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'I Want To Do Theoretical Physics'

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  1. Aug 12, 2014 #1
    Author: ZapperZ
    Originally posted on Mar12-14

    I see that statement surprisingly often enough on the Academic Guidance forum. I also hear this often whenever I talk to high school students who are interested in doing physics, or even new undergraduate students thinking of majoring in physics, I often ask what they would like to eventually go into. The response I get is of the type "I want to do theoretical physics". When I ask them what they mean by "theoretical physics", I often get a reply that to the effect that they want to study string theory, elementary particles, etc.. etc. In other words, to many of these people

    theoretical physics = string theory, elementary particles, and that type.

    This, of course, is a highly faulty understanding of what "theoretical physics" is. It is no different than this very poorly written "guide" on becoming a physicist.

    For better or for worse, physics has many different fields of study. If you look at the various division of the APS, you will get a good overview of all the different areas of physics that currently covers most, if not all, of the professional physicists in the US. So these are the different types of physics that people are working on. But also note that, in many cases, a person could be working in more than one field of study, i.e. the work involves more than just one field.

    Now, within each field, we have both experimental and theoretical areas, well, all except string, which has no experimentalists! :) So if you are working in, say, nuclear physics, you can be either an experimentalist, or a theorist. Even so-called "applied" field, such as condensed matter physics, accelerator physics, etc., you can have both theoretical and experimental work.

    So what this means is that, if you say you want to do theoretical work, that's rather vague and puzzling, because, it means that you haven't made up your mind what area of physics you want to work in. That's similar to someone saying "oh, I want to do experimental work", and someone would then reply "yeah, but doing WHAT?" Now, it's OK if what you mean by saying such a thing is that you don't quite know what field you want to work in, just as long as you are doing theoretical work. If this is really what you intended, that's fine. But most of the people who claim that they want to do "theoretical physics" don't mean that. They have a very narrow view of what physics is, and more importantly, what "theoretical physics" is. I've seen a look of surprise when I told them that Phil Anderson, Bob Laughlin, John Bardeen, are all theorists in condensed matter physics (which is often thought to be an "applied" physics), and they all have won Nobel Prizes in physics!

    I think this is one of the "myth" about physics (and about physicists) that I try to constantly smash to pieces. Physics isn't just the LHC, and physicists aren't just the Brian Greene's. It is also the iPods, the MRIs, etc.. etc. And for someone who still doesn't know that "theoretical physics" does not automatically mean what they think it means, it is highly advisable that they hold off on focusing on what they want to do before they have done sufficient "window shopping" to see what physics really is and what it has to offer. At some point, there need to be a dose of reality injected into a decision on what one wants to do.

    Author: ZapperZ
    Originally posted on Mar12-14
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2014 #2
    I wonder if it has to do with popular culture and the media. The only physics news that's ever cnn or msnbc or Fox News big it seems is a new particle discovery. So it gets the most glory. And the recent Higgs Nobel prize.

    It might also have to do with people wanting to be like Sheldon from Big Bang theory. Haha.

    Those are my 2 guesses.
     
  4. Aug 14, 2014 #3

    esuna

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    Great Blog/article. I've read it before and gone back to it multiple times. However, somehow the link to the article the post refers to somehow got lost

    Without the link I think this could possibly confuse anyone who may be reading this for the first time.
     
  5. Aug 15, 2014 #4

    StatGuy2000

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    Just as an aside, there was a period back in the 80s and 90s (and early in the 2000s) where there was a lot of excitement in the field of chaos theory, nonlinear physics and the study of complex systems, much of it being led by physicists (e.g. Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard, Jim Crutchfield, Mitchell Feigenbaum, etc.) and mathematicians (e.g. Steve Smale, Steve Strogatz, Robert May, Benoit Mandelbrot). I recall reading the book "Chaos: Making a New Science" by science journalist James Gleick, along with books by mathematician and author John L. Casti, which certainly got me excited and interested in the field of complex systems, and the research being conducted at the Santa Fe Institute

    Curiously enough, I haven't seen too many discussions here on PF about complex systems or nonlinear physics, and I've always wondered why.
     
  6. Aug 15, 2014 #5
    I think I made a thread a while back asking about graduate schools with research programs that focused on this topic. It turns out the "pure" research on it is carried out by very few schools IME, but I have come across many that deal with it through the goggles of other disciplines, since it crops up practically everywhere. U Pitt's biophysics program is one example. Many of the magnetospheric, geophysics and solar/space plasma physics, and gravitation/relativistic astrophysics programs with a theory focus I looked into were also neck-deep in nonlinear science since that is the nature of systems like these.
     
  7. Aug 18, 2014 #6
    Are you sure you are not reading way, way too much into things and coming across in a bit of a chip on the shoulder fashion?
     
  8. Aug 24, 2014 #7
    Physicists need to get much better at saying what they do to the public at large, and especially to high school students. They also need to give a reality check as to the chance of said high school students being paid to doing string theory or elementary particles theory (which is probably about the same chance as becoming a premier league soccer player in the UK, i.e., basically think of it as "no chance!" and make a serious backup plan just in case Manchester United don't come calling...)

    I'd also encourage them to think of string theory as just a nice game (like soccer) and not some portal to understanding "the true ultimate nature of reality". It's really just building a necessarily flawed & limited model of the world, a superior kind of Lego, not some access code to transcendental reality. They might be less disappointed if they realise that they have not been barred from some kind of "secular religion", when their application to do string theory falls flat. They have just been barred from playing that particular game, and there are many other games that are just as good, or perhaps even better (hockey, solid state physics, computer programming, reading Dickens...)
     
  9. Aug 24, 2014 #8
    It's because people like Kaku and other in the popular documentaries market themselves as 'Theoretical Physicists' not Theoretical Particle Physicist or Theoretical Cosmologist/Astrophysicist or what have you. The more 'applied' pure sciences like Condensed Matter are made to seem like they're lesser than pure theory because they lack the 'elegance' and 'rigour' of the hard theoretical sciences.
     
  10. Aug 24, 2014 #9

    analogdesign

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    I think this comic sums up your comment well. Put "theoretical physicist" between "physicist" and "mathematician"

    http://xkcd.com/435/

    Certainly in my Electrical Engineering grad school program there was a feeling among the students doing more theoretical, math & simulation-based research that it is somehow more "pure" or "worthy" than the students taking an idea and actually building it.
     
  11. Oct 30, 2014 #10

    ZapperZ

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    I just realized, as esuna pointed out, that the links didn't come along when the article was migrated out of the old PF Blogs. Since Greg was the one who reposted it, I can't edit my essay. So till he gets to it, here are the two missing links from that essay:

    Zz.
     
  12. Nov 2, 2014 #11
    So what if high school students use the phrase theoretical physicist to mean theoretical cosmologist or theoretical particle physicist. It's just a matter of semantics, and most of the time it's easy to infer what they mean. They'll hardly have heard of condensed matter theory in high school.

    Condensed matter physicists do not work on iPods. That's a job for electronic and computer engineers.
     
  13. Nov 2, 2014 #12
    There are people out there who do get paid to do string theory, and they all have something in common: they didn't settle for some safe "applied" subfield of science. Maybe there are some very rare exceptions somewhere, but once you settle for something more applied, that's your dream gone once and for all.

    Sorry, just trying to add some balance to the extreme pragmatism on these forums.
     
  14. Nov 2, 2014 #13

    analogdesign

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    No need to apologize, you're quite right. Similarly there are people who get paid to play basketball or guitar. It's just, like in string theory, that there are many more extraordinarily talented people pursuing these fields than there are spots for them.

    Part of the issue, I think, is that it is really hard to acquire the credentials and capability to be eligible for a tenure-track physics position. Even if you do, so much of your success is based on luck, and by that I mean being in the right place at the right time.

    I think that's the message here. Not "Don't Follow Your Dreams", but rather, accept the fact that being a physicist isn't that far removed, in practice, from being a fighter pilot or a ballerina. I suppose that's extreme pragmatism, but then again, I'm an engineer and extreme pragmatism pays my bills.
     
  15. Nov 2, 2014 #14

    ZapperZ

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    So what's wrong with correcting a wrong myth about physics at that age? It will only widen their perspective on what physics is. Many of them will never go into a STEM field and the notion that physics only deals with esoteric subject matter can be detrimental to the field itself.



    Where do you think the development of the MATERIALS used to make all those semiconductors and capacitive touch screen came from? That is what being referred to.

    Zz.
     
  16. Nov 3, 2014 #15
    The original idea for the Higgs Boson came out of condensed matter physics, just sayin'....
     
  17. Nov 3, 2014 #16
    I thought this thread was dealing with people who say they want to become theoretical physicists, those who will almost definitely go into a STEM field. They will most likely be studying the subject in high school and will be aware that physics is not just cosmology and particle physics, must also classical mechanics, optics, sound, electricity, etc. Theoretical physics is used by them as an umbrella term for the "cool" parts of physics.

    I agree, physicists do design the materials. But they're not directly involved in creating the user experience, they just make it possible for others to implement their ideas. Physics is involved in all technology at a fundamental level but I believe you post may have misled some people into thinking physicists are more involved than they actually are.
     
  18. Nov 3, 2014 #17
    If one wants to go into a career, it's best to find out earlier rather than later what that career actually entails. Kids studying the subject in high school (or even in early undergrad) have no idea what theoretical physics really is, and saying they're using it as an umbrella term doesn't absolve them from the need to banish that ignorance away if they actually want to be physicists. It's not even true that they're using it as an umbrella term, too many of them do think physics IS particles, astrophysics, cosmology, quantum woo, and wibbly wobbly timey wimey weirdness.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2014
  19. Nov 3, 2014 #18

    ZapperZ

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    But you can't switch the rule mid-way. If you care that people do not get the wrong impression that physicists are the ones who actually made these electronics device ( which I don't believe they do), then you should also abide by the same principle and be concerned that the kids are having the wrong and inaccurate idea of what physics is.

    Again, what is the issue here in correcting such myth?

    Zz.
     
  20. Nov 3, 2014 #19
    I feel like making active efforts to temper the excitement that high school kids or even more mature students have about physics is a great way to kill their interest and enthusiasm completely. Like, for that matter then you should go around telling undergrad chemistry students that no, it's not likely that once they graduate they're going to be developing pharmaceuticals or be creating novel materials that will revolutionize industry, but working in a private lab testing surfactants for a company that makes dishwashing liquid.

    Don't get me wrong, I think it's definitely useful to approach it from a standpoint of "this is the breadth of what physics has to offer -- it's so much more than these buzzwords (and here's what those words actually mean)", though. I just don't think it's ever useful to tell people that their dreams are unrealistic or that jobs don't exist for what they want to do. Not to say necessarily that anyone in this thread is saying that, but I think it's important to mention because it's easy enough to end up saying that and not realizing it.

    Full disclosure: I'm an undergrad physics major myself so I'm not perhaps the most qualified to speak on this, but I have a bit more life experience under my belt than most of my peers. My ultimate goal is medical school, and my reasons for majoring in physics were maybe less lofty (or maybe not) -- I like that physics is more fundamental a science than say biology or chemistry, and that it lends itself to a broad range of fields.
     
  21. Nov 3, 2014 #20

    ZapperZ

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    I don't know what you read in what I wrote that somehow implied that I'm killing their interest and enthusiasm in physics. I'm trying to correct their wrong impression and idea that "theoretical physics" implies ONLY string, high energy, etc. Again, what is really wrong with giving them a more accurate view of what "theoretical physics" is?

    Secondly, I question your assertion that by doing it, I'm killing their interest in the field. I had just completed a 2-week period of being "adopted" by a couple of high school classes in Adopt-A-Physicist program run by the APS. This is the 5th of 6th year that I've been involved in that program. I can say without any doubt that they APPRECIATED being educated and corrected in their views of physics and what physicists do. And I've had done, in more than one occassion, this very same correction when they mistaken a view of what "theoretical physics" is.

    I've done many such programs and outreach projects to high school students, and the general public. So what I've said isn't just lip service or simply something I made up out of thin air. I've seen numerous instances to back it up.
     
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