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Career in string theory

  1. Feb 13, 2009 #1
    I am currently an freshman physics major taking my second semester physics class, E&M. If I eventually want to become a theoretical physicist specializing in string theory, how would I go about doing this? I really do not know what happens once you get all the general physics classes out of the way the first two years.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 13, 2009 #2
    Make sure you know everything (anything?) in maths.
  4. Feb 13, 2009 #3
    Do you know anything about the acutal academic process as far as the pathway is concerned, because I am fine in math.
  5. Feb 14, 2009 #4
    I think what he means is that string theory is an extremely mathematically complex idea. We're not talking calculus I, II, III type of complex, we're talking about having a strong understanding of topology, smooth manifolds, and analysis (on abstract spaces). These courses are usually far removed from a physics program and fall more in the arena of pure mathematics.

    The better you understand the reasoning of these areas, the better equipped you will be to handle the mathematics behind string theory. You will most likely have to augment your degree with courses from the pure math stream. In fact, if you don't find interesting these areas of mathematics than you may not find string theory that interesting either.
  6. Feb 14, 2009 #5
    There is really no special track to become a theoretical physicist as an undergrad. You take essentially the same physics courses as students who go into experimental physics. It would probably be beneficial to take extra math classes in topics such as complex variables, linear algebra, or numerical methods, but it is certainly not required.

    I would strongly recommend NOT specializing in string theory as a grad student. There are many physicists who don't consider it to be a legitimate scientific theory. I think it's unlikely that you'll still be interested in string theory once you develop a broader knowledge of physics.
  7. Feb 14, 2009 #6
    The same can be said for all theories of quantum gravity, none of them are really making new predictions. I think as a freshman you should not get tunnel vision and only want to study string theory. You should always be open to alternative theories and comparatively judge the merits of each individual theory.

    It appears at the moment String theory has lost some of it's steam as there are not as many pubs on string theory and the overall hysteria has died down. But it's still a viable candidate for a theory of quantum gravity. But at the moment, quantum gravity is wide open and an exciting field to enter. And most quantum gravity theories are very mathematical, going beyond the basic mathematics needed for general relativity and quantum field theory. String theory relies heavily on Calabi-Yau manifolds, mirror symmetry and D-branes are another story as well. Some math PhD students are doing their theses on Calabi-Yau manifolds and mirror symmetry, so needless to say, string theory is very mathematical.

    For undergrad, I would just take as many physics courses as possible. Some schools like MIT offer a string theory course for undergrads. That's MIT. If possible, try to attend some string theory seminars in your 3rd and 4th years as a physics major and try to see what the field is heading towards and get a feel for what are the open problems (there will be many). Also try to take some advanced math courses, in particular differential and algebraic geometry. I know that is tough to expect for a physics major, but I highly recommend double majoring in math and physics and heavily pursuing geometry and algebra in the math field.

    I want to study mathematical physics in a math department. I have the anti and pro string blogs and criticisms but I still think String theory is a viable and legitimate thing for a physics student or a math student to pursue. It's not experimentally verified yet and is far from even having a set of equations, but again, what other theory of quantum gravity does? If you want to work in quantum gravity, you're working in the Wild West, the field is being built as we speak.

    Just my .02, best of luck.

    I also wanted to throw in, the string theory people have done an amazing job at getting publicity and drawing the attention of many young students. Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind among many others have written great popular physics books on string theory and M-theory. I also recommend you read Lee Smolin's books basically criticizing string theory. His "Trouble With Physics" is a very good read and despite many physicists not taking Peter Woit seriously, his scathing review on String Theory in "Not Even Wrong" was very enlightening as well. I really urge you to consider both sides of the argument, no matter what it is.
  8. Feb 14, 2009 #7
    You know, your answer is a very bad indication. First, you missed the point that, no matter how much you know in math, you don't enough to understand everything that has already been done in string theory. It's just too wide. Second, it seems to indicate, you believe what you are being taught is enough. If you really were to become a string theorist, you should already know better. You need to study all maths you can. You need to study theoretical physics constantly. Not because you want to become a string theorist, but because you like it. If this seems odd to you, you may consider other career opportunities.
  9. Feb 14, 2009 #8


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    Don't listen to advice, even mine. Just take all the math and physics courses you like the most. You won't know what you really want to go in to until you are in grad school and see how you compete with other grads. If you are not in the top 10%, don't do strings.
  10. Feb 17, 2009 #9
  11. Feb 17, 2009 #10
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