Is it too late to become an amateur physicist?
June 30, 2009 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Is it too late for me to get into physics?

I've been reading profiles of physicists lately, and the work they do fascinates me. There's something oddly poetic about being able to use math to explain the world's phenomena. I especially enjoy reading about string theory and the elusive Unified Theory of the Universe.

I'd like to get to a point where I can do some of the math and work out some of the equations mentioned in the articles I've read.

I have a couple of handicaps, as I see it:

1. I'm 30.

2. I don't have a strong grounding in math. When I was younger, I bought into the contention that I couldn't "do" math and developed an aversion to math. So, I'll need to start from the ground up. By which I mean high school algebra up.

Given that I don't have much of a foundation, is it feasible for me to embark on an endeavor like this? This wouldn't be for fame or glory. I'm a curious person, and I'd like to be able to do what the physicists I read about do.
posted by reenum to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It'll be too late when you are dead.
posted by Jilder at 7:53 AM on June 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

You're never too old to pickup a one-hundred level class or two at your local community college. It would be a cheap way to see if you really want to get into it.

I suspect however, like many subjects, that physics isn't all black holes and string theory, that much of it is a long, hard, and unexciting slog through mathematics.

In the same way, I'm fascinated by law, so I was crushed when I learned it wasn't all civil rights cases all the frick'n time, but actually, you know... mostly rather mundane and mind numbing motions.
posted by wfrgms at 7:54 AM on June 30, 2009

Will you be able to grapple with string theory or take a stab at the GUT any time soon? Nah. But physics can be damn fun, and not very hard; I was similarly 'bad at math' and found that having physics around was a huge boon - instead of being abstract arbitrary strings of symbols, equations became logical representations of real things. It was glorious.

Go for it.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:56 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Depends on what you want. Do you want to be a physics academic researcher? Nothing's impossible, but the median time to complete a physics PhD is 7 years (that's just the time registered in graduate school), and that's almost all people who are well qualified with respect to math and undergrad physics degrees. Then they have postdocs, Jr. faculty, etc. It takes a long time of being paid poverty level wages to get into academia.

On the other hand, if you want to be a research assistant or tech, it's possible for you to obtain a skill that's useful in labs. Not necessarily a great or glamorous career. I don't think that all the people who worked in my physics department's metal workshop (making apparatus for experiments, mostly) had any kind of degree, just technical and vocational training.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:58 AM on June 30, 2009

Oh, I misread your question.

Yes, some algebra and some calculus will make you able to read an equation. The interesting ones all have particular background which you need to make them make sense.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:00 AM on June 30, 2009

Seconding taking a community college course.

Alternatively, you can do a top-down approach: find scientific articles on the topics that interest you, then search out used/free copies of the textbooks that discuss these things (ie, the textbooks that would be on the required reading list of a university physics course on the topic). That way you have a reference for topics you don't understand. You won't become a master, but it you may find it to be a fun challenge.
posted by molecicco at 8:01 AM on June 30, 2009

30? 30? Hahahahaha.

You're just getting started, m'boy. Go for it!
posted by rokusan at 8:07 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

My question would be: where are you reading these articles?

If they're in popular science magazines (Scientific American? American Scientist?) you have a better chance by studying high school algebra. Actually, just doing some algebra, calculus, mechanics and stats you'd pick up a lot of interesting stuff as it is. Maths and physics go together very nicely at that level.

If these articles are in heavy duty (academic) journals (e.g. Nature, Physical Review etc.), erm, I think you have a lot of catching up ahead!

I would definitely encourage you to have a crack at the math, especially algebra, trigonometry and mechanics as that will tell you if you'll enjoy physics.

And keep reading popular books. The "Feynmann Lectures in Physics" are not "popular" but do cover physics very broadly, explain how it connects to other topics, and most importantly, give you an insight into the physicist's mind - Feynmann was great for this, especially in his "Surely You're Joking..." duet.
posted by KMH at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

++Jilder, above. Get on with it, already. You don't need permission to be curious.

Here's a guy, Wally Wallington who is a physicist of sorts. His specialty is the application of basic machines to single handedly move some big ass stuff!

Find some problems with physics, immerse yourself in how you might address them, learn what you need as you go. Voila! You're an amateur physicist.

News flash... while basic curricula in physics covers fundamentals, the field is huge. Pros have the same problem you do... they don't know everything there is to know about their field and encounter the obstacle of their own ignorance frequenty, as do we all. Given, they may be on a higher level, but the process is the same. "Do I know everything I need to? How can I learn it? Has it been explored already? Do I need to research it myself?" Substitute any discipline you want to in that series of questions.

Your problem is made ever so much simpler by not wanting to have a career, but just to satisfy your curiosity.

Have fun!
posted by FauxScot at 9:17 AM on June 30, 2009

This page is a systematic bottom up approach to teaching yourself to be a theoretical physicist. It's compiled by a Nobel Laureate.
posted by atrazine at 9:17 AM on June 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

For each branch, topic, subject, etc., in physics, one or more maths exist to support it. If you do not know the math for that associated topic, you can at best wave your hands about it, sometimes coming to entirely wrong conclusions because you are "reasoning with words" rather than working the numbers. I cannot emphasize this enough. Some supporting maths are mere techniques, others are entire fields and suddenly alien.

As a background, I took a lot more math than my undergraduate physics degree required. With the right math, my class attendance was not optimal, but I get away with it because the math was already present in my head and fresh. With it, I was able to take graduate level courses which were otherwise forbidden to me. I am not a wunderkind of any sort, I just recognized early on that physics is well-applied math supporting interesting concepts of a particular domain.

And without the math, well, I slammed into a potential I could not jump over as I attempted other topics for which I had not taken the right math courses, read appropriate math books, etc. Hard. Humiliatingly so. I was used to simply skipping through things and smacked against a window of unbreakable glass, leaving a faceprint, some spit, and a little blood; bounced off; then landed on my butt. I pretty much started crying like a baby and crawled home as a sing began to blink "FAIL" behind me.

So, for each physics, you have to have other supporting physics, and you have one or more maths, which in turn build upon other maths. If you have a particular topic in mind, you must grow yourself and build towards it. You can get quite far in special relativity with just high school algebra, and you don't have to learn a lick of QM to do it. General relativity, on the other hand, is a beast with much, much more math, but still no immediate need for QM. Interested in electricity and magnetism? Oddly, a little special relativity helps in this area, bringing together concepts in surprising ways. You can do much with high school algebra, but some stuff requires learning differential equations.

Really, the question you must first answer is "in what topics am I interested?" Then buddy up with someone who has a degree in that area and ask them what you will need to know in both physics and math as prerequisites.
posted by adipocere at 10:00 AM on June 30, 2009

I was going to recommend the same link as atrazine. It really is the best resource I know of for someone who wants to teach themselves the physics you would have learned as a physics undergrad + grad.

That said, it is perhaps overkill for what you want. I think there's an analogy with learning a foreign language. My impression is that you want to be able to do the equivalent of carrying on a simple conversation with somebody in another language; you want to read the signs, understand what people are saying -- not write literature in this other language yourself. So just as you might choose not to undertake a full year-long intensive course in French for a simple trip to Paris, you might not want to embark on Gerard 't Hooft's full-blown "theoretical minimum," which would probably take you 5-10 years of intensive study to master.

The pieces you do need: all the basic math, from algebra up to at least (a bit of) differential equations and (a bit of) multivariable calculus. 't Hooft has a few links to online courses; I'm sure you can find others. Then work your way through what a typical physics freshman would do: classical mechanics, some electricity & magnetism, and the first rudiments of quantum mechanics.

After that you have a choice. You can keep working your way through the physics curriculum, understanding that it will take you a long time but that you'll know an awful lot after it's done (though something like 99% of it won't be relevant to the articles on string theory, etc). Or you can go pick up, say, Roger Penrose's book The Road to Reality, which is inscrutable at times but does give you a pretty thorough overview of modern physics, without simplifying things to the point where they're no longer recognizable. It is not a fantastic book (imho), but it's the only one I know of that is a) ostensibly written for the "public" but b) doesn't dispense with all the mathematics that is so central to much of modern physics. You won't understand all of it (at least, not without more work), but working through it will give you a "reading knowledge," let's say, of many of the things going on in physics today.

Good luck! Post here when you have questions along the way...
posted by chalkbored at 11:12 AM on June 30, 2009

The t'Hooft web page atrazine posted above is the one you want.
posted by bukvich at 4:25 PM on June 30, 2009

It's not too late. Go for it.

I audited a course on string theory my third or fourth year as an undergraduate, and I finagled that into a summer research job. It took another couple of years for me to realize I prefer working on things that actually exist.

There was a fellow in my graduate program in his fifties. He now does computational astrophysics.

You will have a much easier time with the math if you need it to understand something interesting than you did when the math was apparently purposeless.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:27 PM on June 30, 2009

Go for it because it wouldn't matter if you only got halfway. It's actually the journey that is pleasurable.

Quantum mechanics and so on are definitely cool, but most of the exciting moments for me were associated with understanding relatively mundane things for the first time. Fourier representation of functions. Calculus. Conservation of momentum. I dunno. I can't make it sound exciting, but I promise you that all the little things along the way are even better than the big things you want to aim for.
posted by hAndrew at 1:10 AM on July 1, 2009

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