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Physics About theoretical research

  1. Jun 20, 2016 #1
    Hello everyone, I am a high schooler from a European country with a deep interest in physics.
    I like studying the subject and reading about it both from a technical and a popular point of view. However, I've been wondering what actual theoretical research - the pen-paper kind, if anything like that exists, or at most involving computers - looks like, and unfortunately Mr. Google couldn't satisfy my curiosity.

    I imagine some of you have worked, or maybe still work, on a theoretical reserach project, at least when doing your PhDs. The field doesn't really matter, unless there are major differences I should be aware of - I suspect researching on string theory could be rather different than working on theoretical condensed matter...

    What do\did you do on a typical day? What actually happens when you sit down in front of an empty piece of paper? Do you spend a lot of your time discussing in a group in front of a blackboard, or just thinking about your projects trying to find new ideas and solutions?
    I guess the mainstream view of the mad scientist constantly writing down equations that describe in a beautiful mathematical form the mysteries of our universe is pretty distant from the truth; how much of your work does\did include tedious calculations, or other boring tasks popular culture knows nothing about? Do\did you spend a lot of time on a single problem, and in general, how long does\did it take you to solve one (I know this one may be a little too broad)?

    These are only "sample questions", the first that comes to mind; feel free to add any insights you wish, anything that will help in conveying a clear picture of what a theoretical researcher generally does - again, I know this may change quite a lot even from a subfield to another : I am mainly interested in understanding the "general guidelines", if that makes any sense.

    Since a time will come when I'll have to choose a faculty and possibly a related career, and since I've read extensively about the difficulties of landing a job as a physicist in the academia, I'd like to gain a better grasp of what theoretical physics is actually about, before considering pursuing such a path.

    Thank you in advance for your time :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 20, 2016 #2
    I am not a physicist but I think it is safe to say that no science can survive by just staying in theory. The only people I can think of that only stay on a blackboard are mathematicians. Maybe you can be a mathematician that applies work to theoretical physics kind of like Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, and others. But they still rely on work by astronomers, particle physicists, other scientists...to feed their theories so...
  4. Jun 21, 2016 #3
    Hello Delong, thanks for your reply, but I don't think it asnwers much of my question.

    Of course I agree with you that physics, being a natural science, needs experiments, and that's why we have experimentalists; theorists must be aware of what is happening in the labs, and base their research on experimental work - except for maybe string theory, which has no experiments - but I thought they would simply use the tools of mathematics to build new physics upon these results.

    Are you implying that "pure" theorists do not actually exist and what I am thinking about is a mathematician's job? By the way, Penrose is a mathematician, but Hawking was trained as a physicist...

    You say you are not a physicist; are you expressing a personal opinion based on your common sense, or do you have indirect experience to support your claim?

    Thank you for your time.
  5. Jun 21, 2016 #4
    Does theoretical mathematics research count Plunck? Or do you only want physics?
  6. Jun 21, 2016 #5
    Hello micromass, I am specifically interested in physics, but the more I know about the topic, the better it is. If you want to share your experience in theoretical mathematics, please go ahead, I'll appreciate it very much.
    Could you also point out the similarities between the two fields, if there are any? I've read that at the highest levels theoretical research in physics is not all that different from theoretical mathematics, apart from the goals it wants to achieve.
  7. Jun 21, 2016 #6
    I don't think theoretical physics is all that close to theoretical mathematics. However, I do think that the way we do research is very similar. What we research is not all that similar.

    So first of all, if you want to do theoretical research, you need to have a lot of background knowledge about a lot of things. Even things you didn't think you would need might suddenly end up to be useful. Many other things you've learned are not useful. The problem is that you can't tell what will be useful and what not. That' why a broad knowledge is necessary. But anyway, if you want to do research, then ANY knowledge you have will be inadequate. You will always be missing knowledge and you'll always be trying to gather more and more of it.

    So what happens in research? Well, you usually start with some kind of question you have. Sometimes this is specific "there is this very well-specified thing I want to solve". Sometimes it is vague: "This and this seem to be contradictory. Let's find out what's really going on". Sometimes what you want to solve is very easy, sometimes it is way too difficult for you. You don't know beforehand. So what happens after you figured out what you want to solve? Well, usually you start digging into the literature. Books, articles, etc. You'll read whatever sounds useful to you and you'll always think of your question in the background. This reading never ends: even if you progressed a lot in your research, you'll have gained a lot of new questions, which means you'll need to do more reading.

    Then you start thinking about the problem. You'll read about several techniques, so you'll apply them to your problem. It's not so much as sitting in front of an empty paper, as walking around in circle doing reasoning in your head (at least, that's what it's like with me). Sometimes you'll have to do computer simulations to figure out what's going on. Sometimes you'll need to think about a special case first, about a simple example. Sometimes you'll find the solution easily in a special case, or sometimes your question gets reduced to a simple case. There are many kinds of things you can try.

    And of course, you will make mistakes. And if you're lucky, you'll catch the mistakes quickly. If you're not lucky, you'll catch them quite late when you're preparing the paper and then your entire work goes down the drain. That happens. A lot of times you'll never find the entire thing either, you'll just find it in some specialized case

    Research never leaves you either. It's tough to take a break from it. If you want to sleep at night, then you'll often find yourself awake thinking of the problem you want to solve. If you're having a fun time with relatives, you'll find yourself somewhat away from the company and a little bit in a bad mood because you still haven't found that one problem. Breakthroughs might come in a very unexpected time as well.

    And sometimes, you'll have to give up. Some problems are too difficult, and you'll need to face that sooner or later you'll meet a problem you can't solve, and you'll need to move on.

    Wait, haven't I been a bit too negative about research? I don't think so. Research is a really tough thing to do. It's very painful most of the time. But for most of us, it's a passion we can't stop.
  8. Jun 21, 2016 #7
    Thank you micromass for your great answer!

    Yes, maybe I didn't express myself clearly, but that's what I meant. Anyway, thanks for pointing it out!

    I expected this to be a huge part of research... I heard of people desperately trying to make some sense out of poorly written German papers just to find out there was nothing useful for them! I guess this aspect is one of the least pleasant of the job...

    Am I wrong to believe that in general theoretical physicists have to use computers a lot more?

    In my little experience I can already relate to that. When I get stuck on a problem there is no way I can get it out of my head! I am stubborn, so maybe that may help in research.. :)

    From what you've written, I actually think research sounds like fun, but I guess one doesn't know until he tries.... and unfortunately, in my country research for undergraduates, even in labs, is pretty rare - undergrad courses only last for three years though.
    In the US (I'm assuming you are from there or at least know about it) do undergraduates have the chance to take part in theoretical projects?

    Thank you again for your answer, it is very helpful.
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2016
  9. Jun 21, 2016 #8
    It's not all that bad. Nowadays the job is much easier due to everything being on internet. And most of the time, everything is english. But sure, I did have to read some German papers once in a while. Doesn't happen a lot though.

    Probably. If you have to solve some differential equation or make some difficult computation, it's much easier to let the computer do the work for you. But computers in theoretical mathematics are not unheard of either and can be very useful. In either case, programming is something everybody in the sciences need to be comfortable with nowadays.

    If that sounds fun, then I think you'll do alright at research.

    I'm from Europe myself, where (outside of the UK) the process is very similar. Undergrads typically don't do research here and sometimes even masters students don't do it. On the other hand, our education system is a lot cheaper for students and somehow I feel European students are better prepared for research, but that's just my very subjective impression.

    I do know of some undergrads who did research in theoretical physics in the US. But even in the US, I think it's rather rare for an undergrad to be able to do this.
  10. Jun 21, 2016 #9
    May I ask you why this is your opinion, if being involved in actual research is so much rarer here than in the States?

    And one last thing I forgot to ask : typically, does theoretical research tend to be social, with multiple people discussing ideas on the same project, or does it tend to be more "solitary"?

    Attached Files:

  11. Jun 21, 2016 #10
    (don't mind the attached file, I did it by mistake :P)
  12. Jun 21, 2016 #11
    I don't know. There seem to be very different cultures involved here. The ability to do research is definitely a huge benefit in the american culture. On the other hand, the research that they do isn't always reflective of the research that is done in grad school or beyond. But I do wish there would be more opportunities for such research here. I would have liked this a lot.

    It's both. There definitely is a huge solitary component involved. You can't bypass the fact that eventually you'll need to sit alone in a room and try to hack away at different stuff. But there's also a social component, where you discuss your research. This can happen with colleagues at your department, or more formally on a conference. But although the solitary component is definitely dominating, you won't be a good scientist if you didn't discuss things with peers.
  13. Jun 21, 2016 #12
    Do you mind if I ask you whether you are still involved in research, or changed job? If so, was it a voluntary choice, or the only possible one?
  14. Jun 21, 2016 #13
    I am currently still involved in research.
  15. Jun 21, 2016 #14


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    I'm on the experimental side (experimental particle physics), theorists like @Orodruin, @vanhees71, @john baez, @nrqed, ... can tell you more about it, but of course I'm in contact with some theorists as well:

    It depends on the field and project. There are some physicists using pen and paper as main research tools, with some support from Mathematica & co, looking for analytic solutions to integrals to prove some theorems about their favorite theory. Others program and run extensive numerical calculations on computers to predict properties of particles, or how often they would be produced in particle accelerators. In all cases, you are in frequent contact to other scientists, discussing things in a coffee "break", on whiteboards, via mails, sometimes in meetings (live and/or via the internet), on conferences, ...

    At least in Germany, you do actual research for a MSc degree.
  16. Jun 21, 2016 #15
    Thank you for your answers, micromass, they have been extremely helpful.

    Hello mfb! Nice to hear in Germany you do research for MSc degree. I'm not too far away, and my knowledge of German is decent; it's not impossible that I'll go studying there in the future!

    sounds fun, but I hope it's not all they do! :) I'm looking forward to hearing from some of the physicists you tagged.
    In the meanwhile, would you mind telling me what role theory plays in your job, if it does play a role?
  17. Jun 21, 2016 #16
    I am just expressing my opinion i don't have personal experience to back it up so no sorry.,
  18. Jun 21, 2016 #17


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    It is not limited to Germany, but I don't know well enough how theoretical MSc look in other countries. Experimental MSc in most other EU countries involve research as well.
    Experimental results are nearly always compared to theoretical predictions, and those predictions also guide the planning of analyses - where do the measurements help most to improve unknown parameters, where is it most likely to see something new, and so on.

    Opinions are fine, as long as they are not factually wrong or seem to imply things that are wrong.
  19. Jun 21, 2016 #18
    I agree with mfb, but appreciate your effort.

    Thank you for your answer, mfb.
  20. Jun 21, 2016 #19


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    I can tell you a bit about the typical activities of a pen and paper theorist based on my own habits. I do some combination of these things everyday

    1. Actively doing research (as in doing specific calculations or planning what I should do). I do this either on paper or in Mathematica. Technically most things that I have done recently can be done by hand. However, there are certain things theorists want to do which could be done on paper, but are very tedious and would take hours. An example of this is linearizing the Einstein equation about a black hole background (not flat space). This can literally be done on a computer in seconds (or minutes in more complex cases).

    2. Typing research notes in LaTex which can later be used to write a paper (or actually writing the paper)

    3. Reading papers directly related to my research

    4. Reading papers/reviews/textbooks about topics that interest me and which may influence my research interests in the future. I am lucky to have the freedom to do this and I find it really helps expand my mind.

    I also think about research a lot when I do things like go on walks.
  21. Jun 22, 2016 #20
    Hello radium, thanks for your answer. What is your field of study exactly?
  22. Jun 22, 2016 #21


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    I'm not a theorist but there is a theory group on the floor below me and I come across them pretty regularly.

    In my experience, the senior scientists spend a lot more time with pen and paper than the grad students/postdocs who spend most of their time writing software (or discussing algorithms with their peers on the whiteboards in the hall).

    My experience as an observer agrees well with radium's, in particular the key skill for a theorist is communication: either at the whiteboard, through more formal oral/written means (presentations/papers) or just chatting. Theory work is much more collaborative than it used to be. Also, as micromass says everyone needs to program computers because that is the key way to express your ideas these days.

    Lastly, we do have undergraduates that do theory research, but it is research in the sense that they are working on software programs to visualize a certain problem, or techniques to traverse a specific kind of graph or that kind of thing. Undergraduates aren't paid to sit with a pad and paper. The amount of technique and knowledge needed to make an original contribution is physics is astounding, and even at the PhD level the amount of originality in most research is minimal (across virtually all fields).
  23. Jun 22, 2016 #22


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    Another thing I would add about collaboration. If you are working with someone like a postdoc or another student, you may do things independently and then meet a few times a week to talk. If you are just working with just your advisor you may meet less frequently (they can be pretty busy). A lot of theorists can be pretty hands off with their students so in a sense you may have more freedom to collaborate with people.
  24. Jun 23, 2016 #23
    Looks like the job is far more social than I thought. I like people and working in group, so I'm glad to hear that.

    Also, everyone here seems to stress the importance of computers, and since I'm not that much into programming, that's not good news for me. I wouldn't mind using the computers for calculations and graphs, of course, but I don't fancy the idea of having to deal all day long with code debugging or software writing... is that something that should discourage me?
  25. Jun 23, 2016 #24


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    Programming is important because that is how we express and solve problems. You won't be a software engineer, but using computers for calculations and graphs means coding. Simple as that.

    It isn't something that should discourage you at all. The computer is a valuable tool that greatly extends your capabilities. It isn't the focus of the job. Most physicists aren't great programmers (although many like to think they are) but they can mostly express their thoughts to the extent they can get the results they need.
  26. Jun 23, 2016 #25
    It shouldn't discourage you. There is plenty of research that doesn't involve much computer work. So if you don't like computers, then you certainly don't have to spend all day long coding. However, saying you don't want to deal with computers AT ALL will close a lot of nice opportunities. So you should definitely learn how to code in a program like sage or matlab.
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