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Should I Go With My Crazy Theories?

  1. Oct 2, 2012 #1
    I am currently working towards a double major in Mathematics and Physics, so that I will have a very good background in both. My reasons are twofold: 1) I want to be well-prepared to study in a Mathematical Physics Ph.D. program like the one at Virginia Tech 2) I have a deep and abiding passion for physics, and I'm developing one for mathematics.

    The reason I listed the desire to be prepared for a Mathematical Physics Ph.D. program first is that, even though my current mathematical knowledge is limited compared to that of a working theoretical physicist, I already have some (currently rather) qualitative theories concerning the intersection of String/M-Theory, QFT, and GR, and I want to see if I can develop a consistent mathematical model from them. Also of keen interest to me are the theories of Shape Dynamics and quantum 'timelessness' (which seems to me to be more like a true quantization/discretation of time), posited by the British physicist Julian Barbour.

    I really hope all that didn't sound pretentious, especially since I'm going to be a good bit older than my colleagues starting out, should I follow this path. Certain people in my life won't quit trying to convince me to go to school to learn a trade, and I could likely do well at something like electrical engineering, but I honestly don't think I'm going to be happy if I never know whether these theories I have brewing inside me are viable or not.

    Thank you for your advice.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2012 #2
    What math/physics classes have you taken thus far?
  4. Oct 3, 2012 #3
    great,, i like to hear your conjenctures.. keep it up. Einstein was been disregarded by his colleagues on his theories but he was right after all.
  5. Oct 3, 2012 #4
    Right now, I'm in College Algebra, though I'm already studying calculus and linear algebra independently. On the COMPASS placement test, I scored high enough to get into calculus, but the college I'm at doesn't allow skipping over College Algebra/Trigonometry unless one brings in transfer credit. As of this moment, I have the highest grade in my section, a high "A".

    Physics-wise, I have read a literal ton of popular and semi-popular accounts, though I haven't had a college-level class yet. (I was always ahead a year in my science classes in high school, though.) As I've begun to come to grips with the notation of calculus, matrices, etc, I've been looking though everything from basic calc-based physics books all the way to some milder technical articles, and I'm finding I can see the physics behind a good number of the equations I come across, especially for someone who hasn't been formally instructed in most of the mathematics involved.

    You can see why I'm afraid I'm being pretentious, however, because I don't have that much formal schooling yet.
  6. Oct 3, 2012 #5


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    I fail to see how you came up with "theories" that utilize GR and QFT if you are in college algebra and have recently started to learn calculus and LA.
  7. Oct 3, 2012 #6
    I hope you are willing to accept that your theories on GR, QFT and string theory are rubbish. Scientists should never be attached to one theory, but should always try to disprove the theory.
    Since you only did college algebra, I think we can safely say that your theories are wrong. But it would be nice for you to discover why. So yes, stay with your crazy theories and learn more physics to be able to disprove them.
  8. Oct 3, 2012 #7
  9. Oct 3, 2012 #8
    I actually read the biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson a couple of months back! :D

    My basic conjecture is rooted in a thorny engineering problem a friend posed to me that requires space to be quantized. That got me to thinking about how string theory is supposed to smooth out the problems in canonical quantum gravity. I wondered, why should strings (and their higher-dimensional analogues, branes) be needed to smooth out those problems unless they *were* the quanta of space? In other words, why should there be a redundant spacial structure underneath it all? Why not say strings, branes, etc are the quanta of space themselves? Mind you, I had already heard about so-called discrete spacial-lattice type argument and knots and the like. I've even read a bit about Roger Penrose's twistor theory (which is appealing to me, because it doesn't require compactified dimensions to avoid the 'ghosts' present in string theories formulated in space-time structures not of critical dimension).

    Where Julian Barbour's theories come in is over the problem of time. If space is to be completely discrete, how does one go about marrying it to time? This is necessary, because GR pretty much forces a space-time viewpoint (though Einstein wasn't sure Minkowski was right to begin with). To me, it seems Barbour's theory of 'instants' or 'successive Nows' or 'curves in configuration space' would be a perfect candidate for a discrete temporal component. And, by his own admission, his theories don't rule out current work in string theory, and might even end up making the problems in string theory simpler. I don't have the mathematical prowess yet to test that yet, but I've read over some string-theoric modifications done by a couple of physicists who have been working with Barbour over the past few years, and it at least seems feasible.

    Basically what I'm looking for is a fully discrete QFT formalism of GR, with strings/branes/etc as the constituents. That same friend I mentioned earlier pointed out that this would make the resulting space-time non-differentiable. But, as I've found out recently, this is only true for *infinitesimal* calculus; there are also finite difference and finite element versions of the calculus that may be able to compensate for the lack of a continuous manifold.

    Anyway, that's my conjecture right now. Of course, I may be rather embarrassed when my math catches up to my theories, but you never know where this might lead.

    Sorry I was so long-winded.
  10. Oct 3, 2012 #9
    They very well may be. I'll never know unless I get that experience though, will I?
  11. Oct 3, 2012 #10


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    I think a lot of folks who start out in physics were at some point in time convinced that they could or would be able to solve these very hard problems and that they would have some great ideas. So with that said, you're starting point is no different than a lot of people I know. So, i'm going to address your post as "Should I study mathematical physics?"

    Honestly, my answer is no. You seem to enjoy learning ideas in physics and wondering how it all connects, which is great, but I fear, like so many before you, that once you get removed from these really cool ideas and actually start doing physics, you'll be disappointed.

    The simple fact is that science is a lot of grunt work. It's hours of studying stuff that may not interest you (in my case abstract algebra) just so you can understand the stuff that does interest you (analysis). It's getting a lot of wrong answers before getting one right answer. If you honestly feel that you will be willing to spend the next decade failing (I mean that in a good way) and ending up with a PhD only to find that you're jobless, then sure go for it, you only live once.

    However, if you feel that you can learn enough physics while also learning something more 'practical' (like I dunno engineering or material science) then I would advise that.

    If your only desire is to see if your theory is right or wrong and how, it won't take long to find out the why. Without the mathematics, you're missing so many minor subtle things that people who know the math take for granted. What seems easy to understand when explained by someone who knows it, is much harder to figure out when you're trying to learn it, much much harder.
  12. Oct 3, 2012 #11
    In short, you're saying I could go for a more practical angle and still work the physics angle on the side? That's actually surprisingly similar to what Julian Barbour did!

    Even though you're not the first person to say something like this to me, you were honest and you have given me much to consider. That's exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.
  13. Oct 3, 2012 #12
    Most likely your physics theories won't even survive an undergrad's education. When I was (much much) younger, I came up with all kinds of funky ideas like perpetual motion machines. Then I got an education and learned why they were all impossible.

    By the time you become a PhD, all your old theories will be gone and you'll have new ones that are based on evidence and mathematics rather than intuition and qualitative assessment.
  14. Oct 3, 2012 #13


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    It sounds to me like you are suggesting that a PhD in math will leave you jobless, which is not necessarily the case.
  15. Oct 3, 2012 #14
    If you are currently taking college algebra and have never taken a college level physics class, it is probably not accurate to say you are CURRENTLY working toward a math/physics double major.

    Right now you have no real idea about what physics(math) is, how physicists(mathematicians) work, etc. Thats natural- you don't have much exposure. Before you decide on what you want, wait until you have taken the first "weed-out" proof based math course (some places thats an honors/just-for-math-majors calculus, some places thats analysis) and a 300 level physics course (Lagrangian mechanics, or upper level E/M). If you hate proofs, math is not for you, and if you don't like the upper division physics courses ,get out of physics, etc. The good news is, even if you hate upper level physics, the intro sequence will set you up nicely to switch into an engineering major assuming you take the right mix of other courses as you go.

    Would you be happy with spending a decade getting a phd in mathematical physics and then scrambling into a fairly unrelated job in finance, insurance, IT? Because that seems to be what most of us (theory phds) do.
  16. Oct 3, 2012 #15
    I 100% agree with this. I'm currently working on my PhD in physics and anyone that is publishing or developing their theories that I've met always have an open-endness to their "beliefs" of whether their theories are correct or not. They go along with the results but they constantly question the validity of their claims. If students saw real working physicists and how they treat their own theories/experiments then I would venture to guess there wouldn't be so many senseless arguments over "qualitative" theories on space-time or quantum stuff. But we always have pop-sci TV shows to keep those outlandish theories going.
  17. Oct 3, 2012 #16
    That's a good point. I'd rather be a high school physics teacher or a community college instructor than serve an almighty corporation any day. Teachers and professors who care about their students and are good at their craft make much more of an impact, the way I see it. But I still plan on earning a Ph.D., no matter which field I scramble into, because I want the experience.

    And y'all are right about the fact my theories will very likely evolve. This is what I *want* to happen. I'm just the kind of person who likes to plan (way) ahead. I have to have a specific goal, or I lose motivation. My current 'theories' ('conjectures' is a better word) are merely pointing me in a direction to conduct research once I get to that juncture. If I thought my theories were viable right now, I'd publish to arXiv.org or the like. I'm not that deluded yet. :P I don't think I communicated my viewpoint sufficiently well in my earlier posts.
  18. Oct 3, 2012 #17
    you have the personality for it.

    1.) you think you're smart.
    2.) but here's the important part. when people say you're an idiot you don't get mad. that's valuable both in industry and academia. if when *you* say to yourself, I'm an idiot, and you still don't get mad, then you can get a PhD.

    That assumes you have the raw ability to do insanely hard math of course. I'm not even talking just plain grad courses...

    I personally don't so I play with machinery at the lab and uh, 'drill holes', 'spill dirt' and 'play with sand' as someone else said. But you may. And if you find out you can't... there's always the hole drilling, dirt spilling, sand playing business.
  19. Oct 3, 2012 #18


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    Or, depending on your tastes in "grunt work", code-monkeying. :smile:
  20. Oct 3, 2012 #19
    Geeez, if I got mad every time someone said something disparaging to me, I'd be mad most the time. Come to think of it, though, I *used* to be mad most the time. . . :P

    Besides, I know I'm not an idiot. Rather naive about some things? Without doubt. I'm of the opinion that life isn't worth living without dreams, *however* naive they may be. But I also know there's wisdom in a multitude of counselors, which is why I started this thread to begin with.
  21. Oct 3, 2012 #20
    OP, your very well spoken, that is a start. If you spoKe like tis then.. Your also passionate, ambitious, and know how to take some fairly rough criticism, that is another plus.

    Anyways, you seem to have a good memory for popular science. I don't know how much time you've spent on this, but what you need to do is use that time to start learning calculus and real physics. Best of luck!!!

    It can be fun to play around with theories qualitatively, but you have to come to terms with the fact that this will get you nowhere, physics is rooted in mathematics. It is guided by qualitative thought but that qualitative thought is by itself rooted in mathematics and the existing infrastructure in physics. If you do not understand the existing infrastructure in physics, which I should remind you is quantitative, then you are just twiddling your toes in the sand.
  22. Oct 3, 2012 #21
    O.K., we say this. Now what?

    One thing about quantum gravity is that it's easy until you know why it's hard. It's trivial to come up with a nice symmetric, beautiful theory about how the universe works. The hard part is coming to terms with the fact that the universe is quite messy.

    So are lots of other people. One of the more recent efforts has to do with just giving up on coming up with a "theory of everything" and then focus on just quantizing gravity. The reason that's useful is that even if it turns out that ultimately space isn't quantizable, you can use what you learn to do general relativity computer simulations.


    Actually where this sort of thing led for me was that you end up doing computer simulations with general relativity and particle diffusion, then you find that the equations and mathematical techniques also end up similar to those for interest rates and mortgage backed securities, so you end up baby-sitting supercomputers on Wall Street.
  23. Oct 3, 2012 #22
    What if said almighty corporation pays you absurd amounts of money to crunch general relativistic-like equations? I got hooked in at the job interview in which I got hammered with questions about general relativity and field theory.

    What's likely to happen is that at some point you'll have to make lemonade out of lemons. You'll find that your approach won't work, so you'll have to scramble to find some use of it so that you can get something out the door. You may spend three years becoming an expert at some mathematical technique only to find that that technique causes your idea to blow up, at which point you apply that technique elsewhere.

    Or something else that happens is that you plan to go from A to B to C to D, and after spending five years you get a tenth of the way from A to B, but that's enough to get a dissertation. One thing about "quantizing" GR is that it's extremely non-trivial even at the level of getting a mesh that works.
  24. Oct 3, 2012 #23
    One thing that ends up happening in this game is that you get trained to be a masochist. If I go into to a colleague with an idea, and he comes up with twenty reasons why it won't work, it feels good. If you go and then don't react, that means that it's too vague or too obviously wrong to be worth the trouble.

    For example, I *can't* find many problems with your ideas right now, and this is a bad thing. The trouble is that you haven't described your theory with enough specificity that I can find problems with it. It's too vague.

    Now if you can describe your ideas to the point where someone can find twenty problems with it, *then* we are making progress, and there is a strong sadomasochistic element to this because after a few rounds, you start to enjoy getting beat up.
  25. Oct 4, 2012 #24
    I'm also a fiction writer, so I know a thing or to about the 'sadomasochistic' element you speak of. One becomes immediately suspicious of the person reviewing a work if they go "hey this is the best thing I've evar ReAD!!!!" and don't have any critiques. Theoretical physics is beginning to sound more and more like a creative endeavor. :P
  26. Oct 4, 2012 #25
    Theoretical physics is an awkward combination between creativity and rigor. You have a creative license but only within the infrastructure that is already set in place, that includes the properties of mathematical structures (not how pretty you can make your words sound).
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