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My introduction and a question on my intended

  1. Jan 7, 2012 #1

    Rob D

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    I'd like to introduce myself and ask a pedagogical question regarding my future studies. My name is Rob Dorsey and I am a 64 year old, disabled and retired airline pilot living in a southern suburb of Cincinnati. I have a degree in music with an engineering minor from a small regional university in Texas.

    For the last several years I have utilized the internet and commercial teaching companies to self-educate on physics moving toward quantum mechanics and particle physics. My study regimen is and has been about 2 to 4 hours per day and involves video lectures, study guides with exams where available and every book on the subject (Feynman is of course my favorite) that I can get.

    My goal is to achieve sufficient facility in the science to allow me to understand contemporary papers and higher level discussions as I guess may regularly be found on this forum. I would also like to participate in such discussions and even, heresy though it may be, publish a paper on my own work if anything I've got going on rises to that level. I, at this time do not intend to pursue accreditation but rather to function as merely a competent amateur. I have a way to go.

    My question is, and understanding that you know nothing of my talents or aptitudes, do you think that an effectively self-taught physicist can function as a viable member of the scientific community or is the sheepskin required to join the club?

    Rob Dorsey
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 8, 2012 #2
    I think you'll be perfectly capable of participating in discussions here and understanding higher level papers if you work extremely hard, but you won't get a paper published in any reputable journal without forging credentials. Part of the reason why this is a legitimate concern and not 'sheepskin' is that physics really is an experimental science (sorry to all the theorists out there), and you have no method of conducting experiments which require advanced instrumentation or machinery (either for educational purposes or the purpose of pushing boundaries of knowledge in a field). Physics grad students are enslaved to one machine or another for a reason.
  4. Jan 8, 2012 #3
    What you suggest is certainly not impossible. But it's going to be VERY difficult. First of all, you'll need to study a lot of books. And secondly, you'll need to study a lot of papers before you even know where the unsolved questions are!! It's easy to say you want to do research on quantum physics, but without any form of guidance, you have no idea where to begin!!

    Also, you'll need to be extremely self-critical. You WILL make mistakes. And if others are not around to point that out, then it's easy to start believing some fairy tale.
  5. Jan 8, 2012 #4
    I don't know about this. I'm surprised to read this. Can anybody with more knowledge than me on the matter verify or deny it?

    But as for
    This is completely false. Apparently the poster is only familiar with papers on experimental physics. That's all I can say; what he says is simply not true. A great deal of physics publications is talking about theory. And it seems so obvious that I can't for the life of me imagine why this poster thought otherwise, seems ignorant.
    As an aside, I'm starting my graduate studies in physics next year and I can assure you that I won't be coming near any machine, so even that part is incorrect.


    As for your OP: seems like a challenge you're taking on! I greatly support it, but I agree with micromass' worries. Do you have a fixed number of years in mind to "catch up", as it were? It might sound harsh, but I don't think 2-4 hours a day is a fast pace, but of course such an objection is only relevant if you want to get "there" in a fixed time.
  6. Jan 8, 2012 #5
    I think you're misunderstanding me. Papers do talk theory quite often, and it is a legitimate method of inquiry, but there is no way of verifying theory without experimentation. Theory makes its proposals, but until experiment comes along to prove it or disprove it, it is very much still a hypothesis. Something may be mathematically correct, like string theory, but string theory cannot be experimented upon without enormous machinery that is far outside the grasp of current human technology.

    Experimentation remains the judge, jury, and executioner of physics. If I may continue the analogy, theory is merely the solicitor.

    Are you studying cosmology, or something like that? I suppose you're right in that case, although even cosmologists are indirectly enslaved to machinery through analysis of data collected through instrumentation regarding early universe conditions. But I have a certain traditionalist disdain for any field which does not experiment on its postulations. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't believe such fields are scientific. I must say, though, that I hope you get experience analyzing some data, which would have to come from a machine or instrument of some kind.
  7. Jan 8, 2012 #6
    Angry Citizen, you're confusing "the importance of experiments" with "the obligation to do experiments"! I would never refute the importance of experiments, but I would also never expect a theoretical physicist to also experimentally verify his theory himself!

    Your quote
    implied that a theoretical paper cannot be published without also containing experimental proof, which is simply wrong.

    No, theoretical physis is a branch in its own right, and this doesn't have to be limited to one specific topic. There are theoretical physicists working on quantum physics, on statistical physics, on relativity, on E&M, on condensed matter, on high energy physics, on ..., all of which can publish papers without coming close to any experimental device.
  8. Jan 8, 2012 #7

    Rob D

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    I thank you gentlemen for your input and I am not surprised by your comments. First, my math skills are at a calc I level but my ability to understand the materal is far more advanced. EG, I can understand a Feynman diagram but flounder in the relevant mathematics needed to describe the same interactions.

    As for my "2 to 4 hours per day" study time, I did not give credit to the other 12 or so hours each day I spend thinking about it. You are correct that I have no sophisticated equipment with which to make, or duplicate, observations to gather data supporting my independent hypotheses, if any, so my concentration is on theoretical physics. However, should some worthwhile notion bubble up in my brain and if I posess the math to describe it adequately, I'll bet that I can find some physics department that will have a go at it.

    As for time line, I'm 64 and healthy so my working time is restricted by my chromosomes and lifestyle. At any rate I'm planning on another ten years.

  9. Jan 8, 2012 #8
    I wish you the best of luck :) I, as a mere undergrad, can't give you any more concrete advise, but undoubtedly others can. I advise you to visit this forum a lot!

    And you probably know the following site and it's most likely overrated by some, but anyway in case you hadn't heard of it I believe you should at least now of its existence and at least peruse through it:
    http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/theorist.html ('t Hooft is a nobel prize winner in theoretical physics)
  10. Jan 8, 2012 #9
    You spend fourteen to sixteen hours per day thinking about physics? Try and dial that down a bit :) You'll burn yourself out before you know it.

    I'm just pretty pessimistic about your chances here. Physics departments can't spare resources to peruse papers from amateur physicists who are nearly always crackpots who think they have found the Next Big Discovery. I realize you're probably not among this crowd, but I think that at face value, an unsolicited theorem from a credential-less physicist may be indistinguishable from the rest.

    On the other hand, I suspect philosophers of physics would be interested in you regardless of credentials, and I think that is much more up your alley. Maybe you should give it some consideration.
  11. Jan 8, 2012 #10
    Sounds a bit offensive, as if they are willing to waste their time as opposed to physicists?

    Anyway, a good philosopher of physics is indistinguishable from a good theoretical physicist :)
  12. Jan 8, 2012 #11
    Are you a grad student in physics?? Who are you to say that theorists aren't really physicists??

    You do understand the difference between experimental and theoretical physicists right?? And you do see the need for both groups??

    I'm sorry, but unless you're actively doing research, I don't think you should comment on what kind of physics is worthy enough.
  13. Jan 8, 2012 #12


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    This is way off base for the topic at hand. The OP is not asking if he can develop and prove a new theory of physics from A-Z, theory to experiment. Theoretical work is just as important as experimental work and I can imagine theory papers would outnumber experimental papers in many fields.

    Then you really don't know any physics. Physics is basically applied mathematics. You'll never see papers published that do not have any mathematical details because that's like trying to build a house without using any building material. You can draw a house, have ideas of what a house would look like, you can understand the idea behind houses, but you can't say you know how to build a house until you've put nail to hammer and actually built one.

    Ignore the claims that you need any equipment to do physics; leave that stuff for the experimentalists. Also, again, to kind of emphasize what I said earlier, thinking about physics is meaningless. Students of physics don't think, they do (hehe).

    There is a set series of textbooks any undergraduate in physics will have completed, a list you could easily request on this forum. For example, EVERY student of Physics has had their introductory calculus based 3-semester course using a text like Serway's Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Then they go through an electromagnetism upper-division course using a text like Griffith's Introduction to Electromagnetism. Then there's the quantum mechanics text, condensed matter, thermodynamics, classical mechanics, etc etc.

    Then, of course, the math is barely beginning at calculus, especially for a theorist. You'll need to go through a text in Linear Algebra, Differential Equations (and Partial Differential Equations), Complex Analysis, and probably a few others.

    Stuff like this takes 4 whole years for a good reason. Also, to add to this, yes after many years maybe you'll have something you can bring to a graduate student in a physics department or something. However, if you REALLY want to try to accomplish something, start looking at peer-reviewed journals that Physicists publish in such as Physical Review or American Journal of Physics (each having a series of journals, it's not just one big journal). Since these journals contain actual present day research, until you can understand what they're saying, you aren't ready to present any ideas to anyone. All research builds up on the mountain of research done before it. No one conjures up a theory or paper alone. They read dozens of articles related to the specific problem you're addressing (this is why you'll see sometimes 30-40 citations in a 5 page article). So be ready for that.
  14. Jan 8, 2012 #13
    That was most certainly not my point at all! I suggested that because of his grasp of concepts and the fact that the philosophy community is much more forgiving than the physics community regarding amateurs. I am an amateur philosopher; anyone can be one. Especially if they have the drive that our thread poster possesses in spades.
  15. Jan 8, 2012 #14
    micromass, I appreciate that you're defending a perceived slight, but I urge you to reexamine my post. Specifically the following comment:

    I was attempting to emphasize that learning how to experiment, where experimentation comes from, and why it's important is necessary in a physics student's education. It may not make up every single physics grad student's lives, but if you haven't seen some level of experimentation in undergrad, then you likely went to a diploma mill - and there most certainly is a reason for that. Now frankly, I'm going to cease this particular discussion since I made my point and as you said, it's way off topic.
  16. Jan 8, 2012 #15

    Rob D

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    My continuing thanks for taking time to discuss and offer suggestions on what I sincerely hope is not a fools journey. But, that to me is precisely what it is, a journey. And, since i am not after a degree, a journey without end or specific goal. Like golf, a game one can play but never win.

    As for joining "the club", it looks like I already have. You probably won't see me post very often since I prefer to read. And I promise not to offer my research on Spontaneous Human Cumbustian. :smile:

    A Pleasure to Meet All Of You,
    Rob D
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