My chances to speak with brilliant minds seems to be increasing… I am sure there is a way I can isolate the variables and model this – were my differential equation skills less rusty. Maybe in the future. Anyhow – I managed to speak with a wonderful mind at the end of the undergraduate programme at a large London university, who alerted me to an article which would be of interest to me – it most certainly was so I thought I would share the article and share my thoughts. The article is published by CERN and is titled In Theory: Is theoretical physics in crisis?
This title really grabbed my intention – my career in crisis? All of us young scientists with stars in our eyes…how could this be so? One of the issues the article highlights is the fact that this is a relatively quiet patch in theoretical physics, with the sexy stuff happening for the experimentalists which may well naturally distort the current generation to favour experiment. I have to say, I am not sure I see this as a huge problem depending on the extent. I recently spoke with a Professor from Queen Mary university who warned me of the ultra competitive nature of trying to carve a career in theoretical physics. Internet research shows he is quite right – it is cut throat. In my opinion the exodus that we would need from the pool of potential theorists to experimental disciplines is so large it seems unlikely. We might end up with a slight skew – but does that not sound like a natural order? Did more people not get charmed by theory in the great string revolution? All of the great leaps cannot be synchronous between theory and experiment. The lure of the disciplines must be cyclical with a lag.
One really good point that was raised however is the stale ground of fresh ideas in theory at the moment. It is certainly true that there seems to be less low hanging fruit in the field at the moment – and when giving your career the boost it needs in its tentative years, is this really the environment you want to be in? When there are particles to be smashed together to make real things. You need to look at the career choice pragmatically… maybe you want to be a theorist, but if you want to be a theorist you would also love experimental work too they are hardly discrete. So if you can only have one or none then the choice is easy?
There is a great Feynman quote in there (although is there a bad Feynman quote?) which goes;
“Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”
I love Feynman’s words they are always pure gold – that’s why you will find him pinned to my Twitter. Once again he is on the money – why did you start this whole thing in the first place? Sometimes, when I sit here late at night on a week day, with 5 hours sleep ahead of me before a 10 hour day at work followed by yet more degree work I think what is the point. Even the very best scientists have moments of doubt – and these are where we need to remember why we do this. We do it, because like sex it brings pleasure – although I hope of a different nature. If not, keep that one to yourself. Theoretical physics is still buzzing with opportunity but it is a lower buzz… this about this:
Does the quantum world fit with relativity yet? No
Does string theory work yet? No
Do we know for sure if there are more than 4 dimensions? Debatably. Do we know how many there are? Not even close.
Do we know what dark energy is? No
Do we know what dark matter is? No
These questions are all in the field of biggest questions in the universe.. I see no reason to be disheartened by quiet when we still have the grandest questions of all flirting with us on the horizon.
The article makes great points and it is an amazing read – I would recommend anyone who is considering a career in the field to give it a read. It is really important to get a perspective on these things. There is no point running around thinking you will solve the Theory of Everything in total naive dumfounded ignorance. The road is hard that we tread and we should be prepared for that. I remain however, the eternal optimist and devoted entirely to science.
If the wonderful mind that recommended the article is reading -then a special thank you goes to you.