February 26, 2007

Cults and hierarchies in physics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at February 26, 2007 3:52 PM

There's a great post at Cosmic Variance about the cult of genius in physics:

During high school or college, many aspiring physicists latch onto Feynman or Einstein or Hawking as representing all they hope to become. The problem is, the vast majority of us are just not that smart. Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due, but we’re not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. We go through a phase where we hope that we are, and then reality sets in, and we either (1) deal, (2) spend the rest of our career trying to hide the fact that we’re not, or (3) drop out. It’s always bugged the crap out of me that physicists’ worship of genius conveys the simultaneous message that if you’re not F-E-H smart, then what good are you?

I remember clearly the moment I found that physics was much harder than I realized (although I had no delusions of being F-E-H smart by that point anyway): it was Ph 106a. I was used to being able to pick up concepts fairly quickly, but the subtleties of advanced classical mechanics (and Goldstein's textbook) eluded me, and it was a serious blow to my confidence that I really didn't get it. I worried that this was a sign that all the high-level physics concepts would be beyond my reach. Obviously that turned out not to be the case; I just needed to work a lot harder to understand these concepts. It's striking to me how rapidly the difficulty seemed to ramp up, but this may have been due to the way Caltech structured the physics curriculum rather than an inherent property of the subject.

Chad Orzel has a related point:

Too many people approach physics as if there's some sort of Great Chain of Being, with the most abstract theoretical particle physics at the very top and low-energy experimentalists down at the bottom, just above biologists and rude beasts incapable of speech.

This drives me right up the wall.

There's no inherent moral worth to working on more "fundamental" and mathematical physics. A lack of familiarity with algebraic topology is not a defect in character, or a sign of gross stupidity. Low-energy physics is different than high-energy theory, but not inferior to it.


This is something I noticed a lot as an undergrad—in my freshman class almost everyone who wanted to do physics was interested in high-energy theory; I was rare in actually being inclined towards experiment at that point. Part of it is that there's a certain glamour to working on the Theory of Everything, and there's an apparent elegance to a simple but widely applicable theory that makes the experimental world look messy and ugly by comparison. (Although in fact the Standard Model isn't really what I'd call simple or elegant.) Furthermore, at roughly the freshman undergrad level the major contact with experimental physics is through high school or freshman physics labs, which tend to be pretty lame.

(So how did I end up wanting to do experiment at that stage? At the end of my senior year in high school I had the opportunity to do some labs on more advanced topics, and they were less structured than what I was used to—instead of the procedure being laid out explicitly, I was given a set of equipment and had to figure out how to use it to measure a certain parameter or figure out how something worked. Although it was still pretty far removed from the actual practice of experimental physics, it gave me a better sense of the kind of problem-solving involved, which I found I really enjoyed. Plus I noticed I was better at it than I was at theory.)

Tags: Academia, Caltech, Physics
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Here is a lengthy post on this topic that I just put on my blog.

I'll tell you when I found out physics was hard: Phys 1a. (To this day, I'm still better at using the definition for the cross product instead of the right-hand-rule.) My physics intuition was never good, and I still remember the apology I wrote on my Phys 1a final exam because of how poorly I felt I did. I think I barely cracked 50 % on that test, and like everybody else at Tech I was at the top of my high school. It didn't take me long to find out things had changed. (Actually, I knew this long before that final -- I remember meeting all these people at Tech and just marveling at how much more accomplished they were than I was.)

Now, I am more inclined towards math than physics as far as how I look at problems goes. (My knowledge of physics is kind of like my knowledge of Spanish. I am "fluent" with the language, but I have to translate it into English [math] in my mind and then translate it back after I'm done. I can't just do it directly in physical language, which has occasionally proven a bit frustrating to my collaborators.) I had some struggles in math 5, but I would say Math 109a (geometry) was the math class in which I first had a ton of conceptual difficulty. (Difficulty with problem sets came much earlier than that. I just had trouble understanding the stuff -- even what was supposed to be the simplest stuff in that class.)

And this fascination with things like high energy physics at the expense of more interesting subjects like nonlinear dynamics is batshit crazy. :) (Not to show any of my own biases or anything...)

Caltech's curriculum: Most schools have, e.g., an intermediate course between freshman mechanics and 106. 106 would be the third course for typical students in the US. At Tech, it's the second. Because Tech is so small and the students so gifted, much of the curriculum (in essentially all majors) is structured that way. The intermediate courses just get skipped at Tech. I think 106 is actually using Hand & Finch this year rather than Goldstein. I know their not using Jackson. I had an interesting discussion with Mike Cross (currently teaching 106) about this. (The former Ms. Finch, who is currently Mrs. Scheel, is Mike's grad student, so I would guess her book is being used.) He basically said Jackson is way behind the times.

I have also heard Caltech students say they went into experimental physics because they felt they weren't able to do theory. Who the fuck is teaching them this? (implicitly or otherwise...) That's total crap. Go into experiment because you prefer it (if that is the case) but not because any nonsense of one type of physics being harder than another. The people who are handing out messages like this need to stop.

I'll probably rant some more later.

Posted by: Mason | February 26, 2007 10:26 PM
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