Ph.D Philosophy

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cronxeh

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Ahh that title should get your attention!

Ive been reading this guy's blog online. He is a postdoc in Physics and his views on education, knowledge, and attitudes towards certain things are right on the money - I think

http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=7148544&blogID=28082368

Friday, May 27, 2005


Working in a pipeline of physics
Current mood: blah

Once upon a time I went to high school - at time I do not miss at all. In fact every new birthday is a new reason to celebrate another year between me and high school. I spent most of my time in high school reading college level physics books. I'd do it on the bus, in between classes, and so on. My grades in physics, math and chemistry were top of the line - my other grades were only slightly above average and I didn't really care for them at all. At 17 I understood the point of the Schroedinger equation, at 19 I wrote a small booklet on the geometric interpretation of special relativity where I independently derived the Lorentz transformation based on the Minkowski spacetime description.

At that point I was sure I wanted to be a physicist exploring the laws of nature and maybe even making up a theory of my own rather than just independently rediscovering stuff which was known a hundred years ago. If you read popular science books today they tend to tell you about exciting new theories such as string theory and what have you. At that time, the exciting theory was high energy particle physics and all the action was at CERN, which is the world's biggest particle accelerator located in Geneva in Switzerland. I wanted to go and work at CERN as a theoretician, no doubt about it (Eventually I did go to CERN, but it was only to deliver an invited talk on a subject which didn't have anything to do with high energy particle physics).

You see, in the beginning they try to lure you into the field of physics, engineering, etc. with the promise of cool technology and exciting new theories and so on and so forth. There are actually people, which are hired specifically to cause excitement in the public - and of course there are celebrity physicists (Hawking, Kaku, ..) who do it in their spare time. Take string theory, which is a rather unimportant field employing maybe 50-100 people in total. The point of string theory is not so much to advance science - rather it is to produce excitement among the general population and make them support science. In particular it will produce excitement among pre-college students which will join the ranks (Think Army National Guard ads for a direct comparison) - later it's very unlikely that they'll ever do string theory, rather they'll go into business and teaching which is what most physicists actually do.

No, mostly physics is not about exploring the frontier. Rather it is about colonizing what is already known. Figuring out all the details and so forth. So we are not so much scientific explorers, but rather scientific workers working in a big construction company also known as academia.

Eventually you'll live in a pipeline. ideas come in at one side, then they enter a stage of analysis and code development or experimental setup, then they reach the promotion stage where time has to be spent designing posters, doing talks and applying for grants and finally papers have to be written and submitted to journals and go through the review process.

In many cases it pays to focus on topics which are safe. Physics is much like constructing buildings. You don't construct completely crazy buildings just as no one in the field takes theories which are completely crazy serious (yes, we do get occasional letters from well-intended amateur crackpots which have been working in this 'theory' of theirs for several years which a 'pro' can debunk in about ten minutes using an example which was archieved 50 years ago) - No, you construct buildings following a given method and so on and so forth. Creativity is actually rather limited and usually for a wise reason - it increases productivity. You don't want to spend 4 years developing a crazy theory if it turns out to be wrong - in that case you'll have nothing to show when the next review comes up - too bad, you're fired (or rather not rehired!).

The duration of a pipeline is 1-2 years for a given project and one tends to have several pipelines running simultaneously at different evolutionary stages.
A couples of years after an idea has passed through the pipeline, I don't remember it anymore. My brain uploads and dumps knowledge very efficiently, because that's exactly what I have be trained to do during my undergraduate years - or maybe my brain has always been like that and the only reason I did well as a student was that I had exactly that capability.

One doesn't need to spend very long time pipelining realizing that one doesn't get any smarter once the brain dumps start. After 25 or so it becomes impossible to retain more details or maybe at that point one learns so fast and efficiently that there is no time for the brain to store knowledge in the long term memory anymore. One only gets wiser. You'll have the attitude - the so-called Ph.D. attitude - which is something like "I may not know what the hell you're talking about, but that doesn't mean you're way smarter than me, because I could learn it in a few months if I have to, I just really don't have the time or interest". It's a very arrogant and cynical attitude towards knowledge - it's basically what's left after grad school destroyed your dreams.

The constant pressure might cause one to fall deep enough to start doing drugs. Personally I tend to fall in and out of the drug cycle. The drug of choice in the science industry is coffee. I think intellectuals generally prefers drugs which puts the brain in overdrive rather than drugs, such as alcohol, which dulls it. Without coffee I will not be able to stay sharp during the mid afternoon where my brain for some reason refuses to cooperate. Others have a morning problem and have to take their coffee at that point if they want to start thinking before 10a. Medical research suggests that this may cost me a few years of my lifespan, but if I didn't do it - how many years of productivity would I lose?

Eventually a desk job will get on your nerves though. Humans weren't meant to sit still all day and think just as they weren't meant to stand in a factory pushing the same conveyor belt button all day without thinking. You may also start wondering whether the loss of your sexdrive, say, resulting from draining your brain and energy completely during a two week long debugging/proposal writing session is really worth it. My life, sometimes my entire life - at the expense of the rest of my life - is about pushing things through the pipeline. It's a comfortable, but stressful life and I sometimes wonder to what end. Is it for the glory? - I'm not overly ingenious by which I mean I'm not likely to get a Nobel prize or anything even though I got top grades for my dissertation (whatever!) but that doesn't mean anything. So no - forget about the glory. Is it for the insight? I don't think so, because the subfield I'm working on is tremendously narrow, albeit it's interesting to maybe 50-100 people in the world. Is it important - yes it is important, because million dollar budget decisions are partially dependent on what comes out of my research. So maybe that is the problem with science today - it no longer proceeds in leaps and bounds, but rather proceeds as a crushing machine of millions of science workers each working on filling out the little details. The question is whether I could do this for the rest of my life? Applying my brain to fill out details just as a factory worker applies his finger to make Saturns? I think I could. Would it be personally fulfilling to me? In some ways it would - there is no greater experience than being the first human in the universe to have some new insight or to know something that no one has ever known before and this feeling is even greater if it comes after two years or work and frustration - even though it just some little tiny extra detail of humanity's scientitic knowledge.
And anyway - what else can I do?
 

Gokul43201

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If this person really does something great, I'd be surprised.
 
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I have to say I am more sleepier when I read your thread...
 

PerennialII

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.... he's right on the money in a sense that a large proportion of researchers do just work in the "pipeline", and for them physics is just straigtforward "work" without the elements of discovery and learning. Which is sad to say the least.
 
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I was disappointed, I was expecting to see more on his views on education in physics and in general. This article is just a rant and it makes him look like he regrets choosing to do what he does.
 
That's a depressing way to look at things from a seemingly uninspired postdoctorate.

Success is waking up every morning and wanting to go to work. If what you do is what you love to do, what inspires you and keeps you looking forward to the next day, then that's all that matters, even if it is just "straightforward work."
 

cronxeh

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I dont think its his subject that is in question here - but rather the society that doesnt really find much interest in Physics, Math, and Engineering in general. I do believe he has a sincere affection for his subject, but the environment is not exactly favorable to an undergrad in sciences these days. Considering that financial planners get offers of 50-70k a year for start compared to a science undergrad (around 30-35k) and engineer (45-50k), I dont think the society has the right priorities and hence lays the problem of a neglected pipeline and general lack of funds for really cool ideas
 

Gokul43201

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Take string theory, which is a rather unimportant field employing maybe 50-100 people in total. The point of string theory is not so much to advance science - rather it is to produce excitement among the general population and make them support science.
This is just rot. What's the matter with this guy ?
 
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Sempiternity said:
Success is waking up every morning and wanting to go to work. If what you do is what you love to do, what inspires you and keeps you looking forward to the next day, then that's all that matters, even if it is just "straightforward work."
That's one kind of success which is only accessible to a small minority of the population, even in rich Western countries. The first problem is that not every thing that people want to do has a job associated with it (e.g. a professional sitting-on-the-beach-every-day-reading-philosophy-and-science person). The second problem is that even if a thing that people want to do does have a job associated with it, the chances of getting that job are slim due to heavy competition and/or not many of those jobs being available and/or the prerequisites (intellectual, physical or otherwise) being extremely high (e.g. a professional baseballer). The third problem is that even if you do land the job associated with want you really want to do, in practice you do a lot of other things in that job that you don't really like (perhaps even hate) doing (e.g. a scientist who spends only a small portion of his time doing research because most of the time he's teaching, applying for funding, doing admin work, etc).

But there are other kinds of successes. For example, you can minimise the number of days that you have to go to work (and thus maximise the number of days off when you can pursue whatever interest you like) without putting yourself in financial straits. I currently have mine down to four, and I'm aiming for three. Some people can do two. I know one person who works six months and then takes six months off, year in, year out. I consider such people very successful. Unfortunately, the pressure

But what you are saying and what I am saying in this thread supports the notion that free time (i.e. time spent doing what you want to do) is probably the most important thing in life.
 

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