Experimental vs. theoretical

  1. Pengwuino

    Pengwuino 7,118
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    So what exactly are the big differences between the two? Who 'contributes' more to science? All but 1 of the active professors at my university are theorists and they keep kinda tryen to nudge me into being a theorist without really knowing what either group does. Help me, i need career guidance :D
     
  2. jcsd
  3. ZapperZ

    ZapperZ 29,772
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    At the risk of inflaming a bunch of people (theorists), may I point to you the "infamous" Harry Lipkin article in Physics Today awhile back?

    http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-53/iss-7/p15.html

    Zz.

    P.S. Harry Lipkin himself is a theorist.
     
  4. Locrian

    Locrian 1,808
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    Wow. Lipkin's article is like a verbal neckpunch. Here's one I really enjoy:

    http://insti.physics.sunysb.edu/~siegel/parodies/next.html

    If you aren't familiar with string theory (hehe?) you may miss the humor.

    I find those who do theoretical physics to have an extremely interesting job. However, I consider choosing not to try to work in theoretical physics the smartest choice I've made since I decided I'd major in physics.

    PS: Siegel works in string theory....
     
  5. jma2001

    jma2001 89
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    Good link, I hadn't seen that before. I guess it was considerations like this that prompted your critique of Moonbear's journal entry on the scientific method?

    "I have no patience with social scientists, historians, and philosophers who insist that the "scientific method" is doing experiments to check somebody's theory. The best physics I have known was done by experimenters who ignored theorists completely and used their own intuitions to explore new domains where no one had looked before. No theorists had told them where and how to look." -- from the Lipkin article

    Here are some more thoughts on the theorist/experimentalist question:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/undernetphysics/message/1593
     
  6. I personally think Theorists can save a lot of money, instead of wasting millions on experiments that can never happen due to certain laws or principles (laws only Theorists work hundreds of hours to apply to different ideas).

    Theorists spend a lot of time thinking about things that can happen "on paper", whereas people running experiments on trial and error waste a lot of money - I obviously realise that scientists that experiment do their own theory work first before proceeding.

    Or have I completely got the professions wrong?
     
  7. From my impression, not *all* physics experiments these days are that expensive.

    The 'popular' energy physics experiments, such as accelators, are quite expensive though..
     
  8. ZapperZ

    ZapperZ 29,772
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    You are forgetting that the LARGE, expensive machines being built or have been built also had the support of theorists. They need something to verify their predictions, or else they'll NEVER get their Nobel Prizes.

    As has been said, the majority of physics experiments are done on the small scale. Huge expensive building projects are quite rare. You only think this is common because they are the ones getting all the publicity.

    Zz.
     
  9. ZapperZ

    ZapperZ 29,772
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    Humm... I must say that I didn't remember that when I started the critique on Moonbear's journal entry. I of course reread it when I gave the link. However, I would not be surprised if that passage has somehow influence my view - not that I haven't already hold that view.

    That's a terrfic discussion group. I wonder who started it? <evil grin>

    Zz.
     
  10. dextercioby

    dextercioby 12,304
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    I really don't think working in theoretical physics is as boring as most people believe.Even if it's not rewarding (the breakthroughs are quite rare and the payment is not big),i still think it's worth doing.It's risk free...If Fermi had been a theorist all his life,he wouldn't have died from cancer,right...?:tongue2:

    Daniel.
     
  11. SpaceTiger

    SpaceTiger 2,977
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    I can only speak for astronomy here, but I see observationalists/experimentalists and theorists as being equally valuable, but just in different ways. The value of an experimentalist is obvious, as they actually carry out the experiments that further our understanding of science. Theorists, however, have two roles in modern astrophysics. First, they help explain the phenomena we observe in terms of something that we already understand. Second, they help us determine which experiments are worth the time and effort to pursue.

    To take some concrete examples, let's say that I go out and observe a star and find its brightness to be oscillating on a period of days and with some measurable amplitude. Although this is somewhat interesting in of itself, the theorist can then go and tell you why it's oscillating (perhaps pressure waves in the star) and then tell you, based on that, what kind of pulsations to expect in other circumstances.

    Virtually every major astrophysical experiment that I can think of in recent years has been motivated by theoretical expectations, from WMAP to neutrino detectors. In the former case, the theorists were able to tell us what kind of power spectrum we'd expect from different universes and, thus, allow us to measure various parameters. In the latter, we had very precise models of the interior of the sun that predicted certain levels of neutrino emission from the reactions in the core. This motivated the neutrino detectors and, later, the search for neutrino oscillations.

    Now it's true that observationalists will often do some of the theory themselves, so the line can be blurred a bit. I would say that this has become increasingly true with time, so the pure observationalist or pure theorist is slowly becoming a thing of the past. People will usually specialize in one or the other, however, and in the abstract, I don't see any reason that we should be putting more value on one or the other. Theories without observations may as well be philosophy and observations without theories may as well be stamp collecting.

    I'm not too familiar with the working of the physics community, but it's hard to imagine that it would be much different.
     
  12. jma2001

    jma2001 89
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    Yes, I like the Vexer series too. What are the requirements for joining that group? I'm not a grad student or anything, just an interested amateur.
     
  13. ZapperZ

    ZapperZ 29,772
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    There are no requirements, at least nothing academically. We have very low standards. :)

    Zz.
     
  14. DaveC426913

    DaveC426913 16,081
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    In theory, theory and practice are the same.
    In practice, they are not.
     
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