BELIEVE ME NOT! - - A SKEPTICs GUIDE
Up: physics vs. Doing Physics
Previous: Understanding physics
There is more to this story, of course.
Whether for some excellent, deep reason or just because of the
practical benefits to society, professional Physicists are
also almost always selected and trained to enjoy "doing Physics."
You will hear this phrase used frequently among Physicists.
What does it mean? How do you "do" the underlying principles
governing the behaviour of the universe? You don't, of course;
when we use this phrase we are talking about capital-P Physics,
the human enterprise.
There are several aspects to "doing Physics."
I will list them in what is, for me, today,
ascending order of "enjoyability."
There is no reason why anyone else should agree with
this order, but I believe in full disclosure.
- Politics -
explicitly sociopolitical activities usually involving
I am not a very enthusiastic manager, as you may have surmised,
but even in politics there is room for real satisfaction.
There can be quite a thrill in obtaining a few billion dollars
for the construction of the world's greatest accelerator
or managing a huge army of Ph.D. physicists to accomplish
a spectacularly ambitious task
taking hundreds of person-years of intense effort;
however, like all forms of satisfaction related to power,
these fade with familiarity and eventually demand
greater and greater achievements to maintain the glamour.
If you get aboard this vehicle, be sure to plan carefully
where you want to get off.
- Applying for grants:
Mercifully, novices are spared the dirty work of grantsmanship
for the first few years of their involvement with Physics.
- Getting papers published
as distinguished from writing papers, which
(along with giving lectures) falls more into the "fun" category.
If a novice writes a publishable paper there will usually be
some mentor willing to do the dirty political work of
getting it published (usually in return for co-authorship).
- Managing equipment:
The ugly part of experimental science is bound up
in the politics of getting money to buy equipment,
organizing it and finding places to set it up,
keep it running etc.
so that the novice experimenter can focus on actually
getting the apparatus to work, which is
(relatively speaking) the fun part.
- Managing people:
Although the practice of Physics has an intrinsically solitary aspect,
many projects can only reach fruition when many people join in a
common effort; in these cases it is arguable that the most important
people involved are those who provide leadership and organization.
Fortunately, in Physics such positions are rarely occupied by
those who just like telling others what to do.
Physics has room for an astonishing variety of personal styles,
which makes it a rewarding field in which to be an administrator,
providing of course that one enjoys people generally.
- Craftsmanship -
the fulfillment of the artisan.
Not surprisingly, I like an athletic metaphor for Craftsmanship in Physics:
competing in the World Championships may be the ultimate experience
for the athlete, but it represents a very tiny fraction of the
athletic experience, most of which consists of endless gruelling
workouts that are rarely pleasant but always rewarding,
both in terms of the final goal and in terms of hard-won accomplishment.
There is only one way to find out what you can do,
and that's by doing it.
- Tinkering with the apparatus:
Before experimental equipment or theoretical models can be used
to conduct a conversation with Nature, they have to be working
properly. Achieving this state is nontrivial. In fact it takes
most of the effort; once the apparatus it working and configured
for the desired task, "getting the answer" can be just a matter
of "turning the crank" and watching the results pour out.
But first you must get to know the equipment intimately,
and there is only one way to do that: by using it.
- Problem solving:
This is an absolutely essential aspect of "doing Physics"
that is often neglected by novices, with catastrophic consequences.
It is one thing to understand physics and quite another to
be able to put that understanding to work. A good metaphor
is the difference between a brilliant automotive mechanic
and a great driver. It will help a lot if you know how
your car works, but winning the Molson Indy takes something else.
Driving experience will also help you be a better mechanic,
and that's an aspect of this metaphor I want to explore later.
But for now I can't emphasize strongly enough that
most of the hard work in a Physics apprenticeship
is in learning how to solve problems -
and the only way to learn that is by
doing it - a lot of it.
This puts most people off at first. I know it did me.
Once you know how to solve problems, you pick the ones
you want to solve and you learn how to put the solutions to work
in the real world. This is what I call Engineering, the art of
making Technology work. Lots of people will be offended by the
fact that I placed this rather extensive field of endeavour
so far toward the "not so enjoyable" end of my ordered list
of Physics activities; they should not be.
For one thing, this is just a list of my personal tastes.
For another, just because I don't enjoy Engineering
as much as (for instance) writing does not mean I don't
appreciate it; in fact, some of the most satisfying
work I have ever done would fall into this category.
Just as the most enjoyable activities can be made unpleasant
by excess (writing a Ph.D. thesis is rarely a pleasant
experience, but it is almost always a satisfying one),
drudgery in the service of an inspiring goal can leave very
- Teaching -
sharing your understanding.
I am not counting the "political" aspect of professional teaching
-- organizing lectures, preparing and marking homework and exams,
making judgements about other people's performance and
submitting those evaluations in the form of marks.
This has little to do with the fun part of teaching
except insofar as the one makes a place for the other to happen.
finding a really nice way to get across to others
what I have just figured out myself.
same as lecturing except one gets more time to perfect one's delivery.
Here I include the electronic version(s) of "writing"
as a natural extension of words on paper; the Web
also offers an opportunity to use more tools similar to
those one might employ in lectures, like sound and
- Learning -
the interface between Physics and physics.
- The glimpse of Nature:
When you finally finish fiddling with the apparatus
(whether theoretical or experimental)
and it seems to be working, it makes a sort of
conduit through which a shy Nature can reveal her
such moments are rather rare, and too often occur when the
experimenter (or theorist) is dead tired, but one glimpse
is usually all it takes to make it all seem worthwhile.
- The epiphany:
After you have assembled all you know about a new subject
and stirred the mix long enough, something starts to congeal
and the primal "Aha!" bursts through all the layers of
confusion to enlighten you for a while. For me this almost
always takes the form of a metaphor that lifts my
comprehension from the realm of Physics
and plants it in the Platonic ideal world of physics.
(Or so it seems; but after all, Reality is what we make it....)
Up: physics vs. Doing Physics
Previous: Understanding physics
Jess H. Brewer