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Insights False Dichotomy: Theorist or Experimentalist? - Comments

  1. Aug 3, 2015 #1
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 3, 2015 #2
    Nice article on a very common topic!
     
  4. Aug 4, 2015 #3
    I often find my self trying to think like Johannes Kepler when I approach a new theoretical problem with lots of data that no one has really made satisfactory sense of. In many ways, Kepler's Laws were the first big theoretical breakthrough in physics, providing more than ample illustration of what Eugene Wigner described as the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.

    In our enthusiasm, we often forget that there was a 13 year gap between the discovery and publication of Kepler's first two laws and Kepler's third law, which really was the key to Newton's law of universal gravitation.

    I was greatly encouraged by a philosophy professor in college who, in an advanced course on Plato's dialogues, encouraged his students to keep playing with the blocks, that is, keep turning over ideas in one's mind and comparing the ideas with the emperical facts from different perspectives.

    In my theoretical pursuits, just like Kepler, I spend long hours refining ideas, mining for data, comparing models and data, recognizing failure, and returning to the drawing board. I may not be a very good theorist, but I am a persistent one, exercising faith that there is a mathematical model to make sense of this data ...
     
  5. Aug 4, 2015 #4
    Dr. Courtney, this is great! Thanks for posting this!
     
  6. Aug 4, 2015 #5
    When I went into grad school, I had such a chip on my shoulder about not wanting to do experiment, that I wouldn't ask to join a strong research group that was recommended to me, simply because the PI was an experimentalist. For all I know, they needed a resident theorist; I didn't even bother to find out. Instead, I ended up as the only student of an advisor who wasn't interested in sending me to conferences or helping me network in any way, and I've suffered for it.
    So if you're a young physicist: explore every option! Don't get caught up with labels. (That goes for different fields too: so what if your research is more like chemistry or mathematics or biology, if you like it?)
     
  7. Aug 9, 2015 #6
    Great article! But what would you say to those who are good at theory but horrible at (and therefore not particularly inclined toward) practical work?
     
  8. Aug 9, 2015 #7
    I'd say to keep your eyes open for an opportunity. We have a colleague who is joining us on some experiments this week who has published mostly theoretical work in her career. We initiated the collaborations because of her theoretical strengths, but we invited her into the lab because we like for all the collaborators to have as much hands on the experiment as possible to appreciate how everything really works in the lab. This has been of great benefit when it comes time to brainstorm new experiments and also seems to get the creativity flowing on the modelling side. As it happens, we have not yet had a big breakthrough on the theory or modeling side, but her contributions on the experimental side have been significant and tangible.

    Experimentalists are usually happy enough to let theorists collaborate to some degree, especially if they need help modelling or interpreting the data. But a persistent theorist would usually be allowed into the lab also. Many hands make light work and extra hands can often be a blessing when the experiment is being run. Theorists are sometimes a bit unrealistic about the relative ease of different experiments they might think of. Nothing imparts reality and an accurate view of experimental opportunities and challenges like participation in the experiments.
     
  9. Aug 9, 2015 #8

    mfb

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    You can work in experimental physics without any lab work. In particle physics, detector simulation, data analysis and so on are part of experimental physics - purely done with computers.
     
  10. Aug 9, 2015 #9

    jtbell

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    Take me for example.

    I did my Ph.D. on a bubble chamber experiment, joining it near the end of the data-collection phase. I was supposed to go to Fermilab for the last run, but a week or two before, Fermilab decided we had enough pictures, so the run was canceled. Practically all my work was programming, except for scanning some film.

    I also went to SLAC for a few weeks to help with a non-bubble-chamber experiment that one of the profs in my research group was working with. So I did get some "nuts and bolts" experience.
     
  11. Aug 10, 2015 #10
    I'd say, 1) don't rule out any positions JUST because they're experimental. If the people are great and the project is interesting, give it a try.
    2) Can you be SURE that you're "horrible"? Maybe you had a horrible experience or bad teachers. Again, if you are working with great people on an interesting project, you may be motivated to push past whatever blocks you have, and with their help you may discover that you are at least competent at "practical work". And then, even if you go on to be a theorist in the future, you will at least be able to read experimental papers and talk to experimentalists from a position of understanding.
    3) Once you make it into the real world and need a job, you might not be able to afford to be so choosy.
     
  12. Aug 18, 2015 #11
    Sorry for the late reply.

    @mfb That's nice. I don't really know which field I'll go into after completing college, but particle physics has always attracted me :P
    Besides, I'm the kind of person who is better suited at making sense of data, rather than accurately collecting data itself.

    It's the former. I'm a nightmare in labs. Anytime we're doing practical work in the labs (I'm in HS right now), I end up being the slowest and most clumsy student. And this is not restricted to only Physics; I'm equally terrible in Biology and Chemistry laboratories. I have trouble setting up the apparatus correctly as shown in the class worksheets, and by the time I finish drawing a table of results for question 1, others are usually done collecting data, drawing graphs of the data and writing interpretations of the graphs for question 2. In short, it's not very pretty for me :(
    I know, and this is exactly what has me worried, although mfb's reply seems reassuring :woot:

    @Dr. Courtney I see. So I can still be involved in the planning aspect for experiments as a theorist without actually doing the thing in the lab myself, correct?
     
  13. Aug 18, 2015 #12
    Yes, but don't forget that for everything you are unwilling to do or not very good at, you need to be better at other things for the PI and other collaborators to decide on including you. You need strengths that other team members don't have. An experimental group might not decide to include a theorist if the experimentalists already in the group can handle all of the required tasks. The more abilities one brings to a group, the more likely one will be included enthusiastically.
     
  14. Aug 18, 2015 #13

    Dr Transport

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    Why are you obsessing now, your just in high school...... not being fast when you are a teenager in most cases isn't going to significantly affect whether or not you can learn down the road
     
  15. Aug 18, 2015 #14
    That's a good point. I wasn't a very good experimentalist in high school either, nor did I demonstrate much in my college lab courses.

    I kept working at it. You'll be surprised at what you can do if you keep working at it with a positive attitude. Don't let your current view of what you are good at hinder what you can become with consistent efforts over time.
     
  16. Aug 18, 2015 #15
    Speed isn't of the essence in actual laboratory work, most of the time. Nor is setting up an apparatus based on some lab manual. In actual lab work, you would set up the apparatus based on your understanding of how each piece works and its importance to the setup, and you would do it slowly and carefully, maybe over the course of a day or two or more. The artificial environment of a high school or college lab class has very little to do with an actual working lab, any more than your physics homework problems are connected to the work of a theorist.

    In short, just don't shut the door and miss out on the opportunity to learn and practice and grow. Experimenting is hardly an inborn talent.

    I will admit, I had the same attitude in college: I did *not* want to be an experimentalist because I didn't like how carefully you had to set everything up and read everything off: I didn't think I was very good at that fine work. But that's more of a problem in school labs, where they have to make do with meter sticks and all of that. In professional labs, they're not going to leave that sort of thing to chance: they will use devices and techniques that guarantee a certain amount of precision. If I'd known or thought of that, maybe I wouldn't have shut so many doors myself. (*waves cane* Don't be like me, sonny!)
     
  17. Aug 18, 2015 #16

    Dr Transport

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    Another comment, I have to tell my lab rats all the time, good measurements are like fine wine/beer/whiskey/whatever you drink preference is, they both take time to make well
     
  18. Aug 18, 2015 #17

    mfb

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    If actual rats understand this analogy, the experiment was a huge success. Do they have reduced anxiety as well? ;)




    I know, wrong species...
     
  19. Aug 18, 2015 #18

    Dr Transport

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    No, not reduced anxiety, they get all hyped up over nothing and hate it when i move their cheese...

    Lab rats, range rats, sometimes they are called shop floor fairies, all the same breed....
     
  20. Aug 18, 2015 #19

    atyy

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    You must be a theorist.
     
  21. Aug 18, 2015 #20

    Dr Transport

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    Yes I am, but in my line of work, there isn't a distinction, the theorist will spend time in the lab, in the test range, on a shop floor building/supervising the build of a test article. The experimental just spend less time writing code.
     
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