A few days ago I was participating in a discussion panel on topics in modern physics research, and specifically on unsolved problems in physics. In the course of discussions, the question arose about whether an uneducated but dedicated amateur could discover a solution that the experts never thought of. Could problems such as the quantum theory of gravity, the unification of the Standard Model or the fundamental interpretations of quantum mechanics be one day explained by someone working from their basement?

This idea is not so unbelievable when one looks at the history of science. Prior to the twentieth century, most of the big advances in science and mathematics were made by people working in other fields who happened to do their research as a hobby. The most quoted example of course is Einstein's miracle year in which he explained three big mysteries in physics in one year, while working as a patent clerk (however the stories often forget to mention that Einstein had been trained in physics before taking the clerk position, so whether he truly qualifies as an amateur is questionable).

And in many fields skilled amateurs can still make an impact. Every few months or years we hear a story of a backyard astronomer discovering a new comet, asteroid or even signs of a new planet. Computer science seems at times to be dominated by skilled programmers working from their homes. And even mathematics has a long list of accomplishments by amateurs, either in finding interesting new properties of numbers or occasionally proving an interesting theorem. So at first look it is not completely unbelievable that a hobbyist could solve some great problem in physics.

However I do not believe that it is possible anymore.

The problem is that physics has reached a level where many years of dedicated study are required to understand the question - not the solutions or the current theories, but just the questions. The mathematics needed to write down the equations of general relativity require at least three years of university, and the unsolved problems related to it generally required graduate school to understand the nuances. And while student may be introduced to the basics of quantum mechanics in their first or second year of university, the underlying theory and technical skills needed to understand what doesn't work still requires a higher level of training. 

That is not to say of course that it is impossible. For the last twenty years all research papers and many textbooks have been made available for free on the arXiv and other websites, so a dedicated amateur could in principle teach themselves the equivalent of a graduate degree in physics or mathematics. However someone that dedicated would probably seek formal training instead.

So could an untrained amateur still make an impact in modern physics? Probably not. While it makes for an entertaining story of the outsider coming in and surpassing the experts, just understanding the questions is beyond most people. And without understanding the question, it is unlikely to find the solution.

But as always, I am happy to be proven wrong...