Thursday, February 09, 2012

When I grow up I want to be a physicist

The other day I talked to a young women who is about to finish high school, so the time is coming to decide what education to pursue after that. What does a theoretical physicist actually do?, she asked. And while I was babbling away, I recalled how little I knew myself what a physicist does when I was a young student.

Of course I knew that professors give lectures. And I had read a bunch of popular science books and biographies, from which I concluded that theoretical physics requires a lot of thinking. The physicists I had read about, they also wrote many books, and articles and, most of all, letters. They really wrote a lot of letters, these people. There also was the occasional mentioning of a conference, where talks had to be given. And I could have learned from these historical narratives that, even back then, the physicists moved a lot, but I blamed that on one or the other war. I never asked who organized these conferences or hired these people.

While one could say that my family is scientifically minded, when I grew up I didn't know anybody who worked in scientific research or in academia who I could have asked what their daily life looks like. Today, it is easier for young people with an interest in science to find out what a profession entails in practice, and if you are thinking about a career in science, I really encourage you too look around. Piled higher and deeper has documented the sufferings of PhD students as humorously as aptly, and postdocs from many areas of science write blogs. When I finished high school, I didn't even know what a postdoc is! At the higher career levels, bloggers are still sparse, but they are there, and they tell you what theoretical physicists do.

Yes, they give lectures. They also give seminars, and attend seminars. They write articles and read articles, and review articles. They also write the occasional book, though that isn't very common in the early career stages. They attend conferences and workshops, and also organize conferences and workshops. They travel a lot. They sit in committees for all sorts of organizational and administrational purposes.

To some extend, the books I had read contained a little of all of that. What they did not tell me anything about was one thing that theoretical physicists today spend a lot of time on: writing proposals. They write and write and write proposals, to fund their own research or their research group, their students and postdocs, or their conferences, or maybe just their own book, or long-term stays. If you want to be a theoretical physicist, you better get used to the idea that a big part of your job will consist of asking for money, again and again and again. And then, somebody also has to review these proposals...

You will not be surprised to hear that theoretical physicists do no longer write a lot of letters. I don't know how their email frequency compares to that of the general population, but this touches on one aspect of research in theoretical physics that you read about very, very little on blogs. That is how tightly knit the community really is, and how much people talk to each other and exchange ideas.

At least on the blogs that I read, it's like an unwritten code. You don't blog about conversations with your peers, except possibly under special circumstances (like for an interview). Most of these conversations are considered private and sharing inappropriate, even if confidentiality was not explicitly asked for. I think this is good because there needs to be room for privacy. However, this might give the reader a somewhat distorted picture of what research looks like. It is really a lot about exchanging ideas, it is a lot about asking questions, and about building up on other people's argument. A lot of research is communication with colleagues. So, if you try to catch a taste of theoretical physics from reading blogs, keep in mind that most bloggers will not pull their nonblogging colleagues into a public discussion.

Oh, yes, and in the remaining time - the time not spent on reading papers, sitting in seminars, organizing conferences or writing proposals or reports or blogging - in that time, they think.

If you are considering to become a scientist: Check out this wonderful tumblr site that shows you some photos of real scientists!

12 comments:

Uncle Al said...

Scientists imagine new things of wonder.

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/floats.png
Everything else is management.

joel rice said...

From reading the Born-Einstein letters it also seems they spent a lot of time riding around on their respective Hobby Horses.

Plato said...

Hi Bee,

That scarecrow does not make it too promising, as to how one might want to enter the field/garden?:)

Best,

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I always wanted to be a physicist when I grew up and yet neither came to pass :-)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Plato,

Well, as you can see, not even the birds are very scared of the "scarecrow." I am thinking of the image of the detached, high-nosed academic as a laid-off myth, one that isn't even useful anymore to scare away the crows. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I always wanted to be a writer and yet that didn't work out either, mostly because I couldn't figure out how one actually lives from writing. In the end I think it doesn't matter much - we all work towards a composition of our daily lives that fits best to our interests, and so I write, if not with much expertise, and you do physics, if not by doing research, which isn't perfect, but then nothing real is ever perfect. Best,

B.

Rastus Odinga Odinga said...

"However, this might give the reader a somewhat distorted picture of what research looks like. It is really a lot about exchanging ideas, it is a lot about asking questions, and about building up on other people's argument. A lot of research is communication with colleagues."
Oh dear this looks *very* discouraging for the kind of young people who *don't* like exchanging ideas or communicating with colleagues! Surely you must know some physicists who love to think things through by themselves, enjoying some peace and quiet? I know someone who never talks about his research until it is finished, and who dismisses collaborations as "research by committee". I have also heard it said that "endless travel, conferences every second month --- leave that for your retirement, when you might enjoy gossiping with your coevals as a replacement for actual research!"
I do hope you tell young prospective physicists that there is still *some* room left for people who are not afflicted by the modern disease of fearing to be alone sometimes.....

Bee said...

Hi Rastus,

I know many introverts. I'm not trying to discourage anybody, I'm just telling it the way it is, at least in my experience. If you're a scientist and you're not communicating your ideas, you have pretty much failed your profession. That doesn't mean one has to talk all day: communication by email, or distribution of drafts will do. Though face-to-face communication is dramatically more effective. As a matter of fact, I know very, very few physicists (less than a handful) who have worked for an extended amount of time (say, more than a few months) without exchange with colleagues. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I’m almost certain few people end up doing what they most enjoy for a living and I would agree part of that has to do with what you mentioned, with the other part as fearing that by depending on it for their livelihood it might not be as much enjoyed anymore. One thing I can tell you about what I do for my daily bread is there are many aspects about it which I find I enjoy, with nearly all which I don’t stemming from the fact that for most money is taken as the overbearing metric for both value and reward. It then has always had me to wonder, that perhaps if this were looked at carefully as to have all to address it seriously that more things might be found to be closer to being perfect.

As an example I enjoy both coming to understanding ideas and developing means to have them promoted as to be given a chance to grow and thus wonder why professions such as yours don’t have more people dedicated primarily to this necessary component for whom it would be mostly a joy, as to leave those who don’t find it as so allowed to be more focused on its doing, having it greater enjoyed and therein perhaps better for all. In short when it comes to wondering about the differences between working to live and living to work I think perfection can only be realized when having such a distinction found as necessary to have no meaning.

“The secret of joy in work is contained in one word-excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.”

- Pearl S. Buck

I thus would add only one proviso to the above words of Ms. Buck, being the first thing required is in needing to care about excellence as being a measure of self as much as it is of one’s work. That is this is what I find as the central challenge we all face as humans when thoughts of perfection are had.

Best,

Phil

Uncle Al said...

@Phil Warnell "ecellence"

Excellence is reproducible application beautifully solving a problem. Surface-modified Gorilla glass is not merely a Steve Jobs' aesthetic call.

Science is forever the enemy of soft thinking. A good idea need only be testable. It is believable afterward - the exact opposite of politics and religion. Politics and religion say "good doggie" until they can find a really big rock.

Bee said...

Hi Andrew,

It's not a random function. Or, maybe I misunderstand what you mean with "random function." Do you really mean the function is random, or do you mean its output is a random variable? Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Uncle Al,

Despite the believe held by many all one needs is to built a better mouse trap and the world will come knocking at your door, I’ve observed to the contrary that even in science without due attention given to promotion many traps lie gathering dust only to the benefit of the mice running free:-) So as admittedly although necessity is often the mother of invention, only with the successful communication of one’s passion to have it found so by others has it able to become real for them. That is science is not excluded from the limits of its inventors.

Best,

Phil