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What is the lifetyle of a theoretical physicist like?

  1. Jun 23, 2010 #1
    Honestly, I haven't got a clue.

    Well I do, but I'm quite sure it's fictional.

    EDIT: Maybe I should have explained what I meant by "lifestyle". Exactly what do they do? I know an experimental physicist would go to a lab and perform experiments which would yield results. What does a theoretical physicist do? Sit on a computer all day long doing endless calculations? Like I said, I honestly haven't gotten a clue.
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2010
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  3. Jun 23, 2010 #2


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    Physicists really do exist; they're not theoretical... :biggrin:
  4. Jun 23, 2010 #3
    Heh, I'm sure you understand what I meant.
  5. Jun 23, 2010 #4


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    It's pretty lax, compared to the Experimentalists. I'm still a Ph.D. Student, so I don't have to worry about all the paper work with grants, but that part's the same for theorists and experimentalists anyways. Well, except for equipment grants, we don't have to deal with these nearly as much.

    Unlike experimentalists, I don't have to spend a lot of time in the office/lab. I can work from home. Or from another country. Or from a beach by the ocean, though, opportunity for that doesn't arise often. I'm also pretty flexible on time. Except for the labs I have to TA in, there isn't anything I can't push to another time. I have no experiments that will blow up without me checking up on them. At the worst, a simulation, but again, I can log into the computer running it from pretty much anywhere.

    Work on the computer takes up maybe a third of my time. The rest is done on paper. This bit, of course, can vary a lot on just what sort of theory you want to be working on. Either way, you can be pretty mobile if you organize things right.

    But yes. Basically, it's all about making computations. Not necessarily numerical ones. More often than not, you are interested in method for achieving a result than the result itself. Every once in a while, though, you get unexpected results, and that's when you go and tell experimentalists what they should be spending their time on.
  6. Jun 23, 2010 #5
    Is the work that's done on paper done in solitude? How "interested" in the work do you get while performing computations?

    Sorry about this, I'm just really intrigued. I've never had an opportunity like this. Also, what do you mean by "TA"?
  7. Jun 24, 2010 #6
    "TA" is a short for "Teachers assistant" and it is basically teaching classes, correcting proofs, instructing labs etc.
  8. Jun 24, 2010 #7
    Theoretical physicist's lifestyle is almost like the lifestyle of a regular physicist. It's just a bit more theoretical.
  9. Jun 24, 2010 #8
    Ahh thanks.

    I'd like specific details, if possible? :)
    I don't see how they are similar, one spends most of their time in a lab, while the other does not.
  10. Jun 24, 2010 #9
    I'm an experimentalist (particle astrophysics), and I sit on a computer all day doing endless calculations. I guess the only difference is that whenever we need to build new components for the telescope, I get to take a break from my computer and go play in my lab for a couple hours at a time. I also have to/get to go down to the telescope once a year and do an observing shift. Getting to play with the telescope and watch it move is actually pretty cool.

    Oh wait, you're asking about theorists. Never mind.
  11. Jun 24, 2010 #10
    No no! The more information the better. You see, I'm leaning back and forth between theoretical and experimental, I know I want to do research; I just haven't decided on which.
  12. Jun 25, 2010 #11
    Experimental physics is like making sex with an ugly girl. Theoretical is like imagining sex with a beautiful one.
  13. Jun 25, 2010 #12
  14. Jun 25, 2010 #13
    Incredible. The freedom to work on my targets and revel in my creativity wherever it might take me is a dream. Letting my energies flow with passion rather than shutting them off for whatever applied job or laborious work needed. Your post describes that dream. Is that really the truth?

    http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html [Broken]

    Or is that the reality?

    Teasing the nectarious math and physics from nature's fruit. Authority and applied science is square and grey.

    I'd like to do my own research. Money is not an issue- I can live off a lot less than most. Just need my science. And science only comes with freedom. Would this happen going the way of a PhD?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  15. Jun 25, 2010 #14
    If that article is true, I might as well commit sucide... (Obviously an exaggeration, don't take it seriously.)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  16. Jun 25, 2010 #15
    I sensed some condescending tones towards experimentalists so I want to say something.

    It's like my physics professor said - Theoretical physics is like music - you only need the best.

    The vast majority of progress comes from experimentalists, and experimentalists don't just get a result and sit there scratching their heads waiting for the brilliant theoreticians to come save them - they often have their own theories and ideas as well. Theoretical physics can be crucial - if you're James Maxwell, Albert Einstein, or Richard Feynman, but I think theoreticians get a lot more credit than is deserved.
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