Learning physics outside uni.

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  • #26
ZapperZ
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There are SEVERE misunderstandings here about the reason why one gets a degree in physics in one's pursuit of either a career in physics, or making a contribution to the body of knowledge of physics. I've said this many times, but the main reason we teach people all of these things in schools is so that when something NEW and important comes along, they will truly know that it is new and important! If you lack the knowledge and awareness of what can already be explained, how are you to know if something is truly new even if it comes up and bite you on your rear end?

Most people seem to think that a physics graduate degree is nothing more than repeating what's already in textbooks. Nothing could be further than the truth here. A ph.d granting instutition requires that your dessertation be something NEW, and this can only be proven via publications in respected peer-reviewed journals. So how could producing something new as a requirement for a Ph.D degree be seen as merely working inside the box and not be creative? Try repeating and verifying what have already been known and understood. Do you think you can get away with doing your thesis research on those?!

Now, here's something shocking. I learn a lot of the stuff that I currently do almost on my own. I learned about tunneling spectroscopy on my own. I learned angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy on my own, and I practically had to relearn a whole new field of accelerator physics on my own, except for a 10-day survey of the field. Most physicists, if you bother to talk to them, will tell you that what you were taught in school forms the FOUNDATION of not only the knowledge, but the SKILLS towards either becoming a physicist, or the ability to ANALYZE a physics problem. You do not sit and read a book to get this. The skill comes from either repeated practice, or by seeing how things are done. I do not care how much you understand a theory, but if you have ZERO skills at tackling a problem AND proving that you can solve it, you are of no use to anyone. We ALL end up having to learn a lot of things on our own because that is the nature of our work!

But most importantly, physics is still a human endeavor. How you communicate your ideas is as important and what you are communicating. If you are innundated with hundreds of papers per day, do you think you'll pay attention to a single paper done by some joe schmoe who have no track records, do not have the ability to even clearly explain his idea, and can't even get that idea published?

Of course, when discussion like this occurs, the name of Einstein keeps popping up. All I can say is, how many of you here think you are on par with Einstein, or even a Freeman Dyson? Just how often do these occur? So REALISTICALLY, what are your chances in (i) that you are actually right and (ii) that you can actually produce something of value based on such probability?

Zz.
 
  • #27
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ZapperZ, your post is well thought out and well spoken. But it is off the point in many ways. The issue is not whether schooling helps you, of course it does. There is no question that someone with a formal education has considerable advantages over one without it. However, the issue here is what do you do when you don't have the schooling.

ZapperZ said:
the main reason we teach people all of these things in schools is so that when something NEW and important comes along, they will truly know that it is new and important!
If you are able to learn prior art on your own then so be it. Anyway, this is irrelevant if you are yourself the source of the new and important thing. If you think your idea is new and you are wrong, you will be shown the prior art when you try to publish. If you are right, you are right.

ZapperZ said:
A ph.d granting instutition requires that your dessertation be something NEW, and this can only be proven via publications in respected peer-reviewed journals.
It is nice that schools force you to write a publishable dissertation. However, you can learn to do so on your own. Write a bad one and submit it. You will get a free education. Be aware Plum, that if you submit a good one, it still may not get published. Those three letters at the end of a name have considerable power, especially in narrow minds.

ZapperZ said:
Most physicists ... will tell you that what you were taught in school forms the FOUNDATION of not only the knowledge, but the SKILLS towards either becoming a physicist, or the ability to ANALYZE a physics problem.
If you are able to learn the skills on your own, then so be it. But Plum, you should pay attention to this. Some idea may just pop into your head, but in case it doesn't you had better pick up some skill in analyzing problems one way or another.

ZapperZ said:
Of course, when discussion like this occurs, the name of Einstein keeps popping up.
Better names would be Faraday and Humason. Unlike Einstein, they did not have the schooling. If Plum figures out how to make a warp drive, it won't matter whether he went to school or not. Anyway, though Einstein was a genius, that's not why he was famous. He was famous because he was right.

In the case at hand, Plum will be told in school that warp drive is impossible given current understanding of physics. That may not be the best environment for preparing to work on his pet project. Having said this, I have to admit, that the idea of a lone genius working in isolation from others is not the norm. Faraday got his inspiration in Davy's laboratory. Humason was assisting Hubble.
 
  • #28
ZapperZ
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jimmysnyder said:
ZapperZ, your post is well thought out and well spoken. But it is off the point in many ways. The issue is not whether schooling helps you, of course it does. There is no question that someone with a formal education has considerable advantages over one without it. However, the issue here is what do you do when you don't have the schooling.
You know that. I know that. But is this obvious to a few other people? No. Just look at the postings that have transpired here blaming schooling as promoting mental dullness. These are the postings that I was aiming at.

If you are able to learn prior art on your own then so be it. Anyway, this is irrelevant if you are yourself the source of the new and important thing. If you think your idea is new and you are wrong, you will be shown the prior art when you try to publish. If you are right, you are right.
I disagree. There is a difference between what is "interesting" and what is "important". A lot of things can be interesting to different people. What makes something important requires external criteria beyond just the content or the physics. I put it to you that people who have no contact with others in the field, or are not aware of the state of knoweldge and progress of such field tend to NOT know what is important. This is where something that could possibly be interesting is being confused with something that is important.

However, regardless of that, my point has been to question the chances of anyone who went through a complete self-study of physics making any significant contribution to the body of knowledge of physics. I don't recall seeing that happening during my lifetime, and I'm no spring chicken either. Have you?

So if you go back to the original question, think of HOW one would answer a question like this when most of us cannot cite a recent preceedent! It would be erroneous to bring up Faraday and others because the situation NOW is completely different - they might as well be different universes! So it's not as if any of us can give any advice based on any solid DATA (my training as an experimentalist is rearing its ugly head again). We can't say "oh, so-and-so did it just last year. So this is how you should do it". At the very best, all you can do is speculate what should be done. Such advice would be based on pure guesswork.

I, on the other hand, can point out to MANY examples where such a practice has gone nowhere, and even end up on the dubious Crank Dot Net. With the current running total, there is a ridiculously large ratio of crackiness to legitimate work. I base my skepticism on such an observation.

Maybe we do have an uncommon lone genius about to produce a breathtaking work of discovery. Maybe a revolutionary theory will come out out of nowhere. Maybe that vase that just got broken into a hundred pieces will reassemble itself into the original vase when I throw it back onto the floor.

Zz.
 
  • #29
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ZapperZ said:
my point has been to question the chances of anyone who went through a complete self-study of physics making any significant contribution to the body of knowledge of physics. I don't recall seeing that happening during my lifetime, and I'm no spring chicken either. Have you?
Humason died in 1972, I was born in 1950.

ZapperZ said:
It would be erroneous to bring up Faraday and others because the situation NOW is completely different.
We'll just have to disagree about that. When it comes to physics, I think that we live in interesting times. We are getting new information and new kinds of information from the far reaches of the universe, and the inner reaches of the atom faster than we can come up with explanations for them. For instance, I find it unsettling that we have come up with the concepts of dark matter (well, we live on a planet made of dark matter so I won't say there isn't any) and dark energy. These are substances that have no detectable properties other than that they make the equations work out. They remind me of the luminous aether in that regard. I'm not saying that these concepts are definitely wrong, I'm just saying that we COULD be on the verge of a new understanding and we may have an Einton, or Newstein among us now to help us get there.
 
  • #30
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jimmysnyder said:
Humason died in 1972, I was born in 1950.
And Dyson is still alive (we DO know that he does not have a Ph.D in physics, don't we?). What's the point? You yourself said that he wasn't isolated from the any kind of physics/astronomy community. That was my major point in the last response, that one needs an external stimulus to know what is "important" instead of what is "interesting".

We'll just have to disagree about that. When it comes to physics, I think that we live in interesting times. We are getting new information and new kinds of information from the far reaches of the universe, and the inner reaches of the atom faster than we can come up with explanations for them. For instance, I find it unsettling that we have come up with the concepts of dark matter (well, we live on a planet made of dark matter so I won't say there isn't any) and dark energy. These are substances that have no detectable properties other than that they make the equations work out. They remind me of the luminous aether in that regard. I'm not saying that these concepts are definitely wrong, I'm just saying that we COULD be on the verge of a new understanding and we may have an Einton, or Newstein among us now to help us get there.
But this is EXACTLY why studying individually, devoid of contacts with experts in the field, will not work. If one says that one is studying out of texts, then one is WAY behind in the development at the research front of that field of study. It is why most of us who got our undergraduate degree in physics feel INADEQUATE. We are equipped with the fundamental and basic principles of physics, but we lack the up-to-date knowledge and skills at the ever-expanding research front. This is why most of us go on to graduate schools. It is a VERY rare individual who can do an isolated "self-study" to (i) gain ALL the necessary knowledge to come up with an important work and (ii) be aware of all the development in that field. Dyson himself has been associated with several educational institution, so even without a ph.d, he certainly was not isolated from the going-ons in physics.

Zz.
 
  • #31
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ZapperZ said:
But this is EXACTLY why studying individually, devoid of contacts with experts in the field, will not work.
You make a strong point and I agree with it. I was focusing on the narrow issue of whether one needs a university education or not. I still feel that while it is highly desirable, it is not necessary. However, if Plum intends to forge a new trail in total isolation from other physicists and their work, then I would agree with you that he reduces his chances of success precipitously and unnecessarily. So the issue is not whether there are still Faradays and Humasons out there, but rather, are there still Davys and Hubbles out there. That is, someone who will take Plum under their wing in spite of his lack of credentials. And will Plum seek them out?
 
  • #32
ZapperZ
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jimmysnyder said:
You make a strong point and I agree with it. I was focusing on the narrow issue of whether one needs a university education or not. I still feel that while it is highly desirable, it is not necessary. However, if Plum intends to forge a new trail in total isolation from other physicists and their work, then I would agree with you that he reduces his chances of success precipitously and unnecessarily. So the issue is not whether there are still Faradays and Humasons out there, but rather, are there still Davys and Hubbles out there. That is, someone who will take Plum under their wing in spite of his lack of credentials. And will Plum seek them out?
That is certainly true. But would you take someone who admitted to you that he/she does not have the patience or inclination to stick to something rigoriously, or that his/her mind wonders in class to something else than what is at hand, or lacks of any proven discipline to really tackle something over a period of time?

I wouldn't. But then again, I'm a heartless SOB.

:)

Zz.
 
  • #33
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ZapperZ said:
That is certainly true. But would you take someone who admitted to you that he/she does not have the patience or inclination to stick to something rigoriously, or that his/her mind wonders in class to something else than what is at hand, or lacks of any proven discipline to really tackle something over a period of time?

I wouldn't. But then again, I'm a heartless SOB.

:)

Zz.
When the issue becomes finding funding to pay a person with these traits... you are talking lean to none. Especially when the vast majority of people who would be in a position to fund someone like this have the never ending well of graduate students, who on top of all the things that plum has, they have all the things he doesn't (discipline, patience, etc). If you were in the business world, who would you hire? Zz makes a very good point here and I think plum would need to impress a researcher immensely to even consider putting any time into him. Another point being: what is the researcher getting out of the relationship? I think it would take a very kind hearted, patient researcher with a lot of extra time on his hands to consider taking on (I really hate to say it) a charity case? Since I believe one of the reasons for taking on a research assistant is the hope to groom the RA into a future collaborator.
Just some thoughts off the top of my head.
Cheers,
Ryan
 
  • #34
Tom Mattson
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plum said:
Also, as I stated previously, I don't want a physics-related job;
Ah, but given the following quote from the opening post...

I've decided I definitely don't want to go back to school to learn physics, for various reasons (not the least of which I find it impossible to be guided by others). I'm wondering what affect my lack of formal education would have on my career prospects, as they relate to my knowledge of physics.
...you can certainly understand how one could have reached that conclusion, yes?

I haven't read all the posts in this thread, but if you're concerned about your career prospects then there's something that you need to address far more urgently than learning more physics, and that's this:

I find it impossible to be guided by others
That is going to hurt you a lot more than not knowing general relativity.
 
  • #35
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Funny thing is, I am also studying GR on my own. I am reading "A First Course in GR", by Schutz. Like Plum, I have no teacher, but unlike Plum, I wish I had one. I'm just doing it out of interest, I do not intend to continue studying GR after I finish this book and I certainly bear no illusions that I am going to be making contributions to the field after having finished this introductory text.

In an unrelated matter:
Tom, can you get the Science Book Reviews forum to be more visible from the main page? Other forums have sub-forums that can be seen.
 
  • #36
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Tom Mattson said:
That is going to hurt you a lot more than not knowing general relativity.
Yeah that does seem to be a fundamental problem with me. But as I said, my aim here isn't to get a job; it's to know whether or not warp drive is possible. And I have been in contact with a few professional physicists and engineers, in addition to having pretty much the entirety of everything that's been written on the subject on my HD. So this is far from "learning in isolation."
 
  • #37
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However- in order to keep as many options open as possible, I think it would be best if I get some ADD counselling (or something equivalent) and give a uni. degree a shot, while continuing with this on the side. That would be much better than making a final decision not to try it (even if I find it impossible)
 

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