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Why do it if someone else does it better?

  1. Sep 6, 2008 #1
    In the thread Are physicists/mathematicians dumb? Howers wrote:
    I'm in my third year of theoretical physics, and what motivates me is that I want to take part in the evolution of scientific knowledge of mankind. But what constantly troubles me is that it's the people Howers described who take the steps forward, not people like me. There's not that many positions open for theoretical phycisists, and certainly even less for those not so brilliant.

    All the hard work we do when trying to understand and learn is downplayed, though not intentionally, by those who have the ability to understand at an instant, with some magical gift of intuition.
    "It took me a week to get this, to really understand what's going on."
    "Yeah, I know... I once had to stop playing World of Warcraft for five minutes while reading the book. Though I was vacuuming, cooking, and performing a cardiac bypass for my father at the same time."

    Am I worth physics, am I justified to study it? What will I contribute to the scientific community or to the mankind when a one gifted person is worth more than 10 or 50 me? I'm just here wasting the time of those who are able, limiting their pace and making courses take longer than necessary.

    These kind of thoughts are especially burdening for me, because I live in Finland and the university education is paid by society. So I'm taking a lot, but probably never giving anything meaningful back.
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  3. Sep 6, 2008 #2


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    I have to disagree that it's easier to teach someone work ethic than a particular subject. I think those who don't spend much time studying eventually hit a wall, and then they fall pretty hard when they don't have the work ethic or study skills to make it over it. Those who are struggling along but constantly putting in the effort (as long as they aren't struggling so much as to be in danger of not passing their courses...I'm talking about people who can still get a B or better, but REALLY have to work hard for it) are more likely to suddenly have that "AHA!" moment when the concepts start to click, and then have the work ethic to surge ahead with that newfound knowledge.
  4. Sep 6, 2008 #3
    I've read that entire post and I somewhat have to agree with Howers. I will be applying to colleges soon... maybe best if I just declare myself undecided before I am positive that I want to be a physicist.

    "those who don't spend much time studying eventually hit a wall, and then they fall pretty hard when they don't have the work ethic or study skills to make it over it"

    That is true, I see it all the time in high school; after several years, those primal "geniuses" don't seem like "geniuses" at all after a few years.
  5. Sep 6, 2008 #4
    That thought troubles me a lot too. Whilst I'm a straight As student and one of the top in my course, I find that I do put in a considerable amount of effort compared to some of my smarter coursemates. Some of them just get things so easily but I have to read and reread the material a couple of times before it clicks. And sometimes in lectures and tutes they come up with some sheer genius ideas. That doesn't happen to me.. which really makes me doubt myself. I guess I'm just a hardworking student with an average intelligence. I love Physics and would like to contribute in some way but I just can't see that happening at the moment. Maybe I should consider doing something else?
  6. Sep 6, 2008 #5


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    Really you guys should pay attention to the mentors and mathwonk rather than an undergraduate who is worried that he will be mopping floors or working at a coffee shop if he doesn't work as a physicist after getting a physics degree.

    Research and knowledge is not a linear thing. One person might be better than another in one part but you may be better in another. Also even if someone is better than you in all aspects the two of you can get more work done than just him.

    Working as a researcher is not about being able to find a solution in a few minutes it is about learning how to approach problems in many different ways (if necessary) to be able to figure out what is going one.

    What do you think will happen to a person who is used to seeing solution quickly when he/she encounters a problem that does not have a quick solution?
  7. Sep 6, 2008 #6
    You don't need to be brilliant; nothing you learn until graduate school isn't already well understood - grasping centuries old ideas isn't what researchers do, but until one is able (willing?) to make a mature assessment of their chances at a scientific career, it will always seem hopeless. The physicists who make major breakthroughs aren't necessarily geniuses, but they don't think about their schoolwork or their grades or if they're "better" or "smarter" than their peers. If you can't put yourself in the mindset to simply do, then you'll never be capable of getting things done. Maybe you should be a philosopher.
  8. Sep 6, 2008 #7
    You can't assume that someone is being honest about their study habits. I wouldn't put it past someone to claim they study for an hour before the test to play themselves up as the "lazy genius."

    Anyways, intelligence is just one piece of the puzzle. In research, it's not as simple as finding the answer the teacher's looking for. Persistence, patience, and hard-work are required. You can't write a thesis the night before its due date.
  9. Sep 6, 2008 #8
    always have a backup plan in case theoretical physics doesnt work out.
  10. Sep 7, 2008 #9
    I've always been of the opinion that the number of people who *really* make a difference is incredibly small. The rest of us are here for two reasons: firstly, you never know what experiments/measurements will be useful, so *someone* has to do them, and secondly, we need to keep the entire body of knowledge alive. You never know who is going to make the next Great Leap Forward... the groundwork has to be preserved for them, whenever they appear.
  11. Sep 7, 2008 #10


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    I think a few more points need to be made here, based on the follow-up discussion.

    First, when you're just starting out learning a subject (college level), the amount of content the subject covers seems overwhelming. It is perfectly NORMAL to sit in a lecture amazed at how much your professor knows and wondering how you'll ever get to that level. If you keep working hard, you WILL get there yourself.

    I was one of those students too. I worked incredibly hard to pull off B's. Some concept always eluded my understanding preventing me from getting the A's, and the most frustrating part of it was knowing I wasn't understanding a concept, but not finding any way to wrap my mind around it no matter how much time I put into studying.

    My "AHA!" moment came after graduation from college. I took a year off, worked in a research lab, and because at the time I thought I was interested in going to med school, spent the year reviewing my old course notes to study for the MCAT. Sitting there, having had the entire course already to put things into perspective, and then going back through it all from the beginning, at my own pace, and thinking about all the subjects I'd taken together, everything started to click.

    The other thing that really helped was actually working in a lab. I had always done well in my lab classes, those were the classes I got A's in while struggling through the lectures. When I took physiology, the first semester had no lab, and I struggled, then the second semester of the course was paired with a lab and concepts in that class started to click for me. Working in a research lab really helped me to see how things were done and how they worked and everything started to make sense. It turns out that I, like many others drawn to laboratory research, am more of a tactile learner. I learn best by seeing and doing, not by reading and listening. Unless you have professors who are well-versed in different learning styles who take this into account in their classes, tactile learners will struggle in lecture courses.

    Another point is that those who can perform well in undergraduate courses, which really do require a lot of regurgitation of known facts, are not necessarily the most creative thinkers. A successful research career requires creative thinking, not just regurgitating old information. Many great discoveries were accidental. What distinguished the great researcher from the ordinary is they saw the opportunity in the accident and has the drive to pursue it in spite of criticism.

    Work ethic is a character trait. I don't think it can be taught once someone gets past their youthful formative years, and even then, I'm not sure if it is really ever taught. If someone doesn't have a good work ethic, they will not get very far when expected to come up with new ideas instead of just regurgitate old ones back. Knowledge is something that can be taught and acquired any time in life. A gap in knowledge can be filled, a lack of work ethic will be a lifelong handicap.

    And this is always a good idea too. It has nothing to do with being good or bad at what you do either. Sometimes it reflects job markets, funding sources, unexpected changes in life. (i.e., what if you need to spend some years taking care of a sick relative where there is no nearby university to pursue an advanced degree, or what if you just find out you don't really like it all that much once you do start, or what if you have a kid and want to spend time with that kid rather than working 18 hour days?) One should always have a back-up plan in life. If I can't do the job that is now my dream job, what would I do instead? This is how one avoids unemployment.
  12. Sep 7, 2008 #11
    I wouldn't necessarily agree that proper work ethic cannot be taught/attained. If a student with bad study habits REALLY wanted to improve the way they study, then it could be done. The problem is getting those people to be motivated to improve and work hard for this goal in the first place.
  13. Sep 7, 2008 #12


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    as it happens i just reread a letter from myself as a postdoctoral researcher, to my mom.

    I said something like: " I am reminded of some of the facets of life here at [insert fancy school name] that made it almost unbearable to me as a young student,

    the mean spirited behavior of people who wield a little administrative power, or the petty tendency of one student to act superior to another.

    The difference this time is I understand it comes from feelings of insecurity, and I am better able to hear such comments without being hurt by them or fighting back.

    It is amazing how much more powerful humility is than pride."

    I hope this is relevant and helpful in this context.
  14. Sep 7, 2008 #13


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    If that is your only motivation you have a problem. Your main motivation should -in my opinion- be that you like physics and enjoy work you do, even when you are not making much progress (which tends to be most of the time in real science).
    Moreover, there are many of examples of famous scientists that made their discoveries not because they were brilliant but because they were in the right place at the right time, had the necessary background and happened to be interested in the "right" problem. Being brilliant is no guarantee that you will make important contributions to science.
    Just think of all the work that has gone into theories that we now know are wrong such as the "steady state universe" in cosmology, some of the people who worked on those theories were probably "brilliant"; they just happened to back the wrong horse at a time when no one had enough experimental data to say which theory was correct.
    However, I am sure most of them still enjoyed going to work every day.
  15. Sep 7, 2008 #14
    Hi, I'd like to expand on the comment I made. Yes, there is a student who practically aces everything with ease. I have spoken with him a few times, and learned a lot about him. He told me he did a lot of math when he was young. By the time he entered highschool he was already starting vector calculus (according to him). He has parents that are engineers I think. I have long wondered if his gift was genetic or developed. Another possibility is that he is lying about his study habits. I doubt he is lying though, because in school he's always on the computer or playing cards or something. And on problem sets he can usually find a solution lightning fast (it is possible he done it at home and is showing off). I can't deny he is a genius. He can do 3 digit multiples in his head really fast, is very witty, and is well-read (ie. ontop of politics and good vocabulary). Something I always told myself is he already knows the material going in. Maybe my justifications are irrational because of envy, who knows. He belives his talents are partly genetic and mostly enviornmental. He says kids born to Spanish parents will be better at Spanish than anyone else, and so naturally kids born to mathematicians (well engineers) will also be better at mathematics than their peers - not because of genetics (you're not born with a Spanish gene) but because of upbringing. This is an interesting point because a lot of good mathematicians or musicians are too born to parents in related fields. Look at Mozart (dad a composer), or even Terrence Tao (father a physicst). Any Nobel winner also had a wealthy upbrining, which could afford them good education.

    His "beliefs" unforunately are not law. Research certainly supports that intelligence is genetic. I mean Beethoven's dad tried really hard to make his son a prodigy from a young age, but failed. Even so, Beethoven turned out exceptional - in some regards I think superior to Mozart. And how do you explain Gauss? In science, the gloomy truth is that most of the revolutionaries share that student's traits. Ie., child prodigies, top of the class, make people's jaws drop etc. The question is whether they are genetic or enviornmental. Psychologists claim it is genetic. But psychology as a science can be questioned, have you ever studied their "scientific methods" ? If you compare that student to me, I did not take math seriously until about 16... he had atleast a 10 year leap ahead of me. If you take a guitarists with a 10 year leap and ask us to learn a new song, I wouldn't be surprised if 10 year guy could learn it in 1/50th of the time.

    I'm not trying to sugar coat this and tell you that you can become a genius eventually. It is not something I, or most professionals for that matter, truly understand. Like I said most research points to the fact that brilliance is genetic, and it is the view I often believe. IQ tests do a wonderful job at predicting this. It is frustrating to see people so much better than I in a math class... and I see it every day. Why should I even bother competing. What I can tell you for certain is that you don't need to be a genius to study and master physics. To make real progress however, is another issue. I think genius is essential, and progress will get you a job. If you are not cut out, you are wasting your time. Don't let professors tell you otherwise, because they like to have as many students as possible so that their work can be exposed to a wider audience (and bigger class = more money for department). I've seen how they treat weaker students like idiots and get all jittery when a strong student makes his or her presence. They want to teach everybody, but they will only give work to the cream of the crop. It might be a subtle form of eugenics, and it certainly explains standarized tests.

    In the end, I don't know what to tell you as I myself am still debating the issue. I know with practice, I got faster at math than I was when I first started linear algebra. My IQ of 115 hasn't changed though. (i expect a lot of typos, so be cautions)
  16. Sep 7, 2008 #15
    Right, and thats why brighter people are better at it because they can hold more things in their short term memory. The fact is all things aside, a higher intelligence is an advantage not a hindrance. We are not equal, so do not assume that if someone is more intelligence he or she is neccessarily coupled with a plethora bad characteristics.

    Smart people are able to find solutions relatively faster, which does not neccessarily transalte into a few seconds. I think if a smart person is challenged by a problem, he will put more effort into it so not as to hurt his pride. And because of superior intelligence, probability would dictate he would be more likely to find the solution - and faster.

    Humility is good for those who are used to being wrong. Pride is for those who are used to being right.
  17. Sep 7, 2008 #16


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    But speed is simply not an issue in real research. A 4 page letter in a good journal is likely to be the results of months (and sometimes years) of work.
    Theoretical physics is perhaps is a bit different from experimental physics in this respect, but even very productive scientists (often post-docs) that work in "hot" field will struggle to publish more than perhaps two papers a year (not counting conference contributions).
    Note that I am not saying being smart is a bad thing, but no one will care if it takes you 5 minutes or 1 hour to solve an equation.
  18. Sep 7, 2008 #17


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    You should never compare yourself to others. Preparation and having people guide a student make a world of difference.

    Something that might give some insight as to what is going on is to see what happens in a family where there is no background of parents being professionals and so on.

    I have already given a bit of my family background in your thread. I came from a very un-privileged family. We are 8 siblings. I am the oldest. When I was educated in public education and was taking algebra 1 in 9th grade. Now there is probably some genetics that plays a role in all of this, in particular two of my brothers (the two that were born after me) are not all that interested in math or education for that matter. However the next two are. When they come to my house and see some of the books I have they are interested by some of those things and that motivates them to learn. These are motivations that I did not have when I was their age. I did not even know books could be obtained from anywhere other than a library or the school until I got out of high school. One of those two is a senior in high school and he will be entering college being done with all the lower division undergraduate coursework. He will be taking upper division math as a freshman in college. There will no doubt be those who think he is a genius. Many of his classmates think he is a genius because he was in Precalculus as a freshman in high school. However, he was in precalculus as a freshman in high school because I was able to guide him. He will be done with his lower division math because I was able to guide him. Overall he has not had to work as hard as I did because I knew how to optimize his path through high school and he followed my advice. The younger one will be beyond the lower division math by the time he graduates from high school.Now I don't know that either of them are geniuses, maybe some will think that they are.

    The main point is that there can be a huge difference in how smart a person appear as a result of preparation.

    Now you must also remember that Gauss showed promise as a child but he had many people help him out. In particular the Duke of Brunswick funded his education and a math professor, Zimmerman, I believe it was.

    Do you think that he would have done everything he did is he had not had the support of those around him?

    It doesn't take a genius to be a good researcher.

    How do you define genius? IQ >=130 ?

    Why won't you listen to people who tell you that hard work is what matters?

    You do know that there are professors that genuinely care about student learning, right?

    How is that related to standardized tests? Standardized test are not for the cream of the crop.

    Well what I tell you is to listen to other people who are more experienced than you are. Your classmate is more experienced since he received a privileged education. He knows what he is talking about. I have seen contrast from one sibling to the next of what even a small amount of extra education can do.

    Except something take a LONG time to figure out.
    The problem that I will be working that will become my PhD thesis is an extension of something a fields medalist worked on. Now this guy proved something that many others worked hard at proving but could not. When my advisor asked him how he figured out how to prove that he said that he just took laplacians of things for two years until he saw one that worked. There are many mathematicians that are smarter than him in some measures but he had persistence.
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2008
  19. Sep 7, 2008 #18
    I already agreed with the fact that preperation can make you better at one subject. But if you consistently outperform someone in all things, even trivial ones like mental calculation, you can only infer genetics play a role.

    And it was because Gauss showed promise as a child that he recieved privledged education. Why were the countless 1000s living in Gauss' time not offered such a privledge? Becuase people understood then as they do now that some people have better aptitude.

    Sure, we can go with that. It is the standard to be deemed gifted and be allowed to enrolled in enriched education, which leads me to believe this education has been attempted for lower scores and with less success.
    Hard work matters, no doubt. But why bother when you are handicapped for the rest of your life.

    Sure they care about student learning. I don't believe they think highly of slow students though.

    By definition, standardized tests are that are based on percentiles. And why do they have verbal sections that are timed? They want a rough measure of fluid intelligence.
  20. Sep 7, 2008 #19
    I disagree.
    I enjoy science and politics equally because I FEEL like I am making a difference in them.
    this differs for everyone, some people teach to make a difference.

    BTW We are arguing over IQ AGAIN.
    Feynman supposedly had a 120 IQ. Look at what he did.
    I have a 138 IQ and I scrape out Bs.
  21. Sep 7, 2008 #20


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    mr howers, from your reaction to my post, i have decided you are indeed difficult to help. good advice just rolls off your back.
  22. Sep 7, 2008 #21
    Howers, for someone with so little confidence in his own abilities you sure seem to think you're right about everything. To say that someone with an I.Q. of 115 is mentally handicapped is a joke. My younger brother is seven years old and can't speak a sentence or feed himself, he's mentally handicapped - it's time for you to grow up and stop with the meltdown. Clearly you are in science for the wrong reason if you are put off by others being better than you at it.

    My answer to the original question is this: the ONLY reason to do science at all is because you have a passion for it. By merely asking the question you should question your motivation; people don't do science because they want prestige and influence and to me this is the only reason why you would want to make a difference in science. The joy of discovery should come from simply learning to understand the world. This means you aren't doing science to revolutionize it, merely to absorb it and enjoy it.
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2008
  23. Sep 7, 2008 #22


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    One might question if the purpose if this thread is to really find an answer, or simply to vent some frustrations.

    Obviously there are lots of people here, myself included, who believe that there is a point to hammering away at difficult intellectual tasks in spite of not considering themselves geniuses - or even especially gifted. And the reason for that, in my opinion, is that they understand that just because you don't win a nobel prize, doesn't mean that your work doesn't hold some value for society.

    Science doesn't always advance in leaps and bounds - rather small, neccessary, incremental steps. Edison, for example, is often quoted as having discovered ten thousand ways NOT to make a lightbulb before he discovered the right way.
  24. Sep 7, 2008 #23
    look, if you think you got what it takes to compete for grants in academia, then go for it. If not, then it isn't for you.
  25. Sep 7, 2008 #24


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    Why do it?

    Why not? If you have a decent idea and are willing to work your tail off and grind it out, you can certainly make contributions. There are some important niches in specialties that are not glamorous, and are not really "hot" by current standards and are therefor unlikely to attract a lot of competition. It is possible for one or more unaffiliated researchers to tackle a subject that is currently considered "mined out" and add to our knowledge. You don't have to be a "star" to contribute, nor do you have to be associated with a school with a prominent research program. You just have to be willing to work.

    There are some fields, obviously, where this approach works better than in others. If you have an interest in astronomy, for instance, there are enormous databases of publicly-available observations that can be mined. I wouldn't expect that similar advances could be made in fields such as particle physics, in which affiliation with programs with access to $$$$$$$$ accelerators might be required before one could make significant contributions.
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2008
  26. Sep 7, 2008 #25
    This goes for me, too. I guess some part of me want's to be hammered down. That way it would be easier to give up, believing that I wasn't any good at it anyway.

    I don't want prestige and influence, but to somehow justify my existence (as a physicist). I don't want to be great because of greatness itself, but because then I have probably achieved something that has any value outside my own head. Then I could say that my life hasn't been completely in vain.

    Of course I have a passion for science, but that can't keep me motivated, because I feel it isn't a justifiable motivation. If I exaggerated a bit I could say I feel like a bad person because I'm not doing anything worth anything. Ask a carpenter what he did today, and he says he made a bench. Ask a doctor what she did today, and she says she saved a life. Ask me, and I say I stared at equations someone else could have solved.

    (But don't get me wrong. I don't want this to go into a philosophical debate on what's the purpose of purpose or whatever. I just wanted to clarify my original post.)
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