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Brains for Theoretical physics

  1. Sep 17, 2012 #1
    Does one need to be relatively super intelligent (to a human that is average) to make a significant contribution to the world of theoretical physics ie something on the same caliber as Relativity?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2012 #2
    I am convinced that someone needs to be pretty smart (say, top 25%) to be even able to comprehend graduate level physics. Of these, only 50% will complete a PhD.

    Of these, 2/3 will be doing experimental work. Of the 1/3 that do theoretical work, probably only 10% do something groundbreaking.

    So you have 1/240 people do something groundbreaking in theoretical physics in their PhDs.

    Note that 2 standard deviations above average is "top 5%" and 3 standard deviations is "top 2.5%".
  4. Sep 19, 2012 #3


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    I'm not going to comment on your other estimates, but what you wrote here is wrong. In a normal distribution, 2 s.d.s above the mean represents the top 2.3% or so. 3 s.d.s represents the top 0.1% or so. Remember, you're talking about a single (upper) tail here.
  5. Sep 19, 2012 #4
    Ok thank you. I never took statistics as a class and just learned it on the side in lab classes. I'm a grad student in physics, and if my skill in statistics reflects my overall intellect, its clear that not everyone can do high level physics even in classes, let alone produce groundbreaking research in theoretical physics.

    It is also clear that the vast majority of people in theoretical physics do not produce groundbreaking work. If they did the work would no longer be groundbreaking.
  6. Sep 24, 2012 #5
    Not even the genius down the street is coming up with anything ground breaking in theoretical physics. Sure, being 'smart' goes hand in hand with being a physicist, but to produce work that is "ground-breaking" takes more than just smarts. I would say, most people producing ground-breaking work or who have, were wise men and women. Being smart was just something that aided them down their path.
  7. Sep 24, 2012 #6
    What is a "significant contribution"?

    If you're comparing the development of special relativity, which changed the entire foundation of modern physics, to the contribution the average physicist makes, then most people have contributed almost nothing.

    However, it is totally possible for a competent physicist to make significant contributions to his/her field, but you must understand that these days ones field is often restrict to a very narrow and specific problem or problems.

    You can't compare the work of modern physicists today to the work of the greats like Einstein or Newton or Maxwell, because Science today progresses by small steps, and not by great bounds like was possible in the early days.
  8. Sep 24, 2012 #7
    What is intelligence? There is no adequate metric for intelligence. Some people cite IQ scores, but how is it the my mother got a higher IQ score than Richard Feynam, who "only" got a score of 125 (smart, but technically not highly gifted according to psychometrics, a field at which he scoffed), yet he was one of the greatest geniuses the scientific world has ever seen. There is too much individual variation. Hell, ask my mother; she was registered as highly gifted in school, but she wasn't an exceptional performer (granted, she probably had a learning disability).

    Intelligence is as intelligence does. And, I might add, one is only going to find out if one is capable of being a great physicist by trying.

    EDIT: To address the topic more directly, no, I don't think many are capable of being legendary physicists like Einstein. In fact, there has been research done at McMaster University that suggests that Einstein's peculiar neuroanatomy may have contributed to his genius.

    http://lifescience.bioquant.com/gallery/the-exceptional-brain-of-albert-einstein [Broken]

    However, there probably more people than you'd think capable of making a career out of physics and contributing in some way. Like I said, the only way to know for sure is to try.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
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