Friday, May 19, 2017

What Graduate School in Theoretical Physics Can be Like

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History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler.

A blog I read faithfully is written by mathematical physicist, Peter Woit (Columbia University). I don't read it because I understand much of the content. I don't. It is heavy duty physics most of the time and what I understand is often fleeting but I enjoy Woit's exposition and responses as well as his eagle eye for interesting stuff to read and other links to talks, blog posts, papers, etc.

Woit has been a long-time and I think thoughtful critic of what is called string theory. Woit has both friends and bitter enemies and was once referred to as a terrorist which seems way too extreme to me but the language of war is one that comes naturally it seems but used way too often.

I discovered Woit several years ago upon reading an essay in the American Scientist. Woit was very critical of not only string theory but of an NSF requirement that grants allocate some funds to public outreach, especially education for teachers. Woit thought, as I do, that this doesn't make sense for many of the more esoteric disciplines. I'm all for professional development just not this kind. So, I started looking for his name for hoped for thoughtful criticism, the kind that makes you think and question what you think you know. 

The title of Woit's blog, Not Even Wrong, is attributed to the brilliant and often acerbic theoretician, Wolfgang Pauli, a Nobel prize awardee. It refers to an argument that fails at some deep level. Pauli was a master of very deep physical thinking. Much of the progress seen in quantum mechanics in the first part of the last century is due in some part to his informal discussion with others. He had an incredible talent for sharing his ideas with others and reviewing papers (harshly but well) before their publication.

Have you ever wondered about what graduate school in theoretical physics is really like?  This week Woit included two links, the first to an essay by Bob Henderson who went to the University of Rochester for his Ph.D. after he quit a job in electrical engineering. The title of Henderson's touching and often heart-rending essay--a short memoir--is What Does Any of This Have to Do With Physics? Woit thinks the piece might better have been titled "What Graduate School in Physics is Really Like?"

After graduate school Henderson left to work on Wall Street as a quant. Ultimately he quit, hopped on his motorcycle and drove west. On the way he stopped at the University of Rochester to talk with his former advisor about what went wrong, about why he had quit theoretical physics.  Henderson's essay is about the difficulty of finding a doable problem, how easy it is to get sidetracked and the difficulty of backtracking from false leads.  

Woit includes this powerful quote from the essay and while it is Henderson writing about his advisor it applies to him. Writers talk of the terror of facing a blank page, but it's no different for theorists...trying to choose which path to take. There are an infinite number to choose from, and most go nowhere or back from where you came. The clock is always ticking and you spend so much time in the dark that it can make you not only question your path, but your own self-worth. It can make you feel stupid.

Henderson's essay might have pleased Aristotle for it is about the examined life and while his last debrief with his advisor must have been painful and difficult, it helped him complete this epicycle in his career. One thing he learned is that those who stay in theoretical physics don't mind wandering in the dark and really, really want to know, no matter the stony path forward. Henderson is now a journalist and free-lance writer.

Woit links to another and similar essay by a string cosmologist, Kate Marvel, who after finishing her Ph.D. became a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University's Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. Her essay is titled The Parallel Universes of a Woman Scientist.

If you read one or both essays, please do yourself a favor and read the comments. I am going to link you to Woit for Henderson's essay where you can read Woit's comments as well as responses which enrich the essays.

The magazine in which both essays are from, Nautilus combines science and the humanities in its stories. The articles are beautifully illustrated, too, a bonus. And while I'm at it, Woit was the subject of an essay written by no other than Bob Henderson. It, too, is a great read.

h/t Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong

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