Talk to a physicist. Call me on Skype. $50 per 20 minutes.
August 11, 2016 1:32 PM   Subscribe

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists My clients read way too much into pictures, measuring every angle, scrutinising every colour, counting every dash. Illustrators should be more careful to point out what is relevant information and what is artistic freedom.
But the most important lesson I’ve learned is that journalists are so successful at making physics seem not so complicated that many readers come away with the impression that they can easily do it themselves. How can we blame them for not knowing what it takes if we never tell them?

posted by CrystalDave (48 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
god I thought it said "autodidact physicians" and I was really worried there for a minute. The article seems pretty reasonable compared to that.
posted by GuyZero at 1:36 PM on August 11, 2016


I was going in expecting a bit of mockery, but this is lovely.
posted by solarion at 1:38 PM on August 11, 2016 [16 favorites]


Huh. I wonder if there's a similar service where you can pay to chat with a philosopher. I'd probably find it more beneficial than conventional therapy.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:55 PM on August 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


have you read any Nietzsche?
posted by lalochezia at 2:01 PM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]


I liked the other semi-related article in this issue too:

We make up boundaries for specific purposes and then we test whether the boundaries are actually useful for whatever purposes we drew them. In the case of the distinction between science and pseudoscience, we think there are important differences, so we try to draw tentative borders in order to highlight them. Surely one would give up too much, as either a scientist or a philosopher, if one were to reject the strongly intuitive idea that there is something fundamentally different between, say, astrology and astronomy. The question is where, approximately, the difference lies.
posted by latkes at 2:08 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Huh. I wonder if there's a similar service where you can pay to chat with a philosopher. I'd probably find it more beneficial than conventional therapy.

My husband is a physicist. My in-laws are philosophers. Trust me, stick with the therapy.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:12 PM on August 11, 2016 [30 favorites]


I wonder if there's a similar service where you can pay to chat with a philosopher.
It is called Twitter, you don't have to pay, and I don't recommend it.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:18 PM on August 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


FoB there is such a thing as philosophy therapy. But I'd trade my services for mathematics therapy.
posted by leibniz at 2:19 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's something odd in the way she writes about her clients.

She writes:
Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry.
But throughout the article she then writes things like:
And I make clear that if they want to be taken seriously by physicists, there’s no way around mathematics, lots of mathematics.
and
My clients read way too much into pictures, measuring every angle, scrutinising every colour, counting every dash.
and
I still get the occasional joke from colleagues about my ‘crackpot consultant business’, but I’ve stopped thinking of our clients that way. They are driven by the same desire to understand nature and make a contribution to science as we are. They just weren’t lucky enough to get the required education early in life, and now they have a hard time figuring out where to even begin.
The way she writes she makes it sound like her clients are poor souls who never got a chance at an education and are now struggling to understand the world, but they're apparently mostly engineers or doing related jobs. So surely they've had an education, which included at least some level of physics and math. The conclusion that "[t]hey just weren’t lucky enough to get the required education early in life" therefore seems kind of odd. It sounds a lot more like extreme Engineer's Disease, which is born from arrogance, not ignorance.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:29 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Well, "background in engineering" needn't mean a wet-stamp or even a degree in it. Even with that, there are a lot of engineers and very good coders who never got* proofs in mathematics.

*never took a class, or never grokked the point
posted by clew at 2:35 PM on August 11, 2016 [13 favorites]


It sounds a lot more like extreme Engineer's Disease, which is born from arrogance, not ignorance.

I read that point exactly as "they weren't lucky enough to have an education that freed them from Engineer's Disease". While I'm not exactly sorry for them, if they learned on the job or had a vocational focus at first (and got into the theoretical side later) then there just might not have been anyone around to dispel that at the appropriate time.
posted by solarion at 2:40 PM on August 11, 2016 [9 favorites]


The other things to bear in mind about mathematics are that (1) engineering requires far, far less math than most physics, and this fundamental "high-energy" physics is frequently the most mathematically demanding, (2) the math required for physics is very different (linear algebra/group theory/topology/category theory as opposed to PDEs), and (3) my impression is that most engineers don't actually do that much mathematics over the course of their career, particularly after promotion into management (which seems to be the usual track).
posted by golwengaud at 2:41 PM on August 11, 2016 [17 favorites]


One thing I've noticed is that there are a lot of people with the desire to do mathy things, but who lack the willingness to believe they really need the math to do them.

I'm not good at math by any stretch, I barely passed Calc I in college and that only by taking the course twice. But learning what I do know taught me at least to respect math, and that it would be necessary for any really deep understanding of just about any technical subject.

I have, at best, enough math to appreciate how much more I need if I wanted to get into deeper computer stuff.

And as a computer geek, I occasionally attract crackpots too. Every few months I'll be in casual conversation with someone at a store or whatever and on learning that I'm in computers they'll tell me that they've invented a new cryptography system that will upend the world.

And like Dr. Hossenfelder what most struck me is that not a single one of them had the math to even appreciate how little math they had. One or two knew a bit of high school algebra, and they were the best educated mathematically.

I think one place we've failed badly is educating people in just how much math they will need to do stuff like physics, or cryptography, or biology. There's no such thing as a branch of science that doesn't require a lot of math. You can't fake it, you can't get around it, you either need to learn it or just admit you aren't going to be doing science.
posted by sotonohito at 2:45 PM on August 11, 2016 [15 favorites]


It sounds a lot more like extreme Engineer's Disease, which is born from arrogance, not ignorance.

It sounds to me like just enough knowledge to be dangerous, more than anything else. Plus a little of the engineering drive mentality. A lot of the Engineering approach is 'Well, how hard can it be? There must be a way I can fix/prevent/improve that by just looking at it differently', which is where most of the innovation comes from.

One of my favourite little buzz words/phrases that I throw around when teaching drivers and getting them (usually older, well off, slightly arrogant/confident/set in their ways men) to be more open to completely changing what they are doing is "you don't know what you don't know", which is very simple, but also pretty powerful in its simplicity for deconstructing justifications and conviction based around (in my example) driving in a certain way. You may have reasoned yourself into a position (or driving style) that you know works as best you can think it might, backed up by what facts you are aware of and have hunted out/learned, but.... you don't know the stuff that refutes what you know, because how could you? You don't know what you don't know, so are incapable of allowing for the effects of that extra data. In much the same way, when an engineer has a lot of knowledge, they may apply that to a problem (like in this instance) where they see it a certain way and just neglect to allow for stuff they didn't know about. Because they knew enough of the problem, they didn't think to look for more factors.

In my example, it's more about how (for one example) their existing style is limiting the ultimate cornering g or mid corner speed they are capable of holding with their current car. For instance, they may try a new car (say, a prototype race car with slick tyres, having only ever driven road car/tyre combos before) and drive around a corner faster than they EVER have, their mind is blown, they are utterly excitable and think they're awesome. But then I come in and say "Er.... you're only cornering at about 2g. That is a lot more than your (Porsche/Ferrari/McLaren etc) could do, but this car will corner at 3g, so you can go around that corner maybe 15-20mph faster".

It can be hard for people to believe. Well, you didn't know that it would go around that corner at 3g. You don't know what you don't know, so you don't know that more grip than 'more grip than I have ever experienced' is possible.
posted by Brockles at 2:50 PM on August 11, 2016 [8 favorites]


I think one place we've failed badly is educating people in just how much math they will need to do stuff like physics, or cryptography, or biology.

Does biology really require that much math? People are just blobs of stuff, and you don't have to know anything at all to make one.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:53 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


"The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men."
She is not the first to notice this very strong trend, but I think it is ultimately a lot less innocent in structural ways than is being portrayed here.

I've been fascinated by the topic of cranks in academia for for a while and I think I have a decent model for understanding part of where at least this section of crankery comes from, frustrated privilege. At least in the West, these guys seem to be almost exclusively white men from relatively economically privileged backgrounds, a demographic that Western society is constantly reminding from a young age is smart, talented, knows things, and HAS THINGS TO TEACH US. (There are also a remarkable number of them in the Middle East and Africa, but particularly they seem to fit the relative privilege bill even harder) Lacking the drive or humility to actually learn enough to have things worth teaching, they invent things that only appear to be worth teaching in order to fulfill that drive that was expected of them from birth without needing to do the hard work they either are not capable of or simply do not want to do.

It is the dark flip side to the debilitating impostor syndrome that many real academics have, where the main difference seems to be the intellectual honesty to recognize and fight it as well as the talent, drive, and education to do so. The practice of academic crankery represents a reversal of something fundamental to the honest practice of science, where it is all about finding ways to feel smart - smarter than everyone else - whereas as good scientists are constantly finding new ways to feel stupid - pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge where they know nothing and no one can help them. Much like how Charlie Sheen represented his actions to a judge while defending himself from prostitution charges during sentencing, "Sir, I did not pay that woman to sleep with me, I paid her to go home afterwards," as an academic you don't so much get paid to be smart but instead get paid to be willing to feel stupid, constantly. It is exhausting, regularly humiliating, but ultimately supremely liberating in a way that is both difficult to explain and trivial to spot in others who do not grok it.

Academic cranks are people who are not capable of honestly producing meaningful ideas that are simultaneously new and valuable, are constantly presented with evidence to that effect, and yet still feel a desperate compulsion to seem smart like they imagine academics to be. I suspect that this generalizes significantly to other conspiracy theorists only, in addition to feeling smarter than politicians and the media or whatever, they also get to feel more in control and secure in how the world makes sense in the light of the theories.

This lecture gives a still very sympathetic, but I think much clearer view of the people this woman is profiting from.
Pathological Physics: Tales from "The Box" (previously) You will also need to forgive the ideosyncratic theories of videography and sound capture on display, but it is totally worth it.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:55 PM on August 11, 2016 [36 favorites]


Interesting article, but it tweaked a pet peeve of mine. "Engineering" is a very, very broad category, and includes everything from people who decide how best to put down lines on a roadway to others doing quite advanced applied mathematics. Theoretical research in, say, machine learning or robotics isn't exactly a mathematical walk in the park. Most lay people have almost no understanding of the breadth of work going on in the mathematical sciences outside of physics proper, and it's annoying how frequently physicists seem only to happy to play along with that.
posted by mondo dentro at 3:20 PM on August 11, 2016 [8 favorites]


Does biology really require that much math?

Fuck yes it does.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:30 PM on August 11, 2016 [16 favorites]


My husband is an astrophysicist by training (not a working scientist anymore) and occasionally introduces himself as such because he doesn't want to talk about his day job, and we've definitely been cornered at the weirdest and most unpredictable places by older white guys who wanted to tell him their theories.

I actually had similar feelings to these academic cranks as a teen, TBH, and was always coming up with little theories. The popular science press definitely oversimplifies a lot of things and makes people feel like they have total subject command of subjects that they really don't understand beyond a very rough surface gloss. Luckily I got schooled by my university education, which is what an education is all about. And now I'm pretty certain I don't know much about much.
posted by town of cats at 3:32 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sorry, let me elaborate. The bulk of biology these days, aside from the experimental work (whether you do that at a bench or in the field or a bit of both) is statistics, simulation, and modeling. If you want to be more than just a poseur, you'd better damn well understand exactly what is going on in that Markov-chain-monte-carlo simulation you're running, or how your principal component axes are determined, or how that differential simulated annealing model is calculated. Damn right there's a lot of math involved. Study up, or you're going to be permanently behind the curve.

The myth that biology is the natural science for people who are bad at math has led to a lot of shoddy and derivative research, and continues to do so. Those who excel are those who can not only understand the basic formulae that model the relationships between the phenomenae that they're studying, and not only understand the more advanced linear algebra and bayesian statistics that underlies many modern analyses, but also write new tools that enable them to ask questions that nobody could get at before.

Maybe it used to be that you could get by with a much more basic understanding of mathematics, but those days are gone, gone, gone.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:40 PM on August 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


mondo dentro (not to mention AoaNLA,T): point taken, and my apologies. (I suspect I tweaked that pet peave too). I, too, tend to do this with biology as well as engineering: just 'cause my last contact with biology, in high school, involved practically zero mathematics doesn't mean my friends' research in the subject doesn't require a great deal of mathematical/statistical sophistication.
posted by golwengaud at 3:41 PM on August 11, 2016


Well in your defense, many of the principles and concepts that arise from the findings of biological research are reasonably easy to grasp intuitively, or at worst are counterintuitive in such a fashion that when you finally wrap your head around them they crystallize and take on an elegant, almost inevitable-seeming logic. It's just that the actual determininations and analyses that you have to go through in the course of the original development of those concepts are extremely mathematically hairy.

So while the educated member of the public doesn't necessarily need a lot of math to grasp a lot of modern biology (if it's explained well) you do need the math if you want to actually participate in the research. At least that's how I, a non-researcher, see it. Those who are actively practicing might feel differently.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:47 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


to footnote the footnote to the addendum, there is still straight-up naturalist work to be done -- "go watch, unintrusively, disinterestedly, for a long time, taking perfect notes" -- but even that won't fit into the rest of biology without statistics.
posted by clew at 3:50 PM on August 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


I've been fascinated by the topic of cranks in academia for for a while and I think I have a decent model for understanding part of where at least this section of crankery comes from, frustrated privilege. At least in the West, these guys seem to be almost exclusively white men from relatively economically privileged backgrounds, a demographic that Western society is constantly reminding from a young age is smart, talented, knows things, and HAS THINGS TO TEACH US. (There are also a remarkable number of them in the Middle East and Africa, but particularly they seem to fit the relative privilege bill even harder) Lacking the drive or humility to actually learn enough to have things worth teaching, they invent things that only appear to be worth teaching in order to fulfill that drive that was expected of them from birth without needing to do the hard work they either are not capable of or simply do not want to do.

Well it's certainly very much a male thing and... that's not terribly surprising (though note also I believe there's a higher rate of e.g. schizophrenia among men). But I think a number of cranks I've encountered - certainly at least a subgenre - are "intellectual school of hard knocks" types who have a chip on their shoulder about academia because they didn't have the opportunity to attend, or because they feel like they had to settle for something "practical" like engineering when they (obviously) could have been the next Einstein.
posted by atoxyl at 4:05 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


If your theory is based on precise measurements of an illustration in a popular science magazine of particles ‘popping’ in and out of existence, super-advanced mathematics probably isn't the first thing you're missing.
posted by sfenders at 4:06 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


But maybe by "academic cranks" you mean the cranks who manage to hang around in academia? Because that's a whole phenomenon that I find interesting.
posted by atoxyl at 4:07 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Interesting piece.

My job title often has the word "engineer" thrown into it, and I'm frequently introduced to clients as an "Engineer." I have zero education in "engineering" and it always makes me cringe because it kind of insults people who actually earned the title.

I usually just shrug and say, "I'm the guy who tries to keep your sales rep from lying to you."
posted by Thistledown at 4:10 PM on August 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


Meanwhile, on Metafilter, a bunch of amateur psychologists attempt to explain the interior workings of a group of people they've never met.
posted by b1tr0t at 4:17 PM on August 11, 2016 [22 favorites]


It sounds a lot more like extreme Engineer's Disease, which is born from arrogance, not ignorance.
It sounds to me like just enough knowledge to be dangerous, more than anything else. Plus a little of the engineering drive mentality. A lot of the Engineering approach is 'Well, how hard can it be? There must be a way I can fix/prevent/improve that by just looking at it differently', which is where most of the innovation comes from.
As a surgical resident, engineers are the worst patients. They all think that a few hours of Googling and a decade-plus-old BS is enough for them to argue against a hundred years of surgical experience and bench research, and what we do is nothing near the complexity of actual hard science, physics, or math. Surgery literally is just engineering with squishy things, with tons of empiricism and dogma and "that's just the way we do it," but it's crazy how different things are in living, breathing organisms with cells and organs and systems that react to our interventions than machines made of gears and levers.

I'm sure if our roles were reversed, I'd be far worse. "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?! I'M A GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING SURGEON!!!1one"

PS: I <3 engineers, all my best friends are engineers and my mom is an EE.
posted by ceterum at 4:29 PM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]


I've been fascinated by the topic of cranks in academia for for a while

Here's a really interesting blog post about autodidact physics crackpots.
posted by painquale at 5:02 PM on August 11, 2016


Oh sure, clew. I tried to include that in my addendum, but yeah. Even if you're doing observational animal behavior, you're still going to have to go back to your office afterward and crunch a bunch of numbers for months on end until you have some results that are worth publishing. Your statistical tools might be different from the ones I casually tossed out above, but you still want to understand them intimately, all the moreso because they might be a bit simpler and so there's less excuse for having a less-than-perfect grasp of them. Some of your editors might have had to do your analyses with pencil and paper back in the day, and you can bet they're not going to accept a lesser degree of intellectual rigor.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:13 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]




poor souls who never got a chance at an education and are now struggling to understand the world, but they're apparently mostly engineers

As an engineer, engineering in general doesn't require that much math. Basically calculus of various sorts. Also note that engineering math is not very abstract. There are certain specialties where this is less true, but the number of engineers working in them is extremely small (and that math still doesn't approach modern physics).
posted by ryanrs at 6:01 PM on August 11, 2016


ceterum, I used to be an engineer and am now a lawyer, and I have to say that the single most arrogant, rude it's-obvious-to-me-how-the-law-works self-representing litigant I've so far encountered was in fact.... a consultant surgeon.
posted by Major Clanger at 6:04 PM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]


A whole lotta university engineering goes exactly one year beyond college calculus and then stops at differential equations. There's not a lot of mathematical theorem proving, and the math is very concrete -- you can understand it in relation to intuitions about the world around you, and in particular classical physics.

Quantum physics is far removed from things we find intuitive. The only way to get it is to get the mathematical landscape of something that has no real analogue to daily experience. And it's based on math you'd really not get in engineering, even the mathier branches like computer science.
posted by zippy at 11:07 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is a lovely idea and I wish it existed in every academic discipline - although I imagine it would be impossible or unendurable (for fairly common sense reasons) in any social science or the humanities.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:00 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is a lovely idea and I wish it existed in every academic discipline - although I imagine it would be impossible or unendurable (for fairly common sense reasons) in any social science or the humanities.

Oh god, you think regular people have crackpot theories on physics? Try philosophy. Jeeeeeeeezus. "Specialized vocabulary? Bullshit! I have a degree in English! I understand your words!" Let's not even get into history. Uuuuugh.

At least with the physical sciences the crackpottery is more entertaining and easily disproven.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:29 AM on August 12, 2016


It sounds a lot more like extreme Engineer's Disease, which is born from arrogance, not ignorance.

This is the conventional wisdom, but I think it's a socially divisive oversimplification. I was chatting with a friend last night and realized something about what I jokingly call my "engineer's disease," and it's likely roots, and arrogance is the last thing it's about in my case, I think. When I was a young kid living part time with my mother in Germany, she was a hardcore heroin addict, a real, full on junkie, complete with risky sexual behavior, hustling, etc. She regularly fixed when I was staying with her, and of course, when she did, she became unresponsive and unable to care for me or herself, so very early on in life, I learned to see it as my responsibility to take care of her, and got the idea that adult authority was meaningless--that the adults didn't really know what they were doing. More recently, I've come to realize those early experiences made a huge imprint on me in making me feel like I was the only responsible enough person around to take care of people I love, and that it's my job to take life seriously and try to solve all the irresponsible adults' problems. Basically, if I'm right, my own engineer's disease, such that it is, stems from my sense of powerlessness when faced with the irresponsibility and lack of seriousness among the adults responsible for caring for me and my mom. I was the only one around who really cared about her enough to take care of her, was the impression I took as a kid. And that sense of outsized responsibility has stuck with me from then on, to the extent I even started trying to make a career in music as a teen because I felt it was my responsibility to get really rich somehow so I could buy my grandparents (when they took me in here in the states) a house and solve all their financial problems. Even as a small kid in elementary school, I had obsessive tendencies when it comes to problem solving--I was given an IQ test early but they noted I underperformed because I stuck with the problems that were designed to be too difficult for my age range too long and so didn't manage my time properly. In any case, I'm not sure if I've actually got engineer's disease or not, but if I do, mine seems to originate in a sense of vulnerability, outsized personal responsibility, and anxiety, not at all arrogance, but when people pass this formulation around--engineer's disease = male arrogance--it's not necessarily a fair or accurate characterization of any particular reality.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:36 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's no such thing as a branch of science that doesn't require a lot of math.
We geologists solved this problem decades ago. We hived off the hard math stuff to a bunch of gullible dupes we call geophysicists leaving us to go on long fun hikes in exciting places.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:52 AM on August 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


I got curious about the math behind quantum mechanics after going to a scientific american level talk on the subject last week, and I have an engineering background that uses math heavily. So I wanted to expand a bit on how far removed engineering math is from quantum physics math.

When I read the Wikipedia entry on the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, nearly every linked topic in the first paragraph is one I have no experience in. Even if I read the linked articles, I would still not have much of an understanding. Each of those topics is, I would guess, as conceptually large as any single engineering discipline, perhaps much larger.

Math is a huge subject, encompassing topics that are perhaps more different from one another than math is from biology. And the math that describes quantum physics was in part developed just to describe quantum physics, so it's not necessarily something you'd learn even in an undergraduate study of mathematics (I can't say, I wasn't a math major).

As someone who applies math daily, and has a decent facility with it, but doesn't create new kinds of math, I might take a month just to understand the notation of the quantum math (seriously, look at that equation on the right) to the point where I could read equations out loud and perhaps plug values in correctly.

This is the equivalent to learning how to use the plus sign in algebra.

It might take me six months to two years to be able to manipulate the equations and have some intuition about how to apply them.

This is maybe like the leap from algebra to geometry or trigonometry.

I'm really speculating here, but I'd guess it would be another two to six years, let's call it PhD level study, to master the mathematics and be able to contribute to the field.

And this now is more like the distance from learning algebra to inventing calculus.
posted by zippy at 11:24 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I read the Wikipedia entry on the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics

A long time ago, starting with zero knowledge of the subject, I tried to figure out what an eigenvalue was in the context of quantum mechanics by looking at wikipedia pages. It did not work. Browsing 30 screenfulls at a time of mathematics, not being sure which parts are at all relevant, may tend to make things look more complicated than they need to be. I imagine it may also give plenty of opportunities to go off on crazy tangents that may lead to crackpot theories, if you're into that sort of thing.

Then last year, I watched all of Leonard Susskind's youtube videos. There must be other introductions out there that don't assume you're a physics major and don't oversimplify way too much, but they're not so easy to find. Susskind doesn't assume you know much of anything to start with, but does assume you're capable of things like understanding complex numbers and how to multiply vectors. Not a complete picture, but a really good place to start. You can get the gist of many of the big ideas in modern physics without too much complicated mathematics if you approach from the right angle.

Not that it will help if you're inventing a new theory of quantum gravity.
posted by sfenders at 2:19 PM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have a BA in Math. My education in college was all abstract stuff (all proofs, never looking at applications, etc.). I then taught high school calculus and physics for a few years (I had a student try to invent a new way to do integration- I said I'd be happy to look over anything he came up with and good luck). I've had a friend of mine with a degree in Physics try to explain the Shroedinger equation to me multiple times. The math behind Quantum Theory is hard. Hell, the math behind General Relativity is really hard too. And I say this as someone who really enjoyed doing Real Analysis and considers Rudin a minor god.
posted by Hactar at 2:34 PM on August 12, 2016


I have a BA in Math. My education in college was all abstract stuff (all proofs…

St John's?

posted by zippy at 2:57 PM on August 12, 2016


There certainly are parts that are irreducibly gnarly. GR is the most complicated bit that I sort of halfway understood for a moment. It's not as if anyone can explain it in five minutes, or get even a poor and fragile understanding of it without many hours of study. Not years though, just hours. The level of mathematics you'd need to do anything new and useful with it is another matter, and a serious barrier I'm not about to climb. But it's a worthwhile sightseeing trip anyway just to see how gravity waves fit in, because that's pretty cool.
posted by sfenders at 3:08 PM on August 12, 2016


It strikes me that this is a brilliant idea, a way to make money for struggling academics while defusing some well-intentioned crackpots.

Err... I don't suppose anyone knows any ecologists or environmental biologists running similar specials?
posted by MrVisible at 3:40 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I am an ecologist, and you could not pay me enough. I no longer discuss evolution or climate change on facebook because I can't stand the crackpots among the friends of friends. And then someone goes on a rant on my area of expertise and somebody tags me in and I weep.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:51 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Three comments:
1) The arxiv (preprint repository that started in theoretical physics) has filtering. It was built to categorize by subject, but it turns out to also filter for crackpots.

2) I have to show this thread to Mr. Nat. He's an engineer, but of the sort that is basically mathematics- he does indeed prove theorems all day. Whereas I am a string theorist - but very definitely not a mathematician. I do calculations, I don't prove theorems.

3) I could not be paid enough to do this job, it's my personal nightmare. Like the torture in Anathem-- trying to drag sense out of something that doesn't even make nonsense. Ugh. I can't decide if I am glad someone is doing this job-- but I can decide I am really glad this person isn't me.
posted by nat at 5:05 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm also interested in why so many engineers end up with odd and consuming ideas about the world. But lately I've figured out that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies just as much to me as it does to the people I argue with about climate science etc. on the Internets. So, is there something about life as an engineer (or whatever - I've met some pretty dogmatic CS and other professionals over the years) that predisposes people to decide they know better than the experts in any other field?

Then once you become a heretic, you're exposed to the psychological effect where people trying to argue you out of your position only increases your grip on your belief or theory. If they're arguing so vehemently, they must think my idea is really important.

And getting old isn't all that much fun. You go from a life of (more or less) career success to having various aging issues forced upon you, and at the same time things really have changed since you were in school. Now you're less likely to have a firm grip on the field, and you have very little or no experience of actually being wrong, but you're used to arguing from a position of authority in your field or as management.

I'm not a diagnostician, but I play one on the Internet...
posted by sneebler at 8:41 PM on August 12, 2016


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