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How do the guys like Witten study physics?

  1. Oct 2, 2006 #1
    It's reported that Witten majored in history as undergraduate, and he spent only two or three years to complete his PH.D of physics.
    I think it's incredible. Anyone here know if it was the real case? If it were, then does anybody who personally knows him know how did he learn things?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2006 #2


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    Yes, he could have studied other things, I agree. But, for one to major in history and then become such an amazing physicist as he is without even majoring in physics and completing his Ph.D in two or three years(if that is, in fact, true) is rather amazing. It is said that he is considered the smartest man alive(or something to that effect) and he has been called "Einstein's successor."
  4. Oct 2, 2006 #3
    If you are talking about Ed Witten from the Institute for Advanced Study, then he took 5 years after his BS to get his Ph.D.

    You can see his CV here:

    His list of accomplishments is quite impressive.
  5. Oct 2, 2006 #4


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    there is probably little point in asking us such a question. obviously witten is a little smarter than the avergae bear. to see how he works and get some idea of how to imitate it one should probably go be near him for a while.

    when i was a young assistant prof, i took a leave and at great financial and personal sacrifice for my whole family (although we were all young and actually they enjoyed it) we went to harvard as a visitor, where I attached myself as closely as possible to the great algebraic geometers there at the time, mumford, hironaka, and griffiths.

    it was very beneficial. Indeed I soon became the intellectual giant i am today, to paraphrase the guy in dead poets society.

    this may not impress you, but to be fair to them, you should have seen how dumb i was before. :tongue:
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2006
  6. Oct 2, 2006 #5
    Witten didn't go to grad school immediately after undergrad. Wasn't he involved in the 1972 presidential elections?
  7. Oct 2, 2006 #6

    George Jones

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    Witten's route to a Ph.D. in physics was very unusual, starting with the the fact that his B.A. was in history, not physics.

    His route is given in last link (third paragraph after the first picture) of this post by robphy.
  8. Oct 3, 2006 #7
    It's incredibly frustrating. I consider myself a good thinker on most subjects - I find myself able to comprehend and work with almost anything given enough reading time - but I am not a gifted physicist - which is what I really want to do. I'm also highly impatient and fractious, so I find it hard to concentrate on subjects I don't already know.

    One of the great skills in academia is developing an understanding of how you personally process information. This takes years or even decades - and then, I imagine very few experts of any level of experience would call their understanding of themselves 'complete'.

    I suppose my major barrier though, is my own laziness. Sigh.
  9. Oct 3, 2006 #8


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    He looks like a good guy - and his papers read well.

    I like how he points to which articles are most accessible.

    I see no reason why he couldn't have jumped from History to Physics - at least he'd have had a more open mind than if he'd have been studying string theory from a younger age.
  10. Oct 3, 2006 #9
    I'm especially interested in how does the one like Witten work, anybody knows some details about it?
  11. Oct 3, 2006 #10
    I'll go a step further and say the people that are only "interested" in math and physics usually flunk the classes.

    Granted, many people here go and do math and phys double majors or double degrees, but how many of you come here vs. how many people are in your classes? It always seems like the know-it-alls who don't have any other interests end up flunking the class. :yuck:
  12. Oct 4, 2006 #11
    Well, I also like beer and metal. Clearly I'm a model student.
  13. Oct 4, 2006 #12
    Respect to Mr. Ed, but I'm puzzled how did he got into Princeton Physics Dept. with only B.A. degree in history/linguistics... :bugeye: .

    Maybe his affiliation with politicians had something to do. Just making observations, I'm not saying it is.
  14. Oct 4, 2006 #13

    George Jones

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    Maybe he scored highly on the physics GRE.
  15. Oct 4, 2006 #14
    Metal makes up for everything.

    I don't know, it just seems like it's always the case. In my Japanese classes, the Japanophiles who always watched anime and "read" manga and stuff were the first to flunk and switch to a different language.

    Today, we had a very simple quiz that involved a U-tube and simple pressure calculation. Some guy busted out with "so, is it becuause the lateral forces aren't parallel" or something completely complicated like that. Even the prof. didn't know what he was talking about.
  16. Oct 5, 2006 #15
    I seriously doubt that's enough to get into any top grad program (from experience), but maybe those were the different times...
  17. Oct 6, 2006 #16
    I think that the reason for this is that they get bored :zzz: That's the same with me, if I study something that I like for a long time then I, unfortunately, start getting bored of it even through I "like it." Its weird, I know! :bugeye:
  18. Oct 6, 2006 #17
    It certainly helps to have a different perspective on things. :smile:
  19. Oct 14, 2006 #18
    I'm extremely interested if anybody here personally knew Witten in the mid 70's, before he became a superstar. I wonder how Witten did in his early years.
  20. Oct 16, 2006 #19
    Ditto^ usually because i get bored easily by things, i can work my best when im excited by what i am doing hehe lol:)
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