At least this is what I believed for quite a while. Now I think I was wrong – not only for the reason that also real scientists might enjoy light entertainment or stay informed about their colleagues’ science outreach activities.
First of all, I am not even sure if I still qualify as a real physicist: I have a PhD in physics, and I had job titles including “scientist”. Then I turned to what academia called “industry”. I found that term misleading as many physicists end up in the consulting business which I would not call “consulting industry”. In my country you can work as a self-employed physicist, like a Professional Engineer in other countries, thus I am entitled now (again) to call myself a professional physicist.
But with regard to contemporary theoretical physics I might just count as a member of the educated public. I had specialized in applied physics, in particular solid state physics, superconductors, optics and laser physics. This required me to deal with related theories, such as the BCS theory of superconductivity or the theory of many-particle-interactions. But I never learned anything about general relativity for example or the theory of the standard model.
Some time ago – out of the blue, in the middle of a career in the corporate world – I decided that I wanted to understand better what the LHC in CERN is good for in detail, and what the Higgs particle was. I was clueless: it took me some time to find out that so-called Quantum Field Theory deals with the same stuff I had been known in terms of 2nd Quantization. Given the fact that I was working on different stuff in a quite exhausting day job, I think I did fairly well in working with textbooks, lecture notes and videos on QFT and string theory.
Sometimes it was hard to “get the big picture”, such as the conceptual differences of QFT applied to particle physics and to condensed matter physics. Actually, this is something generic about my learning: I can remember how hard it was to calculate the Coriolis force in the first semester of undergraduate studies (before I had completed linear algebra class). I think, however, I did not grasp the concept of rotating reference frames fully at that time. Richard Feynman refers to this in his famous Physics Lectures: The more complicated problems become, the easier it is to follow the math, but the more likely it is to miss the concepts. I believe that thorough training in theoretical physics allows one to grasp these deep conceptual messages immediately from just reading the equations, whereas an again-beginner like me spends too much time with digesting the math.
In addition, I believe that you learn more than you think from being embedded into a community, from informal discussions (“at the water cooler”). This holds true for any technical subject according to my experience. Scientific discovery and technical innovation are also social processes happening. I understand any type of discovery much better if I know more about people involved and their motivations and opinions. Or probably this is just a useful shortcut for me – to tag equations with stories with a human touch.
Popular science books might be a bit of a replacement for all this. If I read books like The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin or Warped Passages by Lisa Randall it is easier for me to put technical stuff into context.
But also popular science books are much, much more helpful if you are also willing to learn the details. I have read Lisa Randall’s book before and after I had learned at least some QFT, General Relativity and String Theory, and I felt that I was able to understand more. All of those book start out with concepts that can be understood fairly well in terms of high school or freshman physics (like special relativity and simple quantum mechanics as Schrödinger’s wave function). But then concepts become more and more abstract, as often these books roughly follow the historical development. I could track down the page or section of science books where I had to admit that I am lacking the mathematical background and where I could just “understand” the topics in terms of very crude (and I believe often misleading) analogies. The good news is that this effect allows you to track your progress in understanding: by re-reading the books after some exploration into the world of hard text books and checking if the Point of Waning Understanding has moved.
So, popular science books can give you the comforting – but false – feeling that you have understood the concepts of modern physics. My goal is to start from a humble perspective and better assume I have not fully understood them unless I have also confronted myself with the equations behind. That process is slow. But my motto – for this blog, but also in general – is to combine a lot of diverse stuff. My benchmark is not to understand as much as a real professional theorist, but to do fairly well compared to an engineer, to a physicist working in industry, or to a science writer interested in theoretical physics. My motivation for writing this blog partly stems from the self-commitment that is involved in declaring such goals to “the internet community”.