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Experimental and Theoretical Physics

  1. Feb 15, 2007 #1
    What are the perks and cons to being an experimental or theoretical physicist?

    and

    Is it possible to work on both areas?

    Thanks in advance
    Charonic
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 15, 2007 #2
    By experimental physics, I actually meant APPLIED physics, and by theoretical, I was thinking about quantum mechanics (gosh...), sorry :P. But, basically speaking, I want to be able to apply the things that I have discovered or learnt into real life. So, let me rephrase my question.

    Is it possible to study both applied physics AND quantum mechanics (even towards the stage whre it becomes theoretical)?
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  4. Feb 15, 2007 #3

    ZapperZ

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    You have a very strange idea on the dichotomy between "theoretical" and "experimental". I hate to tell you this, but people who are doing research in, let's say, experimental particle physics, ARE doing "quantum mechanics". The same is true for experimental condensed matter physics.

    Maybe there is a need for a clear explanation for what is "experimental" and what is "theoretical". Who wants to volunteer?

    Zz.
     
  5. Feb 15, 2007 #4
    I will make an attempt but I am retarded and ignorant towards both. Also, as ZapperZ alluded to, Quantum Mechanics encompasses both an experimental aspect of physics and a theoretical aspect. You need to perform experiments to verify theories. Mathematics does not accurately reflect reality. It is physics which uses the language of mathematics, to model and describe reality. Even the most cutting-edge theoretical physics, requires some form of predictive power in order for it to be considered interesting. String Theory is perhaps the only exception to this rule. As far as I know, it has not made a single useful prediction (other than what we might discover at CERN this year) and has no empirical basis.

    When I consider the experimentalist, my concept is of someone who is verifying potential mathematically modeled theories, by constructing experiments that will allow for the empirical testing of specific predictions.

    When I think of a theoretician, I imagine an individual who constructs mathematical models and complex simulations, describing a particular phenomena or property of the physical universe. They make predictions so that the experimentalist can verify them.

    An experimentalist does a bit of 'theoretical physics' in the sense that they have to creatively construct an experiment, that will successfully and accurately verify or falsify a particular prediction or even an entire theoretical model. The experimentalist tends to rely on the theoretical physicist for predictions to test. A theoretician creates models and/or simulations of a particular phenomena (or perhaps entire universe), which makes particular predictions for the experimentalist. There is a bit of 'experimental physics' involved, in the sense they tend to try out and experiment with different equations, maths, models, etc. The theoretician relies on the experimentalist to test their predictions, in order to empirically verify or falsify their intuition.

    It's an elegant relationship, in which both roles are equally important and compliment one another. Experimentalists tend to perform more 'hands-on' work, while the theoretician tends to perform more 'thinking and writing' work.

    ZapperZ will, of course, provide us with a more definitive answer, though! That's because he secretly loves us. Atleast, that's the cognitive representation that I have engineered based on my readings of Popper and Kuhn.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  6. Feb 15, 2007 #5
    complexPHILOSOPHY, whether mathematics describe nature accurately or not, is a mater of well... philosophy :rolleyes:. It could be argued that nature is perfectly mathematical and difference between theory and experiment is only due to inaccurate assumptions and and inability to retrieve all existent data.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  7. Feb 15, 2007 #6
    That contention constructs an objective, duality within reality. You are asserting that mathematics is an intrinsic, objective aspect, existing independent of human mind. Since I do not want to disrupt this thread, I won't get into a discussion about it with you but the argument can be made that mathematics and geometry does not objectively exist in nature, other than a projection of our subjective perceptions about them onto the nature itself.

    If the notion were true, however, that mathematics and geometry exist independent of the human mind, I would assert that there is a universality of formal logic, which mathematics and geometry emerge out of. It would be a subset of formal logic. However, I do not agree with that statement.

    To avoid derailment, send me a PM or we can start a new thread. I have to many infractions already, so I should start avoiding more.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2007
  8. Feb 15, 2007 #7
    Typically, the way I think about it is that an experimentalist conducts experiments(duh) to collect data and/or confirm predictions. A theorist will use that data to see if the theory holds or if modifications are needed. Sometimes a theorist will make a model first and an experiment will collect data on it. Other times an experiment will collect data first and a theorist will try to explain it.
     
  9. Feb 15, 2007 #8
    Sounds perfect, to me.
     
  10. Feb 15, 2007 #9
    Indeed, experiment precedes theory far more often than the opposite.
     
  11. Feb 15, 2007 #10
    Perhaps an example could be shown, for instance, The many theories that became what we know today as electromagnetism lead to the belief that there should be some Æther for all electromagnetic waves, including light, to propagate through. This then lead to the experiments like the Michelson-Morley experiment which then disproved the æther theory
     
  12. Feb 15, 2007 #11
    Then isn't theoretical physics just physics which hasn't been verified through the use of experimental methods?

    Oh, and I might be wrong about "Applied physics" as well, can anyone run over that for me?
     
  13. Feb 15, 2007 #12

    ZapperZ

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    Oh god, no!

    Think of people who work on physics ideas but do not do experiment. The ideas may be something new, or trying to explain an experimental observation, or trying to match an existing idea with an existing experimental observation. That is what a theorist is (excluding String theorists, of course).

    The best theorists that I know of (at least in my opinion) are theorists who never lost sight of experimental observations. People like Bob Laughlin, John Bardeen, Phil Anderson, Tony Leggett, etc.. all won their Nobel Prizes because they provided a coherent theoretical explanations of experimental discoveries.

    Zz.
     
  14. Feb 16, 2007 #13
    Well, excluding string theorists then, is there actually any large differences between a theorist and an experimentalist, since a physicist needs both theory and experiment anyway right?
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2007
  15. Feb 16, 2007 #14

    ZapperZ

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    I don't know what you mean by "need". The training of Ph.D candidates in terms of required classes are the same, no matter if that person is going to be a theorists or an experimentalist. It is only when the branch off into their specialized area do they decide if they are going to be one or the other.

    Both professions have to know the theory and experiment. However, experimentalists, by definition, do experiments and are directly involved in it. Theorists may help with experiments by helping to decipher the results or make recommendations on what to measure, but by definition, they have no direct responsibility on running the experiments.

    However, in many cases, theorists do not work with experiments or experimentalists, even if they do pay attention to experimental results. This is especially true when they are proposing new phenomena that have yet to be measured.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2007
  16. Feb 16, 2007 #15
    Oh I see, thanks alot and sorry if you found my lack of knowledge annoying :P
     
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