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Famous Mathematicians, physicists, scientistset c

  1. Sep 13, 2009 #1
    Hello, I find people like Stephen Hawking and Edward Witten to be very encouraging. I love studying mathematics, but it seems like most people who become academic mathematicians have been studying differential geometry as boy-geniuses since they were 5 years old. I'm not a clever problem solver, but I really enjoy studying the concepts involved with mathematics. Hawking and Witten are physicists, but the same principle applies; who are/were some famous mathematicians, physicists or scientists who are/were prominent in their respective fields but were probably not able to write a PhD dissertation at the age of 15?
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  3. Sep 13, 2009 #2

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    Suppose you are a kid who plays some sport with the sole expectation that you will one day become a pro athlete. In your mind, failure to become a pro means you are an utter failure. You most likely have sealed your fate as an utter failure. This is particularly so if you are not an extremely gifted athlete. Very, very few youth players make it to the pros. If, on the other hand, you play because you enjoy the sport and you see yourself as having some kind of future in sports, well now you have a lot of potential avenues to pursue.

    Most extremely gifted athletes show themselves as such at a fairly young age. The same goes for true genius. If your school has not singled you out as a potential genius you most likely are not one.

    That does not mean that a career in science and technology is out of reach. There is a huge difference between sports and intellectual concerns. There is a lot of room for us patzers in intellectual pursuits. Most people with PhDs are just patzers. If they are lucky they'll have one, maybe two truly brilliant ideas in their whole career. There is nothing wrong with that. They are still advancing science, they still have intellectually challenging careers.
  4. Sep 13, 2009 #3


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    You will find prodigies in physics for sure, but most people in the field aren't. I would say the *vast* majority of physicists, famous or not, were not capable of writing a thesis at age 15.

    You don't have to be a super-genius to be successful in science. If you don't have an IQ that's off the chart, it doesn't matter - you really shouldn't use that as your criteria. If you like science, go for it - it's an interesting career.
  5. Sep 13, 2009 #4

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    That's exactly what I mean when I said most of us in the field of science and technology are just patzers. We still have interesting careers, and we still help society advance.
  6. Sep 13, 2009 #5
    Although I can't speak for other scientists I can say for a fact that Einstein was not recognized as a genius in his school.
  7. Sep 13, 2009 #6
    I think that people have a tendency to set too much store by the characters or histories of famously brilliant scientists.
    As it happens, Witten certainly wasn't able to write a PhD thesis at age 15. He was a history major, who developed an interest in maths/physics a couple of years after he graduated. Would you recommend this as a career path to someone who wanted to be a Fields medallist? :tongue:

    Hawking's start in academia was marred, by his own admission, by chronic laziness. He estimates that he did about 1,000 hrs work in total in his whole degree- for a bachelor's degree from oxford, that works out at about 3 hours work a day for each working day (mon-fri) of term time. His exam results were barely good enough for him to be awarded a first, and he had to do a viva to get it. He only really started to work when he started to race the onset of his medical condition.

    Lest you get the impression that no-one who achieved anything worked a day in their life, Newton spent most of his life as a recluse working alone in his room. Einstein was the best in his school at maths and physics, but didn't excel at university, and couldn't get a PhD place. His breakthroughs came by sitting at a desk in an easy job and thinking very, very clearly. Someone would really struggle to replicate that feat with the level of sophistication of physics today. Dirac studied electrical engineering at Bristol as an undergrad. He also said "A mathematically beautiful theory is more likely to be true than one that happens to fit some experimental data". Feynman, in complete contrast, said "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong." Heisenberg was consistently brilliant in virtually everything he did- be it maths, skiing, or playing Beethoven concertos on the piano- but nearly failed his PhD exam because he hadn't bothered to make an effort to master experimental techniques and concepts. Landau worked himself into such fatigues that he couldn't sleep, and strove to master as much of physics as possible, hence the breadth of his course in theoretical physics with Lifschitz- covering everything from QED to the elasticity of solids.

    Some famous physicists are simply brilliantly intelligent; some are profoundly original thinkers; some were maverick rebels who were in the right place at the right time for someone crazy to hit upon something true. All their stories are historically interesting, but I wouldn't draw any morals from them.
  8. Sep 13, 2009 #7
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  9. Oct 3, 2009 #8


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    One should not confuse 'fame' with 'brilliance'.

    I was listening to Ira Flatow's Science Friday program yesterday, and Flatow was interviewing Graham Farmelo who wrote It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science. Farmelo, a physics professor at Northeastern University, has written a book, "The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom" (Basic Books, 2009). This seems like an interesting, and I was interested to hear what Farmelo had to say about Dirac.



    Don't know how long this podcast will be valid.

    Of course Dirac is well-known to those of use who studied physics, particular QM and/or SR. I find myself somewhat frustrated with media and science reporters who somehow miss some basic knowledge of the subjects on which they report.


    This seems to be an interesting book!

    From a Life of Physics (Paperback)
    by Dirac P. A. M. (Author), W. Heisenberg (Author), Eugene Paul Wigner (Author), O. Llein (Author), Lifgarbagez (Author), Hans Albrecht Bethe (Editor) "One of the purposes of the Symposium now in progress, as we conceived it, was to try to bridge among the many who are here..." Hopefully it's still in print, or at least copies are available.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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