The Real Personality of Physicists: Breaking Down Stereotypes

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In summary, being a physicist requires a greater than average dissociation from people, the ability to project internal visualizations onto the external environment, and dogged determination with equations, concepts, and theories. Physicists often seem introverted outside of their field and may have stamina for lecturing before large audiences. There may also be a tendency towards rational thinking and a preference for working independently. However, this is not to say that all physicists fit these stereotypes and more input from actual physicists would be valuable.
  • #1
Loren Booda
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What does it really take mentally to be a physicist? No stereotypes, just your objective observations.

I believe that a greater than average dissociation from people, although not to the degree of mathematicians, is one important psychological trait of physicists.

The ability to project one's internal visualization and experiences onto the external environment helps to apply the ideas of physicists to reality.

Dogged, but rational, determination with an equation, concept, phenomenon or theory separates physicists from most other professions.

How have the physicists that you have known behaved interpersonally? They must have some such stamina to lecture before large audiences, but even so, many seem introverted outside of their field.
 
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  • #2
Can you elaborate on why this "disassociation" is necessary? And with that, why this is more true for mathematicians?
 
  • #3
i would think that the first requirement would be to be able to work extremely hard independently. if someone can't even do that then they probably won't amount to much as a physicist, or anything else for that matter. I've never been a physicist before but that's my guess.
 
  • #4
Knavish,

By dissociation I mean the ability to separate emotions, like those about people, from the thinking or rationalizing needed to solve a problem. Mathematics, in general more abstract than physics, may require removing oneself even further from social reality.
 
  • #5
Loren Booda said:
Knavish,

By dissociation I mean the ability to separate emotions, like those about people, from the thinking or rationalizing needed to solve a problem. Mathematics, in general more abstract than physics, may require removing oneself even further from social reality.
It sounds like you're falling into the stereotypes you've asked people to avoid. Perhaps we should wait for answers from actual physicists who can share what traits are important.

One likely trait that is commonly needed for success in any academic discipline is perseverance in the face of failure. You spend a lot of time getting critiqued by others and following dead-ends before you finally make a breakthrough, and you have to really be able to take the criticism and keep plodding on until you find an original idea that really works.
 
  • #6
Loren Booda said:
What does it really take mentally to be a physicist? No stereotypes, just your objective observations.

(I'm answering from a student view point, not professional)

-constant persistance, while knowing when to take a break (when you're not absorbing anything).

-Finding the easy way out of math using intuition is hepful, but it can give your math collaborators heart attacks.

How have the physicists that you have known behaved interpersonally?

We have a fluid dynammics and complex systems professor that's kind of nutty and stays up all night doing classified research and academics. He does something called the electromagnetic dance (to show the way em waves move normal to each other), and he allows general questions about physics at the beginning of every class. He's enthusiastic (to us) about physics and tries to make it fun when it can be helped.

We have a space physics professor who is very reserved (I would guess he's a conservative) and hold mathematical formalism up higher than most physicists. He's interesting and mostly easy to talk to, but sometimes it seems like he's communicating over us instead of to us. He seems very stereotype 'physicist' (to me). Nonetheless, a good teacher, and I respect his views on math.

We also have a physicist that has a long, grey, braided ponytail. He reminds me of a character from an anime or something. He's somewhat cocky, and when asked to explain a step that our text makes, will scrawl some clever tricks across the chalk board and erase them real fast, as if he had just answered you to show off. None-the-less, if I can figure out what he's doing before he erases it, I learn some neat tricks.
 
  • #7
Loren Booda said:
Knavish,

By dissociation I mean the ability to separate emotions, like those about people, from the thinking or rationalizing needed to solve a problem. Mathematics, in general more abstract than physics, may require removing oneself even further from social reality.

while Evo makes a good point that you're stereotyping, yourself, I did know a math major that said he chose math (over physics) because he didn't want to have to deal with people. I have no idea what he meant, but maybe you can relate.
 
  • #8
Moonbear and Pythagorean,

I suppose I was reflecting on my own move in the past 20 years from physics to social sciences, fields that seem to contrast in my experience. I would be interested in reading here more vignettes from physicists themselves about their temperment and fellowship.
 
  • #9
Loren Booda said:
Moonbear and Pythagorean,

I suppose I was reflecting on my own move in the past 20 years from physics to social sciences, fields that seem to contrast in my experience. I would be interested in reading here more vignettes from physicists themselves about their temperment and fellowship.

The dynamic teacher I mentioned two posts ago does a little work in social sciences, because the physical complex systems he studies are similar in some aspects.

do you study SOC at all?
 
  • #10
Loren Booda said:
What does it really take mentally to be a physicist? No stereotypes, just your objective observations.

I believe that a greater than average dissociation from people, although not to the degree of mathematicians, is one important psychological trait of physicists.

The ability to project one's internal visualization and experiences onto the external environment helps to apply the ideas of physicists to reality.

Dogged, but rational, determination with an equation, concept, phenomenon or theory separates physicists from most other professions.

How have the physicists that you have known behaved interpersonally? They must have some such stamina to lecture before large audiences, but even so, many seem introverted outside of their field.

I read this and it made me smile because that is me exactly. Especially the introverted bit, I can't do any public speaking outside of something I know and am interested about.
 
  • #11
I work on a mental health line hearing out callers and responding to e-mails. The job can at times be stressful, but utilizes my aptitude for empathetic and practical communication to assist those in need. Our "HelpLine" is a close-knit group whose goal is the eventual eradication of mental illness, but for now serves patients and families needing the tools and information to cope.

It beats the job I had at the DOE Office of Fusion Energy.
 
  • #12
If I had to be empathetic in a job I wouldn't be good at it. I could probably act, but it would be painful, haha.
 
  • #13
My current job's pain is productive (remember the original Star Trek episode "The Empath"? To paraphrase: "Although Dr. McCoy has an 80% chance of dying, Mr. Spock has a 90% chance of going insane.") As a physicist, however, I felt a disjoint between passion and opportunity to work it out.
 
  • #14
Loren Booda said:
Knavish,

By dissociation I mean the ability to separate emotions, like those about people, from the thinking or rationalizing needed to solve a problem. Mathematics, in general more abstract than physics, may require removing oneself even further from social reality.

Totally wrong.

I talk to some of my professors (like all) and they don't seem like that at all.

Some do, but even then, it's not that bad. They seem all very social to me.

I'm a mathematics major and I find myself more social than most people (of all majors).

So, on behalf of mathematicians, this is a false statement. I think mathematicians have the ability to disconnect from society if they needed to because they have hard work to do, but that's about it. But then again, I'm sure all scientists can do this.
 
  • #15
Loren Booda said:
My current job's pain is productive (remember the original Star Trek episode "The Empath"? To paraphrase: "Although Dr. McCoy has an 80% chance of dying, Mr. Spock has a 90% chance of going insane.") As a physicist, however, I felt a disjoint between passion and opportunity to work it out.
Perhaps that's why you've been attracted to the social sciences and are no longer in physics, because you didn't feel that passion for physics. That's not something inherent to physics, but related to personal tastes. If it's just not something you enjoy, you're going to feel like it's all work.

I have friends who are physicists (like Zz...we've met in person) and friends who are mathematicians, and they are perfectly normal, social people. I did know a physics student who was much more introverted and not at all social (she had to schedule time just to join us to watch a half hour of TV while in college and as soon as the half hour was up, she left, even if the show was only half over)...but even her fellow physics students thought she was a bit odd, and it wasn't typical of people drawn to the major.

I think the biggest stereotype about scientists in general is that we're all the same and all the same type of personality. Other than sharing an interest in science, we're still all individuals with different personalities. You'll find outgoing, friendly, social people, and you'll find jerks and you'll find shy, introverted people.
 
  • #16
Moonbear said:
I think the biggest stereotype about scientists in general is that we're all the same and all the same type of personality. Other than sharing an interest in science, we're still all individuals with different personalities. You'll find outgoing, friendly, social people, and you'll find jerks and you'll find shy, introverted people.

Yeah, that's true, but there is common trait that I noticed in scientists. They all seem to be more liberal in general.
 
  • #17
JasonRox said:
Yeah, that's true, but there is common trait that I noticed in scientists. They all seem to be more liberal in general.
That's because you're not living in West Virginia...or North Dakota or Texas. :biggrin:
 
  • #18
May I venture to say more agnostic?
 
  • #19
Moonbear said:
That's because you're not living in West Virginia...or North Dakota or Texas. :biggrin:

or Alaska :P
 
  • #20
Moonbear said:
That's because you're not living in West Virginia...or North Dakota or Texas. :biggrin:

Thanks for warning me. :biggrin:
 
  • #21
Loren Booda said:
What does it really take mentally to be a physicist? No stereotypes, just your objective observations.

I believe that a greater than average dissociation from people, although not to the degree of mathematicians, is one important psychological trait of physicists.

The ability to project one's internal visualization and experiences onto the external environment helps to apply the ideas of physicists to reality.

Dogged, but rational, determination with an equation, concept, phenomenon or theory separates physicists from most other professions.

How have the physicists that you have known behaved interpersonally? They must have some such stamina to lecture before large audiences, but even so, many seem introverted outside of their field.


What the hell do you need to know the pshchology profile is be a physicist. MY advice to you is to know youself, and understand the universe in your own terms. You don t need t to know everyone to be someone.
 
  • #22
Actually I'm introverted but I'm totally disorganised, so organization isn't a symptom of introversion.
 
  • #23
What he is trying to say is that there isn't a specific cutting-block mold of the personality of a physicist. Sure, there are stereotypes, but when it comes down to it each one is unique. Like MB said, you will find all types of personality traits among different scientist/mathematicians/careerX
 
  • #24
Speaking as a physicist amongst physicists, I can safely say that there all kinds of types. The asocial behaviour you cite does happen, but less so then in your average group of academics in my experience. Most that I know have a sizeable ego (myself included), but that's probably just a sort of pride in knowing that what you have studied and are doing is hard.

Perhaps the only common trait is a passion for the subject. Speak to the shy one, the *******, whoever, and ask them about their research. See them light up and take delight in what they are talking about.
 
  • #25
Gelsamel Epsilon said:
If I had to be empathetic in a job I wouldn't be good at it. I could probably act, but it would be painful, haha.

One trait you can usually ("usually", not to say there are not exceptions) count on amongst physicists and mathematicians is an analytical mind. The idea that these types are introverted is, in my experience, pretty far off, however, their social interactions are fundamentally different than those of, say, a psychologist. They are often a bit distanced in their emotions, analytical minds usually placing more in thinking than emotion, but the many such social individuals will hide this under a well constructed analytical idea of how social interactions go, often including feigning emotion. This is why I included the quote, this is an excellent example of the attribute I'm describing. The ability to "act" mentioned can be quite easy for some who will often determine their own theories on behavior, test these in normal interaction, and find reliable ways to act and respond in a social environment. The extroverted physicist/ mathematician will often play such "games" (in my opinion, the best word for it), while the introverted equivalent introvert finds such things bothersome. At least, such is the case for myself, an extrovert studying to become a theoretical physicist (the culmination of math and physics, and thus, I believe, a good example), as well as other hard science enthusiasts. Watch the people I just described, and you'll eventually see it bleed through a bit (more or less depending on how good they are at this skill). You can also bring it on by bringing up a suicide of someone they do not know. They will often be much colder when referring to this person seeing no reason act out empathy for them as they do not know the individual. But to bring it back to the beginning, this is simply a pattern I've noticed in those that possesses the more fundamental trait of mathematicians and physicists, the analytical mind. I hope to hear if anyone tries my little social experiment.

P.S. I don't want to give the impression that analytical people are completely devoid of emotion, it is simply not as large a presence in their actions or as easily appealed to.
 
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  • #26
A physicist is someone who is excruciatingly curious about the world around them.
 
  • #27
Dimitri Terryn said:
Perhaps the only common trait is a passion for the subject. Speak to the shy one, the *******, whoever, and ask them about their research. See them light up and take delight in what they are talking about.

That works for anyone. One guy in my office is very antisocial even with respect to work-related matters. He probably just sees himself as too busy. But, ask him about his dogs and he has all the time in the world. :rolleyes:
 

Related to The Real Personality of Physicists: Breaking Down Stereotypes

1. What qualities make a good physicist?

A good physicist should possess strong analytical and critical thinking skills, creativity, attention to detail, and perseverance. They should also have a strong foundation in mathematics and be able to think abstractly.

2. Is it necessary to have a specific personality to become a successful physicist?

No, there is no specific personality required to become a successful physicist. However, traits such as curiosity, open-mindedness, and a passion for learning are often seen in successful physicists.

3. Can introverts be successful physicists?

Yes, introverts can be successful physicists. In fact, many renowned physicists such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were introverts. While some may believe that extroversion is necessary for collaboration and communication, introverts often excel at deep thinking and problem-solving, which are essential skills for a physicist.

4. Are there any common misconceptions about the personality of a physicist?

One common misconception is that all physicists are socially awkward or lack social skills. While some may fit this stereotype, many physicists are able to effectively communicate and collaborate with others in their field and beyond.

5. Can a person's personality affect their success in the field of physics?

A person's personality can certainly play a role in their success as a physicist. However, it is not the sole determining factor. Hard work, dedication, and a strong understanding of the subject matter are also crucial for success in this field.

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