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The Amateur Theorist

George E. Hrabovsky
President, Madison Area Science and Technology

Abstract
Abstract. Every year hundreds of would-be theorists make startling, and usually wrong, discoveries. Why are they wrong? How could they make their work better? What can an amateur actually contribute to theory? What makes a good theory? What makes a bad theory? Then I will present some of the tools used by theorists.

Introduction
We all have an idea of what science is all about, or you wouldnt be reading this. Right? All of science can be boiled down to the view that we are all chasing a better theory. Even experimental papers are trying to match their data to some theoretical curve or the like, testing a prediction or gathering data to reveal potential theories. Observational papers also do the same. Some might argue that the act of measuring something is not theoretical, but if you dont have a theory what are you basing your measurements on? What we are talking about here is theoretical science. The science of creating new theories. This is, perhaps, the most challenging type of science from an intellectual level. The general public seems to have a perception of the theorist as the archetypal mad scientist; shut away in a dusty office working in solitude on matters strange, impossible to understand, and probably wrong. Those of us who practice theoretical science understand that there is a big problem with this image; namely that it promotes the notion that theorists work in isolation and that they do not concern themselves with what others believe. In reality the theorist is lost without contact with other theorists, mathematicians, and experimentalists. It is easy to perform the mental equivalent of walking off a cliff in isolation. There is no one to tell that you are thinking about something in the wrong way. Such a restraining influence helps, because it forces you to justify everything so you are not led astray. The general public also seems to believe that a theory is something that is not well established. How many times have we heard the statement, It is only a theory. In reality a theory is something that has been shown to be true and constitutes a large body of work.

that there is a big problem with this image; namely that it promotes the notion that theorists work in isolation and that they do not concern themselves with what others believe. In reality the theorist is lost without2contact with other theorists, mathematicians, and experimentalists. It is easy to perform the mental equivalent of walking off a cliff in isolation. There is no one to tell that you are thinking about something in the wrong way. Such a restraining influence helps, because it forces you to justify everything so you are not led astray. The general public also seems to believe that a theory is something that is not well established. How many times have we heard the statement, It is only a theory. In reality a theory is something that has been shown to be true and constitutes a large body of work. Another problem that arises is that theorists are bombarded by alleged papers claiming to reveal the truth behind quantum gravity, cosmology, the existence of God, UFO conspiracies, and so on. These misguided individuals believe the hype and work in paranoid isolation. They pop up with crackpot ideas and demand to be taken seriously because their theory has as much merit as any other. I have file folders of this stuff that I should probably get rid of. To a lesser extent there are some well-meaning amateurs who want to it right, but they are too impatient with their own abilities and do not have the discipline to work on problems within their grasp; they plunge ahead blindly, ignorant of the damage they are doing to themsleves by believing they have made a contribution to something they do not understand. While such people do exist, they no more represent the community of amateur scientists than the public perception of theorists represents the true theorist. I hope that this paper will dispell the myths and explain how both the amateur and the professional can improve their craft by including each other. I will begin by discussing what theory really is. Then I will go into how models are constructed. Next will come a discussion of the background needed to do theory effectively. I then give some suggestions on how to acquire this background. Then I discuss how to decide if you can really contribute to a problem.

What is a Theory?
We have been taught that scientific knowledge holds a special place because it is always verified by experiment. The non-scientist thinks that scientists uncover truths in their pursuits. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is only one human pursuit that has the chance of producing complete truth, and that is mathematics. The exalted position of mathematics is due to the fact that humans invented mathematics in the first place, and so all of mathematics is self-contained, as it were. In short, since we decided what constitutes mathematical truth, it is hardly surprising that we can find it. Science, on the other hand, is not created by man. Nature is there, independent of us. Uncovering the rules is hard and necessarily incomplete. If there are rules that are beyond our understanding, then we will never be able to complete the trek for scientific knowledge. The best we can hope for is ever better theories to explain what we encounter on the way. It is thus, that I make the statement that all of science is an effort to develop the best possible theory for the problem we are working on. You might ask, "Theory is too abstract, I want to measure our way to truth." It will never happen without a theory. You

surprising that we can find it. Science, on the other hand, is not created by man. Nature is there, independent of us. Uncovering the rules is hard and necessarily incomplete. If there are rules that are 3 beyond our understanding, then we will never be able to complete the trek for scientific knowledge. The best we can hope for is ever better theories to explain what we encounter on the way. It is thus, that I make the statement that all of science is an effort to develop the best possible theory for the problem we are working on. You might ask, "Theory is too abstract, I want to measure our way to truth." It will never happen without a theory. You might accidentally happen upon a measuring scheme, likely this happened when some primitive man noticed that a piece of wood was as long as his forearm and began comping things to it. The accident triggers the thought, but the thought is a theory, "I can use my arm to measure things." No measurement can take place until you have something to measure, the act of choosing to measure something requires a theory. Thus, at its heart, science is about finding the best theory. The process of theory begins its role in the analysis of data produced by observations. What we are looking for is patterns in the data. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of patterns; qualitative and quantitative. A quantitative pattern is one taken from numerical data and can usually provide a formula. A qualitative pattern is one taken from non-numerical data (such as a non-digital photograph) and can provide clues that can lead to the derivation of a formula. Analyzing qualitative data requires less sophistication in terms of statistical technique, but it does require greater knowledge of a broad range of scientific disciplines. Once a pattern is detected you begin the process of verification. This will ultimately lead to the creation of experiments, but there is a lot of work to do before that. The first step is to assume the pattern that you have found is true. This is called formulating a hypothesis. You say that the pattern, your hypothesis, has a specific role in the phenomena under study, the conclusion. This specific role will be part of the pattern. Once you have a hypothesis you need to prove that it does lead to the conclusion. This duplicates the processes of mathematical proof. You then note all of your assumptions. Then you either work from first principles to your hypothesis, or you begin with your hypothesis and show that it leads to the conclusion. If you succeed you will know that your hypothesis is self-consistent and it acquires the status of a theorem. Now we reach the part of the process where the theorist really shines through. You must make predictions based on your theorem. By changing parameters and variables you study the behavior of your theorem in various situations. These studies will give results that can be matched against experimental data. This is called making a model.

How To Make Models


The first step in making a model is to list the assumptions you are making. You should also list any theorem(s) you are modeling. The next step is to examine the behavior of the theorem under extreme cases. What happens when the parameter or variable under study goes to 0? Or infinity? Use calculus to determine where other critical points are located and test for those values. Can you use this to find constants? If things are too complicated, can you make some simplifying assumptions? Make

The first step in making a model is to list the4assumptions you are making. You should also list any theorem(s) you are modeling. The next step is to examine the behavior of the theorem under extreme cases. What happens when the parameter or variable under study goes to 0? Or infinity? Use calculus to determine where other critical points are located and test for those values. Can you use this to find constants? If things are too complicated, can you make some simplifying assumptions? Make sure to note these assumptions as you make them. Can you make some generalizations about your developing model? Understand that as you simplify and generalize you are making your model more abstract. Each assumption and generalization takes you further away from the reality of the data you derived your model from. As you understand your model better, you can reintroduce the levels of reality you removed through abstraction. The game is to make predictions that can be verified in the laboratory. At first glance, does little good to predict that a necessary experiment will require more energy than exists in the whole solar system to perform an experiment to test a model. Predictions that can be tested directly are wonderful. Often you must go further, you must predict secondary effects. The idea is that the primary prediction is arbitrarily difficult (such as separating out an individual quark), so you must make statements that predict that your model will produce an effect that will then produce an additional effect that can be measured. Each time you remove an effect you are decreasing the predictive power of your model.

What is a Good Theory?


How do we find a good theory? What are the criteria for a good theory? It seems that there are four primary criterion. This does not mean that you need all of them, though one of them is vital. There are many theories that are accepted that do not have all of them, or that have elements of all of them that are somewhat incomplete. The first test for a theory is that it must explain what we already know to be true about a problem. This first test means that any theory of gravity must contain within it all that we know to be true of gravity. If it does not, then it must explain in very great detail why it does not, or why what we currently know is false. When general relativity overturned Newtons theory of gravity, Einstein was able to demonstrate that his theory accounted for everything that we already knew. The second test for a theory is that it be able to make predictions of things we do not know now. If a theory only provides what we already know in a different way and offers nothing new, then it is not worth considering. Only when a theory extends our knowledge does it warrant consideration. Using general relativity again, the first major success was explaining the exact orbit of the planet Mercury, a thing that the Newtonian theory was incapable of doing. The third test for a theory is that it allows us to do things we could not do before. Not only does a successful theory make predictions, it rewires our brains to think in new ways. In general relativity it took many decades before the ramifications sunk in, rewiring the brains of J. Robert Oppenheimer and G. M. Volkoff to take seriously the idea of collapsed objects. This led to the theory of black holes, an entirely new way of looking at the world.

The third test for a theory is that it allows us to do things we could not do before. Not only does a successful theory make predictions, it rewires our brains to think in new ways. In general relativity it took many decades before the ramifications sunk in, rewiring the brains of J. Robert Oppenheimer and G. M. Volkoff to take seriously the idea of collapsed objects. This led to the theory of black holes, an entirely new way of looking at the world. The final test of a theory is that it must be testable. When a theory makes definite predictions, those predictions should be verified in nature or the laboratory. General relativity, again, predicted that light from stars would be bent on its way around the Sun. This was observed during a solar eclipse, a verification of a prediction. As a final note for this section, a scientific theory is not mere speculation; it is the result of a great deal of work to make and verify predictions.

Who Judges a Theory?


It seems paradoxical that the only people really able to judge a scientific theory are those who use it. Scientists are the only ones who deal the with subtleties and complexities of their subjects of interest in enough depth to really understand that ramifications of a theory. One of the reasons for so much specialization in science is the requirement for expertise to be able to judge theories and thus be able to do science.

What is the Process of Evolution of a Theory?


So, now that you have a theory, that is it, right? No. Every theory that works evolves. One mark of a bad theory is one that does not change over time. It is like building a house. You need a foundation, but that is not enough to have a house; so you are not satisfied with having only the foundation. You put in the floor, but that too is not enough; though you could l;live in the basement and use the floor as your roof. Is that a house? Not really, but it looks like what a house needs to be. You frame the walls and ceiling, it is getting closer now; and you really like the sturdiness supplied by the scaffolding it really holds everything together. Now you take care of some details like plumbing and wiring. You put up the walls and the ceiling itself. You put in windows and doors. Then you paint it. Now, despite how much you like it, you must remove the scaffolding; it is no longer necessary. You have a house. This is a lot like a theory. You decide on the elements you need for the theory. You gain them one by one, often using methods that later are not needed and must be discarded, no matter how much you like them. Once you have a theory you must make predictions. If you can make them then they must be tested. If one time a test is failed then the theory is wrong. It must be either discarded or modified in a plausible way to account for the discrepancy. In this way technology drives the evolution of a theory at the same time it is often driven by the theory. New methods come to light that allow you to make new predictions. New ways of thinking allow you to consider ideas you never would have thought of before. This is a very exciting process to be involved in, and one that changes all the time.

gain them one by one, often using methods that later are not needed and must be discarded, no matter how much you like them. Once you have a theory you must make predictions. If you can make them then 6 they must be tested. If one time a test is failed then the theory is wrong. It must be either discarded or modified in a plausible way to account for the discrepancy. In this way technology drives the evolution of a theory at the same time it is often driven by the theory. New methods come to light that allow you to make new predictions. New ways of thinking allow you to consider ideas you never would have thought of before. This is a very exciting process to be involved in, and one that changes all the time.

What is a Bad Theory?


We have thought about good theories. What is a bad theory? If you look at the list of good theory points, anything that actively goes against these ideas is a bad theory. A bad theory will not explain what we already know. It will be incomplete, often because the individual or individuals who developed it had some other agenda. A bad theory will not be able to make predictions. A bad theory prevents us from doing things we could not do before. A bad theory is not testable. Any theory that prevents us from testing it is not truly scientific.

What Background Do We Need?


It is true that the language of theory is mathematics. The method of mathematics is to develop theorems and prove them. Mathematics is composed of objects (or structures, such as groups, vectors, variables, etc.) and relationships between objects (functions, isomorphisms, operators, etc.) This is a very valuable skill in theoretical science, since your hypothesis must be proven to be self-consistent with what is already known to be true before you go ahead and start making a model. While science utilizes mathematics, it must always be remembered that science is not mathematics. While mathematics is content to be logically self-consistent, science must also be shown to be true in nature. The greater your knowledge of the breadth of science in general, and your level of understanding of your specialization, the greater your ability to make models. There is a temptation among amateurs to ignore the current state of theories due to their difficulty. The feeling is that scientific principles should be fundamentally simple, and ideas with such complexity must somehow be wrong. They believe that the current theory is the result of institutionalized inertia. To an extent, this is true; but it fails to recognize the time that researchers put into their studies. The most important skills you can acquire as a theorist is the ability to figure out how to represent scientific principles and phenomena by mathematical structures and relationships. For example, you can represent forces as vectors, so all of the properties of vectors can be applied to forces. To be a theorist you must be an expert in mathematics and in the science of your choice.

is the result of institutionalized inertia. To an extent, this is true; but it fails to recognize the time that researchers put into their studies. The most important skills you can acquire as a theorist is the ability to figure out 7 how to represent scientific principles and phenomena by mathematical structures and relationships. For example, you can represent forces as vectors, so all of the properties of vectors can be applied to forces. To be a theorist you must be an expert in mathematics and in the science of your choice.

How Do You Get The Background?


In my opinion, the most efficient way to learn mathematics is to identify the objects used in a branch of mathematics, the relationships between them, and then identify the fundamental problems addressed by that branch of mathematics. For example, to learn calculus you must first study functions, then you study limits, derivatives and integrals, then you study such traditional problems such as extreme values of functions, graphing curves, mean values, lengths of arcs, areas, and volumes. To learn science you must take a different approach. The best way is to learn science the same way that you do science. Begin by identifying the observations that launched a science. Then seek to understand how the hypotheses and models are constructed. Finally, study the experiments that verify the results of the experiments. The minimum mathematical requirements for a theorist are an understanding of calculus, linear algebra, analytic geometry, and differential equations. The minimum scientific requirements are the notions of force, work, energy, and the conservation laws for energy, momentum, angular momentum, information, and charge.

What Problems Are Tractable?


Let's assume that you have developed the necessary background to pursue theory. The next question is what problem(s) to work on. There is a great temptation to work on the bleeding edge of theory; it is very exciting to work on things that no one is able to figure out. My advice is do what is interesting, but also what is possible. What is possible will depend on three things; background, resources, and time. The background you have is extremely important. We discussed some aspects of this in the last section. If you intend to work on problems at the cutting edge of physics, then you will have to spend a lot of time mastering very difficult mathematical skills and trying to understand some very difficult and non-intuitive theories. Resources are another limitation to pursuing theory. In this area of theory the professional has the clear advantage. They have access to large libraries where the most upto-date research results available are held. The amateur has to work very hard to gain similar resources. The professional also has access to other professionals to talk over difficulties and to work in collaboration. Amateurs tend to work on their own. The professional also has access to grants, these are very difficult for the amateur to be awarded. Time is a huge limitation on theory. The professional is at something of a disadvantage in this area. They must attend meetings, teach classes, administer research groups, and all of the other dreary details of bureaucratic academe. There is also the problem that the professional is required to publish a certain number of papers within a

Resources are another limitation to pursuing theory. In this area of theory the professional has the clear advantage. They have access to large libraries where the most upto-date research results available are held. The amateur has to work very hard to gain 8 similar resources. The professional also has access to other professionals to talk over difficulties and to work in collaboration. Amateurs tend to work on their own. The professional also has access to grants, these are very difficult for the amateur to be awarded. Time is a huge limitation on theory. The professional is at something of a disadvantage in this area. They must attend meetings, teach classes, administer research groups, and all of the other dreary details of bureaucratic academe. There is also the problem that the professional is required to publish a certain number of papers within a certain amount of time, this lends itself to hurried results and a lot of poorly written papers. The amateur can spend as much time as they want in their studies, they have no deadlines they must meet. This can also have the effect of allowing the amateur to become unfocused. Self-imposed deadlines can alleviate this problem. It would be great for an amateur to begin part of a research group. This will give them access to research results and data, it will give the research group a resource that can spend time on problems they might not otherwise be able to address. It has been my pleasure to make many friends and colleagues in this way.

Tools of The Theorist


How To Understand the Mathematics Used in Physics
A common complaint is that people understand the ideas of physics without being able to use the mathematics. This is a little bit like saying that you understand a song without knowing the words. This seems to stem from frustration with learning the math at some point in our schooling. The ability to apply what mathematics we have learned is not practiced at the time we learn it. The question becomes, "Must we accept the fact that we do not understand the equations that we encounter?" The answer is no. As a scientist, your job is to study and do science; not to invent new mathematics. Every mathematical tool you gain will help you, since the language of science is mathematics. If you learn no other mathematical tool, you must gain the tool of being able to look at an equation and have it reveal to you what it means. The first point of confusion is the equals sign itself. In most equations you have a left side and a right side with the equals sign = in the middle. What does this mean? It means that the numerical value of the left and right sides are the same, and that is all it means. It does not define the left hand side with the right hand sign, that requires the symbol := or . I assume that you can perform basic arithmetic and some algebra. The real secret to gaining an understanding of how to interpret equations is to plot a graph of the equation. Find out what symbols are really constants, and replace each constant with a 1; we can put back the true values later. Here is an example of a complicated equation from quantum mechanics called the particle-in-a-box energy solution of the Schrdinger equation,

symbol := or . I assume that you can perform basic arithmetic and some algebra. The real secret to gaining an understanding of how to interpret equations is to plot a graph of the 9 equation. Find out what symbols are really constants, and replace each constant with a 1; we can put back the true values later. Here is an example of a complicated equation from quantum mechanics called the particle-in-a-box energy solution of the Schrdinger equation, En n2 h2 8mL 2 .

The first thing we need to do is define the symbols and decide if they are variables or constants. The symbol n is a positive integer greater than 0 n 0, 1, 2, 3, and is determined when we choose the problem, it is thus a variable. The symbol h is called Planck's constant, and is a constant that for our plot we will make 1. The symbol m is the mass of the particle and we will assume that it is a constant. The symbol L is the length where the wave function becomes zero, this is unique to a given system and is thus a constant. The symbol E n is the energy for a given value of n and is thus a variable. Now we set all of the constants to 1, this turns the original equation into, En Now we plot this equation.
100

n2 .

80

60 En 40 20 0 0 2 4 n 6 8 10

While it is tempting to draw a smooth curve connecting the dots, we can't because n can only have integer values. If we insert the values of the constants, the plot looks like this,

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6. 10 32 5. 10 32 4. 10 32 En 3. 10 32 2. 10 32 1. 10 32 0 0 2 4 n 6 8 10

the shape is the same, only the numbers are different. This is very important, equations with similar relationships between their variables all have the same shape and thus the same behavior. In this way a theoretical physicist gains deep insights into a variety of problems by being able to recognize that similar equations have similar graphs, and similar graphs have similar equations.

Units
Before we get into equation validation we have to get some terms and ideas in mind. The first of these comes from the need to adopt standards of measurement. It is a fairly intuitive notion that if our measurements are to be meaningful to anyone else they must be made using common methods. If your inch is five of my inches, and I am not aware of that fact, then your results will never match mine. It turns out that there are only seven units of measurement we need adopt as standards; length, mass, time, temperature, electric current, chemical quantity, and light intensity. All other kinds of measurement are derived from these seven. Here is a table with the standard units in the English system of measurement (ENG), the Internation System of measurement (SI), and the centimeter-gram-second scale (CGS).
Standard Length Mass Time Temperature Symbol L m t T Degrees ENG feet ft pound lb seconds s Fahrenheit F SI meter m kilogram kg seconds s kelvin K CGS centimeter cm gram gm seconds s kelvin K

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Standard Electric Current Chemical Quantity Light Intensity

Symbol I M l

ENG ampere A mole mol candela cd

SI ampere A mole mol candela cd

CGS ampere A mole mol candela cd

By understanding the quantities under study, we can understand the units of measurement involved. If we define velocity as distance traveled (length) divided by the time to reach that distance, we have, v Thus, the units for velocity would be, v ft s m s s , , . L t .

cm

Units to Check the Validity of an Equation


Whenever we have an equation, since the two sides must have the same numerical value, they must also have the same units. We can thus check an equation to see if the units are correct; if not a mistake has been made and the equation is invalid. For example an expression for velocity, v ml 2

where m is mass would have the following units, v From above we know that v m L , so L t m L 2, m L 2.

which is clearly not true. This expression for velocity is nonsense. Again, only if our units match on each side of the equation is the equation valid.

Computer Models
The computer allows us to approximate a solution to an equation. Depending on the method we use our model can be very accurate. Here we understand the word accurate to mean close to the actual solution. We then understand that there is some error involved in every model. We can define this error by a simple formula,

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The computer allows us to approximate a solution to an equation. Depending on the method we use our model can be very accurate. Here we understand the word accurate to mean close to the actual solution. We then understand that there is some error involved in every model. We can define this error by a simple formula, error approximation solution .

We can use symbols, for error we will use x , for the approximation we will use mx , and for the solution we will use x . So, the error is, x This implies that x So, x and mx x x mx . mx x x mx mx x x. mx x .

This makes no sense unless we switch signs (multply through by -1), mx So, mx x x. x x mx .

In other words the model is the sum of the error and actual solution. Each time we solve an equation aproximately we introduce error into our model. If we have a model that makes predictions over time, where each solution represents another time step, then each time step will introduce additional error and eventually our model will have more error than solution, thus losing all ability to make predictions.

Conclusions
The amateur scientist has advantages and disadvantages. This is particularly true of theorists. To be an amateur theorist takes every bit as much effort as to become a professional. The set of skills required by either are identical. This poses a problem for the amateur, in that it takes a lot of time and discipline to learn these skills. The good news is that with time and persistence you can learn to become a theorist. Another benefit is that theory is inexpensive, all you really need to do theory is paper and pencil. I use a computer loaded with the most recent version of Mathematica. A version of Mathematica for hobbyists costs just under $300, so it is well within reach. Good luck!

professional. The set of skills required by either are identical. This poses a problem for the amateur, in that it takes a lot of time and discipline to learn these skills. The good news is that with time and persistence you can learn13 to become a theorist. Another benefit is that theory is inexpensive, all you really need to do theory is paper and pencil. I use a computer loaded with the most recent version of Mathematica. A version of Mathematica for hobbyists costs just under $300, so it is well within reach. Good luck!