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This question is partially inspired by this one. Do researchers, who actively publish, even have time for that? They seem to be a busy lot. I am not talking about publishing outside the filed, but about studying for the sake of learning just for fun and curiosity, as a form of amusement.

Is there any known case of a researcher who, by studying a topic outside his/her field for fun, had an insight for a novel approach or solution?

It seems that studying is only done (by researchers) when "it might be useful". Is that true?

That, maybe, would explain why most of the researchers I know, speak at most, three languages. They would have little time or incentives to learn the fourth or fifth.

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    Yes, I do. Maybe there are some studies or surveys on this? – FuzzyLeapfrog Jan 28 '17 at 11:55
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    Do the non-researchers you know normally speak four or more langauges? – Federico Poloni Jan 28 '17 at 12:03
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    It seems that studying is only done (by researchers) when "it might be useful". -- Apparently you've never read my papers. – JeffE Jan 28 '17 at 14:58
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    If you enjoy learning additional languages, or if you need to learn more (e.g. a postdoc or sabbatical in a country whose language you don't speak), then you can make a project of learning another language. But what does it matter whether a person speaks more than three language? I don't understand your question, I guess. – aparente001 Jan 28 '17 at 21:10
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    The answer depends in the definition of "study". If reading for fun a textbook is studying, it wouldn't be surprising to find a lot of researchers "studying" unrelated fields in their free time. In fact, it could be one of the ways graduate students are said to procrastinate. – Pere Jan 29 '17 at 1:51
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Fundamentally, a researcher studying a different field "for fun" is in no other situation than anybody else studying "for fun". It's a hobby, just like reading, going to the theatre, or sports. Some engage in this hobby, some do not. Whether they "have time for that" is really the same question as whether they have time for any other hobbies - some do, some (especially on the tenure track) are maybe a bit crunched for time, and choose to use their little spare time on something a bit farther removed from their daily work grind.

Is there any known case of a researcher who, by studying a topic outside his/her field for fun, had an insight for a novel approach or solution?

I am sure there is. Note that "having a an insight" is not a particularly high hoop to jump over. My students "have insights" all the time, the question is whether they are important, work well enough, and are generally more useful to pursue than the myriad other ideas they could use.

My gut feeling is that you rather meant whether somebody had a big breakthrough in a different field as a "hobbyist". I think this used to be more common in times past. I can't really think of a recent example (at least in the STEM fields), as plenty of time and resources (both of which a hobbyist definitionally does not have much of) is required for major breakthroughs.

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    I think it depends on what you mean by "a different field". I think it was the last year that a virtually unknown mathematician (I recall reading something about him being a college teacher for several years) made a significant breakthrough in a branch of mathematics. I would say that that counts (unless I got some of the important details very wrong). – tomasz Jan 28 '17 at 15:42
  • I don't think that this is what this question is about - I think the OP is looking for e.g., a chemical science researcher publishing e.g., in math, not just anybody who is not a research mathematician. – xLeitix Jan 28 '17 at 18:44
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    That being said, I am sure if it happens its in math - by its very nature, math supports major breakthroughs by amateurs more than the experimental sciences. I guess this is also the reason why math is overrun by cranks, while we never hear somebody claim that they have discovered the Higgs boson with the detector in their backyard that they built out of a coffee maker. – xLeitix Jan 28 '17 at 18:47
  • Well, there is always the case of theoretical physicists discovering something which (some years later) turned out to be quite fruitful from mathematical perspective, and the converse. I think I've heard about several such examples in the twentieth century, though I can't confidently cite one. – tomasz Jan 28 '17 at 18:53
  • Actually I used a bad wording... I meant who delves deeply in other fields without the intention of doing research, e.g. a biologist who does research about the social behavior of a bird species, and studies fluid mechanics in the spare time. Then, by coming across a new simulation method, has the insight he/she can use a similar approach to explain an observed behavior of those birds. – Pedro H. N. Vieira Jan 28 '17 at 23:58
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Time is a serious constraint for researchers who want to keep themselves competitive. You need to write grants, advise students, go to pointless but mandatory meetings and you may need to teach.

Nonetheless, a lot of people I know have hobbies outside work: cycling, singing, language learning, etc.

Research as a hobby for a researcher is a tough proposition. As a professional researcher you tend to hold your hobby research to the same standards as your paid research, and that takes time and dedication. But, I've seen people doing this. There are physicists doing hobby research in history, economics, or mathematics, or other branches of physics completely orthogonal to the research they are paid for. My own student is doing well enough with his PhD work, so he decided to take on field theory in his spare time.

Not everyone is able to set aside time for pet research projects. I, myself cannot. If I work on a project, I usually devote all my research time to it. The only way for me to do hobby research is to steer my research towards subjects I'd like to work on. In other words, do as much hobby research as possible at work.

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It depends what you mean by "study for fun".

I would like to think that many researchers will find what they do professionally as "fun", and so do not feel the urgent need to do something not in their field of specialization.

The most famous of all examples are the contributions to physics from a patent clerk named Albert Einstein; he did have formal training in physics but was not a faculty at that time, and so presumably was still studying physics "for fun".

One of the early breakthrough results of quantum information theory is the famous BB85 protocol for quantum cryptography, by Charles Bennett and Gilles Brassard; neither are physicists by training, although Bennett worked at IBM at the time (and still does) and Brassard specialized (and still does) in cryptography. Both knew physics, and I don't think they brushed up on their physics entirely "for fun", but this example would fit the kind of answer you are looking for.

Depending on your you define "field", you will find many researchers who are accomplished musicians and have studied music extensively, for instance. Although not professionals, some of them are pretty darn good.

In the case of languages, the real barrier is lack of occasion to use "for fun" a language you would have learned. There are plenty of "teach-yourself-German" books, but if you cannot interact in that language in your environment it is unlikely to be much fun.

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My main interest and background is in psychology but I work as a trauma researcher at a hospital. I recently developed a new metric for trauma patients that takes a fully new approach to identifying major trauma for quality assurance processes. I presented the paper at the 2016 Trauma Quality Improvement Program where it was described as a groundbreaking shift and won an award. (Here's the abstract if you're interested.)

After talking with a few people, I found that a lot of the major advances in various areas of study have been made by people who are new to the field. This is usually because people who are trained in a field tend to just accept the ways things have been done, whereas someone with a different background can bring new approaches to problems that had just been accepted.

  • That's very inspiring, and a good point to make. Thank you for sharing that. – bright-star Jan 29 '17 at 3:30

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