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Scientific Research in the Field of Physics

  1. Mar 28, 2012 #1
    Hi, I hope this is the right place to ask this question. I am putting it here because it has a bit of influence regarding my education.

    Sometimes when I listen to people talk about research, or people talking about how long it took someone to figure something out, I get a little bit surprised by how long they take.

    Like I think when we talked about Max Planck and the blackbody stuff he figured out, it took him some ten years or so to finally figure it out, and he didn't even have the constants 100%. I just listened to a professor give a seminar on his research, and he has been working on figuring out some Carbon Oxygen nuclear fusion rate for seven whole years!

    I am simply curious about the finer details regarding why it takes so long for scientific progress to happen sometimes. Do the experiments simply take a reeaaally long time to happen? Do they have to put a lot of data into a computer that must take some long time to analyze it all?

    I am not assuming these guys are lazy or anything, I know that it is all complicated and tough, and I am just wondering about what exactly a modern scientist does all the time.

    When I am sitting in lab trying to figure out what the heck the experiment is supposed to be like, sometimes I just sit there scratching my head for a good half hour, is there a lot of head scratching in physics too? I have no doubts that I'd be scratching my head for much longer than half an hour if there was no TA there to give me hints.

    Essentially I am curious about what I will be doing as a researcher in the field of physics besides eating and sleeping.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 28, 2012 #2


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    One reason things take so long is that you typically end up re-doing things multiple times. When you set off to do something new, often you "don't know what you don't know". So you charge ahead doing what you think is the right thing. After you've done it once, you realize you've overlooked something, so you have to back up and do it again, planning to "do it right this time". Then the second time through you uncover a new thing you didn't know about, ... etc. This can eat up a lot of time.
  4. Mar 28, 2012 #3
    Hi, I'm pretty new to the game myself with only one publication. My work was pretty simple though in the grand scheme of things and it took myself and two others nearly a year to hammer out, and it was a theory paper in math. So even then we didn't have much to do as far as simulations/experiments are concerned. But I'll tell you what I've always assumed to be the case.
    I think the big thing is that someone doing research in an area of science is doing something realtively NEW. It hasn't really been done before; there may be similiar things that have been done before, which can be used as a base board for one's research. The more "new" or radical the idea or theory, the less there will be to serve as guidance for a researcher. So to answer your question, big meaningful research is brand new stuff, and so it definitely takes a lot of time to figure out. And of course for the sciences where theories can be tested and such, there is a significant amount of time that needs to go into designing experiments, making sure it runs smoothly etc.

    Or let me put it this way. In your classes, I imagine you follow pretty easily what is going on. Derivations and such seem to make a good chunk of sense. But there is big a difference between understanding something as you watch it unfold, and understanding something as you unfold it yourself. This is especially true when you start dabbling around with things that get less and less intuitive.

    Hopefully that helps! I haven't had too much experience myself, but I'm sure someone here will know exactly how to answer your question.
  5. Mar 30, 2012 #4
    I guess if could ask someone who is dyslexic how they cope with everyday life they would properly tell you that they need to think about things through twice before they put it into practice, just to avoid making
    silly errors and then having to correct themselves. Some people think better when they have removed themselves from as many distractions as possible. If you are on a particular thought train don't go of on a tangent with another thought until you complete the current one. Just make a note of the next thought/s and get back to them in an orderly fashion. Mistakes are time consuming but don't lose track of your inspirations.
  6. Mar 31, 2012 #5


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    In retrospect, some physics problems seem so simple, but then look where people started and what the state of knowledge was at the time.

    With respect to a problem like C-O fusion (is that the CNO cycle in stars?), it's more about expanding the problem to cover a wide range of conditions to cover generalized conditions as well as apparent exceptions.

    In science, it's a matter of collecting data, developing theories or models, and then testing and restesting. And that takes time, especially when no one else has done it before.
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