The Term is "Layman Theoretical Physicist" not "Kook"
April 8, 2014 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Where do you go to learn about theoretical physics, other than a university?

My husband likes to think about theoretical physics as a hobby. He has developed theories about time travel, black holes, Unified Field Theory, String Theory and more. He is not crazy; he just has a layman's interest in the subject. He's done a lot more reading since high school, including peer-reviewed journals.

He would like to discuss his ideas with people working in the profession, or with other enthusiasts, but he doesn't want to come across as a nutbar. He is working full-time and taking a different subject in school, so regular university-level physics courses are out of reach at the moment.

Who would entertain his theories and questions? Who would give him an honest hearing, and tell him if his theories are on the right track, or recommend avenues of study? Are there others out there like him?
posted by Deodand to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Reading through threads at might at least give an idea of what the reaction might be to various degrees of creative laymans' theories about physics.
posted by XMLicious at 9:58 PM on April 8, 2014

Physics stackexchange looks extremely good, from a quick skim.

I'd advise him to avoid using the word 'theory' in when he posts "Does X work like this?" questions there, though. It will make people cranky.

The communities that participate in the comment sections of various various physicists' blogs are probably good, but if a particular thread was talking about X, he wouldn't be able to start a conversation about Y in that thread, necessarily.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:09 PM on April 8, 2014

In the long run, he'll have to do exercises from textbooks to really understand this stuff, but you guys know that.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:10 PM on April 8, 2014

From an anonymous Mefite:
I am a theoretical physicist, and I can tell you, I'd be very unlikely to respond to this. I don't have enough time to work with all the credentialed people I want to work with as it is, and I spend my training time mentoring current PhD students. In response to similar requests Gerard 't Hooft wrote up a nice website with what is needed in order to work in theoretical physics, here; perhaps your husband will find the list there useful.

Also it's worth mentioning that I am more than happy to talk physics with friends of mine who want to learn more; but stating that he has developed his own theories gives me doubt that's the situation. It gives me sufficient doubt that I'm replying anonymously, in fact. You see, even as a very junior person in the field, I get more requests to "listen to my theory of everything" from people than I can possibly handle; some of the people making these requests can get very aggressive. Aggressiveness and a belief that you personally have solved long outstanding problems are what lead to the label "kook".

Much better to approach this with a "hey I'd like to learn more." Read some physics blogs, get a subscription to a good science magazine. Go to museum events and public physics talks; universities often have a series of public talks meant for interested laypeople. You might also find some other amateurs to talk with there.

If your husband is interested in doing science in a slightly more formal way, he might look into crowdsourced work, such as this project. It's a way for laypeople to contribute that is meaningful and furthers science.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:34 PM on April 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

Reddit's AskScience forum is another place where he could ask for more detailed explanations of accepted theories. Its posting guidelines specifically discourage posting personal theories to get feedback, but they also provide examples of bad personal theory questions reframed as non-controversial requests for explanations.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:46 PM on April 8, 2014

Where do you go to learn about theoretical physics, other than a university?

Books. Start with "A Brief History of Time".

And as mentioned above, what your husband has is "conjectures", not "theories".

To a scientist, misuse of the word "theory" is primary evidence that someone is a crank.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:46 PM on April 8, 2014

MIT OpenCourseware and other video sources are plentiful now, and they have some pretty non-introductory looking material. Leonard Susskind, author of two recent books about "what you need to know to do theoretical physics" (The Theoretical Minimum, and a sequel about quantum physics) has lectures from, I think, Stanford, for example.
posted by thelonius at 12:50 AM on April 9, 2014

He will get a much more favorable response if he does not insist on calling himself a theoretical physicist, especially if he's not interested in putting in the effort to do the math. To network with people who like to talk about physics, I would recommend going to public lectures at his university and talking to people about their theories and their research. Once he gets to know some people, and he has demonstrated that he is actually interested in physics, then he could bring up his ideas as questions: "You know, I always wondered what would happen if..."
posted by steinwald at 9:17 AM on April 9, 2014

People have no issues paying a lawyer, psychologist, financial advisor, sports instructors and other professionals for advice and feedback, so why should this be any different? How about contacting the university student services to hire a physics grad student for tutoring at the top of the going rate. Meeting in a quiet bar, and covering the tab, would also be helpful.
posted by Sophont at 9:33 AM on April 9, 2014

I'm not a physicist, but I must agree with several of the comments here, especially goodnewsfortheinsane's. I sometimes talk to people online about what I do, such as at the AskPhilosophers subforum, and unfortunately the number of "layman" armchair philosophers whose knowledge of a topic does not extend even so far as having read the relevant wiki page are too, too numerous. I then get cranky. I will detect the mistakes and uninformed opinions easily. I feel bad saying this, but if they talk to me as wanting to know something, I will gladly try and explain. But if one of these armchair thinkers tries to "school" me, thinking that their glib two sentence "argument" has solved a major problem, things will not go well.

(Of course this is just a general observation, I obviously have knowledge about your husband. I wish him the best in studying this most fascinating of fields. It's just that sometimes we academics get annoyed, and too often for good reason.)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2014

I like Sophont's idea of hiring a physics grad student to tutor your husband. Another possibility is auditing a course, especially since it sounds like he is already enrolled at a university. Not all professors allow this kind of thing, but he could try asking around at his institution and see if someone's willing to let him sit in on a physics class, although this would probably have to wait until the start of next term. This might be a good way to broaden his knowledge and develop relationships with people who have a similar interest.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:01 AM on April 9, 2014

I guess the first question to ask is if your husband knows any math whatsoever. Pretty comfortable with the math on this page? Or is he just handwaving about the crude and useless analogies presented as physics in popular journalism? Because physics is math. If he doesn't know the math, then yeah he's just a kook who doesn't even understand what physics is about.
posted by ryanrs at 11:02 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Former" theoretical physicist here. I added "former" as I have not worked in the field for at least a decade.

There are *plenty* of internet forums where your husband could discuss his theories. The question is: can he find knowledgeable people with whom to discuss them.

The language of theoretical physics is mathematics (at an advanced level), not words. If your husband has any worthwhile theories, he should be able to 1) express them in mathematical terms; 2) use the equations that appear in his theories to show that his theories can reproduced/explain all relevant results known experimentally; 3) make testable predictions about other results.

If he can only describe them using words (or some equations without being able to do ccomplicated calculations predicting observed results), then these are not worthwhile discussing by knowledgeable people.

The vast majority of people interested in theoretical physics (even some that had undergraduate training in the field) can not get to step 1. Step 2 is much more difficult to accomplish than step 1. Step 3 is even more difficult, by an order of magnitude at least.

Anyone who could *seriously* discuss the validity of your husband's theories would have reached step 3 ... and would want your husband to have at least reached step 2 before having any serious discussions.

On preview: what the poster just above me wrote, linking to a page on wikipedia about Lagrangian; understanding this, would be a good start ... but only a start.
posted by aroberge at 11:16 AM on April 9, 2014

It's a little hard to tell from your question whether your husband wants people to talk to about his understanding of the material ("Does thinking about it like this make sense? Because that's what clarifies it for me.") or whether he's approaching it as "I read some papers and I think I solved this major challenge in the field." Experts will have a lot more time for the former, and very little time for the latter. From your description, I think he's an interested layman, not someone who considers himself a world-changing raw genius. But do make sure he's aware that he needs to be careful with how he presents himself to experts, because they're being assaulted by rants from grandiose conspiracy theorists on a VERY regular basis.

The entire physics department, down to the students, gets emails every few weeks from people who think they've disproved relativity or string theory or newtonian physics. I once worked in a lab where a large, very angry man showed up with a bottle of mysterious chemicals that he claimed gave him cold fusion, and wouldn't go away until the grad students called the cops.

It's an interesting phenomenon that happens in physics but not in, say, chemistry, and I suspect it comes from this cultural myth of the genius outsider. People think that Einstein was "just" a patent clerk who changed the world, but in fact he had a PhD in physics before he made any substantial contributions at all.

I honestly believe that anyone with an interest and dedication can learn this material, and I applaud your husband's interest. If he's out to make a name for himself without literally decades of full-time work, another subject will be a better bet; but if he's approaching the subject modestly and with an open mind, he will have a great time and learn a lot.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:37 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Where do you go to learn about theoretical physics, other than a university?

Lawrence Krauss is a well-respected physicist who has written several layperson-friendly books on physics, including some of the more theoretical concepts. Although I haven't read it myself, Hiding in the Mirror looks like one that would be right up your husband's alley.

He would like to discuss his ideas with people working in the profession

The saying, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" springs to mind here.

In my job (Not a Physicist), I spend a lot of time working with some pretty high-tech equipment in public. So lots of people want to talk to me what I'm doing and how I do it and how I know how to do it and what the heck it is I'm actually doing, anyway.

I don't mind talking to fellow pros, or semi-pros, or people who can at least demonstrate a reasonable base-line knowledge of what I'm doing - and it usually only takes me a couple of sentences to figure out if they've got that knowledge. And I don't actually mind talking to people who are self-admittedly utterly clueless, completely astounded that my job and the gear I use even exist, especially in a situation where they can just wander up and start asking questions.

It's the hobbyists, the people who've picked up bits & pieces here and there - from equipment manuals, and ad copy, and 101-level magazine/website articles, and talking to salespeople at their local music instrument store spewing gibberish trying to convince the person to buy something - that can be the most difficult to talk to. Because they're so full of "information" that's just wrong, or poorly understood. So when they try to talk to me about what I'm doing, I heave a weary sigh, because we can't really have a conversation until the useless "knowledge" gets cleared out of their heads or corrected, and changing someone's mind about what they think they know is so much more difficult than just starting from scratch with someone who knows nothing.

So I can completely understand why some of the answers above are expressing doubt that your husband's going to gain much traction in trying to discuss his hobbyist theories with actual theoretical physicists.

Maybe you've understated your husband's understanding of theoretical physics, maybe you don't actually know yourself how much he knows or doesn't know - but I think it might be a good idea for your husband to do a pretty merciless self-assessment about his level of knowledge (especially his understanding of the math involved) before he gets too excited about trying to get feedback or guidance or discussion from working physicists.
posted by soundguy99 at 12:51 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think in some ways the honest answer is "wait and do a physics degree." I say that as someone that did do so and then didn't pursue it further.

I went into said degree thinking I'd learn instantly all kinds of exciting things about reality. In reality I sat down for x hours a day and did maths problems. Near the end I did learn some exciting things about reality. But I could only understand those because I had thoroughly practised and been corrected on the mathematics.

That's not to say you couldn't just read through and then do all the problems in all the textbooks (see t'Hooft's list above) and get to the right level of knowledge. But you would have to be really really well motivated to do this. It would be easy to give up or look at the answers and some things are hard to understand without discussion.

Happily just getting to the level of vaguely understanding what is going on is much easier. He might find Roger Penrose's book The Road to Reality interesting. It goes into a reasonable amount of depth on the big areas of modern physics. Although be warned he has some occasionally strange notation and viewpoints.
posted by Erberus at 1:30 PM on April 9, 2014

Seconding "The Theoretical Minimum":

A number of years ago I became aware of the large number of physics enthusiasts out there who have no venue to learn modern physics and cosmology. Fat advanced textbooks are not suitable to people who have no teacher to ask questions of, and the popular literature does not go deeply enough to satisfy these curious people. So I started a series of courses on modern physics at Stanford University where I am a professor of physics. The courses are specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners.

Start by working through that, specifically the "Core Courses".
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:25 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the big issue your husband has is that calling yourself a "layman theoretical physicist" is effectively the same as calling yourself a "layman surgeon" or "layman constitutional attorney". Even someone with a Ph.D. in physics wouldn't be well-received if they started firing off complicated theories on a huge variety of research concentrations they couldn't possibly understand in full. That is, by definition, the essence of kookery, hence the rampant skepticism from a lot of the answers. Luckily for your husband, there are plenty of legit avenues if he wants to start learning more physics, but he's going to have to dial the "theories" way back and be willing to put in some serious effort first.
posted by Diagonalize at 4:04 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

My husband likes to think about theoretical physics as a hobby.

This is fantastic. I do this, too.

He has developed theories about time travel, black holes, Unified Field Theory, String Theory and more. He is not crazy; he just has a layman's interest in the subject. He's done a lot more reading since high school, including peer-reviewed journals.

He would like to discuss his ideas with people working in the profession, or with other enthusiasts, but he doesn't want to come across as a nutbar. He is working full-time and taking a different subject in school, so regular university-level physics courses are out of reach at the moment.

He may not be crazy, but he is wasting his time working on theories outside of academia. The chance that he is not duplicating something someone else has already worked on and dismissed is close to 0. If he wants to do new work on physics, he has to do it in a university setting.

There are lots of places like physics stack exchange to ask questions about physics, but going there to present a theory will get you teased at best.
posted by empath at 11:53 PM on April 9, 2014

Another angle on this question is this: If he had the necessary knowledge and preparation to advance the field he would already know who to talk to. Because if he's not already talking to the appropriate people, he still has stuff to learn.
posted by empath at 12:01 AM on April 10, 2014

I did not intend to present my husband as someone who pushes his ideas as fact on trained academics. He is an enthusiast; he is not looking to correct mistakes. He understands how draining it is to talk to people who have half-assed ideas, which is why he doesn't talk to people in the profession.

This is precisely why I asked this question - to find out who the enthusiasts are talking to who will listen, and exchange ideas.
posted by Deodand at 8:02 PM on April 10, 2014

Physics stack exchange is probably the best place, as long as he can phrase his ideas as questions.
posted by empath at 8:27 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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