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If you never went to university, would you still have studied physics

  1. Jan 12, 2014 #1
    I've been wondering for those of you who went to university or are still at university, if you didn't go that route, do you think you would have still been able to learn physics to the level you understand it now? So with nothing other than books, the internet and some determination do you believe that it's still possible to learn calculus and university level physics?

    Or do you think that the only real way to learn and understand it is to be taught by a professional?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2014 #2


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    It's probably an exceptional few who can master a subject through self-directed study. Mastery implies a proficiency and profound understanding, and that usually comes through a program involving a more experienced person in the field. Of course, the point in Master's program is to perform directed/guided research, whereas a PhD is supposed to perform original (self-directed or independent) research.

    The other aspect of a formal academic program is peer-to-peer interaction.

    A lot of my work now involves independent research, that is, reading journal articles and reports on a subject/topic and determining where old ways are deficient and how those deficiencies can be addressed, i.e., identify the ways and means to improve current methods, or develop new methods.
  4. Jan 18, 2014 #3
    It seems that after studying preliminary areas of science say , calculus , basics of physics with the help of good teachers in college and high school, a motivated person with the help of good textbooks or learning online courses can learn advanced physics like Quantum mechanics and General physics as well as university students, but in fact there are somethings that hardly could be achieved without having connection to scientific community : firstly, the discussion to other people and lecturers.Secondly, experimental studies.And finally living with researchers of the field that makes you feel that you do not just learn some thing about 100 years ago that has been finished.
  5. Jan 18, 2014 #4


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    I can't imagine challenging myself the way my upper-division physics classes did.
  6. Jan 18, 2014 #5
    If I hadn't gone to university I wouldn't have been introduced to physics.
  7. Jan 18, 2014 #6


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    I think I always would have had an interest in physics, even if I hadn't had the opportunities I've had in life. I doubt very much though I would have been able to get to my current operating level though. Personally I need the rigor of a structured course for many reasons. Ones I can think of off the top of my head:

    1. Assignments and lab reports with deadlines, mid-terms and final exams force me to cover a subject in a systematic and timely way. Left on my own, I tend to follow my immediate interests a little more.

    2. Often it has helped me to have someone more educated than I show me *why* something should be interesting.

    3. There was a lot of material that flew over my head at the time we covered it in class. I learned it sufficiently to get the grades I needed, but it wasn't until later I realised how important it was (at least for me) and I at least knew where to look and what to look for when reviewing.

    Something else to consider, is perhaps a little more pragmatic. As a medical physicist there was a lot of stuff I could ONLY learn in a clinic through hands-on experience. A lot of that is not quite so intellectually impressive as the material that would be covered in other branches of physics, but absolutely necessary for me to do my job and partake in the research I do. The analogy I might draw is one of a carpenter. You can read all the books and articles you want, watch all the YouTube videos, etc., but at some point you have to actually build something and until you do... you're just a guy surfing the internet.
  8. Feb 19, 2014 #7
    I agree with almost all the others. I think I would have studied physics, but I do not think
    I would have had the discipline to come up to level of completing research and qualifying exams etc.

    With 7 Billion people on the planet, some rare individual could learn physics with just books and determination.
    The internet is not at all necessary. Professional assistance is not necessarily the only help to study. The other students and laboratories probably contribute at least as much to learning as the "professional" lectures.
  9. Mar 6, 2014 #8
    I had great difficulty learning from or even paying attention to lectures, so most of what I learned at university was from reading textbooks. I didn't interface with other students, and the primary benefit I got from professors was seeing how to solve problems by their examples. Laboratories showed me how to do experiments...they didn't really clarify the theory much. Hands-on learning doesn't do much for me at all, but this is especially so when I don't understand the theory.

    I would definitely have studied physics had I not attended university, but my book learning may have been narrower in scope but deeper (I would have spent way more time on each individual topic), and my knowledge of how to approach problems would have been worse. Aside from the advanced courses I took (the content of which I likely would never have even approached) my overall theoretical understanding would likely have been about the same, perhaps a bit more organized because the top-down learning approach (which works best for me) is not the way I was taught. I would have preferred the pure math route rather than the "mathematics for physics" route I took in college, but my understanding of applications would probably not be as strong.
  10. Mar 6, 2014 #9


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    Let's say that you could learn a lot and get to maybe a BS level of physics since you have no research experience, you have no diploma. What then?

    One of the humbling aspects of PF is that although I am self-taught in a few STEM subjects, I don't have the knowledge and discipline and skill sets that are so important that comes from a formal education. It's not easy to get degrees, especially advanced degrees, in these subjects. No matter how much I read and stay on top of the latest information, I do not feel that I will ever know or be able to understand things at the level and in the way that a professional does. That's why I can't go up to an employer and show them all of the journals I've read and ask for a job.

    That doesn't mean you shouldn't learn about subjects on your own that you enjoy, I highly recommend it.

    If you had a BS or MS and were hired into a field, could you become considered after years on the job as an expert in the field? With the right job, brains and opportunities, I say yes. But you first need that all important starting point.
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2014
  11. Mar 10, 2014 #10
    I never went to college, or "University" as some countries put it... yet I find physics absolutely the most amazing and intriguing study in existence. Why anyone would NOT want to know what this crazy world of ours tick is beyond me. (but yeah, a little calculus would be great! I will take a online course as soon as my work schedule lightens a bit)
  12. Mar 11, 2014 #11
    If you are doing all by yourself you can't get access to laboratories and expensive equipment.
  13. Mar 11, 2014 #12
    Perhaps in another life, but right now, by my philosophy, physics is essential knowledge, diploma or not ( that's as far as mentioning philosophy goes ).
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