I frequently see threads here about general relativity, or quantum mechanics, or similar subjects that the general public, other than some new-age poseurs, just accept as being incomprehensible. Intelligent laymen might want to get a dumbed-down answers to a specific question, but they accept that they will never really understand it, and that they are really not even qualified to have an opinion about it. They just defer to the experts.
Yet these same people have no hesitation in arguing passionately about economic policy, or major war strategy, or how God wants us to live.
Well, I’ll leave that second paragraph for another day. My question right now is, is advanced modern physics really beyond an intelligent layman, even if he is willing to put in the time necessary to learn it?
What motivates this is the recent explosion in availability of free online courses. MIT and several other universities have put many of their advanced courses online; some even have all the lectures on video. I expect this trend to increase.
Using myself as an example: I’m retired now. I have a math degree from 30 years ago, and I took a couple semesters of physics, but by thumbing through some modern textbooks, it’s obvious that I’m so rusty that I wouldn’t have much of an advantage over an English major, except maybe that I know I do have some aptitude for math.
So I realize that I am talking about several years of effort. Assuming I spend 3 or 4 hours a day on it, maybe 2 years to get back up to speed in math through diff eq, and freshman physics. Beyond that it will be new stuff, not refresher courses, so it will go slower. Maybe five years to get through the rest of a typical undergrad physics program (obviously I save time by not having to take history or PE concurrently). Maybe seven or eight years after that to get through the required graduate courses in physics.
So that’s about 15 years to get to the point where I would start on my dissertation research, which I assume is also the point where I would be able to read cutting-edge papers on modern physics.
Obviously, most people will not do that. My question is, COULD they? Even if no university in the world would admit me to their graduate physics program if it took me 7 years to get the equivalent of a BS, and wouldn’t keep me if it took me four years to do what they expect to be done in one year of grad school, COULD an intelligent layman with decent but not super mathematical aptitude get through those courses, with a good understanding at their completion, by plodding away at them for as long as it took, or do you really need to be very gifted to get through them at all?
Yeah, I’ll be 65 by the time I get there, but I’ll be 65 even if I just watch TV all day, and other things being equal, I’d rather understand QM and GR when I’m 65, than not. So, can I get there?