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Does anyone else feel like it's all been studied already?

  1. Aug 28, 2012 #1
    Hello all,

    I'm currently an undergrad student studying math and physics. It's my hope one day to go to grad school and pursue some sort of research within physics.

    Recently, though, I've been having a sort of crisis (haha): Evidently I'm completely void of novel research ideas. Every question I've come up so far
    a) has been covered by a multitude of papers or sometimes entire books,
    b) turns out to be intellectually immature and meaningless (this was the case earlier today, actually), or
    c) lead to a well-known but generally intractable problem.

    While I enjoy reading about how other people have answered the (meaningful and accessible) questions I ask, I also realize that if I want to make a career out of physics I need to be able to contribute my own ideas as well.

    I just tend to get discouraged when out of light-hearted curiosity I ask such and such question, only to discover that the question is the topic of an intricate field of study developed over the past hundred years by highly qualified specialists. How are we supposed to process today's masses of information, navigate the hierarchy of highly specialized fields, and still make meaningful contributions to human knowledge?

    I realize I may feel this way because I'm just a sophomore undergrad. Or because my physics knowledge is elementary at this stage. Or because I worry too much. Or all the above. But I still can't help but ask if anyone else has felt this way, and if any professionals can offer advice as to how to deal with this feeling.


  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 28, 2012 #2


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    Well, perhaps you should ask yourself why you feel as though you should be able to generate novel research leads with only two years of undergraduate physics eduction? People have been asking these questions for as long as there have been people!

    Once you start to do research and enter a subfield, you'll quickly learn where the 'frontier' of that research area is. It'll turn out that there are a ton of open questions there, and you won't have time enough to think about all of them! It's somewhat unfortunate that one has to delve all the way into a specific, generally removed from everyday experience, area to be able to do this, but not unexpected. We've already picked most of the low hanging fruit, and that which we can see but not pick is complicated!

    The point is that you shouldn't let this get you down. There's plenty of research to be done, and you shouldn't expect to be at the level of research scientists when you're decades less experienced. This is primarily why professors exist for graduate students: to guide their research and point them to interesting questions which need answering.
  4. Aug 28, 2012 #3
    Try biophysics. A quantitative model of evolution with actual predictive power is still beyond us. Or physical chemistry. Still waiting on what the process of solvation looks like at the molecular level.

    Though then you'll say "oh that's not REAL physics, REAL physics is particle and astro..." then I can't help you.
  5. Aug 28, 2012 #4


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    Wait until you're a second-year graduate student and working for some research group. Then you'll be near the frontiers of (then-)current knowledge.
  6. Aug 28, 2012 #5
    Just don't stop looking for new and meaningful questions. Even if it seems that they've all been asked.
  7. Aug 29, 2012 #6
    Hi caleb,

    I am a phd student, though not in physics, and from the relatively little experience I got, I totally have to agree with Nabeshin, who gave you a very nice answer from which you should also be able to find a good deal of motivation! And as jtbell said, you will see that when you will have 2-3 years of graduate studies behind you, working in a research group, you will be able to reach the frontiers of current knowledge.

    Let me also add that if you are experiencing this sort of "crisis", it probably means that you are a very motivated student. Also, the fact that you are coming up with ideas that are already covered in research papers is probably a good sign for a beginner.

    So just be humble and keep the motivation high. You will see that the points a) b) c) will progressively vanish, although you will experience different type of crises :) ... as you are researching you will always be struggling with some problem and learning new and challenging things.
  8. Aug 29, 2012 #7
    Thanks everyone for the advice. This is very helpful (and encouraging). I guess I just needed to hear from some people who have actual experience with research. It sounds like I definitely shouldn't expect so much from myself ;D

    Don't want to neglect this either haha
  9. Aug 29, 2012 #8
    Others might disagree, but I believe that expecting much from yourself could help you keep that feeling of always wanting to improve your skills constantly, and eventually prevent you from getting lazy. The point is that, since you seem to be at the very early stage of a research career, you should not get demotivated whenever you don't seem to be able to reach a goal, despite you tried hard, but just accept it as part of a process.

    I don't want to sound overwise but just to cite an example from my personal experience, I remember being in the second year of my phd, and struggling hard to solve one research problem. I tried my best, attacking the problem with all the possible strategies that came to my mind, and trying to master some "new" knowledge that I suspected it might have led to some result. In any case, giving up was never an option. But still, I failed...and after few months of failures it was my supervisor to suggest me to move on, and eventually come back to that difficult problem later on.
    It turns out that now, after two years of studies I can really see how naive and "harmless" my approaches were, and I can also figure out some more sophisticated ways to address that old problem.

    I don't know if it's a good analogy (maybe not), but also when practicing almost any kind of sport and competing with a tough opponent, you might get easily overwhelmed, as a beginner, no matter how hard you try. What you would typically do then is to accept it, train yourself more, and finally try again.

    The bottom-line of my thought is that you should just continue researching and being interested as you are doing now, and don't let your crises affect your performance, motivation, or interest in research.
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2012
  10. Aug 29, 2012 #9
    1) Read more stuff. Often you need to become very familiar with literature to see where the holes are

    2) Talk to people. The reason that senior professors are senior professors is not that they have more answers, but they that know the field enough so that they have more questions.

    3) Word games. I've found some there are some word games that are useful in coming up with new ideas. For example add "with the internet" was useful for a while. I want to bake cakes. Not interesting. I want to bake cakes **with the internet**. That was useful in 2001.

    Right now "with the internet" is a bit old but "with GPU technology" is still pretty fresh.

    Hey, that's great.....

    And with a few years of work, you'll be one of them. You'll likely cover one hundred years of what has been known in two to three years. Then you'll find yourself at the frontier at which point you'll spend close to a decade trying to figure out how to advance human knowledge one tiny bit.

    In two hours, I can tell you want I was working on for eight years. Then you'll be able to spend eight years working on a tiny advance on that you can that you can explain to someone else in two hours.

    One trick is to give up on trying to understand everything, and just focus on understanding anything. Also talking to people helps. You work on understanding X, while I work on understanding Y, and then we'll compare notes in the end.

    Don't worry if you feel confused and overwhelmed. It's pretty normal, and you'll feel more confused and overwhelmed if you go down the physics route.
  11. Aug 29, 2012 #10
    If you are missing research questions. There's an interesting thread in the astrophysics forum about whether supernova Ia are caused by two white dwarves going boom or one one dwarf getting stuff dumped on it.
  12. Aug 30, 2012 #11
    It's quite surprising actually coming from a physicist. The Higgs Boson was discovered (probably) not too long ago, doesn't this fill you with excitement about things yet to be discovered? As a pointer, what's happening to you was also happening to me until well into my first year in the PhD. You simply don't know enough yet to ask complex or 'deep' enough questions :wink:
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2012
  13. Aug 30, 2012 #12
    I think it's safe to say that many of our current "answers" are far from complete, and also that what we think is the case may not actually be the case and we wont know until someone comes across some previously unnoticed anomaly.
  14. Aug 30, 2012 #13
    You make a good point! The likely discovery of the Higgs Boson is very exciting.

    You're also right that I just don't know enough to be getting into the real deep questions. I would be more excited if I was able to understand the actual theory behind the Higgs Boson, which I probably won't be able to for a while. My philosophy is that I never understand a theory until I thoroughly grasp the mathematics used. No offense to those who think they understand String Theory after reading Brian Greene. ;D
  15. Aug 31, 2012 #14
    Also gravitons, dark matter, cold fusion (okay, don't bash me:biggrin:). There's a myriad of things we don't know and with each answer come 10 more questions, so researchers don't have it that bad :wink: I shiver at the thought of how Mr. Higgs must be feeling right now. For me, that's what makes our work worthwhile.
  16. Aug 31, 2012 #15


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    People only need to open the latest issues of Nature, Science, and Phys. Rev. Lett. to know that there's an abundant of stuff we still either don't know, or don't fully understand. We don't need to reach into the dubious areas such as "cold fusion". High Tc superconductivity, Majorana fermions, topological insulators, supersymmetry, etc... etc.. are all areas with a lot of stuff that still puzzle us. And let's learn a lesson from history, shall we? The few times that we thought we knew everything there is to know about a particular phenomenon (superconductivity circa 1985)), Mother Nature threw a major wrench at that notion and showed us how much we still have to learn!

    So the question presented by the OP is extremely foreign to me. I had never, ever, for a second, felt that way. Not even close!

  17. Aug 31, 2012 #16


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    I sort of agree with Zapper here, there is so much unknown in any field that you can just open up the best journal for it and find hundreds of new questions. On the other hand this pretty much relies on you knowing what almost everything in those articles means and understanding the field enough to ask a relevant question.

    I've spent my lunch break failing to find a comic picture I saw ages ago that is relevant here but here's a quick drawing that might illustrate it. The circle represents the total knowledge of mankind. The bit in the middle is what an individual knows.

    The first circle shows someone with a broad understanding before university.
    The second circle shows someone after their undergrad
    The third circle shows someone during their PhD
    The fourth circle is a zoom in on the "edge" of our knowledge at the end of their PhD


    In other words as you study more you know more about less because you have to specialise.

    This isn't perfect by any means (as Zapper said there are so many things we don't know that it's easy to know everything we do know on that subject) but it is illustrative of how inconsequential an individuals knowledge is and their contribution to that knowledge. Take home message: don't hold yourself to a ridiculous standard.

    Oh and one more piece of advice is to think of the little things more than the big. If you have it in mind that your contribution to science will be to provide completed X on a plate (where X is grand technology e.g. room temp superconductor, cancer cure, nuclear fusion etc) get rid of that immediately. Science works by a long collaboration of thousands+ each contributing an increment. The group that "completes" X is 99 times out of 100 the last piece of the puzzle.
  18. Aug 31, 2012 #17
    If the thing you are trying to do is smaller than about 100 nm or bigger than 1 meter, you're not going to get it done alone under any circumstances and will need ALOT of outside help.
  19. Aug 31, 2012 #18
    I see now that I didn't formulate the thread title very well. I don't at all feel that it's all been "done." I'm aware of plenty of open questions out there, and I'm sure they will keep coming. My feeling is mainly that I have nothing to contribute to the open questions, which is probably just because my still minimal physics knowledge does not bring me to the forefront of scientific research. The thread title should be something like, "Does anyone else feel like you have nothing to contribute?"

    So might I ask--while you have never felt as if it's all been studied, have you ever felt at any time in your career that you did not have the ability/knowledge to make progress on open questions?

    I also realize that my feeling may be due to a naive view of the scientist making individualized progress, when contributions really are made through a collaberation of scientists building on each other's work. As an undergraduate, I don't really have the knowledge/ability to get "in" on this kind of collaberation, I suppose.
  20. Sep 1, 2012 #19
    You can make individualized progress in "uncool" areas. In a "cool" area... lots of other guys think its "cool" too. And its "cool" because its hard and therefore publicized.
  21. Sep 2, 2012 #20
    Most of research consists of painful, grinding, grunt work. If you can spend time doing data reduction or debugging code, or doing the hundred of other annoying things that are needed for research, you are contributing.

    One trick is that if you can't find anything useful to do with question A, you can try question B. If someone is working on question A, then you can talk to them to find out what work they think is necessary. If no one is working on question A, then it's likely that it's not answerable with our current state of knowledge.

    Also it's not knowledge but rather luck. It's very common in research to spend six months down a path that leads no where. One reason it takes so long to do a dissertation is that you'll likely run down two or three paths that go no where, before finding something that lets you crank out something.

    That's why you are in school. You find advisers whose job it is to get you linked into the club. There is a ton of grunt work that undergraduates are useful for, and your adviser can point you to two or three papers that will get you started with library research.
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