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What's it like to be a theoretical physicist?

  1. Nov 4, 2005 #1
    Can anyone give me a description?

    Maybe I should ask some questions too.
    Do most theoretical physicists work alone or with colleagues?
    Do most theoretical physicists work at home?
    What do you need while doing your work? Just pen and paper? Or do most need books to refer to? I basically want to be able to work where ever I go.

    And if there are any victorians here, what's a good university for physics?
    Right not I have monash uni in mind because they got the 3 different science courses, even though I won't make it into the one that needs 99.3 ENTER score.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2005 #2
    Its a lot of fun.
    Actually I'm still an undergrad, and my work is mostly computational rather than purely theoretical. Thing is, the vast majority of physicists do it because they love doing it, so they all enjoy it.
    The vast majority work in collaboration, though often this is a long distance rather than local collaboration. A quick glance at authors of papers on arxiv.org will reveal this.
    No, either out of a university, or government/industry labs. Though for pure theo work, University posts are by far the most likely.
    Depends on how smart you are. My work revolves around computer modelling of energy transport, so I spend a lot of time working at my computer, or solving equations by hand. I almost never set foot in a lab though for my work.
  4. Nov 4, 2005 #3
    Hi, Erzeon !

    Do you have any specific area of theoretical physics in mind ?

    I would guess people who do condensed matter or maybe statistical physics would more often use computer to do some simulations or numerically solve equations, than let's say... oh I don't know ... ummmm.... string theorists o:) :biggrin: (I don't count "The Elegant Universe" as a computer use :)
  5. Nov 4, 2005 #4
    String Theory computations are often computerized, due to the enormous number of terms that sometimes apear. A guy at my lab did his PhD thesis on non-abelian D-brane effective actions, and most of his thesis was figuring out an algorithm to do the calculation, and then letting it run on his pc.
  6. Nov 4, 2005 #5
    Haha, I have The Elegant Universe on DVD and I found it to be very repetitive, briane kept saying something along the lines of "What string theorists believe is that the world is made up of tiny vibrating strings" and he just kept going on about that and not much about the topic itself. Well I'm interested in string theory/a grand unified theory (I think that's what they call it), quantum physics (the part where the quantum world is random, I don't believe in randomness), astrophysics. There may be others that I haven't heard of, I have very limited knowledge of fields in theoretical physics because physics is so badly taught at high school, I get to learn about boring electricity and nothing very interesting.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2005
  7. Nov 4, 2005 #6
    Wow Erzeon, you have pretty much the same interests as I do!
  8. Nov 4, 2005 #7
    You don't believe in quantum mechanics? Well then, tell me how that laser you have in your CD player works. Magic? You may as well believe that 2+2=5.
  9. Nov 4, 2005 #8
    Zero Point Fluctuations have no cause correct?
  10. Nov 4, 2005 #9


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    Niether did Einstein. He said something like - God does not play dice.
  11. Nov 5, 2005 #10
    Sorry, I'm not really answering the question; just thought I'd say hi to a fellow victorian. I'm planning on going to melb uni next year. Partly I won't get into that 99.3 monash course either, and partly because I'm doing enhancement physics (run by melb uni), so it's the natural progression. I don't really think it matters a great deal where you do your undergrad, as long as you get your phd somewhere you're comfortable with. You can always apply for graduate admission. Oh, and I don't know if you're looking interstate, but ANU ranks highly. It also gets the highest undergrad funding of any uni in australia.
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2005
  12. Nov 5, 2005 #11
    Yeh I was also looking at ANU but I'm not sure if I could afford studying there. What's this enhancement physics program run by melb uni? I was thinking that maybe I'd do the science course that at monash that needs an ENTER of 95.3 or something like that, it's called Bachelor of Science Advanced (Honours). I only think it's good because of the ENTER needed to get in, I really don't know how to rank the uni's so I use their entry requirements.

    Does anyone know if theoretical physicists refer to books a lot when doing their work?
  13. Nov 5, 2005 #12
    Ha, I knew it ! :smile: Yeah, but I can tell you it gets really interesting after a course in Quantum mechanics. And QM has applications in many fields and real life (someone already mentioned CD player as an example).

    If you don't have a good interest in mathematics, I (personally) wouldn't recommend string theory. There are other similiar (or, which have more physics involved) areas, like cosmology. In any case, keep an open mind. :)
  14. Nov 5, 2005 #13
    Don't worry, I'm perfectly capable of doing maths. I'm in the accelerated class :D I don't find solving long equations fun though, the only fun thing about maths I like are the concepts and how people came about formulas for stuff like the area of a triangle.
  15. Nov 5, 2005 #14
    If god doesn't play dice; then the collapse of wave functions wouldn't be random either......now we would be back in the 1920's
  16. Nov 6, 2005 #15
    Quantum Mechanics was very different when Einstein was around. Also, he did not mean "god," as in a christian god -- he meant something different.
  17. Nov 6, 2005 #16
    I didn't mean you can't do it, but it may happen that when you actually take a look at what are people doing in that area, you don't find it interesting (like me :). Besides, for example, Hawking's work on black holes seems much more appealing to me than string theory (which is, let's say "similar" field). I have began to study physics with intention to do astrophysics, but as I learned more and more what would I do as an astrophysicst, it became less and less interesting.

    I know how you must have felt, having seen Elegant Universe (I watched it like 3 or 4 times :) or any of the Hawking's popular stuff :smile:, or Carl Sagan's (WOW!) series. These guys really know how to present their work. I think it's too bad there aren't many that good documentaries about other areas of physics (at least I haven't seen them).
  18. Nov 6, 2005 #17
    Well I did list astrophysics as an interesting area I might want to go in :smile:
    I don't think my interests will change.
  19. Nov 7, 2005 #18
    And Bohr told him to stop telling God what to do.

    Anyone in this day and age who wants to refute quantum mechanics needs to turn off their TV, computer, unplug their phone, and cut all power to their house, because without quantum mechanics those things are just waste of money. The only remaining devils are in the details. But QED is already something like 99.996% accurate, being the most accurate scientific theory ever devised.
  20. Nov 7, 2005 #19
    Gleick's book on Chaos theory is quite good.
  21. Nov 8, 2005 #20
    I'm a bit interested in chaos theory, though I don't know how deep you can go into the subject. I've seen the movie "The Butterfly Effect" which is kind of based on the idea of chaos theory.

    However, I don't plan on going into that subject further down the track.
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