skipped and learned from standard sources (griffiths).
The post reminded me of an overview by Gerard 't Hooft:

(added as a tribute to this Nobel prize winner, and for the sake of possible other PF readers)

##\ ##
 
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  • #13
paralleltransport said:
pre-1980's physics
Have you seen John Baez’s Stuff ?
He has been blogging since 1993. Much of it is over my head, but I have learned quite a bit.
 
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  • #14
Keith_McClary said:
Have you seen John Baez’s Stuff ?
He has been blogging since 1993. Much of it is over my head, but I have learned quite a bit.
His book on differential forms is quite good imo, I'm not familiar with his research. At first glance his recent research doesn't seem like central to the topics I'm interested in (HEP, condensed matter).

I'm happy looking at 1980's physics which is settled, in the interest of not being a crackpot.
 
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  • #15
RobWallace said:
but the odds of that being the case are probably rather low., but possibly better than my chances of winning lotto!
Probably not.
 
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  • #16
mpresic3 said:
It is kind of like deep-sea diving, where you have to pause at certain levels to allow you to go deeper.
Is this analogy maybe a bit extreme? ##-## you have to "pause at certain levels" deep underwater because of partial pressures ##-## I think that the good advice to get acclimated in stages in your research or work area is not quite as vital as the 'how to not get the bends' advice is.
 
  • #17
paralleltransport said:
in the interest of not being a crackpot.
John also has the famous Crackpot Index.

But, I'm accumulating math and physics papers faster than I can read them. Maybe I can send you some and you can read them and explain them. :smile:
 
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  • #18
RobWallace said:
Harsh. The odds of that lotto win being 8,150,060 to 1. Is the proposition that the grand unification group could be the automorphism group of a loop or quasigroup that unlikely to be true?
If it's not true, then it's 100% likely that it's not true ##-## I think that although probabilistic models are applicable in the lottery, they are not warrantedly applicable here.
 
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  • #19
MathematicalPhysicist said:
Well you can still be a crackpot even with a PhD.
It depends really on what you have said/written and how does it resonate with mainstream community.
And you can be a Crackpot according to what the mainstream community thinks and yet turn out to be right in the end. For scientists who have a Phd and publish in peer reviewed journals that term should not be used even for unpopular ideas.
 
  • #20
Do you live in a University town? Most professors have incredible discretion on who is associated with their teams. You just need to demonstrate some value. Start by learning their work.
 
  • #22
RobWallace said:
You wish to hear from someone doing amateur theory research.
No, that's not what the OP asked for. And even if he did, it's out of bounds for discussion here as we don't discuss personal research on PF.
 
  • #23
paralleltransport said:
For people who are "amateur physicists" with graduate physics knowledge, how did you keep your knowledge up to date?
To be clear, this is OK as a request for how people keep their knowledge of mainstream physics up to date. It should not, however, be taken as permission to discuss personal theories.
 
  • #24
Moderator's note: A number of off topic posts have been deleted. Thread reopened.
 
  • #25
This may be personal bias, but I've found that the best way to keep in touch with current research is to make friends. I've learned more about current research topics from lunchtime chats than from lectures or conference talks. Everyone has their own interest areas and naturally has their own niche of knowledge. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do about your area of interest, and you'll pick up things pretty quickly and with far less struggle.
 
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  • #26
bob012345 said:
or scientists who have a Phd and publish in peer reviewed journals that term should not be used even for unpopular ideas.
The OP used the wprd. Should professional physicists not reply?:wink:
 
  • #27
Vanadium 50 said:
The OP used the wprd. Should professional physicists not reply?:wink:
Of course, I meant using that word casually about professional physicists doing work not exactly embraced by the mainstream.
 

Related to Avoiding the Crackpot Trap: Tips for Amateur Physicists with Graduate Knowledge

1. What does it mean to be a "crackpot" in science?

Being a "crackpot" in science means that you hold beliefs or theories that are not supported by evidence or accepted by the scientific community. It is often associated with being overly confident or stubborn in one's ideas, and ignoring or rejecting established scientific principles.

2. How can I avoid being a crackpot in my scientific work?

To avoid being a crackpot in your scientific work, it is important to always base your ideas and theories on solid evidence and established principles. This means conducting thorough research, consulting with other experts in the field, and being open to criticism and feedback. It is also important to constantly challenge and question your own ideas and be willing to change them in light of new evidence.

3. What are some red flags that I may be a crackpot in my scientific work?

Some red flags that may indicate you are a crackpot in your scientific work include making grandiose claims without sufficient evidence, refusing to consider alternative explanations or evidence, and disregarding established scientific principles in favor of your own beliefs. Additionally, if your ideas are not supported or accepted by other experts in the field, this may be a sign that your work is not grounded in sound scientific principles.

4. Can someone with unconventional ideas still be a legitimate scientist?

Yes, a scientist can have unconventional ideas and still be considered legitimate. However, it is important for these ideas to be based on evidence and supported by other experts in the field. It is also important for the scientist to be open to criticism and willing to revise their ideas in light of new evidence. Being a legitimate scientist means being committed to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, not just advancing one's own agenda or beliefs.

5. How can I respond to criticism of my work without being defensive or dismissive?

One way to respond to criticism of your work without being defensive or dismissive is to approach it with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Ask for specific feedback and evidence to support the criticism, and be willing to consider alternative perspectives. It is also important to maintain a professional and respectful attitude, even if you disagree with the criticism. Remember, constructive criticism can help improve your work and make it more scientifically sound.

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