What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

Good grief, I am becoming a veritable post-generating machine. Don’t worry though I’ll dry up soon enough. This one is a cheap rip-off of PW’s post which is a pointer to the rather nice What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists. That’s about a physicist talking to a variety of “I have a theory” physics nutters, although as she says One or two seemed miffed that I didn’t immediately exclaim: ‘Genius!’, but most of my callers realised that they can’t contribute to a field without meeting today’s quality standard. Then again, I hear only from those willing to invest in advancing their education to begin with.

Some of the stuff resonates in the GW debate:

The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested… My clients know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country. They have no clue how far they are from making themselves understood… But those who seek my advice lack the mathematical background to build anything interesting on their intuitions… I haven’t learned any new physics in these conversations, but I have learned a great deal about science communication. My clients almost exclusively get their information from the popular science media. Often, they get something utterly wrong in the process… A typical problem is that, in the absence of equations, they project literal meanings onto words such as ‘grains’ of space-time or particles ‘popping’ in and out of existence… I make clear that if they want to be taken seriously by physicists, there’s no way around mathematics, lots of mathematics. Images and videos will not do.

Some of it won’t resonate at all: one bit I elided above was Their ideas aren’t bad; they are raw versions of ideas that underlie established research programmes.

6 thoughts on “What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists”

  1. I wish she hadn’t called them “autodidact physicists.”

    Call these people cranks, or fabulists, or egotists; call them wannabees. Call them Dunning’s Darlings, or Metaphoric Reasoners, or Cargo Cultists, or Perennial Sophomores.

    The smaller group described by Sabine Hossenfelder, who
    “.. cherish the opportunity to talk to a physicist because one-to-one conversation is simply more efficient than Google.” are the autodidacts.

    “More efficient than google” is certainly not the reason they cherish the opportunity, though. A short conversation with knowledgeable professionals provides benefits that are of an entirely different order than google can provide. It’s not a matter of improved efficiency.


  2. Who you gonna call? Physicsbusters!

    I actually can sympathize. Resident Autodidact Physicist might as well be the title of the position I’ve risen to / fallen into in my line of work. Rarely a day goes by where I don’t wish I had an on-call physicist to ask questions of – instead it’s Google, download a raft of papers, and try to find – if not an answer – at least a pointer in the right direction.

    Finding a relevant paper is the hard part, because once found most authors are willing to answer questions about their work. Unfortunately I still end up spending a lot of time ‘rediscovering’ that which is already known.

    The only difference is that I’m not trying to ‘sell’ a pet theory, just looking to answer simple questions:
    1) Is this result possible?
    2) Is it consistent with theory?
    3) Is the analysis of the result scientifically acceptable?

    Actual physicists (from outside our organization) eventually have to sign off on the work, but they are not consultants and the amount of assistance they will provide varies by individual.

    Given my early infatuation with the ‘Peter Principle‘ it is ironic that I find myself 40 years later a prime example 🙂


  3. A very kind lady at Imperial College used the phrase ‘geezers in garages’ in a related context, alerting me to the possibility that garages in the UK were somewhat more common than I had previously thought.


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