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Physics Solo Physicists

  1. Mar 17, 2015 #1
    Hello everyone, just a quick question: I have heard that it is impossible to do research in physics by yourself anymore. I heard that "The days of Einstein are gone" and that nowadays in physics, especially string and quantum relativity research, everyone publishes in groups. I feel like this is exaggerated, but I have no experience in the field yet.

    So it is true? Is there no hope for a "lone physicist" to do productive research?

    Thanks for any and all replies
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 17, 2015 #2

    Dale

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    I agree completely. Research (or pretty much anything technical) is a team sport now.
     
  4. Mar 17, 2015 #3

    CalcNerd

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    My opinion only. Yes, you could theoretically do research by yourself. But most of us would probably experience the 5 nines of failure 99.999 % of the time, or would be last or under researched or simply a crackpot. Einstein made several contributions all in the same year (and he was truly Brilliant), and some of those ideas were revolutionary, opening up new fields that were just unknown before he entered the arena of physics.

    But that great new breakthrough might (.001% chance) might come from a sole genius who is not discouraged by others (and is not the crackpot I alluded to above).
     
  5. Mar 17, 2015 #4
    I see. So if someone doesn't like working with others they should not be a physicist?

    Also, why? What has changed about physics that has made it so that someone can't do anything by themselves?
     
  6. Mar 17, 2015 #5

    Evo

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    The costs associated with doing research is one major factor, and of course as knowledge expands, it means that the input of more people with knowledge in areas that you do not become very important. This doesn't apply only to physics.
     
  7. Mar 17, 2015 #6
    When doing theoretical work you often encounter problems which can halt your progress for a while.
    Discussing these issues with other working physicists will make your work more efficient at least.
    Different physicists also have a different "style", having different approaches will increase your understanding and maybe raise questions you want to address next.

    This is essentially covered by the "knowledge expands" argument made by Evo.
     
  8. Mar 17, 2015 #7
    Okay, that makes sense. Thanks for the input everyone!
     
  9. Mar 18, 2015 #8

    Meir Achuz

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    Many theoretical physicists still do their own work. It's really up to you. Go to <arxiv.org> and the search on papers in theoretical nuclear physics, for example. You can still write your own paper. It's really up to you, whatever you have heard.
     
  10. Mar 18, 2015 #9

    ZapperZ

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    Take note that just because you see papers with a single author, it doesn't mean that that person did "... research in physics by yourself... ", even for theorists.

    A prime example is Bob Laughlin. He has published several papers where he was the sole author. But did he do the research all by himself, isolated from the rest of the world, or at least, from the rest of Stanford? Did he not interact with others, attend seminars/colloquiums, and went to conferences? In one of his latest publication in PRL (Laughlin PRL 112, 017004 (2014)), at the end of his paper, he acknowledged Raghu, Kivelson, Chakravarty, and Geballe for "helpful discussions".

    He also doesn't publish by himself exclusively, which means that in most cases, he collaborates with others. And I've often seen him talking, or getting in touch with experimentalists to get a feel of what have been measured and determined. He is anything but isolated.

    I do not consider this doing research by oneself.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2015
  11. Mar 18, 2015 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    The most cited theoretical nuclear physics paper is Matsui and Satz (2100 cites). And it took 2 people to write it. As a counterexample.
     
  12. Mar 18, 2015 #11

    Choppy

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    Of course you can't do research by yourself anymore!

    The model has shifted to:
    phd031305s.gif
    Credits: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com.
     
  13. Mar 19, 2015 #12

    atyy

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  14. Mar 19, 2015 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    Do you know Juan? It's hard to say that he works by himself. He has 14 papers with 500+ citations. Eleven of them have co-authors.
     
  15. Mar 19, 2015 #14

    atyy

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    Well, but that paper was single authored. So it still is possible.

    Maybe the more important question is whether there is any point to the OP's question. Is a contribution on a single-authored paper necessarily more creative or significant than a contribution to a multi-authored paper? I believe the Maldacena duality to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in theoretical physics. But even older works in equally theoretical fields like differential geometry had joint authors - the Atiyah-Singer index theorem, for example. So even going by these extreme examples, it doesn't seem like a question one should worry about.
     
  16. Mar 19, 2015 #15

    ZapperZ

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    You need to go back and read the first post. There is an implicit idea of a "lone physicist" the way Einstein was couped in his patent office working away all by himself isolated from other physicist. This is the idea that we are dealing with.

    And again, my point is that a paper with a single author does NOT imply someone in the scenario above. I've given arguments why.

    Zz.
     
  17. Mar 19, 2015 #16

    atyy

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    It depends on how one reads the initial post. In the sense of your arguments, would even Einstein be considered a lone physicist? Take GR, for example. Einstein needed the concept of spacetime which was introduced by Minkowski. The first coherent relativistic theory of gravity was Nordstrom's. Before GR, Einstein collaborated with Fokker to show that Nordstrom gravity can be written in geometric form. Then he produced several geometric theories, which were queried by others, including Hilbert. Subsequently, Einstein and Hilbert had many discussions, before Einstein reached GR. Some, like Thorne, also state that in fact Hilbert arrived at GR first. Einstein also acknowledged the help with differential geometry given by Marcel Grossmann and Michele Besso.
     
  18. Mar 19, 2015 #17

    ZapperZ

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    No, I don't believe many of Einstein's work are "solo" effort. There are compelling evidence that he discussed a lot with his wife at that time as well.

    But the op has such an impression of a singular individual toiling away in isolation, and it is this myth that I am trying to dispel.

    Zz.
     
  19. Mar 19, 2015 #18

    CalcNerd

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    Ah, yes. I do remember that Albert Einstein co-authored his first three papers with his first wife. That certainly debunks my use of him....!

    The truly isolated individual that can contribute to science has always been rare, but with the new communication revolution, one can suck information from many sources without direct interaction. I guess you could consider that individual effort (though many wouldn't).

    Isaac Newton made the comment that, "that he stood on the shoulder's of Giants." Pretty modest of him (and totally out of character, so it could be a quote misappropriated to him or something he said to project a false modesty). There were several brilliant men of earlier era's that made huge contributions, but that may be due to isolated education and the ability to avoid the distractions of today as well. Carl Fredrick Gauss produced over half of his published work before he was 25 and what he solely developed. Later in life he became a noted scholar and had all sorts of distractions. Most of the early great physicists made their discoveries early in their careers.

    However, for every great mind, their are a dozen crazies, who put in the same time for their crackpot ideas which won't / can't work out due to some basic flaw (breaking a fundamental law of physics) in their reasoning. Most of these crackpots won't or can't work with others and won't educate themselves on why their pet belief cannot ever work.
     
  20. Mar 19, 2015 #19

    Quantum Defect

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    The physicist F. D. C. Willard published a popular science article by himself: F. D. C. Willard: L’hélium 3 solide. Un antiferromagnétique nucléaire. In: La Recherche, Nr. 114, 1980 , but his most famous article was published with J. H. Hetherington in Physical Review. The story about this article is that an additional author was added to the paper because Phys. Rev. did not want to publish a single-author paper. Hetherington subsequently claimed that the work was his alone, but many people believe that Hetherington was falsely taking credit for Willard's work. You can read about Willard's life and work here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F.D.C._Willard
     
  21. Mar 19, 2015 #20

    atyy

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    I think Hetherington mentioned somewhere that Willard got more invitations to give talks than he did, but it worked out since Willard was usually unable to attend, and Hetherington got to go instead!
     
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