Advice for amateur physicists with a new theory to share with an expert

Nourishing curiousity

String theory and related areas of theoretical physics, including buzzword topics like spacetime, relativity, quantum mechanics, particle physics, cosmology, etc. are sexytopics. Thinking about them is an attractive pursuit. Many people decide to read and think about these topics, but cannot (or do not want to) follow this pursuit far enough to obtain a university qualification. In my opinion, this kind of individual intellectual exploration is to be heartily encouraged.

One of the reasons why I give public lectures, and have a web presence, is to encourage general appreciation of modern physics - and string theory in particular. I also think it is a responsibility of any scientist receiving taxpayer-funded research dollars to make a real effort to bring to non-experts an appreciation of amazing modern discoveries.

I can recommend two excellent, well-credentialled educational websites dedicated to string theory and related ideas - superstringtheory.com and NOVA's The Elegant Universe TV show website. I also recommend Dan Falk's book Universe on a T-shirt , and both of Brian Greene's books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos , among others.

Popular information

A good popular rendition of any given topic in modern scientific research gives an accessible simplified translation of the original research. Such simplified translations have an important place in society. Average citizens have a right to know, or are already curious about, or perhaps should be curious about, the research for which their tax dollars are paying. But a simplified translation of esoteric modern research is just that: simplified. The simplified version is not, and can never take the place of, the complicated original.

It is an unfortunate fact that some popular books purportedly on modern physics contain incorrect information. Unfortunately, in this age of easy internet access, there are also loads of hogwash out there on the internet about modern physics, and string theory, written by people who do not have a clue. So it is important to be forwarned that just because something purportedly on string theory or modern physics is on the internet or in a book does not make it accurate. For example, I have never heard of one respectable physicist who considers valid the purported connections between Eastern mysticism and quantum theory claimed by Fritjof Capra in The Dao of Physics, and by Gary Zukav in The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Authors who get modern physics so badly wrong are, at best, pushing metaphor too far. At worst, they are charlatans, trying to co-opt modern physics to make their claims sound somehow more authoritative. (There are also some popular books written by respectable professional physicists which represent a subject in a way with which most experts in the field would not agree. I am not willing to name those books or their authors... )

Recognizing limits

It is a rather fun fact that, the more you know about a topic, the more you realize you don't know! The converse provides more serious food for thought: the less you know, the more clueless you are likely to be about what you don't know. This helps explain why amateurs need to be especially careful to respect their limits. Experts who push the frontiers of research, on the other hand, get daily reminders of our ignorance.

Prestigious professions require serious long hard work to establish a reputation, university professors included. There is no such thing as instant academic credentials, or prestige without hard work in scientific research. There are no shortcuts. I want to emphasize very strongly that it is completely impossible to contribute to string theory research without doing a Ph.D. in the field. Of course, the Ph.D. must be from a recognized institution (fake degrees from internet diploma mills are just that: fake). Also, the real Ph.D. should be supervised by an expert in the field who is recognized by her or his peers, via the standard mechanisms like refereed publications in high-ranked journals, and conference, workshop, and seminar invitations, etc. There is no room for amateurs in forefront scientific research, in theoretical physics or any other field.

A typical case

Some people fail to recognize their limits; they try to take curiosity-driven exploration sans qualifications way too far. Typically, it happens like this. After thinking for quite a while, they come up with what they think is a new theory". It so blows their mind that they increasingly become pretty sure of two things: (a) that noone else has thought of it before, and (b) that they want to show it to an expert.

I have been approached several times by people like this. They try to push on me a radical new theory of the electron or why Einstein was wrong about E=mc2", or they fantasize that they are justified in asking me to plead with the editor of a respected physics journal that their "new version of string theory should be published. This is easy to laugh at, but it is not funny; actually, it is rather sad. Even sadder is what happens to some of these people when they experience multiple rejections of their poorly formed ideas or purported theories".

This type of thinking I've got a brand new theory to show to YOU, Professor! is problematic for many reasons. Let me go through several of them in turn.

Lack of Qualifications

For the purposes of this essay I define an amateur, trying to do research in subatomic theoretical physics, to be someone who has not earned a Ph.D. (or at the very least a M.Sc.) in physics. Length of time spent thinking about physics is not relevant.

So, on what basis does an amateur proffer a new theory of physics to a professor? Suppose the amateur were to envision things from the perspective of the expert, for a minute. We professors have spent many years, usually at least a decade, becoming rigorously qualified, starting with at least two university degrees. Therefore, it appears pretty arrogant to us for an amateur to claim to have an important new contribution to make to our field of research. Experts, viz. professors and junior researchers, publish our new research in peer-reviewed research journals, and we keep our knowledge current by attending cutting-edge research conferences. We put so much energy into publishing, and conferences and workshops, because they are our primary vehicles for dissemination of new research results. By contrast, the popular stereotype of a lone genius in a non-academic job making a major contribution to theoretical physics - a la Einstein - just isn't valid nowadays.

A Musical Analogy

It is extraordinarily unlikely that a new theory from an amateur is going to solve any puzzle that trained professionals have been working on for years. To explain why, it is helpful to start with an analogy. What is the probability that a musically untrained person could sight-read a classical piano concerto error-free the first time they ever saw a piano? Essentially zero! Not even Mozart could have done that. First, the person would have to learn how to read music. Then comes learning of music theory and hand techniques from an expert teacher, and years of daily practice. So, for a concert of Brahms's beautiful but technically difficult second piano concerto in Carnegie Hall, whom would the conductor of a prestigious orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic choose? They would never pick someone who (like me) can barely stumble through a Christmas carol; they would entrust the role only to a well-known virtuouso. Anyone can estimate that it is extremely unlikely that the rank amateur could do that concerto. Similarly, an amateur physicist is not remotely in the same league as a recognized expert, e.g. a professor. A physics professor can be thought of as a physics virtuouso.

Statistically Speaking

Statistically speaking, any given physics amateur has a really small probability of making an interesting or important contribution to theoretical physics. It is easy to see why the probability is so small, even without the benefit of the above musical analogy, just by looking at past history. Based on experience, we can estimate that worldwide there have been lots (probably thousands) of amateurs over the last century who - without the benefit of a relevant university qualification - proposed unsolicited new theories to professors of physics. If even a small fraction of those amateurs had had useful ideas, then physics as a profession would have had a long history of important contributions by amateurs. That didn't happen. Statistically, the future will, in all likelihood, be similar. It is therefore clear that experts with limited time during their workday are wise to spend their time talking to their professional colleagues, rather than listening to amateurs.

Advanced Mathematics is the Language of Theoretical Physics

For a theoretical physicist, the equivalent to the sheet music and music theory of my piano concerto analogy is advanced mathematics. It is a deep fact that advanced mathematics is the language of theoretical physics. And university is where advanced mathematics is taught. During our undergraduate years (and, for some topics like string theory, even beyond that), we learn lots of mathematics - multivariable calculus, partial differential equations, differential geometry and other types of geometry, symmetry groups, etc. Knowledge of advanced mathematics is absolutely crucial for understanding how to write down - and compute with - the laws of physics.

Of course, university physics undergraduate students learn a large body of known physics, both theoretical and experimental, as well as problem-solving techniques that are fundamental to our discipline. This helps students to learn how to think like a physicist. Typically, the undergraduate physics topics that we teach were experimentally tested and theoretically explained decades ago or, in some cases, a few years ago. In graduate school, where we train for our Ph.D.'s, we learn cutting-edge new results and how to do research - i.e. we learn to create new knowledge. During postdoctoral years, we build up our research credentials, until it is time for us to look for professorial (or equivalent long-term) positions. By then, we are thoroughly conversant with a huge range of mathematical and physical techniques.

Necessity for Qualifications

Now, the point of requiring all this study and hard work is not to set up an exclusive gate system to keep people out of our profession. Getting undergraduate and graduate degrees is not a matter of being forced to pay dues before being allowed to do research, as one amateur claimed when he wrote to me recently. Rather, the point of earning university degrees is to get qualified. A PhD really is necessary to do forefront research in string theory and particle theory. Just as practicing daily for many years, and continuously updating knowledge, is necessary to learn how to play the piano extraordinarily well before attempting a concerto in Carnegie Hall.

Honestly, it really is impossible to understand e.g. string theory or cosmology, to the level of being able to do research in the field, without formal scientific training. One could not even understand known physics, let alone how to formulate interesting or new questions. One would be blissfully unaware of the whole history of past accomplishments in the field. Trying to parachute in to a field like string theory, without gaining experience first, will result in falling, hard, flat on one's face.

A new theory from an amateur in all likelihood either has been well-known for years, decades, or centuries, or is wrong, or both. (A theory is designated as wrong if it blatantly disagrees with experimental reality when it is tested, or if it is obviously mathematically inconsistent.)

Criticism and Debate

Amateurs with a new theory often take criticism poorly. They are seeking validation of their new theory when they contact an expert, not rejection. However, this attitude is fundamentally wrongheaded, for someone trying to do science. Criticism and debate are integral parts of the way physics - and science - is done. In fact, this type of activity is a hallmark of academia generally. If your new idea can't stand up to scrutiny from your peers, including your peers in other universities, then it falls by the wayside. Universities are for learning how to think, how to come up with new ideas, and how to debate ideas. Academics build, and nurture, absolutely top-flight bullshit detectors.

Some amateurs, when one or more experts tell them that their theory is wrong (or very old news), even come to feel persecuted. They then become increasingly sure that they must be an unappreciated genius, because they are aware of well-known geniuses of history who were persecuted. (Either that, or they convince themselves that they are the subject of Einstein's famous quote Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds'...) This kind of thinking, however, is fundamentally mistaken: it commits the standard logical fallacies of (a) unwarranted generalization and (b) post hoc, ergo propter hoc .

The Meaning of [Scientific] Theory

When an amateur proponent's new theory gets rejected multiple times, sometimes they fall into another fallacious line of reasoning: that their idea was rejected because scientific Orthodoxy vetoes it. In fact, physicists don't keep teaching known physics - such as Quantum Mechanics or General Relativity - because we are too closed-minded to listen to other ideas. Science is not an open-slather forum where all ideas have equal merit. Physics is an operational discipline: we do experiments, and we model those phenomena using theoretical tools; we then keep iterating this procedure.

Now, it is demonstrably true that physics as a discipline has made some missteps in the past. But they have been corrected, as we expect will future missteps. Self-correction mechanisms are integral to all scientific disciplines. Modern science is done in the way it is done precisely to make sure that the good ideas survive and the bad ones get weeded out.

In scientific terms, theory does not mean guess or hunch as it does in everyday usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. See for example Notes on the Nature of Science by two MD's. Physics professor Bob Park's essay The Seven Warning Signs of Voodoo (Bogus) Science is also very much worth reading.

The dangers of an open mind

It is also really worth remembering that

If you keep your mind too open,
your brains will fall out!


If an amateur reader has understood everything I have said up to this point, and still believes that their new theory is really important, then it is time to write it up and submit it to a well-respected peer-reviewed physics journal. One example might be the Physical Review published by the American Physical Society. It will then stand or (as I predict) fall, on its own merits.

In closing, I must ask amateur physicists this: please do not ask me to look at, or critique, any new theory of modern physics formulated without the benefit of university physics undergraduate and graduate degrees. A major part of my job is to teach students at the university that employs me: the University of Toronto. As I said on my main advice page , I have significant job responsibilities and a life outside of work to keep up. Thanks for your interest, and good luck.