Tag Archives: physics

What Science Would You Do If You Had the Time?

I know a lot of people who worry about the state of academia. They worry that the competition for grants and jobs has twisted scientists’ priorities, that the sort of dedicated research of the past, sitting down and thinking about a topic until you really understand it, just isn’t possible anymore. The timeline varies: there are people who think the last really important development was the Standard Model, or the top quark, or AdS/CFT. Even more optimistic people, who think physics is still just as great as it ever was, often complain that they don’t have enough time.

Sometimes I wonder what physics would be like if we did have the time. If we didn’t have to worry about careers and funding, what would we do? I can speculate, comparing to different communities, but here I’m interested in something more concrete: what, specifically, could we accomplish? I often hear people complain that the incentives of academia discourage deep work, but I don’t often hear examples of the kind of deep work that’s being discouraged.

So I’m going to try an experiment here. I know I have a decent number of readers who are scientists of one field or another. Imagine you didn’t have to worry about funding any more. You’ve got a permanent position, and what’s more, your favorite collaborators do too. You don’t have to care about whether your work is popular, whether it appeals to the university or the funding agencies or any of that. What would you work on? What projects would you personally do, that you don’t have the time for in the current system? What worthwhile ideas has modern academia left out?

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Congratulations to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou, and Donna Strickland!

The 2018 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou, and Donna Strickland for their work in laser physics.

nobel2018Some Nobel prizes recognize discoveries of the fundamental nature of reality. Others recognize the tools that make those discoveries possible.

Ashkin developed techniques that use lasers to hold small objects in place, culminating in “optical tweezers” that can pick up and move individual bacteria. Mourou and Strickland developed chirped pulse amplification, the current state of the art in extremely high-power lasers. Strickland is only the third woman to win the Nobel prize in physics, Ashkin at 96 is the oldest person to ever win the prize.

(As an aside, the phrase “optical tweezers” probably has you imagining two beams of laser light pinching a bacterium between them, like microscopic lightsabers. In fact, optical tweezers use a single beam, focused and bent so that if an object falls out of place it will gently roll back to the middle of the beam. Instead of tweezers, it’s really more like a tiny laser spoon.)

The Nobel announcement emphasizes practical applications, like eye surgery. It’s important to remember that these are research tools as well. I wouldn’t have recognized the names of Ashkin, Mourou, and Strickland, but I recognized atom trapping, optical tweezers, and ultrashort pulses. Hang around atomic physicists, or quantum computing experiments, and these words pop up again and again. These are essential tools that have given rise to whole subfields. LIGO won a Nobel based on the expectation that it would kick-start a vast new area of research. Ashkin, Mourou, and Strickland’s work already has.

Don’t Marry Your Arbitrary

This fall, I’m TAing a course on General Relativity. I haven’t taught in a while, so it’s been a good opportunity to reconnect with how students think.

This week, one problem left several students confused. The problem involved Christoffel symbols, the bane of many a physics grad student, but the trick that they had to use was in the end quite simple. It’s an example of a broader trick, a way of thinking about problems that comes up all across physics.

To see a simplified version of the problem, imagine you start with this sum:

g(j)=\Sigma_{i=0}^n ( f(i,j)-f(j,i) )

Now, imagine you want to sum the function g(j) over j. You can write:

\Sigma_{j=0}^n g(j) = \Sigma_{j=0}^n \Sigma_{i=0}^n ( f(i,j)-f(j,i) )

Let’s break this up into two terms, for later convenience:

\Sigma_{j=0}^n g(j) = \Sigma_{j=0}^n \Sigma_{i=0}^n f(i,j) - \Sigma_{j=0}^n \Sigma_{i=0}^n f(j,i)

Without telling you anything about f(i,j), what do you know about this sum?

Well, one thing you know is that i and j are arbitrary.

i and j are letters you happened to use. You could have used different letters, x and y, or \alpha and \beta. You could even use different letters in each term, if you wanted to. You could even just pick one term, and swap i and j.

\Sigma_{j=0}^n g(j) = \Sigma_{j=0}^n \Sigma_{i=0}^n f(i,j) - \Sigma_{i=0}^n \Sigma_{j=0}^n f(i,j) = 0

And now, without knowing anything about f(i,j), you know that \Sigma_{j=0}^n g(j) is zero.

In physics, it’s extremely important to keep track of what could be really physical, and what is merely your arbitrary choice. In general relativity, your choice of polar versus spherical coordinates shouldn’t affect your calculation. In quantum field theory, your choice of gauge shouldn’t matter, and neither should your scheme for regularizing divergences.

Ideally, you’d do your calculation without making any of those arbitrary choices: no coordinates, no choice of gauge, no regularization scheme. In practice, sometimes you can do this, sometimes you can’t. When you can’t, you need to keep that arbitrariness in the back of your mind, and not get stuck assuming your choice was the only one. If you’re careful with arbitrariness, it can be one of the most powerful tools in physics. If you’re not, you can stare at a mess of Christoffel symbols for hours, and nobody wants that.

Different Fields, Different Worlds

My grandfather is a molecular biologist. When we meet, we swap stories: the state of my field and his, different methods and focuses but often a surprising amount of common ground.

Recently he forwarded me an article by Raymond Goldstein, a biological physicist, arguing that biologists ought to be more comfortable with physical reasoning. The article is interesting in its own right, contrasting how physicists and biologists think about the relationship between models, predictions, and experiments. But what struck me most about the article wasn’t the content, but the context.

Goldstein’s article focuses on a question that seemed to me oddly myopic: should physical models be in the Results section, or the Discussion section?

As someone who has never written a paper with either a Results section or a Discussion section, I wondered why anyone would care. In my field, paper formats are fairly flexible. We usually have an Introduction and a Conclusion, yes, but in between we use however many sections we need to explain what we need to. In contrast, biology papers seem to have a very fixed structure: after the Introduction, there’s a Results section, a Discussion section, and a Materials and Methods section at the end.

At first blush, this seemed incredibly bizarre. Why describe your results before the methods you used to get them? How do you talk about your results without discussing them, but still take a full section to do it? And why do reviewers care how you divide things up in the first place?

It made a bit more sense once I thought about how biology differs from theoretical physics. In theoretical physics, the “methods” are most of the result: unsolved problems are usually unsolved because existing methods don’t solve them, and we need to develop new methods to make progress. Our “methods”, in turn, are often the part of the paper experts are most eager to read. In biology, in contrast, the methods are much more standardized. While papers will occasionally introduce new methods, there are so many unexplored biological phenomena that most of the time researchers don’t need to invent a new method: just asking a question no-one else has asked can be enough for a discovery. In that environment, the “results” matter a lot more: they’re the part that takes the most scrutiny, that needs to stand up on its own.

I can even understand the need for a fixed structure. Biology is a much bigger field than theoretical physics. My field is small enough that we all pretty much know each other. If a paper is hard to read, we’ll probably get a chance to ask the author what they meant. Biology, in contrast, is huge. An important result could come from anywhere, and anyone. Having a standardized format makes it a lot easier to scan through an unfamiliar paper and find what you need, especially when there might be hundreds of relevant papers.

The problem with a standardized system, as always, is the existence of exceptions. A more “physics-like” biology paper is more readable with “physics-like” conventions, even if the rest of the field needs to stay “biology-like”. Because of that, I have a lot of sympathy for Goldstein’s argument, but I can’t help but feel that he should be asking for more. If creating new mathematical models and refining them with observation is at the heart of what Goldstein is doing, then maybe he shouldn’t have to use Results/Discussion/Methods in the first place. Maybe he should be allowed to write biology papers that look more like physics papers.

Conferences Are Work! Who Knew?

I’ve been traveling for over a month now, from conference to conference, with a bit of vacation thrown in at the end.

(As such, I haven’t had time to read up on the recent announcement of the detection of neutrinos and high-energy photons from a blazar, Matt Strassler has a nice piece on it.)

One thing I didn’t expect was how exhausting going to three conferences in a row would be. I didn’t give any talks this time around, so I thought I was skipping the “work” part. But sitting in a room for talk after talk, listening and taking notes, turns out to still be work! There’s effort involved in paying attention, especially in a scientific talk where the details matter. You assess the talks in your head, turning concepts around and thinking about what you might do with them. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice for a seminar or two, but at a conference, after a while, it really builds up. After three, let’s just say I’ve really needed this vacation. I’ll be back at work next week, and maybe I’ll have a longer blog post for you folks. Until then, I ought to get some rest!

Why Physicists Leave Physics

It’s an open secret that many physicists end up leaving physics. How many depends on how you count things, but for a representative number, this report has 31% of US physics PhDs in the private sector after one year. I’d expect that number to grow with time post-PhD. While some of these people might still be doing physics, in certain sub-fields that isn’t really an option: it’s not like there are companies that do R&D in particle physics, astrophysics, or string theory. Instead, these physicists get hired in data science, or quantitative finance, or machine learning. Others stay in academia, but stop doing physics: either transitioning to another field, or taking teaching-focused jobs that don’t leave time for research.

There’s a standard economic narrative for why this happens. The number of students grad schools accept and graduate is much higher than the number of professor jobs. There simply isn’t room for everyone, so many people end up doing something else instead.

That narrative is probably true, if you zoom out far enough. On the ground, though, the reasons people leave academia don’t feel quite this “economic”. While they might be indirectly based on a shortage of jobs, the direct reasons matter. Physicists leave physics for a wide variety of reasons, and many of them are things the field could improve on. Others are factors that will likely be present regardless of how many students graduate, or how many jobs there are. I worry that an attempt to address physics attrition on a purely economic level would miss these kinds of details.

I thought I’d talk in this post about a few reasons why physicists leave physics. Most of this won’t be new information to anyone, but I hope some of it is at least a new perspective.

First, to get it out of the way: almost no-one starts a physics PhD with the intention of going into industry. I’ve met a grand total of one person who did, and he’s rather unusual. Almost always, leaving physics represents someone’s dreams not working out.

Sometimes, that just means realizing you aren’t suited for physics. These are people who feel like they aren’t able to keep up with the material, or people who find they aren’t as interested in it as they expected. In my experience, people realize this sort of thing pretty early. They leave in the middle of grad school, or they leave once they have their PhD. In some sense, this is the healthy sort of attrition: without the ability to perfectly predict our interests and abilities, there will always be people who start a career and then decide it’s not for them.

I want to distinguish this from a broader reason to leave, disillusionment. These are people who can do physics, and want to do physics, but encounter a system that seems bent on making them do anything but. Sometimes this means disillusionment with the field itself: phenomenologists sick of tweaking models to lie just beyond the latest experimental bounds, or theorists who had hoped to address the real world but begin to see that they can’t. This kind of motivation lay behind several great atomic physicists going into biology after the second world war, to work on “life rather than death”. Sometimes instead it’s disillusionment with academia: people who have been bludgeoned by academic politics or bureaucracy, who despair of getting the academic system to care about real research or teaching instead of its current screwed-up priorities or who just don’t want to face that kind of abuse again.

When those people leave, it’s at every stage in their career. I’ve seen grad students disillusioned into leaving without a PhD, and successful tenured professors who feel like the field no longer has anything to offer them. While occasionally these people just have a difference of opinion, a lot of the time they’re pointing out real problems with the system, problems that actually should be fixed.

Sometimes, life intervenes. The classic example is the two-body problem, where you and your spouse have trouble finding jobs in the same place. There aren’t all that many places in the world that hire theoretical physicists, and still fewer with jobs open. One or both partners end up needing to compromise, and that can mean switching to a career with a bit more choice in location. People also move to take care of their parents, or because of other connections.

This seems closer to the economic picture, but I don’t think it quite lines up. Even if there were a lot fewer physicists applying for the same number of jobs, it’s still not certain that there’s a job where you want to live, specifically. You’d still end up with plenty of people leaving the field.

A commenter here frequently asks why physicists have to travel so much. Especially for a theorist, why can’t we just work remotely? With current technology, shouldn’t that be pretty easy to do?

I’ve done a lot of remote collaboration, it’s not impossible. But there really isn’t a substitute for working in the same place, for being able to meet someone in the hall and strike up a conversation around a blackboard. Remote collaborations are an ok way to keep a project going, but a rough way to start one. Institutes realize this, which is part of why most of the time they’ll only pay you a salary if they think you’re actually going to show up.

Could I imagine this changing? Maybe. The technology doesn’t exist right now, but maybe someday someone will design a social network with the right features, one where you can strike up and work on collaborations as naturally as you can in person. Then again, maybe I’m silly for imagining a technological solution to the problem in the first place.

What about more direct economic reasons? What about when people leave because of the academic job market itself?

This certainly happens. In my experience though, a lot of the time it’s pre-emptive. You’d think that people would apply for academic jobs, get rejected, and quit the field. More often, I’ve seen people notice the competition for jobs and decide at the outset that it’s not worth it for them. Sometimes this happens right out of grad school. Other times it’s later. In the latter case, these are often people who are “keeping up”, in that their career is moving roughly as fast as everyone else’s. Rather, it’s the stress, of keeping ahead of the field and marketing themselves and applying for every grant in sight and worrying that it could come crashing down any moment, that ends up too much to deal with.

What about the people who do get rejected over and over again?

Physics, like life in Jurassic Park, finds a way. Surprisingly often, these people manage to stick around. Without faculty positions they scrabble up postdoc after postdoc, short-term position after short-term position. They fund their way piece by piece, grant by grant. Often they get depressed, and cynical, and pissed off, and insist that this time they’re just going to quit the field altogether. But from what I’ve seen, once someone is that far in, they often don’t go through with it.

If fewer people went to physics grad school, or more professors were hired, would fewer people leave physics? Yes, absolutely. But there’s enough going on here, enough different causes and different motivations, that I suspect things wouldn’t work out quite as predicted. Some attrition is here to stay, some is independent of the economics. And some, perhaps, is due to problems we ought to actually solve.

Why Your Idea Is Bad

By A. Physicist

 

Your idea is bad…

 

…because it disagrees with precision electroweak measurements

…………………………………..with bounds from ATLAS and CMS

…………………………………..with the power spectrum of the CMB

…………………………………..with Eötvös experiments

…because it isn’t gauge invariant

………………………….Lorentz invariant

………………………….diffeomorphism invariant

………………………….background-independent, whatever that means

…because it violates unitarity

…………………………………locality

…………………………………causality

…………………………………observer-independence

…………………………………technical naturalness

…………………………………international treaties

…………………………………cosmic censorship

…because you screwed up the calculation

…because you didn’t actually do the calculation

…because I don’t understand the calculation

…because you predict too many magnetic monopoles

……………………………………too many proton decays

……………………………………too many primordial black holes

…………………………………..remnants, at all

…because it’s fine-tuned

…because it’s suspiciously finely-tuned

…because it’s finely tuned to be always outside of experimental bounds

…because you’re misunderstanding quantum mechanics

…………………………………………………………..black holes

………………………………………………………….effective field theory

…………………………………………………………..thermodynamics

…………………………………………………………..the scientific method

…because Condensed Matter would contribute more to Chinese GDP

…because the approximation you’re making is unjustified

…………………………………………………………………………is not valid

…………………………………………………………………………is wildly overoptimistic

………………………………………………………………………….is just kind of lazy

…because there isn’t a plausible UV completion

…because you care too much about the UV

…because it only works in polynomial time

…………………………………………..exponential time

…………………………………………..factorial time

…because even if it’s fast it requires more memory than any computer on Earth

…because it requires more bits of memory than atoms in the visible universe

…because it has no meaningful advantages over current methods

…because it has meaningful advantages over my own methods

…because it can’t just be that easy

…because it’s not the kind of idea that usually works

…because it’s not the kind of idea that usually works in my field

…because it isn’t canonical

…because it’s ugly

…because it’s baroque

…because it ain’t baroque, and thus shouldn’t be fixed

…because only a few people work on it

…because far too many people work on it

…because clearly it will only work for the first case

……………………………………………………………….the first two cases

……………………………………………………………….the first seven cases

……………………………………………………………….the cases you’ve published and no more

…because I know you’re wrong

…because I strongly suspect you’re wrong

…because I strongly suspect you’re wrong, but saying I know you’re wrong looks better on a grant application

…….in a blog post

…because I’m just really pessimistic about something like that ever actually working

…because I’d rather work on my own thing, that I’m much more optimistic about

…because if I’m clear about my reasons

……and what I know

…….and what I don’t

……….then I’ll convince you you’re wrong.

 

……….or maybe you’ll convince me?