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Studying Is self-studying advanced physics a silly idea?

  1. Dec 21, 2012 #1
    Hello everybody. I am considering teaching myself physics in spare time, starting from college physics and multivariable calculus, to a level that I can understand most of the research papers on GR, QFT and cosmology.

    There are some obstacles that I can foresee:

    1. I will certainly get stuck somewhere, especially on the advanced topics. When this happens, I may not find someone to help me out, and have to skip the part that I don't understand. If it happens frequently, I may not be able to proceed.

    2. The exercises in advanced-level textbooks usually don't have answers. This means that my understanding will be based solely on the text (and perhaps also by *trying* to do the proof-type problems).

    3. The textbooks available on the market may not be advanced/up-to-date enough, so that a self-learner cannot obtain sufficient knowledge to understand research papers by just studying textbooks. (I am not sure about this).

    I don't prefer to go back to school due to financial concerns, but I really don't want to self-study for many years, only to find myself stuck in a mud pool and can go nowhere.

    Do you think it is feasible to self-study physics to such an advanced level, for a person with average intelligence and can devote 2 hours per day for the next 20 years? or is there really no choice but to study in school? Could you give me some suggestions on how I can overcome the obstacles mentioned above?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 21, 2012 #2
    To the OP, welcome to PF! I am curious, what degree do you already have?

    I am also curious about the answer to the OP's question since I could be in a similar situation except my undergrad degree would be in math/engineering. Some of my physicist relatives have suggested that advanced physics, like QM, is very important in some fields of EE, particularly optoelectronics.

  4. Dec 21, 2012 #3


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    I doubt you will find any amount of time you put into learning about nature a waste.

    How far can you get on your own? I dont know.
  5. Dec 21, 2012 #4
    To the OP:
    Since you are very enthusiastic about self-studying, here are some resources you might like:


    Udacity is especially good for computer science, the others are generic.

  6. Dec 21, 2012 #5
    Thank you very much BiP. My undergrad degree is computer engineering. I think you are in a much better position than me: Since some of your relatives are physicists, you can call for their help when you have questions on physics.

    The web sites you gave me are of introductory level. This is the area that I am less worried about, because there are many textbooks and exercises with solutions at this level, and I can have a higher chance to get help from online forums like this.
  7. Dec 21, 2012 #6
    I wholeheartedly agree with this, ZombieFeynman, but my ultimate goal is to understand how the universe originates and evolves as much as possible. I do look forward to learning about specific phenomena such as the nuclear processes in stars, but to me they are much less important. That's why I am so eager to know if what I am planning to do in the next 20 years is really practical.
  8. Dec 21, 2012 #7
    I can't really comment on the feasibility of your plan, but I can address some of your concerns.

    Why should you need answers to get something out of the exercises? To be clear, I'm not saying, "Suck it up, answers are for wimps." But the fact that there are no answers doesn't make the exercises worthless. And you can always ask questions here, or elsewhere (the stackexchange websites come to mind) if you are stuck or unsure on some exercise.

    Don't worry about how up-to-date textbooks are in physics and math. As a general rule, unless you are basically at a research level, the stuff you will be studying was figured out a long time ago. (On that note, please do yourself a favor and get older/cheaper editions when they are available.) And when/if you do get to a research level, you will be learning from papers, not textbooks.
  9. Dec 21, 2012 #8


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    There are so many layers to the onion and so many pieces to put together, i just think you will get wrapped up in learning about the mundane as well as the cosmic. Then you might discover that what you thought was mundane is teeming with beauty and wonder.

    Dont worry about 20 years. Think about the cool stuff you can learn in twenty days.
  10. Dec 21, 2012 #9
    It's certainly possible as I'm learning physics on my own.I've started learning physics two years ago when I had absolutely no physics or math background(except high school math/physics),now I'm working through a textbook on Quantum field theory . Good luck
  11. Dec 21, 2012 #10
    Whoa! That's quite the accomplishment. Congratulations! :surprised Which textbook are you using? How did you cover all the mathematical machinery and underlying physics required to tackle QFT in mere two years?!

  12. Dec 21, 2012 #11
    To OP:

    Although I'm not that good at physics yet(I'm a mathematician!), one thing that helped me tackle advanced mathematics and gauge my skills at particular area of interest (in your case this might be string theory, QFT etc) was to attempt to read articles from arxiv pertaining to my topic of interest and then when I couldn't comprehend things, go back and read/solve problems in that particular area. This might help you. I have gotten stuck on some things for weeks, but I've always managed to dig myself out of the abyss by backtracking and trudging on! :D

    Good Luck on your wonderful endeavor!


    PS: When you get to advanced topics, your book selection skills should be impeccable. Good books on advanced topics are far too few and too far in between. So choose wisely!
  13. Dec 21, 2012 #12


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    If this is true, it is an extraordinary accomplishment.
  14. Dec 22, 2012 #13
    There's not too much physics and math you need for QFT. It's just elementary calculus ,differential equations and linear algebra. That's all the mathematics you need before tackling any physics material . You don't need a whole course on classical mechanics before studying electrodynamics .And if you understand mathematics very well, You can even read Jackson and Griffiths concurrently . I was able to read Weinberg QFT (though not fully understand)in the first year I've have started physics .You need matrix algebra ,tensors and group theory (Which will be easy if you know linear algebra and calculus), special relativity(including relativistic classical fields which I learned from Barut and landau ) and elementary Quantum mechanics (At the level of cohen).I didn't need to understand the whole graduate level stuff in Jackson and goldstein before understanding what's QFT is all about.The point is : you don't need to wait until grad school to learn more advanced areas .The most important skill you need to understand all this is imagination.For example ,With just chain rule and taylor expansions you can solve a lot of problems in advanced physics .
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2012
  15. Dec 22, 2012 #14
    Why do you think so? I really can't see the point of doing exercises without being able to verify my answers. But for the proof-type exercises, I can try to solve them and ask for help online as you have suggested. For the advanced topics, I suspect that it is not very likely to get answers within a reasonable timeframe, but I guess this is the best I can get anyway.
  16. Dec 22, 2012 #15
    Thank you very much, SolsticeFire. Have you ever encountered "knowledge gaps" between textbooks and research papers, because the textbooks available are not advanced or up-to-date enough? Is backtracking among research papers via the references a good way to overcome this hurdle (for a self-learner)?
  17. Dec 22, 2012 #16
    You must be very talented to learn so quickly! Do you solve most of the problems in the textbooks, or just a selected few? Have you ever encountered difficulties such as those that I mentioned in the first post? If you have, would you mind sharing how you overcome them?
  18. Dec 22, 2012 #17
    Did you study classical mechanics right after calculus/ODE/LA, without reading a calculus-based general physics textbook like Freedman or Halliday (as most universities require)? Is thermodynamics and statistical mechanics necessary? Do we need to study particle physics before learning QFT? For E&M, is the level of Griffiths enough before learning GR?
    (sorry for asking you so many questions and thanks for your generous sharing!)
  19. Dec 22, 2012 #18
    I don't solve all the problems at the end of every chapter,but most of the time I solve problems .I solve some problems at the end of the chapters . I try to derive formulas by myself rather than just follow the author's derivation of results . I try to apply the ideas I learn to other contexts . If you try to apply things you learn to simpler contexts you will gain more understanding of the methods used in physics ...
    I will try to address your questions:
    1-If you get stuck somewhere , you can find the answers you want and ask questions at physics.stackexchange and math.stackexchange websites .
    2-You will benefit from having a computer-algebra system and graphing software . I found matlab and mathematica very helpful . Also,There are books that have a complete solution manuals (Griffiths electrodynamics and the quantum mechanics book by the same author for example) You must try to solve the problems without looking at the solutions and also find many ways to solve the same problem.I think that really understanding the problems , finding the correct tools needed to solve it and being able to figure out what the answer should look like is more important than arriving at the correct answers.
    3-If you want to read research papers in string theory , you have to learn string theory from a textbook or lecture notes on the subject (Which may be out-of-date . after you finish the book you will be able to read review papers in the field that mostly interests you (e.g. D-branes )
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2012
  20. Dec 22, 2012 #19
    I didn't study any calculus based general physics textbook . I recommend Gregory's classical mechanics or Taylor's Classical mechanics. They are very easy to follow . Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics are extremely important but they are generally not needed in introductory QFT (in more advanced field theory topics ,you will need them).
    You don't need to study particle physics before field theory though it would help if you know elementary stuff about particle physics ..
    For E&M the level of Griffiths is enough . You have to learn special relativity before GR .It's covered nicely in Griffiths and landau Classical field theory
    I'd like to add that Differential geometry is extremely important in theoretical physics and I recommend that you learn it.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2012
  21. Dec 22, 2012 #20
    I want to add that you can know a lot by just reading a textbook carefully without working through the book using a pen and papers. I learned a lot in QFT this way . In a couple of weeks ,you can read most of srednicki's QFT (without really understanding a lot of things) but you will know things like how dirac and Maxwell's fields are quantized , how to calculate things and the conceptual basis of renormalization . Actual understanding comes later when you try to derive things by yourself.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2012
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