Can an "amateur" today make useful contributions to theoretical physics or mathematics?

This was a question I posed to a friend of mine. We decided to define an “amateur” as someone without a PhD in physics, mathematics or something close.

We came to the conclusion that it is very unlikely that some one with out a PhD could in fact make a real contribution. This is despite the fact that things are far more open today than they ever have been. I mean, we have the arXiv and open access journals online. Almost everyone has the internet at home these days, and if not the local libraries do.

From time to time undergraduate students can contribute, but these are with close supervision. The supervisor will guide the student and nurture the natural ability. This was really the closest to an “amateur” that could contribute we agreed on.

So, why can’t “amateurs” contribute? Here are my thoughts…

1) Without spending some time in academia, “amateurs” are not aware of the culture and what is expected of anyone wishing to contribute to mathematical science. They do not know how to do research.

2) “Amateurs”, although interested and very keen at times do not often realise just how much of a prerequisite can be required to conduct research. They can often lack the mathematical skills to contribute. Claims like “I can solve the Riemann hypothesis using high school mathematics” only suggests that they don’t understand the hypothesis correctly in the first place. Trying to rewrite particle theory using high school maths is also redundant. We have a great construct for doing particle physics, it is called the standard model.

3) Theoretical physics, mathematical physics and mathematics as a whole is split up into smaller sections. One can only hope to get acquainted properly with a small subset of what is out there. Without specialising to a large extent, it is unlikely that one can discover something new and interesting. Trying to find smaller, specialised problems to work on is usually the way forward: unless you are a genius and can discover a whole new branch of mathematics! “Amateurs” seem to be focused on very well-known and published open questions. In number theory the Riemann hypothesis is a great example of this. In physics, a theory of quantum gravity is an example.

4) Because the individual does not understand it, it must be wrong. “Amateurs” fall into this mind set quite often. Finding a simpler more elegant approach to things is a large part of the mathematical sciences. However, trying to show that special relativity or quantum mechanics are mathematically inconsistent or do not agree with nature is futile. This also includes the desire to use nothing but high school maths to explain all of physics.

Not that I want to discourage anyone from thinking about mathematics and physics. I encourage it, but with a caveat: reading Wikepedia and popular accounts of science are not enough for one to start to do research.

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UPDATE (15th May 2014)

Please do not post about your pet theories in the comments here. If you have something to say related to this post about the role of amateurs in science then please by all means share it here. Thank you.

Workshop on Operator Algebras and Physics

There is a workshop on operator algebras and physics at the University of Cardiff, 21-25 June inclusive.

Operator algebras have their conception in quantum physics. The states of a quantum particle are understood as vectors in a Hilbert space. As all vector space of a given dimension are essentially the same one cannot really extract information about the system from the vector space structure. The important thing here is the algebra of operators on the Hilbert space. These do contain useful information.

For physics and noncommutative geometry C^{*} and von Neumann algebras are important, as are more general Banach algebras.

I am no expert on operator algebras, but I am interested in there use in physics and geometry. I need to brush up on them!

Constantin Teleman will be delivering a series of lectures on the five days on Two Dimensional Topological Quantum Field Theories and Gauge theories as part of the workshop. The interest in two dimensional theories comes largely from string theory and statistical physics. Also, systems in two dimensions can be thought of “toy models” for more realistic 4-d theories. There are some nice mathematical properties of low dimensional systems that allow one to get at features of quantum field theory that are hidden behind the difficulties encountered in higher dimensions.

A good place to start reading about these things is the preprint by Teleman “Topological field theories in 2 dimensions”; it can be found here as a pdf.

There are other good speakers giving talks.

I will write some kind of overview after the event.

Random thoughts on mathematics, physics and more…