How to win the Nobel Prize 101
August 29, 2007 4:22 PM   Subscribe

"It so often happens that I receive mail - well-intended but totally useless - by amateur physicists who believe to have solved the world. They believe this, only because they understand totally nothing about the real way problems are solved in Modern Physics...It should be possible, these days, to collect all knowledge you need from the internet. Problem then is, there is so much junk on the internet... I know exactly what should be taught to the beginning student...I can tell you of my own experiences. It helped me all the way to earn a Nobel Prize. But I didn't have internet. I am going to try to be your teacher. It is a formidable task."
posted by vacapinta (47 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
*jumps directly to superstring theory*

*head asplodes*
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:31 PM on August 29, 2007

Nice of the man to make such an effort. Though, anyone who can look at that list of books and topic without swallowing hard probably doesn't need much help.

A century ago, one might be able to absorb the whole field, and cogitate in the light. So "amateur physicists" who work on these problems in the dark may have little idea that physics is exponentially more complicated than back then -- and little idea how much more political and commercialized it is.

The field is so diverse that , in a way, it's become a conceptual straitjacket. Maybe the amateurs would have better chances just reading Feyerabend and avoiding the jacket. Nobel notwithstanding.
posted by Twang at 4:33 PM on August 29, 2007

One Angry Physicist.
posted by absalom at 4:35 PM on August 29, 2007

It is a formidable task.

So is web design. Can you imagine what this brilliant man could do when paired with someone who can build a decent webpage?! The mind boggles.
posted by gurple at 4:41 PM on August 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

ooh.... this looks like some good reading.

I love dabbling!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:41 PM on August 29, 2007

excellent. our homeschooling son-equivalent will someday thank you (or curse you! six of one...).
posted by RedEmma at 4:46 PM on August 29, 2007

Oh my god. Someone really needs to learn how to be a "good" web designer.
posted by delmoi at 4:50 PM on August 29, 2007

For anyone who wants some more understanding of the math behind modern physics in a shorter form, I recommend The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. I'm told he has written some kookier stuff about consciousness, but this book is just the math without any of his philosophy of reality (other than the intro, but that can be easily ignored).

You are still going to have to learn a bit of calculus on higher dimensional manifolds and such, but Penrose does a decent job of trying to distill out the basic facts and theories you need without making you really sit down and understand the math deeply. I think the book does a good job of giving a high level overview without skipping the math needed to correctly describe modern physics.

I am not a physicist, so perhaps he does a bad job of explaining some stuff and I don't realize it, but I'm pretty happy with the book.
posted by recursion at 4:53 PM on August 29, 2007 [5 favorites]

He will soon have another useless, but well intentioned, e-mail when I come up with my own Grand Unified Theory of Life the Universe and Everything.
posted by IronLizard at 4:53 PM on August 29, 2007

Man, it's a good thing I just want to do theoretical statistical mechanics. I get to stop at step five. And frankly, I couldn't care less about optics.
posted by Schismatic at 5:03 PM on August 29, 2007

The mathematical sections are great. I've been wanting for years to try and go back and re-learn math from the beginning (on the premise that I'll understand it this time).
posted by jokeefe at 5:07 PM on August 29, 2007

I believe camels are responsible for everything. I call it my camel TOE theory.

BTW - I think the site is excellent.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:27 PM on August 29, 2007

posted by Dataphage at 5:32 PM on August 29, 2007

The web design looks OK in my browser. The content is unsurpassed. John Baez had a list posted at one time, very similar, not as complete.

I have only one quibble. That Lorrain & Corson Electromagnetics book is total dreck. Apparently nobody can write an E&M book at that level. If there is one hole in modern college physics teaching, it is that nobody has written a good E&M book for the post-beginner student.

t'hooft knows his shit.

String theory is not a physics subject yet.
posted by bukvich at 5:39 PM on August 29, 2007

Can you imagine what this brilliant man could do when paired with someone who can build a decent webpage?! The mind boggles.

Indeed! Instead of having just a Nobel Prize in Physics, he'd have a Nobel Prize in Physics and a decent webpage!
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:41 PM on August 29, 2007 [8 favorites]

Are there really autodidacts out there who are that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?
posted by sy at 5:50 PM on August 29, 2007

*jumps directly to superstring theory*

Finding myself at a dinner sitting next a Stanford physics professor, who had won some kind of prestigious Einstein Prize or something at Princeton, I asked him: "What do you think of string theory?"

His answer:

"I would have to devote 7 years of full-time intensive study of the mathematics to even venture an opinion, so I've concentrated on other things because I don't have that kind of time."

So much for "the next interpretive dance solo will be about string theory..."
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:52 PM on August 29, 2007

This reminds me of a really great This American Life broadcast from a few years ago about an average joe (an electrician) who thought he had made the next big leap in physics. A physicist was called in to evaluate the claims (it was bogus) and to explain this crazy phenomenon of people believing that they had made breakthroughs. The physicist remarked that this sort of thing happened all the time, that people with little or no understanding of basic principles insist that they are the next Einstein. Sometimes people are more confusing than physics.

Here is a link to the story, stream away
posted by boubelium at 5:53 PM on August 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Most cromulent.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:06 PM on August 29, 2007

Man, it's a good thing I just want to do theoretical statistical mechanics.

You really don't. There's a reason they call it 'sadistical mechanics'.
posted by chrismear at 6:06 PM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey Recursion, i actually have a copy of the Road to Reality on my bookshelf. I'm looking forward to cracking it open.

I like the quixotic attitude Hooft has embodied in this website!

The problem with autodidacting this stuff is that sooner or later, you run into a roadblock and there's not much help available.

It would be cool for example if someone started a website that took the educated layman with some math knowledge, chapter by chapter through Penrose's book.
posted by storybored at 6:12 PM on August 29, 2007

The Narrow Road is a good blog for the mathematical philosopher... not much physics, but well written. This student will make a great prof.
posted by anthill at 6:15 PM on August 29, 2007

Actually on second thought i wouldn't mind doing a Road-to-Reality website myself but i have no web skilz. I would need help.
posted by storybored at 6:15 PM on August 29, 2007

I can sort of fake my way up to the advanced QM level (skipping over some of the condensed matter stuff) and it sure looks like he knows his stuff to me. Many of the texts he recommends are old friends.

<gripe>He ignores the chemistry group theory though. Where Cotton on his list?</gripe>

On the plus side he recommends Sakurai, one of the most divisive texts ever, in my experience. Suck it haters!
posted by bonehead at 6:43 PM on August 29, 2007

flagged as awesome.

thank you.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:58 PM on August 29, 2007

Actually on second thought i wouldn't mind doing a Road-to-Reality website myself but i have no web skilz. I would need help.

posted by IronLizard at 6:59 PM on August 29, 2007

People interested in this might also be interested in this MeTa thread from last weekend.
posted by hattifattener at 7:12 PM on August 29, 2007

Damn I always seem to miss cool MT threads like that, thanks hf.
posted by IronLizard at 7:14 PM on August 29, 2007

I can't wait to send him the plans for my perpetual-motion machine!
posted by sourwookie at 7:40 PM on August 29, 2007

Send him the plans? Are you nuts? These days every perpetual motion machine inventor who knows the score immediately puts up a web site and starts looking for investors.
posted by IronLizard at 7:51 PM on August 29, 2007

Yeah, he is not joking when he says people email all the time with their breakthrough theories. Every physicist/astronomer I know gets these, even grad students. The nutjobs also email people in philosophy departments who are listed as researchers on metaphysics. I'm sure it's MUCH worse if you're a prominent person in your field. I can fully understand building a page like this so you can point people to it and say "look, I'm sorry, but you're making a mistake about the way manifolds work - I don't have time to walk you through it, but if you want to make a good-faith effort on your own, here are the tools."
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:03 PM on August 29, 2007

I once knew someone who was convinced that he had all the answers to modern physics' great problems worked out. (Note that he was not all that bright or educated). He would write these long 20 page handwritten letters to physicists and couldn't figure out why they never bothered to write him back.

Didn't they realize what he had figured out? It would change the world! Since I had just graduated from college at the time, he managed to convince me to read one of his letters. Might have made an interesting science fiction novel for the uninformed, but otherwise total bunk.

This approach is much more reasonable. Physicists can just refer people to this site and say: "When you have mastered all the math and physics on this site, write me back." They will never hear from these people again.
posted by eye of newt at 8:27 PM on August 29, 2007

They will never hear from these people again.

Naww, they hear from them, but now they say, "Dude, your web design is totally 90s!!!!"
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:47 PM on August 29, 2007

Funny name. Great sandwich.
posted by neuron at 10:00 PM on August 29, 2007

In addition to a web designer, he needs a good proofreader as well. But the content is great.
posted by moonbiter at 10:29 PM on August 29, 2007

when a website is this rich in content, the design should necessarily be considered good except for only those cases where the design impedes delivery of the content.

this is fantastic, the humanization of the abstract (the process, not the physics)
posted by setanor at 11:22 PM on August 29, 2007

LobsterMitten's right. I've been getting them regularly since I was a grad student.

My favourite is still the guy who was desperately trying to convince the establishment that quasars were powered by supermassive black holes. I didn't really have the heart to tell him we'd all been thinking that for quite some time.
posted by edd at 4:08 AM on August 30, 2007

That Road to Reality website needs creating. My attempts to penetrate the book have so far been as successful and panful as my attempts to run through walls.
posted by greytape at 5:16 AM on August 30, 2007

Last year I tried to read Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality", while taking the light rail to work. More than one person was amused, I'm sure, by watching me TAKE NOTES, page by page, from what was supposed to be a "poet" approach to explaining the topic.

And yet I bookmarked this site. Sigh. I'm going to need a big ol' notebook and some time off.
posted by Arch1 at 7:47 AM on August 30, 2007

Iron Lizard, greytape and anyone else who's interested.

What would a Road to Reality site look like? Is there something out there right now that's similar (doesn't have to be in physics). One example comes to mind: the websites that serially publish books like Ulysses or the Pepys diary.

But somehow we need a way of helping people work through the material....

It would be very cool to deepen people's knowledge about one of the pinnacles of human achievement lots of fun.
posted by storybored at 7:51 AM on August 30, 2007

Arch1, I have "Fabric of the Cosmos" right in front of me now and working my way slowly through it.

Hattifattener, thanks for the link. Looking through it, i see someone set up a blog site for Godel E Bach just this month.

The big challenge of a Roads-to-R Project would be sustaining momentum and attracting a big enough crowd of expertise to answer questions about the material.

(vacapinta sorry for this derail - should i take this to metachat?)
posted by storybored at 8:19 AM on August 30, 2007

boubelium, LobsterMitten, eye of newt, et al... A friend of mine knows a guy who is like one of these "physicist wannabes" (for lack of a better term). Apparently, he has created his own Theories Of Everything, and re-vamped physics as we know it. But he still works as an MRI tech (if I recall correctly), is unpublished in the field, and also (most tellingly) not world famous and a millionaire.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:39 AM on August 30, 2007

What would a Road to Reality site look like?

Hey, you tell me, you have the book. I just push pixels. There could be copyright issues in here somewhere. Wikis are a good format for something like this, organized by chapter. They're usually rather boring looking, however.
posted by IronLizard at 8:49 AM on August 30, 2007

John Baez's Crackpot Index.
posted by scrump at 10:50 AM on August 30, 2007

Boubelium, that NPR show is quite good. The physics part is near the end and the crackpot index has a cameo role. Unfortunately, it doesn't get into the exact details of the guy's ideas. It would be interesting to see where he went wrong. The funniest part is when he says that modern physics is wrong because there's too much math involved.
posted by storybored at 1:10 PM on August 31, 2007

A bit late here, but 't Hooft has a counterpart piece on his site as well: How to become a BAD theoretical physicist. (And, for you haters, he refers to the main link as "professionally redesigned"!)
posted by gleuschk at 1:36 PM on September 1, 2007

It's a bit of a firehose. It would be nice to see these lessons compiled and unified in a coherent way, rather than just having dozens of e-textbooks and abbreviated course notes shoved at you. But yeah, that's over a quarter-of-a-million dollar course of study at a major university, so I'm not holding my breath for it to be free on the web anytime soon. This is a good resource, in the mean time.
posted by Eideteker at 11:05 AM on September 3, 2007

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