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Physicists should take pride in their work

  1. Nov 29, 2015 #1


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    I recently wrote a rant on my blog about an annoying thing physicists do, which I will replicate here:
    Original post at: http://klotza.blogspot.ca/2015/11/physicists-should-take-pride-in-their.html


    All of my posts thus far have been about presenting information or telling a story. This one is more of an opinion and a rant.

    Too often, speaking with other physicists, I have had conversations that go like this:

    Me: What do you work on?

    Them: Condensed matter physics.

    Me: Oh yeah? What aspect?

    Them: Uhh...materials physics.

    Me: Ok, what kind of materials?

    Them: Uhhhh...solid state.

    Me: What kind of solid state physics?

    Them: Uhhhhhhhh systems with many atoms.

    This will continue for as long as I have patience, and I will get no information about what the person actually does. If I care enough I can look up their supervisor's research webpage and find out that they actually fire x-rays at superconductors or something like that. I used condensed matter as an example but it's not limited to that. I've had the same conversation go "black holes"..."general relativity"..."collapsed stars."

    Physicists, you should not do this. It is annoying, you're selling yourself short, and it's disrespectful to the person asking the question. If the person asking you the question has a degree (or several!) in physics or a related discipline, they'll be able to understand the elevator-description of what you do.

    Sometimes I think people give these non-answers because they're embarrassed about what they work on. There is this false premise that there is "real physics" and what they're doing is not it. People working on semiconductors are embarrassed that they're not working on quantum gravity, and the people working on quantum gravity are embarrassed that they're not working on semiconductors. I once had a guy who did simulations of relativistic nuclear collisions, which is like the most physics you can get in three consecutive words, tell me he wasn't doing real physics (although he wouldn't tell me what he actually did!). It's all real physics. No matter what you are working on, you are pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, even if it seems extremely specialized or boringly incremental or removed from reality.

    If somebody is asked a question, it is rude not to answer it. In a physics department, it's reasonable that you'll be discussing physics with other people who are well-read in physics. They can handle the truth. If the answer is not detailed enough, the person can ask for more information. If the answer is too detailed, the person can ask for clarification, and try to understand by asking more questions. This type of conversation generally involves two people with differing levels of knowledge on a topic finding a way to meet in the middle. When one side refuses to meet in the middle, either by asking to be spoon-fed or by withholding information, it's not fun.

    Now, there is an art to knowing how technical a summary of your work to give. Generally it depends on whether you're talking to someone in the same research sub-field as you, the same science as you, other scientists in different disciplines, or non-scientists. The main thing I'm ranting about is physicists withholding information about their work from other physicists, but I imagine it happens in other fields too.

    For my Ph.D. work, I'd generally tell people that I looked at DNA molecules squeezed into very small tubes, to measure how squishy the molecules are. If they asked, I'd tell them how it relates to genetic sequencing technology, and what the relevant physics governing the squishiness of DNA is. If they really wanted to know, I'd talk about screened electrostatic repulsion and conformational degeneracy and the like. But I wouldn't just mumble different permutations of "biophysics...biological physics...physical biology...physics of biological systems..."

    So, when someone asks you what you work on. Don't be vague. Be proud.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 29, 2015 #2


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    A reasonable point of view but trying to impose your own standards on other is always a waste of time. People are going to do what they do regardless of what you think about it and trying to change that will just leave you frustrated. I know that sounds defeatist, but it's an observation backed by a lot of experience over a lot of years.

    I have my own pet peeves but I have found that in terms of trying to impose my standards on others, farting in a closed elevator elicits a more favorable response.

    An interesting phrase that I heard from Steven Covey describes this general concept quite well. He calls it "confessing the sins of others"
  4. Nov 29, 2015 #3


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    I can't help but wonder if the issue isn't so much one of physicists and students not taking pride in their work (I can't think of an example of a physicist I know who does not take pride in his or her work), rather, a product of conditioning.

    When someone asks "what do you do?" to someone with a more common occupation there's usually a canned answer that the general public will understand. A physicist has the additional issue of figuring out how much background to give to the person asking. Even if that person is another physicist, that can sometimes be difficult. And not necessarily because that other physicist may not understand, rather there just isn't always a canned answer, and there's still an issue of how much detail to go into. It's kind of like that question "how are you doing?" - does the asker really want to know that you're stressed about an upcoming exam, you spent the previous night working on the problem that you weren't able to figure out, and that you're worried about that funny-looking mole on your arm? Some people do. Some people are just being polite.

    If it feels like people are being rude and skirting your questions, perhaps you might get more success by asking slightly different questions.
    • "Could you tell me a little bit about what your group is working on right now?"
    • "What's your favourite part of the work you're doing?"
    • "What's the five minute spiel about your project?"
  5. Nov 29, 2015 #4
    This makes sense in explaining what you have encountered. If it is the case, then there are people out there who've appointed themselves to be the judges of what is "real" physics and what isn't, and they are going around bullying people with these notions. It's a very commonplace kind of one-upsmanship.

    I have no experience with physicists, but I know such bullies exist in the art world, and in the music world.
  6. Nov 29, 2015 #5
    Well, part of it might be that it is tedious and tiresome to explain your work over and over to people. Maybe they just don't want to talk about research for a while?

    Maybe you should try initiating conversation with a little less boring topic - you can always move to the easy "so what do you work on?" if you exhaust other, probably more interesting lines of conversation.
  7. Nov 30, 2015 #6


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    I have never encountered such a thing, and I'm wondering if this has something to do with the "context".

    Who are you asking here? You said "other physicists", who are they specifically? Are they graduate students? Because if they are, then that explains a lot, because graduate students usually are not apt yet at explaining things clearly (it takes A LOT of practice to become a physicist), and they also still tend to not have a clear understanding of the wider picture of things, since they are usually bogged down in the details.

    In all my years, I had never sense ANY physicist being "embarrassed" in the field that they work in. And I've gone from condensed matter into accelerator physics. If anything, they are quick to note the extraordinary importance of each field. Condensed matter physicists, of all people, should know that the field had made fundamental contribution to elementary particle physics and basic knowledge (Higgs mechanism, Majorana fermions, analogous magnetic momopole, etc... etc.). These are all stuff that a practicing condensed matter physicist would and should know, and something to be proud of in that field. These are all stuff that a GRADUATE STUDENT in condensed matter physics might not be aware of yet and would have been unable to articulate to someone else!

    Many facilities, such as the US Nat'l Labs, hold open houses. You can't find a more direct place to find scientists and engineers more proud of what they do than at these occasions.

  8. Nov 30, 2015 #7


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    That IS just a typo... correct?
  9. Nov 30, 2015 #8


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  10. Dec 2, 2015 #9


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    That really depends on the context. If a non-scientist asks me what I do I will be necessity give a very generic answer. If a physicist asks me I can be a bit more specific. However, unless someone who is actually in my field asks I would not able to explain what I actually do (i.e the topics of the papers I write). I work in a pretty multi-disciplinary research groups with about 50 members, I'd say maybe 5-10 of them actually understand of what I am working on (counting my own PhD students) and that is despite the fact that we regularly give talks at groups meetings etc.
    Also, if you were to ask me what I do I would assume you mean what problem I am investigating, not what I spend most of my time doing (which in my case would be cooling devices down to low temperatures, supervise students and write Matlab programs). Hence, "fire X-rays at superconductors" is not really an answer (there are several reasons why you could do that, it is a method, not a problem)

    Which is an explanation my 15-year old step-son would understand because he has studied DNA etc in biology at school. However, he doesn't know much at all about quantum mechanics or even solid-state physics meaning he has no idea whatsoever of what I do (beyond playing with liquid nitrogen).
    Hence, I do think -in general- it is easier to explain biology (and to some extent chemistry), not because it is "easier" but because it is more familiar and -since the applications are often more obvious (medicine etc)- a bit more tangible. The only subject in science I can think of that would be harder to explain than physics is math.
    Note that you would probably have the same problem in the humanities since you often have a lot of background information to understand a problem, or even why a problem is even a problem:wink:
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