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Self-learned physicist or pipe dream?

  1. Dec 24, 2005 #1
    I want to know more about physics. In fact, I want to possess a physics Ph.D's erudition. The truth is, I blew it in my younger years....academically speaking. Given my financial and academic situation it is basically impossible for me ever to get back into college (unless I stretch it out for 20 years, which I don't want to do). My ultimate goal is to have a healthy understanding of both Quantum physics and relativity....perhaps even Ph.D level if possible. Is it feasible to become a self-learned physicist, or might I as well forget about it?

    If it's possible, what subjects must I study (minus extraneous liberal arts subjects for the time being)? I have a "general knowledge" of calculus (probably needs brushing up). My knowledge of physics is a combination of what I've learned from Naval Nuclear Power School and various Popular Science books (e.g. "Emperor's New Mind", "The End of Time", "Goedel, Escher, Bach", etc.). I am willing to follow any college's syllabus if I must and I am willing to pay the money for the appropriate textbooks. I just don't know where to begin.

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 24, 2005 #2
    If you come up with an excellent theory that can be proved, I don't think your degree matters. :P

    You're making a big decision here. Ask yourself:
    - Why am I doing this?
    - What will I do with my PhD?
    - How much time do I have?
    - Is it worthwhile?
  4. Dec 24, 2005 #3
    Because it's fun.

    Well......I won't REALLY have a PhD. Just the knowledge level of one. But to answer your question: Know more about the universe and perhaps, with a little luck, discover a great theory.

    A LOT.


  5. Dec 24, 2005 #4
    Who will check wether you have understood things the right way? Who will check your excercises? Where will you do labs? There's more to learning physics than just reading. Zz. has made a avery nice distinction between learning physics and learning about physics. You can learn about physics on your own but the chances of learning physics without the interactions(teachers, peers) you'd have at an university are practically noexistant.
  6. Dec 26, 2005 #5
    When you do a PhD, its very specific piece of research, and by research I mean you actually work on something that no one has done before. You don't do a PhD in physics as such, it would be a PhD in nuclear physics, solid state physics, particle physics, astrophysics, or theoretical physics (there are a few more too). Even then, you're research would be in a pretty specific part of the field.

    This doesn't mean of course that you can't read up about subjects that interest you, but like inha says, books can only take you so far. Nothing beats chatting to someone for 5 minutes about a subject you are learning about and having troubles in (however, I don't see why you can't use the people on this forum in a similar way! :)). You seem more interested in theoretical physics so you can get around not being able to do labs (I think!)

    If you have the time then I think it's worth trying, if you enjoy the attempt then it's only like sitting in front of the TV in your spare time! But I would warn you that you need to have realistic goals for what you want to learn or acomplish.

    May I ask, do you have a full-time job? If so, how do you also have a lot of time? Are you sure there is no chance you can follow a formal education in some way? Part time?
  7. Dec 26, 2005 #6

    why? it is waste of time, and useless if you can t show for your labor. If you want some analytical fun, then why not try number theory??? It is easy to learn, and plenty of problems to occupy one s mind.
  8. Dec 27, 2005 #7
    Hah, you don't need to learn. You're obviously going to find this a lot of fun. So try and think of a region of the scientist that you'll find most enjoyable, think of possible theories that need discovering. Try deriving some well-known theories by yourself to see how it's done.
  9. Dec 27, 2005 #8
    Hi Mr T man,

    I don't think its a pipedream at all. Everything starts with a dream - its up to you to make it happen though. Oh, and don't listen to people who tell you you won't be able to do it.

    I'm 28 and in my 4th yr of a PhD in theoretical physics at the moment and am loving all the knowledge. It's very humbling to be honest as the more you know the more you realize you DON't know! When I was 15 my school careers advisor told me to keep physics as a hobby as I was not smart enough to do it...in fact most of my life people have told me 'you can't' - well screw them - YOU are the only one who makes things real.

    Anyhow - with regards to some advice for you.

    Firstly as someone pointed out a PhD is specific research - if you just want a general physics knowledge at the level of a PhD then a masters would be absolutely fine. On the other hand if you made it that far why not go the extra 3 years and get to be called Dr!

    How to do it?

    Ok, 2 routes.

    1) Academic

    You'd need to take some night classes to get you up to the academic level where you would be ready to take the GRE to get into a university to take a masters. Once you got into a masters you would be awarded a teaching Assistant position and could expect to make about $15000 a yr. You could fo tutoring on top of that. I make $20 an hr for tutoring and can tutor maybe 5-10 hrs a week. The masters should take 2-3 yrs.

    2) Self taught.

    This will be tough and you would need to dedicate 2-6 hrs a day and get lots of help from forums like this...

    I have to go now but I might add some more later.

    Good luck!
  10. Dec 27, 2005 #9
    Just as in any other field of science (except biology) as long as you can learn the advanced calculus it should be possible to master the course material. There haven't been too many self-taught physicist let alone scientist who have made names for themselves in their fields. I can only think of Farraday and Foucalt, and they's from the 19th century.

    But if physics doesn't work out maybe you should try math, maybe something like number theory.
  11. Dec 27, 2005 #10

    Tom Mattson

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    I hate to be the wet blanket but I don't think this is possible with self-study. You can certainly study all the coursework yourself, but that's not really where students learn to become physicists. They learn to do it via their research, and I can't imagine anyone doing a PhD level thesis without a thesis advisor. Your advisor is the one who guides you through the pitfalls and canyons, and he is the one who tells you whether or not your thesis is interesting, important, worthy of a PhD, etc. I also cannot imagine that you could be sure that your research is PhD-worthy without going through the gauntlet of the Candidacy Exam and Thesis Defense.

    But you certainly can get a very high level "textbook physics" education on your own. May I ask, from what point are you starting?
  12. Dec 27, 2005 #11


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    At this point you are so far from PhD level research that it should not even be considered. The first step is to Start to learn some basic physics. Go to your local used bookstore and find a copy of Halliday and Resnick, Either the single volume "Fundamentals" or the 2 volume "Physics". Master every page, problem and exercise. While you are at the bookstore get a basic calculus text, Stewart is good, so is Thomas, and Silas & Hille. It is not necessary to have the latest edition of these texts, it is just necessary to master the material.

    Math is critical for Physics you should also find texts for Complex Analysis (Churchill and Brown) and Linear Algebra (perhaps someone else can recommend a good text.)

    Once you have Mastered elementary Physics and Calculus, come back for advise on the next level. Do not try to push to far ahead without mastering the basics.
    These forums will have to substitute as your friend and tutor which should not be a bad thing.

    Good luck and I hope to see lots of meaty questions in the near future.
  13. Dec 27, 2005 #12


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    To get to a PhD level of understanding physics, or even a Master's Degree level would require several years of rigorous study. Even a 4 year baccalaureate degree at about 16 hrs of core mathematics and physics per semester takes requires 3-4 years, and then a master's would require an additional 30-40 years and a PhD would require about 90 hrs, most which would involve research. In a baccalaureate program, one should probably put in 2-3 hrs of homework and study for each 1 of lecture, so 12-16 hrs of class would require 36-48 hrs of outside study.

    Perhaps what you have learned from Naval Nuclear Power School is a start, but I suspect that Pop Sci books lack the rigour that one needs to really quanitiatively understand physics.

    However, as Tom mentioned, dedicated study and support of forum like this, along with a fair amount of self-discpline (and I emphasize that point) is necessary to achieve your goal.

    There are several threads in this forum including the tutorials section, the homework section, the physics/astronomy forums, and the textbook recommendation section (https://www.physicsforums.com/forumdisplay.php?f=21), where one can find much useful information. There are on-line courses and tutorials from various universities and colleges, which are often referenced within PF.

    I wish you well! :smile:
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2005
  14. Dec 27, 2005 #13
    I hope, for this guy's sake, that you are not referring to the concept of the Residue Theorem and all it's associated theorems or Laurent-series, Bromwich integrals, Laplace Transformations, Z-transformations,... Let's start with continuity, limits, derivatives, integrals (1D, 2D, 3D) first.

  15. Dec 27, 2005 #14


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    I guess you are not familiar with Complex Variables and Applications by Churchill and Brown? It is an entry level Complex analysis text. Which does exactly :

    OR what applies to the complex plane. For the reals that material is covered pretty well in any of the fundamental Calculus texts I referred to.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2005
  16. Dec 28, 2005 #15
    No i am not. I imagined complex analysis just referred to calculus with complex variables. Anyhow, thanks for clarifying

  17. Dec 28, 2005 #16
    Check out the webpage of G 't Hooft. He pretty much provides a whole programme you need to follow to be up to the task :smile:
  18. Dec 28, 2005 #17


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    Careful, please provide a link.

    I found this - "HOW to BECOME a GOOD THEORETICAL PHYSICIST" - http://www.phys.uu.nl/~thooft/theorist.html

    I also found - "HOW to BECOME a BAD THEORETICAL PHYSICIST " - http://www.phys.uu.nl/~thooft/theoristbad.html - "It is much easier to become a bad theoretical physicist than a good one."
  19. Dec 28, 2005 #18
  20. Jan 7, 2006 #19
    I think this is an awesome challenge, but if this is what you really want and you get a lot of advice and some guidance from these forums, then I think you have a chance to become very knowledgeable in Physics.

    I'm attempting to learn a lot of math and physics myself on my own with all of these online textbooks and help, but I am also going to college for Physics. I'm still only in basics Physics II and Calc II, so I hope to actually get ahead of my classes.

    Penrose's Road to Reality really inspired me. I just have to know what those neat looking formulas mean and the math behind all of those fascinating ideas.
  21. Jan 9, 2006 #20
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