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The perils of becoming a theoretical physicist

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From Bob Henderson, a finance writer with a physics background, at Nautilus:

Einstein and Feynman ushered me into grad school, reality ushered me out.

All of my classmates had taken up with advisors who were, like most physicists, experimentalists, the researchers who do the hands-on work of, say, smashing particles together at accelerators to see what comes out. Theorists like Rajeev, or for that matter Einstein and Feynman, who instead do the noodling necessary to explain the results of experiments with math are fewer and further between. A couple of Rochester’s experimentalists had pressured me to drop my dream of doing theory because, they explained, theory was so ridiculously difficult and had so few jobs. But I’d brushed them off. The whole reason I’d quit my job and come to Rochester was to do theory and to pursue “The Grail.” Anything less would have felt like failure.

The most distressing surprise I encountered working with Rajeev didn’t come from the quantum gravity project, but another on which I collaborated with Rajeev’s other students and postdocs in addition to Rajeev himself. The surprise was how ill-equipped I was to calculate compared to those other students and, I soon realized, compared to all the other theory students in the department, all of whom seemed to be much more familiar than me with a vast landscape of math relevant to physics that I’d first encountered in my first meeting with Rajeev and that was then and still was now as foreign to me as Khartoum.

It didn’t help that none of the other theory students had a background remotely like mine. None were even from the United States. Most, like Rajeev himself, came from developing countries like China, India, Turkey, and Brazil. Several told me that their educational systems had challenged them with more rigorous curricula than what I’d experienced, and had given them head starts by focusing them on math and science earlier in their educations. Although it was also true that many of them, Rajeev included, had made math a hobby as teenagers, while I at that age was still fantasizing about following in the footsteps of my favorite private eyes on TV. More.

Henderson quit and went to work on Wall Street. That might not have been a bad idea, to judge from his account. If he made money, he’d at least know he made some. It’s unclear just where theoretical physics is headed now.

See also: 2017 as the Year of Dark Matter? We must all hope some dark matter
is found soon. It doesn’t matter that much if intelligent aliens do not exist or even if if life itself doesn’t exist off Earth. But if we can’t make sense of our best theories without dark matter—but cant find it—Houston, we have a problem.

The war on falsifiability in science continues


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