Do I miss assignments and exams? Definitely not, and I am now – finally, really, absolutely – determined to complete another program I had set for myself about 2-3 years ago. I had not been able to pull it off in addition to being a moonlighting student.
Since about 10 years I have been recycling my physics knowledge on a regular basis. By recycling I mean: Reading text books as a hobby – sometimes practiced at 5:00 AM, before I jumped into my company car to drive to an IT customer’s site.
I have read the occasional popular physics book, too, but I found peace and tranquility in working through long-winded mathematical derivations. I dare say, this is what kept me sane. Actually, this is the therapy I would recommend to all those burnt-out managers and consultants in the corporate world – especially to the geeky ones.
Having finished that Recapture What You Had Already Known program I was shocked that I – trained as an applied physicist – had missed some major advances in theoretical physics. I could not make head or tail of how the Higgs field is giving the particles mass.
There is some glaring irony: I was not completely ignorant of theoretical physics – I took some non-mandatory classes to understand the theory superconductivity, the field I worked in as an experimental physicist. The Higgs mechanism is very similar to phase transitions like a metal become superconducting – but obviously I was not able (anymore?) to make this mental connection.
Even worse I was ignorant of the big questions in physics. What is it exactly that we don’t know today? Where is the final frontier no theorist has boldly gone before?
Thus I set out to systematically study the language theoretical physicists speak today: Quantum Field Theory (QFT) and General Relativity (GR). I managed to work through about 50% of the books, lectures notes and videos I had selected – then I tried to take combining anything too far and finally focussed on thermodynamics, solar and wind power and the smart grid for two years. By the way, my coffee reduction program came to a grinding halt as well as you have to drink coffee as a student who has to meet deadlines and submit assignments.
I am resuming the QFT / GR program now.
Popular physics accounts of quantum mechanics often make me cringe. It’s not that Schrödinger’s equation, the double-slit experiment and Schrödinger’s cat are invalid examples – they have great explanatory power in elucidating the inherent strangeness of the quantum world (This sounds like a clichéd blurb, doesn’t it?). But real interesting stuff starts where many particles are involved and/or particles are very energetic. And this is just not covered in the simple picture (the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation).
I have already ranted about that in my post Quantum Field Theory or: It’s More Than a Marble Turned into a Wiggly Line.
We had interesting discussions about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and I had complained about gamification. You might argue that working towards a degree and submitting assignments that get graded is the old-school version of gamification, and you might be right. I try to avoid gamification now. Though I will watch educational videos as supplementary material I will not sign-up for any course now, become part of a group or participate in anything that provides me with deadlines and with feedback. The discerning reader might argue that my public announcement of a private study program is just the same way of holding myself accountable.
I try to rise to the challenge of posting some ‘pop-sci’, math-free articles about QFT although or because I want to understand it at a fundamental level. What QFT adds to the spooky weird nature of quantum mechanics are several layers and concepts of mathematical abstractions. You can explain the Higgs mechanism and symmetry breaking by referring to a potential well shaped like a mexican hat and a small marble moving in its brim. But what kind of space is this, and what exactly is the ball?
I find these concepts most fascinating – because it is these abstract ‘hyper’ spaces where classical physics start to get as interesting and spooky quantum physics. QFT builds on Classical Field Theory, and the latter is underrated in terms of geek factor.
My program will loosely follow these lectures by David Tong. I picked those because lecture notes are available, too. Above all, I enjoy Tong’s blackboard & chalk presentation style.
I have found the first lecture also on Youtube though I prefer the formats provided Perimeter Institute (previous link), with the snapshots of the blackboard displayed side-by-side with the videos.
Science geeks and life-long education junkies: Do you prefer blackboard or Powerpoint?