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Theoretical vs. Experimental Physics

  1. Apr 7, 2009 #1
    Which one is more favorable: theoretical physics, or experimental physics?

    In my opinion, theoretical physics is much better, because it leaves one to ponder the how the world works without having to do the all of the things that an conducting an experiment reuquires.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 7, 2009 #2

    ZapperZ

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    Before you get too comfortable with that opinion, maybe you should read Harry Lipkin's "http://scitation.aip.org/getpdf/servlet/GetPDFServlet?filetype=pdf&id=PHTOAD000053000007000015000001&idtype=cvips&prog=normal" [Broken]". You seem to be forgetting also that a theory without experimental verification is philosophy, not physics.

    Zz.
     
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  4. Apr 7, 2009 #3

    lisab

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    I guess the answer to your question depends on your definition of "favorable."
     
  5. Apr 7, 2009 #4
    Haha, that's a very PC way of putting it!
     
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  6. Apr 7, 2009 #5

    Dale

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    Nice link. Nature is wierder and more interesting than anything a philosopher can come up with.
     
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  7. Apr 7, 2009 #6
    and experiment without theory is fact collecting, not physics.

    The most famous physicists are all theorists who stayed well grounded in experiment, e.g. Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Boltzmann, and the founders of QM. The great experimentalists in physical science before quantum physics are today remembered as chemists and engineers; Rutherford is an example of someone who considered himself an experimental physicist and is today mostly remembered as a chemist.

    Saying "Who ordered the theorist?" is like saying "Who ordered Matter waves?"(De Broglie), "Who ordered anti-matter?" (Dirac), "Who ordered QED?"(Feynman et al), "Who ordered Bose condensates?", "Who ordered W and Z?", etc or more fundamentally "Who ordered calculus?", "Who order probability and statistics?" (gee i dunno, is Gauss more of an experimentalist, or a theorist?).

    I don't see a need to fight, and I am not saying "who ordered the experimentalist?" but if choosing between extremes I prefer mathematics to the short-sighted empirical method as a way of gaining knowledge, but we should all agree that combining these two into the scientific method has been a great success.

    Edit: The "Who needs.." article is dishonest because it is written in 2000 and is talking about the J/Psi and prior events, but it is a well known fact that the standard model (a theory) has predicted every observation since the J/Psi in the 1970s. Hopefully the discovery of super symmetry of even relatively large extra dimensions at the LHC would boost the status of theoretical physics.
     
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2009
  8. Apr 7, 2009 #7

    robphy

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    I concur.
    Does "favorable" include "being able to find a position that supports your research"?
     
  9. Apr 7, 2009 #8
    I don't think it's quite a fair statement. I'll pick one calculation, in one of the "easiest" and most established theory : the strong sector of the standard model. For instance, can you tell me how the spin of the proton is shared amongst partons ? Or where the missing resonances are ? Would you conveniently classify non-perturbative problems as "engineering" ?

    I would also appreciate thoughts on neutrino mass "predictions". How credible were those before experimental evidences ? I'm not very versed into the history of science, but I believe that the first evidences were rather interpreted as faults in our understanding of the Sun, rather than neutrino oscillations.

    The division between experiment and theory is mostly due to the need for expertise on every sides. Apart from that, I think everybody agrees that the closet exchanges between theoreticians and experimentalists is mostly desired for optimal productivity. In an ideal world, we would all do (say for instance) theory in the morning and experiments in the afternoon.
     
  10. Apr 7, 2009 #9
    Seems to me that it's a very bad idea to favor either theory or experiment. I'm doing my PhD work on experimental physics, so I obviously enjoy the latter. But we need both theory and experiment. Experiments are needed to confirm theory. Theory is needed to tell us what the heck our data means physically. I really don't see how you can get away from either side of physics without degrading the science. Certainly different people have different preferences as to what type of physics they want to do for a living. But both are integral parts of the scientific process.
     
  11. Apr 7, 2009 #10
    I'm glad that my own area, neuroscience, is a young enough field that a single person can often make meaningful contributions to both theory and experiment.
     
  12. Apr 8, 2009 #11

    ZapperZ

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    You will note that I am not the one who is trying to tout the "favorability" of one over the other.. It is the OP who started the thread, and it is ANOTHER THEORIST who wrote that article. The whole point in showing it is that as many as there are people who are skewerd into thinking that one trumps over the other, there's another equally radical point of view that shows the opposite.

    Physics is composed of BOTH theory and experiment. They both are one of the same. This is why the OP's question is rather meaningless.

    Zz.
     
  13. Apr 8, 2009 #12
    Neither. Mathematics is more favorable than both, it tells us exactly how the world works, given that the axioms are true in reality.
     
  14. Apr 8, 2009 #13

    ZapperZ

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    Oh no...

    OK, starting with JUST mathematics and all its axioms, derive Coulomb's Law.

    Zz.
     
  15. Apr 8, 2009 #14
    I didn't say it would be practical nor complete.
     
  16. Apr 8, 2009 #15

    ZapperZ

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    Then how is it more "favorable" than physics? That's like saying the alphabets are more "favorable" than the words and ideas that they form.

    Zz.
     
  17. Apr 8, 2009 #16
    You mean physics is like creationism? But by this reasoning, isn't experimental physics much better because it leaves one to conduct experiments without having to do all the things that pondering how the world works requires?
     
  18. Apr 8, 2009 #17
    Of course there needs to be experimental verification; theories would have no ground without experimental verification. I'm just talking about the quest of solving a scientific problem experimentally versus theoretically.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  19. Apr 8, 2009 #18
    That's the whole point; philosophy is not what I'm talking about. I am talking about theory.
     
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2009
  20. Apr 8, 2009 #19
    Exactly. I agree, completely and totally. Yeah, it would be nice if they could find the Higgs boson.
     
  21. Apr 8, 2009 #20
    Of course, theoretical physics and experimental physics are needed in partnership. I'm just saying, as you are saying, that I have a preference. But, besides the fact that I have a preference, theoretical physics is also more cost-effective (does not cost a cent to sit down and think) and there is much more freedom, because one does not have to go to a laboratory or gather materials; one can think anywhere.
     
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