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The pitfalls of self-taught science and engineering

  1. May 15, 2005 #1

    Ivan Seeking

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    I'm sure that most of us are all too familiar with the self-taught science syndrome; where advanced qualitative concepts are "learned" in the absence of the mathematical and quantitative foundations needed for a proper understanding of a subject. The irony is that an education helps to set limits. I find that it is often true that the less a person knows, the more they have to say. Heck, a big part of my job is knowing when I'm in over my head. But I see many other people without a science or engineering degree who have no idea just how dangerous they really are. I see this frequently in my work. In fact I have made a fair amount of money following up on wanna-be engineers. There are a heck of a lot people out there "engineering" systems with nothing more than a tinker toy level understanding of the components and technology used. At the same time, I see a lot of engineers working as sales persons. Go figure!

    So here is my favorite guy. He has a freshman level, or even a high school level of understanding of electronics at best. Yet he owns a company that makes industrial machines, and he survives by talking a really good, long, line of crap. Of course it is only a matter of time until he screws up so bad that somebody either dies or is injured, or at the least, until he gets sued out of existence. He does finally seek help at times, but since it comes out of his wallet there is usually a fair amount of damage done before he gives up and jobs the work out to someone who is qualified. And the really scary part is that he's not unique.
     
    Last edited: May 15, 2005
  2. jcsd
  3. May 15, 2005 #2
    I'd have to disagree with you here. I know many people, who is willing to learn on their own, but is not willing to use it for such 'popular' reasons to reveal their dogmatism. These people *know* they are not mathematically capable (at the time), but are willing DAMN hard to learn and improve.

    This is too much of a generalized comment. True, however, there *are* exceptions.
     
    Last edited: May 15, 2005
  4. May 15, 2005 #3

    jma2001

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    What I'd really like to see, for those of us who are trying to self-learn science and engineering, are some tips on how to avoid this fate. There are plenty of places on the web that give the identifying characteristics of a crackpot (John Baez's crackpot index comes to mind), but how about some pointers on how NOT to become a crackpot? Of course the best way is to go to school and learn in an academic setting, but for some of us that just isn't possible for one reason or another.
     
  5. May 15, 2005 #4

    Ivan Seeking

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    If you want to learn physics or engineering, then you have to start with calculus and go from there. I have seen perhaps one of two people who actually make this effort on their own. On the other hand, I see plenty who seek to unseat Einstein when they haven't even learned the basics realized by Newton.

    Edit: But my source of frustration are the pseudo-engineers who are really salesmen carrying tech manuals. These jokers cost a lot of people a lot of time and money.
     
    Last edited: May 15, 2005
  6. May 15, 2005 #5

    jma2001

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    Well, that's exactly what I'm trying to do, and the reason why I read these forums. I don't have any budding revolutionary theories to sell, I'm just an average person who would like to have a better understanding of quantum mechanics. I read a lot of popular books about QM, and I was always frustrated by the vague descriptions of Heisenberg Uncertainty and the EPR Paradox that seemed to go around and around in circles without ever getting to the heart of the matter. That was when I began to realize that I would never have a clear understanding of QM without learning the mathematics.

    So if I succeed I will be perhaps the third person to have made the effort. :smile: Actually, I don't know if I have what it takes (I have no illusions about how difficult it is), but I am going to give it my best shot. Probably the best advice for someone in my position comes from John Baez, who wrote (on his web site):

    "It's crucial to admit you're wrong when you screw up. We all make tons of mistakes when we're learning stuff. If you don't admit this, you may gradually turn into a crackpot who clutches on to a stupid theory even when everyone else in the world can see that it's wrong."

    That's another reason why I like these forums, there are plenty of knowledgeable people around here who are good at pointing out mistakes! :tongue2: And I mean that in a good way.
     
  7. May 15, 2005 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    I guess I should add this. I think most people would agree that most learning takes place while doing homework problems. How many self-learners test and drill themselves? Also, since there is no guidance, much of the learning can be much less efficient than in a structured setting. Also, there is a big difference between learning for fun or keeping up on current events, and claiming to "learn" the subject. For example, every few years I go on a physics binge and read the lastest books, but I don't claim to be "studying" String Theory. In this context, "studying" involves mostly equations, not english. If you understand ST, you could translate the equations into english, and like Feynman said, explain it to your mother. But this would not make your mother an expert.
     
  8. May 15, 2005 #7

    Ivan Seeking

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    That's great! If you are going to try to learn, this is certainly a good place to look for guidance. But there are still no short cuts - you gotta do the math and homework problems. Also, there is no reason why you can't buy the freshman level text books for a university program and go from there. But again, unless you're some kind of prodigy, and there are very few of those around [like almost none], then you have to do the homework problems in order to really learn.
     
  9. May 15, 2005 #8

    jma2001

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    Yes, I know, that's why I bought a couple of calculus textbooks and I am working through the problem sets. I'm sure I'll be making good use of the homework help forums in the near future.

    Yes, one of my strategies was to review college catalogs and see what kind of courses are required of physics majors. I have also bought some undergrad physics textbooks and I plan to work through them.

    I learned this lesson the hard way my first time through college, about fifteen years ago. I was matriculated in a bachelor of science program at a respected university, but I had to withdraw halfway through my second year because I was failing several of my classes. Looking back on it now, I know I could have done much better if I had worked harder and applied myself, but I didn’t know what I wanted out of life back then. I cut classes, never did homework, crammed the night before exams, and the results were predictable. Years later, I returned to college and completed my degree, but I studied business, not science. I have always regretted not making a better effort that first time around, and I look forward to revisiting some of those ideas about mathematics and physics that my professors were trying to get across to me.
     
  10. May 15, 2005 #9

    Ivan Seeking

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    Well then you are the exception to the rule. Congratulations!

    I went back to college after 8 years in industry, but I was lucky and could attend part to full time while alternating with a work schedule; and as money constraints allowed. Still, leaving an established career was a difficult and necessary move, and one that most people just don't have the luxury of choice to make. I too had tried to go back a couple of times before but my beeper wouldn't stay quiet long enough for me to attend class. :grumpy:
     
  11. May 16, 2005 #10
    So, it sounds like there is no safety inspection requirement for industrial machines? Anyone can make them, and the safety considerations are up to them? Do you happen to know what sorts of things are required to be submitted to the underwriters lab?
     
  12. May 16, 2005 #11

    russ_watters

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    Well, I agree with Ivan (yes, I'm scared too :surprised ):
    My company actually makes a fair amount of money fixing bad engineering. And a lot of the crackpots we find here are engineers and technicians who don't realize they are in over their head.

    That said, I have a huge respect for anyone who can learn it on their own. My boss started off as a draftsman - he quit after being told to stop bothering the engineers and just accept that he'd be a draftsman his whole life. He is completely self-taught in engineering, save for the scattered ASHRAE course or industry seminar. He passed the PE exam and, near as I can tell, is a great engineer. He even administered/taught the ASHRAE school in philadelphia for a few years.

    But, he also thinks he's found the GUT (he's considering hiring a physics grad student to help him with the math) - oh, but it doesn't include Einstein's relativity since relativity is wrong. :rolleyes:
    In my industry, a good sales engineer is invaluable - since all large systems are custom built, I fax my sales engineer the specs for a unit and he runs the selection software to build it and sends back computer generated performance specs. He also helps with types of units and applications. You need to be a *real* engineer to do that.

    The latter - non-engineer salesmen selling engineering equipment are just painful to talk to. One guy was telling us the good things about his equipment and wasn't making any sense. He threw together a bunch of words that sounded like thermodynamics, but really didn't mean anything. He also parroted marketing catchpharses that didn't mean anything (while he, of course, thought they did). While this guy was sincere in his ignorance, I can't fathom how he got into that job in the first place. Doesn't someone in that company know that if you're gonna sell something to an engineer, you need to be able to explain it to him on his level?
     
  13. May 16, 2005 #12

    Chi Meson

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    Does anyone have the time to cobble together a list of al those posters in PF over the past few years who have claimed such scientific breakthroughs from their self-taught and non-orthodox brand of "science"? It might be fun for the ones that come along (later today probably) to show them the list that they are now joining.
     
  14. May 16, 2005 #13
    So true. It's so tempting, when you don't have the pressure of homework and assignments, to leave the harder problems for 'later'. I've found that while the assignment and exam pressures of formal study detract from my learning :grumpy: , the self-discipline I need to study maths without being formally enrolled in a course is very difficult to maintain. It boils down to will-power and wanting something enough - and being single-minded about it too, I think.
     
  15. May 16, 2005 #14

    russ_watters

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    I thought about naming some names, but I don't know if that's really a good idea. We shouldn't really get personal about it - however, I do see how it could be helpful.

    edit: other forums I've been to have a "trash bin" though - that's where the worst of the worst threads go to die. Its actually a little how we have been using TD...
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2005
  16. May 16, 2005 #15

    arildno

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    Well, wouldn't a compilation of the thread starters in TD be a good start?
    (There are only 1500 or so threads in TD..so go ahead..)
     
  17. May 16, 2005 #16

    Chi Meson

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    OK. Rather than naming names, we (meaning all of you) could compile a list of the most often muttered phrases and link them to the post. Phrases such as "Well everyone told the Wright broithers they couldn't fly," and "at least I'm coming up with new ideas, you guys are stuck in the way you think." etc.

    And my favorite: "hey I'm the idea guy. Someone else gets to do all the work." :wink:
     
  18. May 16, 2005 #17

    arildno

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    "It only remains a few math details to sort out; however, the important thing is that my theory proves that Einstein was wrong."

    Quotes like that?
     
  19. May 16, 2005 #18

    Chi Meson

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    I just read that one earlier today!
     
  20. May 16, 2005 #19

    Ivan Seeking

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    Unlike most sales for public use, UL testing is usually not required for most industrial equipment. A UL approved control panel is a paid-for sticker. It is all just a matter of money. In fact the guy that I cited has a legal roll of UL stickers. Also, until just recently a GFI could often be used to avoid good wiring practices, which had all but created a free-for-all, but this was just changed last year.

    So yes, anyone can make a machine and sell it; if someone will buy it. In fact I have even built and sold a machine for public use no less, with absolutely no testing or approval required other than by the customer.
     
  21. May 16, 2005 #20
    That's amazing. The safety stickers that say things like "Don't bring your toaster to bed with you," and "Do not leave your cat unattended in the feezer," are simply the maufacturer protecting themselves from lawsuits, then?
     
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