Can a physicist learn his math tools from wikipedia alone?

  • Thread starter andytoh
  • Start date
  • #26
I attempted this. Basically, some specific topics I was able to learn, while others I was in need of an alternative source. Do not waste your time by attempting it.
 
  • #27
ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
35,977
4,679
I disagree. I first studied tensors years ago. Then couple of years later I studied tensors again and was confused at how different it was. I was never given an explanation of the reason for the difference, but accepted it nevertheless. Only last year did it all make sense to me, thanks to wikipedia:

Look, you ASKED, and a number of us have given you the answer. If you don't care about it and still think you can be a physicist with using only Wikipedia, then I am not going to try to save you from yourself.

Good luck!

Zz.
 
  • #28
Astronuc
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
19,614
2,997
Can a physicist learn his math tools from wikipedia alone?
:surprised :surprised :surprised

To use an analogy, you can't learn a foreign language just by buying a dictionary.

And Wikipedia is an incomplete "dictionary" with lots of typos...

Wiki is OK for quick reference, provided you know enough to spot the mistakes - at least the truth of maths propositions are not a matter of opinion, unlike some other parts of Wiki. But it's not a teaching tool, and not intended to be one.
Good analogy.

Wikipedia is should not be used as a primary learning tool for the novice. I reiterate what others have already stated - get ye some good texts books which have been peer reviewed and subject to quality control. That's not to say there aren't errors, but there is less likely errors in a controlled source than in an uncontrolled source that can be edited by anyone.

andytoh said:
I studied the tangent space of a manifold from 3 different textbooks, each presenting it in different ways, which confused the hell out of me. Of course, no explanation was given for the different presentations...until Wikipedia explained it to me:
You've more or less answered your question. Would you have understood the material in Wikipedia without prior study of the math? No single source is adequate.
 
  • #29
104
0
The thing that makes me a little bit peeved is when someone searches a topic on wikipedia and believes they can talk about.

A lot of these people try to disprove the basic laws of physics and other things. I've seen people try to argue that these laws are wrong and incorrect. And many of you also see these types of documents & posts =p. Many of their arguments fail because of their math or their general thinking.
 
  • #30
2,076
2
Many of their arguments fail because of their math or their general thinking.
Or the lack of either. :biggrin:
 
  • #31
As per ZapperZ: Practice and problem solving reign supreme. I also agree to an extent that these mathematical methods cannot be learned solely from wikipedia.

I've tried, on occasion, to pick up new techniques through this avenue - it doesn't work. Whilst I note this, I also must say that I do believe there's a certain number of levels on which Wiki can contribute. Of course there's the obvious refreshers - no doubt that this is a valuable resource for difficult problems - I would say that upper undergraduate level problems should *only* be observed when you already have an idea of how it works.

For low level undergraduate work, whilst the same may apply, generally the Wikipedia pages are notably more comprehensive and easier to follow - mostly because Wikipedia by nature stores separate problems in different pages. After covering enough physics/mathematics, you'll certainly note that this isn't the way things will be learned.
The solution to uncountable numbers of physics problems is a result of the application of various techniques - thus to fully understand a single issue, one must understand various others.

Finally, I feel not the need to mention much about the fact that Wikipedia is lacking in the most important part of a physicists work, the problems! Throughout most of my undergraduate time, there were at least several courses that I struggled to follow reading lecture notes along (I'd personally be very surprised if this wasn't the case for most people) - problems provide the application and real-life situations you need to get that extra level of understanding.
 
  • #32
184
0
I used wikipedia the other day to refresh myself on the photoelectric effect
 
  • #33
1,256
2
Are you putting texts such as Arken on the SAME level on the same topic that you find in Wikipedia?

Not two things are the same, Z, for if they were their would be one thing. And besides this, no two things in the physical world, much less the social world (utuility as a physics reference), are ever equal.

Yes, Arfken is better then wikipedia; it is even 100$ better, as the price difference between the two indicates. But this is only to say that Arfken is good, not that wikipedia is bad. If the choice for a particular topic is between wikipedia and nothing, than wikipedia is the clear winner, even if some articles contain errors.

I'm sorry, but this is nonsense. Any instructor can tell you the pain and suffering one has to go through in correcting wrong information and impression that a student has gained.

Students like to moan and complain whenever possible, no instructor should embrace this. If you are really having trouble, try explaining to the student why their are misconceptions about the topic, this makes them feel smarter then the author who was wrong and so they respond well, and forget to complain.

This is highly dubious. It is the DETAILS that differentiate between a superficial knowledge of something and understanding something well. And what exactly would one use to "check" these details, since you have dismissed "authority figures".

And I maintain the details are learned on a case by case, in the field, sink or swim method. Not from school learning, which really only has the purpose of familiarizing ourselves enough to be comfortable.

Right.. and we really don't care if your background information is correct or not.

Like I said, once someone is confortable with magnetic fields and laplaces equation in general, they will find it easy to learn/relearn the Garnett treatment of cylindrically symmetric magnetic coil configurations as applied to the equipment they work with.

This is absurd. You are using anecdotal instances and exceptions, and turning them into a rule.

I don't understand, you think existential generalization is absurd?

Let [tex]Sx[/tex] be the statement "x is a shoddy proffessor". Then if my professor is named [tex] p [/tex], then I am using the deduction that:

[tex] Sp \Rightarrow (\exists x) (Sx) [/tex]
 
  • #34
ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
35,977
4,679
Not two things are the same, Z, for if they were their would be one thing. And besides this, no two things in the physical world, much less the social world (utuility as a physics reference), are ever equal.

Yes, Arfken is better then wikipedia; it is even 100$ better, as the price difference between the two indicates. But this is only to say that Arfken is good, not that wikipedia is bad. If the choice for a particular topic is between wikipedia and nothing, than wikipedia is the clear winner, even if some articles contain errors.

I disagree. Since you seem to think that anecdotal evidence is valid, then I can bring out many examples of anecdotal evidence out of Wikipedia in which nothing is better than wrong information. I have pointed out a long time ago about the errors in the Accelerator Physics section (which someone later on got wind and "corrected" it). So using my anedotal evidence and using your logic, I can make an "existential generalization" to deduce that the whole of Wikipedia is crap.

If you think this is illogical, look at what you're doing.

Students like to moan and complain whenever possible, no instructor should embrace this. If you are really having trouble, try explaining to the student why their are misconceptions about the topic, this makes them feel smarter then the author who was wrong and so they respond well, and forget to complain.

But you seem to think that instructors have all the time in the world to babysit a student's misconception. Considering that most physics instructors have to (i) deal with the subject matter to be covered (ii) often have to teach the mathematics at the same time, the last thing they need is to correct misconception that should never have happened in the first place IF the students had paid attention to more legitimate sources.

Having taught undergrad intro physics class myself, AND discussion with many physics instructors, I find that this is something that makes very inefficient use of the lessons, especially when it shouldn't happen in the first place. You, on the other hand, find nothing wrong with it.

And I maintain the details are learned on a case by case, in the field, sink or swim method. Not from school learning, which really only has the purpose of familiarizing ourselves enough to be comfortable.

Like I said, once someone is confortable with magnetic fields and laplaces equation in general, they will find it easy to learn/relearn the Garnett treatment of cylindrically symmetric magnetic coil configurations as applied to the equipment they work with.

Not if what they familiarized themselves with were wrong! Being comfortable with faulty knowledge is the worst thing a student can ever have. What it sends is the message that mediocrity is tolerated and that superficial knowledge is sufficient. Nothing could be further than the truth.

I think it is highly irresponsible for you to suggest that one can learn the mathematics all one needs to become a physicist from Wikipedia alone, especially when you have zero evidence of that being done successfully. You were too free with your speculation and had no qualm in turning them into definite statements. Considering that there ARE students in here who do pay attention to what is being said in this forum, I cannot believe that you never even consider the consequences of your actions.

Unless you have sufficient evidence of such a thing being done successfully as per the issue in the OP, I consider such statements as overly speculative and subject to our global Guidelines.

Zz.
 
  • #35
359
3
I never meant for two science advisors to be arguing like this.

Perhaps I should have rephrased my opening post. Since my other thread "Should a physicist study math proofs" led to the conclusion that physicists don't have the time to study math so rigorously, I was wondering if they could they give themselves a crash lesson on a new math tool from wikipedia if they did not have the time to learn the new math tool from a textbook and do exercises from it. Also, in the opening post I was making the assumption that Wikipedia's content is accurate.
 
Last edited:
  • #36
The answer to the OP, ignoring the (in)validity of Wikipedia, is an easy "no".

No person in any trade can learn all their information, tools, whatever, from one source. To do so would be disastrous. You would never become familiar with the other works out there, the other opinions, and the other methods of thinking.

You would be a pretty poor physicist if you learned all your information from one source and one source alone in any area.
 
  • #37
ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
35,977
4,679
I never meant for two science advisors to be arguing like this.

Perhaps I should have rephrased my opening post. Since my other thread "Should a physicist study math proofs" led to the conclusion that physicists don't have the time to study math so rigorously, I was wondering if they could they give themselves a crash lesson on a new math tool from wikipedia if they did not have the time to learn the new math tool from a textbook and do exercises from it. Also, in the opening post I was making the assumption that Wikipedia's content is accurate.

Why don't you test this out yourself? Study all the math you want from Wikipedia, and then solve the first problem in Chapter 2 of Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics. I have $10 here that says you can't.

Zz.
 
  • #38
2,076
2
Perhaps I should have rephrased my opening post. Since my other thread "Should a physicist study math proofs" led to the conclusion that physicists don't have the time to study math so rigorously, I was wondering if they could they give themselves a crash lesson on a new math tool from wikipedia if they did not have the time to learn the new math tool from a textbook and do exercises from it. Also, in the opening post I was making the assumption that Wikipedia's content is accurate.

If you're still not satisfied after nearly three pages of beating a dead horse, the best is for you to conduct a test. Pick a maths of physics topic that you have absolutely no idea of, except for basic requirements, (like super-duper-haemotherapytopological cohomology or something) and start learning it from nothing but Wikipedia. Tell us when you're done.

And, btw, textbooks (at least maths and physics) are not novels. You HAVE to do the exercises. The least you should do is attempt some of them.

Edit: Looks like Zz made it short and snappy while I was typing. :)
 
Last edited:
  • #39
1,256
2
I think it is highly irresponsible for you to suggest that one can learn the mathematics all one needs to become a physicist from Wikipedia alone, especially when you have zero evidence of that being done successfully.

A wikipedia physicist would have his work cut out for him, in that his exercises consist of filling in the details and correcting the inconsistencies in the articles he reads.

A wikipedia physicist would be in the bottom category of all bachelor's degree physicists. He might sometimes sound smarter than he is, because of reciting a line of an advanced article he read, but most of the time would find himself feeling quite lost and always playing catch up to his colleagues -- but there are already tens of thousands of people who do this as a career!

I didn't advise anyone to become a physicist by studying wikipedia, nor is there any chance that anyone would seriously attempt this. I am answering to the original poster, who asked if it would be possible. You Zz think that it is impossible, and this is because you have respect for our subject and profession and the people who practice it, and we all agree that no respectable person would base a career off of wikipedia.

So using my anedotal evidence and using your logic, I can make an "existential generalization" to deduce that the whole of Wikipedia is crap.

Actually that is a "universal generalization", and in this case is a fallacy. What I did is different, I said there is at least one bad physicist and so it is possible to become a bad physicist. If you concluded that it is possible for a wikipedia article to be bad, this would have been valid. But concluding that all of wikipedia is crap is as invalid as claiming that all physicist are bad, which I never did.

Unfortunately their are bad physicists out there, knowing less then one would gain from a good study of wikipedia. I am saying that it would be possible to achieve a miserable career by studying wikipedia, just like the careers achieved by the bachelors physicists who didn't work hard enough as undergraduates. Undesirable, but possible.

Not if what they familiarized themselves with were wrong! Being comfortable with faulty knowledge is the worst thing a student can ever have. What it sends is the message that mediocrity is tolerated and that superficial knowledge is sufficient. Nothing could be further than the truth.

I agree with this, but the popular books that turn many people onto physics are far more ripe with misinformation than wikipedia! Compared to these, wikipedia is a golden textbook. I find sophomore level students who come in preloaded with an array of misconceptions about QM and relativity. Again, the way to solve this is by showing them a "bigger picture", one containing their old misconception but also containing a more consistent and satisfying picture, a perspective from which they can feel proud to no longer be part of the misconceived masses.

But you seem to think that instructors have all the time in the world to babysit a student's misconception. Considering that most physics instructors have to (i) deal with the subject matter to be covered (ii) often have to teach the mathematics at the same time, the last thing they need is to correct misconception that should never have happened in the first place IF the students had paid attention to more legitimate sources.

Yes, class time should not be used to correct a misconception that only a fraction of the class has. Unfortunately more misconceptions come from reading correct material incorrectly, as opposed to reading incorrect material correctly.

I think it is highly irresponsible for you to suggest that one can learn the mathematics all one needs to become a physicist from Wikipedia alone, especially when you have zero evidence of that being done successfully. You were too free with your speculation and had no qualm in turning them into definite statements. Considering that there ARE students in here who do pay attention to what is being said in this forum, I cannot believe that you never even consider the consequences of your actions.

First of all, I apologize if I made wikipedia physicist sound like an attractive career direction, because it absolutely is not. To me, the question was hypothetical, and designed to probe the extent to which a physicist can have an unrigorous training. I answered the OP in the affirmative, because I have seen a few (abnormal, unusual, atypical) physicists who know less then would a good student of wikipedia, and so it might be hypothetically possible.

But the accusations that I am "free in speculation" with "no qualms about turning these into definite statements" or my using "anecdotal evidence" lead me to make the following sarcastic proposal: before anyone on the forum can contribute their opinion, they have to do a minimum 3 month long study accepted for publication in a major journal :biggrin:.
 
  • #40
ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
35,977
4,679
First of all, I apologize if I made wikipedia physicist sound like an attractive career direction, because it absolutely is not. To me, the question was hypothetical, and designed to probe the extent to which a physicist can have an unrigorous training. I answered the OP in the affirmative, because I have seen a few (abnormal, unusual, atypical) physicists who know less then would a good student of wikipedia, and so it might be hypothetically possible.

Again, this is absurd. I can take a vase that has been broken into a thousand pieces, and there is a non-zero probability that when I throw these pieces onto the floor, it can reassemble itself into the original vase. Does that mean I can go around telling people that yes, it is possible for one to base one's life on that very small but improbable possibility? That's ridiculous. But that is what you are doing. You are hypothetically telling this person that it is "possible", even when you have no evidence to back it up. That, to me, is highly irresponsible.

But the accusations that I am "free in speculation" with "no qualms about turning these into definite statements" or my using "anecdotal evidence" lead me to make the following sarcastic proposal: before anyone on the forum can contribute their opinion, they have to do a minimum 3 month long study accepted for publication in a major journal :biggrin:.

Just because you have an opinion, doesn't mean you should voice it out. It is why we have Guidelines on here and it is why the crackpots are kept out. Blabbering one's ignorant opinion has never amounted to anything, and certainly adds nothing to the body of knowledge in physics.

Zz.
 
  • #41
JasonRox
Homework Helper
Gold Member
2,323
3
Personally, I look at it this way.

If you're dumb enough to think learning straight from Wikipedia is enough to learn mathematics, then I'm going to let you do so.

I don't waste my time arguing with such dumb people.
 
  • #42
Moonbear
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Gold Member
11,558
53
Okay, this thread has gone on far too long with beating a dead horse (as someone else already aptly pointed out).

Just to summarize the discussion as I lock the thread:
Since the question was, can you learn these tools from Wikipedia alone, and not as a refresher, not as a starting point, not as a supplement to a textbook, not with prior knowledge of the subject to sort the wheat from the chaff, and not with the guidance of an instructor whom you can ask to clarify and correct misinformation, the answer remains a solid, "NO."
 

Related Threads on Can a physicist learn his math tools from wikipedia alone?

Replies
9
Views
933
Replies
2
Views
2K
  • Last Post
3
Replies
63
Views
16K
Replies
3
Views
3K
Replies
2
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
15
Views
22K
  • Last Post
Replies
24
Views
6K
  • Last Post
Replies
2
Views
2K
Replies
39
Views
7K
Top