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Conducting an independant research project

  1. Nov 24, 2009 #1
    I am an undergraduate physics student. Frankly, I'm starting to find my coursework and the typical method of read/solve problems/rinse and repeat a bit dull. While this will certainly be remedied in more advanced classes I'd like to seek out a problem to do some fundamental(original) research on, on my own to get a feel for what it is like to do such.

    Since this is in all reality the key skill of being a successful scientist it seems to be somewhat more important than simply spending my time learning about things already well understood. That might seem an odd statement but I figure that anything that is already well understood can and will be understood by me if ever and whenever I find it necessary to study up on that particular area.

    Of course I have a bit of a conundrum that most every area of physics that is on the forefront of what we do and don't understand requires a good bit of advanced knowledge in topics to even get to that point. What I am wonder if there are any severely under studied fields or fields that are more easily accessible to a novice to get started to get a feel for what is like to be on the forefront of knowledge.

    I realize of course that one of the major purpose of an undergraduate physics degree is to get you prepared to be on that front line as it were, but I wonder if there is anyway to short circuit it and get there a bit earlier than I would be traditional method.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 25, 2009 #2
    I think your time would be better spent getting involved in meaningful research with a professor at your school.
  4. Nov 25, 2009 #3


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    It is possible to do independent research. There are huge databases of observations that are available for public consumption, including much data from publicly-funded research programs. If you approach a prof with such a plan he or she might decide to give you an opportunity within their research projects, and that's not a bad thing.
  5. Nov 25, 2009 #4


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    I think once you have a few questions about the subject material you are learning, then you can possibly turn those (if they are open ended enough but not too open ended to be too ambitious) into research. A simple question may engage yourself and other people to think about something in a different way. In fact if you look at a lot of research especially on arxiv you'll find that there are lots of "perspective" papers that are there that attempt to basically rebuild physics from different areas and offer their insight into what it may mean and possibly provide an extension, generalization, or synthesis (or all of the above) so that a particular area becomes more streamlined refined and understood from adding or strengthening assumptions either in a "mathematically axiomatic" way or based on some experimental result or past paper that has an experimental result.

    I think a good question can help initiate a good paper. If you go to your lecturer or professor and ask them the question, you should get an idea based on the sort of response you get from them to see whether it could be some sort of basis for an investigation. An experienced practitioner will often know whats already been done to death and what areas warrant further investigation not based on "whats hot" at the moment but based on whats progressing and what problems are arising in the field.

    Physics is not an easy field either. Personally I think its harder than mathematics because you actually have to go from experiment to data to model to analysis to "axiomizing" and follow a kind of flow-chart involving those sort of things.

    The first bit of research should be important not because of the results but because of what it exposes to you about doing it more seriously and in more depth (possibly with more colleagues as well). Given that physics has exploded especially in the last hundred years, finding a niche still takes a resonably long time and even though you become specialized in a field you will need to be profecient with the basics of other different fields so that you can incorporate others work and build upon it where necessary.

    From my experience with math (applied, pure, discrete, statistical) I've found that it takes one to "step back" and see the forest from the trees so to speak. You have to think about what you're doing and where that is taking you in your understanding of an area. In maths its all about assumptions or axioms. The models are only as good as the assumptions that they are bound to, and if those assumptions are correct 98% of the time, then thats good. Typically what a lot of mathematicians (and especially mathematical physcists) do is they will take whats known, then generalize it, then refine it and create a framework, and thus create a new formulation of the science or part thereof as we know it. It usually takes a long time to do this because further generalizations usually come as a result of higher levels of abstraction or redeveloping a field based on some specific set of characteristics that then form the basis of a new way of understanding something.

    If you become passionate about something, it will be a lot easier for you to become good at it.
  6. Nov 25, 2009 #5
    Physics is a very, very social activity so you really need to get yourself into some sort of research community on whatever topic you are studying. Having said that, pick up a copy of Physica A or Physics Review E and see if anything gets your interest.
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