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Teaching yourself, is it really possible?

  1. Nov 12, 2012 #1
    Are there any people in recent history who never went to university to learn physics and just taught themselves using the internet and books? Is it really possible to get a solid understanding of physics just from reading and practice?

    I guess it would be a bit hard to test certain experiements due to lack of equipment but nevertheless is it doable?

    I live 10mins from a university and thought about sitting in on their physics lectures as the lecture halls have no form of security. I could get copies of the lecture hand outs ect. Only thing is I wouldn't be able to get my work marked but just wanted a professional opinion.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 12, 2012 #2
    If you read a book, I don't see how you could fail to learn from it.
  4. Nov 12, 2012 #3


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    This is difficult to judge, i.e. how does one knows that one has fully understood what one is trying to teach oneself?

    However, if you ask another question, such as : Has anyone, in recent history, who has not gone through a formal physics education ever made any significant contribution to the body of knowledge of physics, then the answer is NO.

    Now that doesn't mean that there is no one who has learned physics on his/her own, but there is no metric to measure such ability other than anecdotal accounts. On the other hand, making a contribution to the body of knowledge can be "measured", the least criteria of it is significant publications in prestigious peer-reviewed journals.

  5. Nov 12, 2012 #4
    As for less recent history, there is the example of Newton, who didn't even have a physics book to read, and Faraday, who had no formal physics education. More recently was Humason, assistant to Hubble. Here's a recent example of elementary school kids doing science.
  6. Nov 12, 2012 #5
    Are you dutch?

    There is no way to know if you can do it. But the odds are against it. Also, it may be easy to get to attend class. But is it illegal? You may want to think about that.

    Then again there are excellent online lessons, Somebody may link to that.

    Freeman Dyson signed something once, claiming only bachelor of art mathematics.

    https://dl.dropbox.com/u/22026080/freeman_dyson_.jpg [Broken]

    Finally as a side step, this guy never had any formal education in his branch of science. Yet he is considered a world leading specialist on Pleistocene mammals and I can tell why.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  7. Nov 12, 2012 #6


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    Without an expert in the field to teach you or at least be on hand to help as you teach yourself then depending on the field it can be hard to impossible to learn tacit knowledge. Couple that with the fact that for most scientific disciplines at advanced level you're going to need facilities beyond the average wealth to learn (i.e a lab) and it becomes even more unlikely that one can master a subject on one's own with only reference materials.
  8. Nov 12, 2012 #7


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    Or maybe being artisits!
    I linked this, which was displayed at the Hayward and Serpentine Galleries, back in '08-
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  9. Nov 12, 2012 #8


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    That's a bit misleading, unless you know that Cambridge University did not award BSc or MSc degrees in any subject whatever, even in the 1970s. The Cambridge M.A. degree at that time had no academic standing - the only requirements were not to break any University rules for 5 years after obtaining a BA, and pay a small fee if you wanted to "collect" it in person, rather than just get a piece of paper in the mail. It was simply a formal recognition that you were now eligible to vote on certain matters as a member of the university.

    The game has changed now. You can find heaviily cited papers in the International Journal of Numerical Methods in Engineering in the 1960s and 70s from at least one person without even a degree (I used to work for him!) but as Zz said, not any more.
  10. Nov 12, 2012 #9
    Just wanted to react to that, because what I'm standing for is pure honesty in it's most naive form, Feynmans honesty.

    I wasn't aware of those pecularities, nor that it was misleading, so if so, my apologies.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  11. Nov 12, 2012 #10


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    Maybe "misleading" was a bit strong.

    I would guess the reason why Trinity College Cambridge awarded Dyson a Fellowship without a Ph.D in 1946 was the general disruption to the education system caused by WWII. Having got the equivalent of modern academic tenure, takiing time out to write a thesis probably wasn't the top priority on his "to do" list.

    The Wiki link isn't quite clear, but it could imply he obtained his BA degree in just one year at Cambridge "after the war". That would have been possible within the rules as they then were - the only requirement was to pass the final examinations (6 hours per day on two consecutive days), not to accumulate X "credits" over several years by attending lectures, handing in homework assignments, etc.

    So the tick-boxes on the petition in your image weren't very appropriate for his situation, but the way he completed them was legally correct.
  12. Nov 12, 2012 #11
    From my experiences in college so far, most of the learning we do is self-taught anyways. ALL of my science/engineering classes solely require you to understand the book and understand the labs. With a thorough grasp on both, anyone can make an A and learn the subject completely. Therefore, if you want a good grade you have to resort to reading the book by yourself and going to labs. All the professor really does is summarize the chapters from the book and throw in a few real-world examples not mentioned in the book. This is true for most science classes and for most engineering classes except for senior design/advanced engineering classes.
  13. Nov 14, 2012 #12
    I think it's totally possible to self-educate yourself in undergrad, I feel like most people who're serious about their studies do this anyways to a fairly large degree.

    However in gradschool, you deal with very specific and much more complicated problems. You're usually trying to catch up with 50-60 years of research ontop of the knowledge you learn in undergrad. Doing that all on your own will take a very long time, and your knowledge will probably be very incomplete. It's amazing how much time you can save by just talking to someone wiser and more experienced than yourself.
  14. Nov 14, 2012 #13
    It depends. If you want to be a master in the field, probably not but possible. If you want a general understanding then yes.

    I almost never go to class and just learn by reading books, doing problems, etc.
  15. Nov 17, 2012 #14
    These days you can take college classes online for free (you don't get credit, just learn something.) And yes, it's legal.

  16. Nov 17, 2012 #15
  17. Nov 17, 2012 #16


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    People should also realize that there's a difference between learning physics and learning to be a physicist. The latter involves not just learning physics, but learning the culture, the language, the interaction, the practice, and the system of functioning to be a physicist. These are not something you can acquire simply by reading books! If any of you have read my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay, you would have noticed that the MAJORITY of the items I discussed do NOT involved learning something out of a physics textbook.

    So yes, to some extent, you can learn a material just on your own. But do not fall under the delusion that you are doing the same thing as learning how to become a physicist.

  18. Nov 17, 2012 #17
    I think ZapperZ hit the nail on the head. Short version: You can learn the physics, but you will never be "in the club".
  19. Nov 17, 2012 #18
    How do you know that? Do you keep track of the academic backgrounds of all the authors publishing something significant in the field of physics in the main PR journals in recent history? Maybe what you meant is that you don't but journals certainly do.
    On the other hand to avoid subjectivity you should specify what you consider significant, what you mean by recent history(in years), and what you mean by formal physics education(BS, master, PhD, related majors).
  20. Nov 17, 2012 #19
  21. Nov 17, 2012 #20


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