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The traditional physics career is an academic job at some university, with the eventual goal of becoming a tenured professor. Is it possible for a mostly self-educated outsider working outside academia to come up with significant results in physics? Let's take significant to mean accepted in a high ranking peer review journal with a high citation count. Let's just say due to external life circumstances, the academic path is unfeasible.

Are there any examples of notable physics results coming from outsiders? e.g. a third class patent clerk coming up with light quanta, Brownian motion and relativity.

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NB: Einstein was trained by the physics establishment of the time; he wasn't an outsider, just not well thought of. He spoke the language and was familiar with the work of the leading physicists of his day. –  dmckee Mar 24 '11 at 6:23
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Horrible that nonsense in the suppressed geniuses "literature", a subset of conspiracy pulp fiction. Einsteins job was a job which You only could apply for with a PhD or similar qualification. At that time jobs in academia whre rare, and in industry even rarer. Most pysicists at that time worked as teachers in grammar schools. –  Georg Mar 24 '11 at 9:33
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There was this interesting question on Math Overflow: What recent discoveries have amateur mathematicians made (after Ramanujan). You could ask the same thing here. It'll definitely give you more informative answers than you're getting now. –  Peter Shor Mar 24 '11 at 18:26
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No-one has mentioned access to journals and books. You can get only so far with arXiv and with author-posted PDFs. My perception is that University Libraries don't let people in off the street as easily these days. Can be expensive, but try to go to a conference or two in the area you're interested in and listen hard. Use your own name, become known, try not to become too well known for the wrong reasons. Ask to attend research seminars nearby. Answers to physics.stackexchange.com/questions/6052/… will give a number of additional PoVs, including more of mine. –  Peter Morgan Mar 24 '11 at 22:23
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7 Answers 7

The question is relative to the state of each field of science. Mathematics as a science has a lot of examples. Physics on the other hand, has gone through many significant changes most which makes it almost impossible to be recognized for a contribution. Physics is trending and depends on public funding more than every. In the past, private wealth and business was the funders of science and anybody could contribute because it was ultimately about money. Theoretical physics has become so far removed for practical application that it is more profitable to search than to discovery. A discovery is literally the death blow to physics at the fundamental research level.

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Gerard 't Hooft certainly thinks so.

What if you are older, and you are not at all looking forward to join those noisy crowds of young students ?

It should be possible, these days, to collect all knowledge you need from the internet. [...] This way, the costs of becoming a theoretical physicist should not exceed much the price of a computer with internet connection, a printer, and lots of paper and pens.

http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/theorist.html

This is a site for ambitious people. I am sure that anyone can do this, if one is gifted with a certain amount of intelligence, interest and determination.

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NO, it is not.. i tried but i could not get a PHD , to work in physics you need an ADVISOR who can tell you what to work in and give you suggestion, even though you have internet and can ask HERE in physics.stackexchange you will need to know a teacher to publish on journals and to develop new ideas.

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Most probably, no. This opinion is based on two considerations.

1)Being unable to join the academic stream means that other work decisions have been taken. Inevitably this leads to inability to focus 16/24 on a physics problem ( I put some time in for sleep). People who have left their mark in the history of physics were very focused on it, and focusing I would consider a prime prerequisite.

My no is not a complete one because in this day and age we have the internet. If the reason one is unable to join academia is something like Hawking would have suffered if his disease caught up early with him, or if one is taking care of a very sick loved one, there is still the internet to learn the latest and discuss the most important, currently. As long as time is not a problme . Which brings me to the second consideration:

2) I had a professor in ancient greek who imparted the following wisdom: Knowledge is a circle. There is a frontier where explorations go on, but the more you know, the larger the radius, the greater the frontier. Unfortunately now there is an enormous body of knowledge continuously expanding and continuously needing new tools. Within academia a sifting takes place through discussions, coffee in the cafeteria, informal lectures, conferences, long before papers for peer review are ready. Ideas are threshed out and collaborations set up that allow for faster knowledge accumulation. Some of this may start to happen on the internet and it would need a particular type of personality to be able to survive without the face to face interactions.

Now if he/she has the focus and the time to pursue a physics problem that is not contradictory to known experimental facts and proposes new experiments ( i.e. it is falsifiable) then I wish them luck. I think the peer review process in physics is not too biased to look at a paper on its merits, but in any case there exist the archive locations where a paper can be put up on the internet and discussed on sites like this .

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Face-to-face interactions can also make it easy to get caught up in group-think. And as I'm sure you know, there is such a thing in academia! –  user346 Mar 24 '11 at 6:58
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Do academics really have time for a 16/24 research schedule? –  Janne808 Mar 24 '11 at 7:51
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@Deepak Vaid on the other hand there are less cranks in academia :). It is true that group think will affect the peer review process though, fashion etc. I have lived through many theoretical physics fashions. –  anna v Mar 24 '11 at 11:48
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@Janne808 I am not talking of a schedule 16/24. I am talking about preoccupation. It is a bit like being in love, you are in that state when you are awake. When one is pursuing a problem and is internally convinced of its importance it sits continually there in a multiprocessing way in the backround, until it comes to the forefront. One can be teaching, tutoring, correcting papers, preparing the next lecture, still the problem is simmering. Something that cannot be reconciled with a job as an economist, for example, in my opinion ofcourse. –  anna v Mar 24 '11 at 11:52
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@anna v; As far as I know, I'm the only amateur to win an award (honorable mention) at the annual gravitation essay contest. This is the contest that, over the years, Hawking took six prizes in and probably counts for "high ranking peer review" etc. See: arxiv.org/abs/0907.0660 –  Carl Brannen Mar 25 '11 at 23:47
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Eric Betzig did this... kinda. He was a trained physicist who worked in academia, but produced some significant results during a break from professional science. Notice, though, that when Betzig got finished dreaming in isolation, he motivated a team of excellent scientists to help make his dream reality. Very few papers in Science and Nature have an author list of one person.

Even if you don't get a job at a university, consider associating yourself with one, somehow. If you're planning to work for free anyway, you might as well volunteer in someone's lab. In my personal experience, I work much more productively when surrounded by other scientists, especially if they care about my work. It's hard to have truly original thoughts without at least some outside stimulus, and it can be hard to stay motivated without the social reward of 'showing off'.

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It is certainly possible, given the many who have done so in the past. Problems however quickly arise in modern physics, and that's the enormous cost of the equipment needed for a lot of fundamental research. The cost of this is beyond the means of most individuals, and even most corporations.

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who are among these many? –  Mark Eichenlaub Mar 24 '11 at 8:31
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@Mark, see the Wikipedia article on Gentleman scientist - for example, Robert Boyle is at the top of the list. –  ptomato Mar 24 '11 at 10:07
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@pomato: Boyle lived in the 17th century, hardly a good example. –  MBN Mar 24 '11 at 15:13
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@jwenting: If you want to do theoretical physics how much money do you need? Can't resit telling the old joke. The dean talks to the physicists. You use so much money for equipment. Why don't you take example from the mathematicians. All the need is pencils, paper and a trash bin. Or better, look at the philosophers, they don't even use a trash bin. –  MBN Mar 24 '11 at 15:17
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@ptomato That's not really an example. Boyle is absurd to bring into a discussion of someone can be a successful self-educated physicist today. The two modern examples in that article you linked are Stephen Wolfram and Julian Barbour. Neither are self-educated; they both have a PhD in physics. –  Mark Eichenlaub Mar 24 '11 at 18:26
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Short answer: Yes.

Slightly longer answer: Yes, but you will have to prove your chops.

Discussion:

This is the physics "career path" of many garden variety crackpots, so you may meet some initial skepticism. Take care to understand and speak the language. Don't overstate your preparation or competence; nor the significance of any particular findings. Be prepared to show that you work is consistent with known physics. Establish some connections with people on more traditional career paths.

Another concern: it may be hard to find a problem that can be given meaningful work without a lot of time devoted to it. They are out there, but you need to know the landscape to find them.

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