The Worst Jobs in Science: Theoretical Physicist

After the recent news that being a mathematician is the best job in the US, next month’s Popular Science magazine has come out with a list of the worst jobs, not overall, but in the sciences. “Theoretical Physicist” makes the list, right in between “Monkey-Sex Observer” and “Vermin Handler”. Here’s the text about this:

For much of the past century, physics was an exciting, wide-ranging exploration. But to be a theoretical physicist today, you pretty much have to stake your career on one incredibly popular but pretty much unprovable notion: string theory. Since the idea that the universe is composed of small vibrating “strings” gained a following in the 1970s, the theory, which in some forms posits 10 dimensions and seeks a unifying “supersymmetry,” has captured the theoretical-physics community in the U.S. The easiest way to earn an appointment is to dive head-first into a branch of string theory, which dominates the top programs at Princeton, MIT and other influential institutions. The problem is, we simply have no idea if we’re on the right track, because the theory isn’t verifiable.

Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, who investigates quantum gravity and string theory, believes that the physics monoculture is stifling. “Science has become too risk-averse, and its progress is being hurt as a result,” he says. When CERN’s Large Hadron Collider restarts later this year, however, it could end the waiting, helping to confirm parts of string theory — or dash it altogether. If supersymmetric particles called sparticles are bashed into existence: yay! But if the W boson particle does not react as hoped, that damages a central pillar of the theory. Across the U.S., whole careers are boiling down to the chance that a big box comes up with something.

It’s true that, for string theorists, a lot is hanging on the question of whether sparticles are found at the LHC. If none are seen, I suspect that will pretty conclusively finish off in most theorist’s minds the idea that string theory unification can be connected in any way with observations. The business about string theory and W-bosons is utter nonsense, presumably coming from this.

As mentioned here repeatedly, claims that hiring in particle theory is dominated by string theory are behind the times. String theorists are now yesterday’s fad, with terrible job prospects if they don’t have a permanent position. Today’s fads are LHC phenomenology and cosmology (news from the rumor mill about two new jobs is that UCSB wants “candidates with interests in phenomenological aspects of particle physics and related areas of astrophysics and cosmology”, Rutgers wants “a focus on LHC physics, broadly conceived.”) String theory is on its way out in American universities it seems, but the long-standing pattern of fad-driven hiring isn’t. Which is one thing that makes the idea of trying for a career in theoretical physics these days about as appealing to many smart young people as the idea of going into the vermin handling business…

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54 Responses to The Worst Jobs in Science: Theoretical Physicist

  1. woit says:

    Just Asking,

    I don’t think the Boltzmanns of today are likely to consider hanging themselves because unification via a 10d superstring doesn’t seem to work. They might just work on something else.

    As for who is doing anti-intellectual pop science, that’s something I tried to avoid in my book and here. It would be a good idea if those promoting string theory considered doing the same…

  2. Robert says:

    I just received my Bachelor of Science in Physics and have been reading about string theory. It seems to me that all the talk about string theory being unprovable or unverifiable is overstated. Many theories in physics are based upon indirect evidence. For example, no one has ever seen a proton or neutron or electron, yet much of 20th century science is based upon the assumption that these particles exist.

    I don’t understand string theory fully- yet, but I have read enough to know that if a theory explains events in the universe accurately and the math works it is worth pursuing.

    Personally I find it pretentious that some physicists have the nerve to tell other physicists what they should be studying. If string theorists want to study string theory what is wrong with that as long as they follow the scientific method?

  3. Peter Woit says:


    Of course indirect evidence is acceptable in science. The problem is that there is no such indirect evidence now, nor is there any plausible proposal for how to get such indirect evidence.

    Scientists all the time argue for and express scientific opinions about which scientific ideas are promising and showing success, which ones are not working and why. Evaluating what works and what doesn’t is an important part of what scientists do. This is different than “having the nerve to tell other physicists what they should be studying”. Other physicists can make up their own mind about what to study based on the arguments they hear.

    If you are interested in string theory, I suggest you read and think about the arguments being made both by enthusiasts and skeptics, and make up your own mind. I don’t see the point of complaining that both sides of the argument are available to you.

  4. Puttputt says:

    It can be solved by outsourcing theoretical physics. PARTY ON AMERICA!

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