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Physics Is doing top-end theoretical physics hard?

  1. Apr 16, 2015 #1
    Hi,

    I am a enthusiastic student (not yet in University) but am mature for my age so please read on...

    I am deeply passionate about Theoretical Physics (Practically fell in love with it) but also I am concerned about future, as much as I do want to pursue Physics in University I feel a lot of the graduates do not even get their profession they want, for example many mathematicians and physicists became involved in finance. As opposed to physics.

    This kind of bugs me, as all the skill they had honed over years that could control nature has finally come to moving money around the globe.

    As a result I want to pursue my other interest (Medicine) which not only is well-paid and in demand across the world but is very interesting. Cardiothoracic or neurosurgery seems very interesting field for me but I love physics more.

    As a result I want to ask whether theoretical physics can be learnt by reading books and studying mathematics and on internet (like from here :D). Is it possible to be just as skilled in theoretical physics by learning through home as a physicists who done masters in theoretical physics?

    Has any major physics breakthroughs happen through non-physicists?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 16, 2015 #2
    Major breakthroughs are far more likely to be made by people who have dedicated their life and energy to a subject, but it's not impossible to imagine a 'layman' proposing some revolutionary theory.
    It would of course have to be peer reviewed and assessed as would any other, so inevitably you would have to begin by discussing the proposal with people who are established academics in the field.
     
  4. Apr 16, 2015 #3

    Orodruin

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    Major breakthroughs by laymen are so rare that I would definitely not count on being able to do that. Even among professional physicists, major breakthroughs are scarce. If you really want to do theoretical physics, you should give yourself the opportunity by getting the appropriate education. Of course, you have to weight the future prospects of getting into academia in physics against the more certain and luecurative job situation in medicine.
     
  5. Apr 16, 2015 #4
    You could always just kill two birds with one stone by doing theoretical biophysics/computational biology, which I suspect might have increased chances of actually getting an academic position (although one shouldn't count on it necessarily).
     
  6. Apr 16, 2015 #5
    Richard Dawkins is an example of somebody who is not really a typical academic, but nevertheless put forward ideas which a lot of people now consider to be pretty much acceptable mainstream thinking.
    He's not a physicist but gets on well with Lawrence Krauss.
     
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2015
  7. Apr 16, 2015 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Are we talking about the same Richard Dawkins? The one who got a PhD from Oxford, was a professor at Berkeley and then a professor at Oxford?
     
  8. Apr 16, 2015 #7
    Yeah, that one, I'm just saying that he is not typical.
     
  9. Apr 16, 2015 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    What is not typical? He got a PhD and went on to get a faculty position. That is the typical background of an academic.
     
  10. Apr 16, 2015 #9

    analogdesign

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    Since you're a enthusiastic student (which is great) let me tell you something I've learned in my life. Do top-end ANYTHING is hard. And worthwhile. Along with family and appreciation of some kind of beauty, I really think pursuit of excellence in whatever you choose to do is the meaning of life. Academia in general is a tough career nowadays. If you're good you can usually string together postdocs, contract work, maybe eventually find a place for yourself, but you'll be behind your peers financially and in free time. For some people, those with burning passion for their work, it is the right choice. For others, maybe engineering or business or medicine would be a better goal.

    Being a top-end physician is also really really hard. But, if you can get into and through medical school you will make a good (but stressful) living.
     
  11. Apr 17, 2015 #10

    ZapperZ

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    It needs to be said in clear, no uncertain terms, that this does NOT happen, at least not within the last 50 to 60 years.

    There is a fallacy here that one can become a "physicist" simply by studying stuff. This is wrong. One may be able to acquire SOME knowledge about physics by self-studying, but that is NOT the definition of being a physicist, which is a professional endeavor. Furthermore, there is a huge gap between just studying stuff, versus working on a research-front project. To be able to do the latter, one needs to know not only what is interesting, but also what is IMPORTANT! Those two are not always mutually inclusive!

    So how does someone who isn't a physicist, who does not participate in constant discussion and contacts with other physicists, and who do not often seek out professional journals, would know what is "important"? Better yet, how would that person be aware of what has already been known and what are the areas that are seeking active studies?

    This is all before even considering that one can actually have the same level of expertise as a "theorist" as those who have legitimate qualifications in it!

    Zz.
     
  12. Apr 17, 2015 #11

    SteamKing

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    Like Sheldon Cooper, if the physics doesn't work out, it's good to have a trade (medicine) to fall back on. :wink:

    No more than one can become a good surgeon by only reading surgical texts and watching videos of operations online.

    It's better to have a broad exposure to different things inside your field and to meet fellow physicists.
     
  13. Apr 17, 2015 #12

    WWGD

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    Outside of physics, there is the interesting outsider, non-mainstream career of Amador Muriel, who has the latest ideas for the solution of Navier-Stokes PDE, despite spending most of his career outside of academia, even ran an IT company in Europe. Sorry, I could not find a good link. I would love to have a similar career.
     
  14. Apr 17, 2015 #13
    Not physics but john urschel is a professional football player(NFL) and he just recently first-authored a paper in the journal of Computational Mathematics. He plans to have a productive NFL career before going back to get his PHD. I think you can go into other fields and come back to physics later and still contribute in some way.
     
  15. Apr 17, 2015 #14

    Orodruin

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    But this is not what the OP is asking, which is if it is possible to be successful in physics "on the side" of your main profession, not by switching profession.
     
  16. Apr 17, 2015 #15
    Well as of now he is successful in both math and football(math in the off season and football during the season), although math is different then physics. Hannu Ranjaniemi was doing theoretical physics work while also working as a writer(publishing research papers and books before focusing on writing primarily) . Though yeah its not likely if although possible.
     
  17. Apr 18, 2015 #16
    It is really helping me, guys thank you very much, if anyone has anything they want to post - do feel free! :D This question is more opinionated.
     
  18. Apr 19, 2015 #17

    e.bar.goum

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    This question comes up a lot, and to be honest, it bothers me a bit. Nobody ever asks "I find biology really interesting, is it possible to do neurosurgery as a hobby?". or "Is it possible to be just as skilled in neurosurgery by learning through home as a neurosurgeon who done masters in surgery"

    No, you can't. Becoming a physicist (of any kind) requires many years of study and training, and is a (more than) full time job.
     
  19. Apr 19, 2015 #18

    QuantumCurt

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    I think people often get glazed over eyes after watching things like Cosmos, The Universe, Through the Wormhole, and other such shows, as well as after reading books like Brief History of Time, Universe in a Nutshell, various Brian Greene books, etc. Many people often get caught up in these ideas and become interested in physics without really knowing what physics actually is or what a physicist actually does. Their interest isn't necessarily in physics as much as it's in the philosophical interpretations of things that physicists have concluded...which is quite far removed from what a physicist actually does.

    I've found that many people who claim to be deeply passionate about theoretical physics don't necessarily even understand what theoretical physics really is. I'm not saying that this is the case for the OP, but many people think that theoretical physics equates to string theory and the "Theory of Everything." They don't think about theorists working in condensed matter, materials science, atomic and nuclear physics, etc. There is often some grand idea of a single person that is researching "the theory of everything"...whatever that even means.

    Point being, these misunderstandings of what physics actually is and how it works leads to a conclusion that it can be learned on the side. People don't think they can do neurosurgery on the side because neurosurgery is a physical act, and even though the laymen doesn't necessarily understand the theory behind what is being done, they recognize that it involves cutting someone open and tinkering with their innards. When people think of physics, they think of esoteric ideas about the multiverse and Brian Greene documentaries about string theory. They don't think about performing tedious calculations, simulations, or endlessly remodeling physical scenarios quantitatively. What these people want to do on the side is often actually philosophy rather than physics. They just don't know enough about the physics to realize it.

    I got rather sidetracked there, but my point is that physics can't really be learned on the side. If you're as passionate about theoretical physics as you say you are, then you have to decide whether you want to pursue it or not. It requires a lot of dedication.
     
  20. Apr 21, 2015 #19
    I was in the same position as you a few years ago, torn between veterinary science (with its guaranteed job prospects and high(ish) salary) and physics/mathematics. However I realised as well as it being about what is interesting and financially secure, I needed to consider what a typical day would be. I did work experience at various vets and decided that it was too depressing and repetitive for me. So I went with physics, and have recently been accepted to do a PhD at Bath university in theoretical condensed matter physics. So I believe you are looking at it in partly the wrong way, what would you do as a doctor on a day to day basis? What are the stresses like? Could you get work experience at universities/hospitals?

    Also certain fields under the "theoretical physics" tag are likely to be more desirable for technological and military firms. In my case the UK is giving a big push towards more research in condensed matter physics and quantum information/engineering, so it was easier for me to get funding. There will probably be a push for people in my field of study to work in related industries, where our knowledge of physics would be utilised. String theorists on the other hand might not have as many opportunities.

    You can do physics as a hobby but you cannot be a physicist. Problem solving and the scientific method need to be taught, and working for a fully-fledged scientist and expert in the field has been invaluable during my Masters project.
     
  21. Apr 22, 2015 #20
    Here are a couple papers:

    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1011/1011.6630.pdf

    http://www.issres.net/journal/index.php/cfdl/article/view/S2180-1363(12)43093/160

    Some people are making fun of him. Means he may be on to something (or could also be way off).
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2015
  22. Apr 22, 2015 #21

    WWGD

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    And it seems a lot of important, mainstream schools, including Harvard, CUNY, have invited him to give talks and/or to do research. Some people in academia look down at, sneer, at anyone from outside of academia; like you said, they may feel threatened. It would be interesting to make a separate thread on people with unusual (though productive) scientific careers.

    And, to address the OP: doing just-about anything at a top-end level is hard.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2015
  23. Apr 24, 2015 #22
    Are you asking two different questions here? If you are interested in physics and enjoy studying for a hobby there is no reason why you can't choose to study physics in your own time and develop a fine understanding of the textbook materials and ability in solving the problems therein. Maybe the satisfaction of this accomplishment allied to a successful full time career elsewhere could be all you need to feel that you have fulfilled your potential.

    On the other hand please believe all the people who posted here saying that you cannot contribute much to research unless you pursue a career "on the inside", as it were. The reason is that as well as being an academic subject, physics is a career like any other. It has its own organizations, competitiveness, and requirements for making progress. There is no shortcut around all that.

    Good luck anyway!
     
  24. Apr 24, 2015 #23

    Vanadium 50

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    Where on earth did you get that? He was faculty at Berkeley a decade before his first book. He was faculty at Oxford years before his first work.

    If you judge, base it on evidence, please.
     
  25. Apr 25, 2015 #24

    QuantumCurt

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    You seem to have something personal against Richard Dawkins. Why is that? You've made 6 posts on this forum, and most of them have been about Dawkins.

    There's not really anything unconventional about his path. He completed a PhD and he was a successful academic long before he ever started writing his books or becoming famous for anything else. Had he not been a successful and recognized academic, his books would not have sold as well as they have. He is known for contributions to science and the popularization of science as well. Both "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "The Selfish Gene" are some of the best pop-sci level treatments of the theory of evolution that I've ever read. Not all of his books are along the same lines as The God Delusion.
     
  26. Apr 25, 2015 #25

    Vanadium 50

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    The UK system has four tiers: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and professor, while the US has three - assistant professor, associate professor and professor. If you want to make the argument that he had only gone through the first three of these tiers on the strength of research, have at it. But that's painting with a pretty broad brush: one could make the same argument that any academic who went into administration 24 years after getting their PhD (about the last time Dawkins published a strictly zoological paper) doesn't have a track record.

    And, as I said before, Rootone gave a truly terrible (and indefensible) example of Richard Dawkins. I think it's time we ignored it.
     
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