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Do you have to be a genius to do nuclear/particle physics?

  1. Mar 3, 2015 #1
    Hello,

    I am an undergraduate physics student (graduating next year) and will soon have to choose my field after a 6months intership in the private sector. Even if this internship could open my mind about the corporate world, I am fairly sure I want to do a Phd.

    I've taken a few labs and courses on different fields such as biophysics, structural biology, biotechnology etc. All of that is very interesting and seems to be a good move careerwise.

    But the more I try other stuff, the more I realize I want to know all about the standard model, understand quantum field theory, general relativity etc. Even though I am not a beast at math, I still love it, enjoy a nice looking equation, and have fun understanding how things work. Basically I have more fun thinking about Lagrange's equations than watching Seinfeld.

    But here's my problem: all those years studying physics I realized pretty much all the physicists were some 16 years old genius getting their Phd at 18, and producing a game changing theory at 20. Considering I've failed 2 times (had to redo my first and second years of bachelor), is it worth it for me to keep doing physics ?

    I am clearly getting better at what I do, but is there room in particle physics for people like me or do you have to be a genius to work in that field ?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 3, 2015 #2
    Hard work and determination always beats creativity and genius. (That is to say, there is no such thing as a lazy genius)
     
  4. Mar 3, 2015 #3

    mfb

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    That is not true independent of the set of physicists you consider, and you have (at least) two effects that will lead to a bias:
    - you mainly hear about scientists that found game changing theories, most scientists never get famous
    - science was different several decades ago, there were less existing theories you had to know before you could go beyond those
     
  5. Mar 3, 2015 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Where did you get that? Apart from the idea that the only value in science is theoretical (and game changing), it's not true. Weinberg and Jones (18910–18914, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108) looked at Nobel Prize winners and the mean age in which scientists did their Nobel prize winning work was done is in their late 40's.
     
  6. Mar 3, 2015 #5

    QuantumCurt

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    Your perceptions are very common, but they are not really true. The vast majority of physicists are not Newton, Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Dirac, etc. The majority of them are normal people that genuinely enjoy math and physics, and have worked their butts off to get good at it. The typical physicist is not the vision that people often conjure up of some born genius that completes an undergraduate degree at age 16 and completes a doctorate by 19. These people are incredibly scarce. However, there are thousands upon thousands of physicists that have made real, meaningful contributions to physics that you have simply never heard of. The most useful fields of physics often tend to be the least romanticized fields. Fields like cosmology and string theory capture imagination in a very big way, but they don't have nearly the impact on the real world that fields like condensed matter and biophysics have. People rarely romanticize condensed matter physics though.

    Point being, no, one does not need to be a born genius to become a scientist. Many of the greatest scientists in history have been awarded Nobel Prizes, but many of them have not. Unfortunately, only one of them is given out every year. In either case, one does not need to win a Nobel Prize to make meaningful contributions to a field.
     
  7. Mar 3, 2015 #6

    e.bar.goum

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    I know many many successful physicists. I myself am a nuclear physicist (but it's a bit to early to tell if I'll be successful :wink:) . I don't know any who were 16 year old geniuses and go their PhD's at 18. However, they all are extremely hardworking, dedicated and passionate about their work, as ellipsis pointed out. Don't get me wrong, they all are very clever, but that's a necessary, not sufficient condition.
     
  8. Mar 3, 2015 #7
    It's kind of an anachronism, as an outsider my impression is that it's a pretty dead field by comparison to say, neuroscience. I'm not really sure why anybody would want to enter a dying field of study. Since dying fields have minimal funding prospects, the bar automatically heightens, but you might be able to get into it if you're average.
     
  9. Mar 3, 2015 #8

    e.bar.goum

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    What? Nuclear physics or particle physics? Two rather different fields.

    But sure, I'll just go tell my rather vibrant, large, research group, that our field is dead, and we may as well go home.
     
  10. Mar 3, 2015 #9
    Well the NSF appropriates something on the order of no money to Nuclear/Particle stuff, again by comparison with say, neuroscience or biochemistry. There was a study of the language used in Arxiv abstracts from condensed matter and nuclear/particle/cosmology (I believe they lumped all of them together) and condensed matter had much more variation in its buzz words with time. Of course maybe CM people are more prone to invent new buzz words, but the alternative explanation is that it's a much more active field with a greater demand for new buzz words. I'm not saying you shouldn't work on nuclear physics or that there is nothing left to do, but that perhaps one should be very careful about how they justify such a decision given the state of the subject.

    So the point is that it's apparently far more stagnant than other exciting regions of the scientific world, including the world of physics, which I think goes a long way towards explaining the impression many young physics students get that you need to be a genius to enter it.
     
  11. Mar 3, 2015 #10

    e.bar.goum

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    I'm trying not to get my hackles too far up here.

    Let's start with keeping in mind that not all physics is done in the US. However, the US nuclear community is pretty dang active. At the moment, NSCL is in the process of building a ~ half billion dollar new accelerator for rare beams called FRIB, which is really exciting for the field. That's where a fairly large amount of the money the US for nuclear physics is going, but there are plenty of other smaller facilities in the US that do interesting and important work, and tonnes around the world (Europe & Japan & India are powerhouses, and China is throwing a whole lot of money around, but there are labs everywhere). Yes, a few labs have shut down, but that's what you get in physics.

    Nuclear physics is so far from being "done" it's not even funny - we don't understand a whole heap about the nucleus. Most of that reason is because nuclear physics is hard -- the nucleus is an excellent testing ground for finite quantum systems, and is the only field that needs to consider all of the fundamental forces of nature at once (ok, gravity only needs to be considered on occasion, but there is plenty of theory work being done R.E. neutron star interiors). However, it is a fairly well established field, so we have fewer buzzwords.

    Thirdly, condensed matter physics has been the biggest field of physics for a very long time. Something like 70% of all active physicists are condensed matter physicists. That's not really that hard to explain - there's plenty of money in it, plenty of applications, and much of what we interact with is in the condensed phase. So of course there are a lot of buzzwords and movement. That doesn't make smaller fields "stagnant" or less exciting (CM stuff seems rather dull to me, but that's a personal thing), it just makes them smaller.

    Ditto biology. Of course biochem/neuroscience/whatever has more money. It's (a) really expensive to do biology, and (b) is very easy to motivate the funding for.

    ETA: And I didn't even get into particle physics. It has different challenges to those facing nuclear physics, but it is also at a pretty exciting crossroads.
     
  12. Mar 3, 2015 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    Really?

    The NSF's Cognitive Neuroscience Program is $8M per year. NCSL alone is $21.5M. NSF HENP is probably about $80M total, more if you include particle astrophysics. DoE is $1.3B for HENP.
     
  13. Mar 3, 2015 #12
    I think the topic is straying from the original point: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to do nuclear science. As an aside, I can't see why frequency of buzzwords* would be a metric for potential avenues of research. Academic dishonesty, maybe.

    If you go into a field chiefly because there's money being thrown around (in lieu of personal passion)... good luck.

    *** buzzword: an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen
     
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2015
  14. Mar 3, 2015 #13
    No. You know the skillset required to become a nuclear/particle physicist though.

    What do you want out of nuclear/particle physics? Build cutting-edge detectors? Process experimental data? Discover new theoretical stuff in nuclear/particle physics?
     
  15. Mar 3, 2015 #14
    Well I seem to have minced my acronyms, I should have stated that the overall public funding for neuroscience positively dwarfs public funding for HEP/N physics, since it was 5.55B in 2011. Moreover I'm skeptical that the DoE budget Vanadium quotes is devoted mostly to fundamental nuclear physics, but admit that I'm no expert.

    Again my goal wasn't to say that nuclear physics is completely dead, but the field is significantly more geriatric than other fields of physics and science. This is especially true of the fundamental particle physics the OP describes. The LHC is the collider we should be talking about here, and particle physics the subject. The results have so far been pretty disappointing (verifying a 50 year old theory and opening no new avenues is not an indication that there is a lot left to do in your field). There is a popular misconception courtesy of individuals like Michio Kaku or Brian Greene that this sort of stuff is an exciting, genuinely active field, but this is only if you don't consider healthy experiments to be a necessary part of describing a field as active.

    Moreover I was not suggesting that you should pursue a field which has lots of funding because it has lots of funding. If HEP had an interplay between theory and experiment anywhere near as healthy as the structural biology/biophysics the OP refers to I'd say consider it even if the funding pool was a bit dry. Rather there tends to be some degree of financial growth in fields which are scientifically very active. The LHC for instance was envisioned decades ago, in a time when the future for HEP didn't look quite so grim, and managed to secure quite a bit of funding.

    As far as not being passionate about more active subjects such as neuroscience is concerned, I find this to be quite bizarre. For starters, your daily existence as, say, a computational nuclear physicist and a computational biological physicist is probably going to be shockingly similar. It's a bit of an extreme case, but from my understanding there are lattice QCD codes operating in a kind of microcanonical ensemble (or at least exploiting the Euclidean connection between stat mech and field theory) and wind up numerically integrating coupled highly non-linear ODE's... which is precisely what you do when you study protein biophysics. Even if you're doing Monte Carlo integrations of diffusion path integrals and this is contrasted with solving SDE's for a full cell simulation, which are mathematically and computationally different, you're still writing codes, debugging them, writing more codes, running codes, debugging, debugging some more, debugging a bit more, etc. With this in mind it's quite peculiar that one would maintain a preference for nuclear over anything else. I don't get the philosophical motivations; I don't care if this or that is more fundamental, I just get curious about how the world works and in my case want to figure it out by writing codes and running simulations.

    Maybe the more experienced people on these boards feel the philosophical feelings are more important than I give them credit for? I might have an overly myopic and pedestrian view of such things.
     
  16. Mar 4, 2015 #15

    mfb

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    So what. Consider 10 subfields of neuroscience separately and the number is lower again.

    The LHC just started, found a new particle already, ruled out various extensions of the standard model, has a significant potential to find other stuff with the increased energy (or at least rule out more alternatives), and there are many open questions in particle physics. It is an exciting and very active field, with more papers appearing than you could ever read.
    Japan shows strong interest in a linear collider, and the Chinese plan to build another circular collider. Add the tons of neutrino experiments and various specialized experiments for rare decays, g-2 experiments, antiproton research, astroparticle physics and so on and you get a much broader picture than the popular press shows. And that is just particle physics, for nuclear physics you also have to add FAIR as big project and various smaller projects. ISOLDE is getting a nice upgrade, for example.
    How much do you know about the interplay between theory and experiment in high-energy physics? I know how well it works.
     
  17. Mar 4, 2015 #16
    Let me start by apologising, I should not have mixed bio and particle physics in the same topic ;).

    All joke aside, thank you all for you answer.
    Also, since we derived there, do you feel like structural biology is an active field nowadays ? During my quest I've tried to find what physicist do in the biology field, and it seems like all of them are either doing medical imaging (which is not my cup of tea) or structural biology. Is there something else to it than solving structures (crystals seems random and solving a structure felt like black boxing) ?


    What I was wondering is: as a particle physics student, did you felt up to the task or is it a common feeling due to all the bias mfg mentionned ?...



    That's an other thing, I might be in this situation because this is still unclear to me. All I've really touched was theorical physics. I can't say that my bachelor's lab work and computationnal training really gave me an idea of what experimental and computationnal physics really are... I mostly want to get into that field because it fascinates me.
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2015
  18. Mar 4, 2015 #17

    mfb

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    I'm in experimental particle physics, where nothing works without collaborations. It does not matter how bright you are, you cannot build a detector and analyze its data on your own. In other words: there is no person who found the Higgs. Only the collaboration of hundreds to thousands of scientists made this discovery possible.
     
  19. Mar 4, 2015 #18

    e.bar.goum

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    This is where I think it's important not to talk about nuclear or particle physics careers as "nuclear/particle physics careers" (which you didn't do, mfb, but your post proves a point). mfb highlights one of the important differences in the way nuclear and particle physics operates - while collaborations like ATLAS and CMS have thousands of collaborators, nuclear physics collaborations are much much smaller - on the order of 10 or so is usual. (This is due to a bunch of reasons. Mostly complexity, cost and energy scales, and diversity of physics)

    As such, there tends to be much more ownership in your work, in that I (as someone in experimental nuclear physics) have to think about all aspects of my experiments, from "how do we produce this beam" to "what detector setup are we going to use" to "lets work out how to analyze this data". It's very rare to just be a "detector person" or just an "analysis person".
     
  20. Mar 4, 2015 #19
    mfb:
    Yes, there are unanswered questions, yes the LHC has accomplished great things, no, HEP is nowhere near as active as it was decades ago, in terms of the interplay between experiment and theory. You say there are more papers than I could ever read, which is true, but I'd rephrase that as more papers then I'd ever care to read, because I'm not interested in science fiction--er, supersymmetry, string theory etc, which makes up a substantial portion of theoretical output to this day (See: ten recent arxiv preprints in the HEP theory section. As of the day of this post, I counted 6/10 papers which have probably nothing whatsoever to do with reality). I'm not trying to say that the OP should under no circumstances enter the field, but that s/he should know full well what they are getting themselves into.

    Mishra:
    Unpacking the black box of a protein structure (or other biomolecule) is done either by experiments studying the dynamics or by computationalists; in the latter case, molecular dynamics simulations are a popular choice. At its most theoretical entirely new methods in statistical physics are developed to examine these problems. Critical dynamics in non-equilibrium systems are very difficult to study. It is at its most creative when one invents non-physical/non-physiological algorithms such as replica exchange Monte Carlo or umbrella sampling to calculate physical results, or when one develops techniques to extract non-equilibrium quantities from equilibrium simulations.
     
  21. Mar 5, 2015 #20

    mfb

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    Do you have a reference for that claim?
    That is okay - but do not use your lack of interest to claim it would not be interesting in general.
     
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