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As physicists, how do you approach problems

  1. Jan 3, 2009 #1
    Once you earned all the degrees needed to qualify for being a physicist, what sort of method do you implement to solved problems? I know scientist applies(or should) follows the scientific method to solved problem. How does your research generally begin? Do most physicists look at existing problems and from there attempt to solve problems. Do all or most physicists apply their own creative approach to solving the problems they are working on beyond the scientific method? Typically , do most physicists work on one problem or do they try to tackle multiple problems. Do lots of physicists outline how they will tackle their problem before actually tackling the problem? Do physicists become soo frustrated with a problem that they just give up on the problem and start working on a new problem ?How long do physicists stay on the typical problem they are working on? In general, do most of the physicists that tackle the problems they are working on solved them. When you walk into some professor's office, 9 times out of 10 you will see a bookcase filled with books that come from different branches of physicist , even though that physicist might have a pHd in astrophysics.
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  3. Jan 3, 2009 #2

    Dr Transport

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    Yes, they do. I tend to look at a problem then just start screwing around with it to see where I can go with it at first.

    There is no set way to attack a problem, the scientific method is unique to each scientist and we all have our own twist as to how we apply it.

    It depends, usually I have a couple of problems working at once, usually different aspects of the same problem. Lately I have been working completely different problems in different areas. I know some people who refuse to talk about other issues until they have solved the problem they are working on at the moment.

    If you don't know the answer, you cannot really outline how to go about finishing it. Now if you are working a homework problem out of a book, you can outline what to do but generally in a research topic outlining isn't the way to go, you don't know where it will take you.

    Sometimes, the fun in it is to mess around with a problem and see where it takes you.

    We all took courses in multiple areas of physics while getting our degrees. I have astrophysics, optics, solid state (condensed matter), mechanics, E&M, statistical mechanics etc on my shelf. I am a condensed matter theorist so that is the majority, but I consult other texts very regularly.
  4. Jan 3, 2009 #3
    I have another question to asked. Do most physicists retained all the information they've learned in their undergrad years , meaning can they recall physics laws from their heads or do they have to be remanded of basic physics concepts primarily through teaching physics undergrad course and constantly having to consult physics books that are on their bookshelves.
  5. Jan 3, 2009 #4


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    Holy Questions Batman!

    The problems I work on are largely dependent on my background expertise, the work that my group does, and the facilities available to me.

    To start with, to be a good scientist means that you have to keep up to date on the literature. You have to constantly read journal articles and go to conferences to keep up with what everyone is doing and where the "cutting edge" of research really is. In my field I keep regular track of two main journals as well as about a half dozen "peripheral" ones. Yes, this involves a lot of reading. No, it does not mean I read the journals from cover to cover. Some journals these days have email alerts that will send you the abstracts of articles in areas you're interested in.

    My research always begins with a thorough literature search. One of the worst feelings in the world comes when you dump a whole lot of work into a project, come up with something that you think is publishable, only to find that it's already been done. (Of course, you can't always avoid this even if you read everything under the sun because there's usually a significant dely - on the order of months - between when the research is done and when it's published.)

    I would also add that, in general, a lot of thought goes into the problems that you want to work on, because in order to tackle them, you often need funding. This comes from grants, and grant proposals require you to complete the prerequisit literature review, define the problem, anticipate the results and potential consequences of those results. The better you do at defining these, the higher the chances of your proposal receiving funding (there are of course, other variables as well - and some would argue they involve random number generators).

    I'm involved in multiple problems, but that's because there's a clinical demand for what I do. Often the research I do is driven by clinical need. If something effects more patients, in a more immediate manner, it goes up on the priority list.

    Well, with most of the stuff I work on, it's not like I get down to a final line, write QED and close the book. I work on something until I have a result that would be of interest to the physics community, then write it up and try to publish. Knowing where this line is, is a skill that comes with experience. Usually, if something's not working, you work on it until you can either get it to work, or explain why it won't work. Ultimately, the work stops when the funding runs out.

    Of course! I keep books on anything that I need to reference on a regular basis.

    Like with anything else, if you don't use it, you lose it. There are principles I work with on a daily basis that I don't need to look up. But occasionally I'll come across a need to look up something that I haven't seen since undergrad. I'll even go right back to my first year physics or calculus texts on occasion.
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2009
  6. Jan 3, 2009 #5

    Dr Transport

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    A lot of times it depends on where you work and what you do. If you are an academic and teaching undergrad classes you'll have the undergrad materials at your fingertips. I work in industry and do not teach at all, so all of my undergrad material is in my notes and I remember what I use.

    We all remember the basics but we have to be reminded of the specifics now and again.
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