I’m about to head off for a short New Year’s vacation in West Texas, but wanted to recommend a wonderful article that just appeared at Nautilus. It’s a memoir by Bob Henderson (who I met when he wrote about me, see here), appearing under the title What Does Any of This Have To Do with Physics? (although the title of the web-page, What Graduate School in Theoretical Physics is Really Like, is more descriptive).
Henderson was a graduate student at Rochester in theoretical physics, working with S.G. Rajeev. He later went to work on Wall Street, and more recently in journalism. His Nautilus piece is the best explanation I’ve ever seen of what it’s like to start working in this field as a graduate student, should certainly be required reading for anyone thinking of going into the subject. It’s also somewhat of a profile of Rajeev, who has worked on a wide variety of topics in theoretical physics.
One of the main themes of the piece is Henderson’s thinking about how and why he left theoretical physics, why he “quit”. Something to keep in mind is that this kind of decision is what most people who get Ph.Ds in the subject end up facing. There are 5-10 times more people getting Ph.Ds in this field than there are permanent positions doing research in it, so the career path starts out with a game of musical chairs that you are highly likely to lose. Different people make the choice to quit the game and do something else at different points and in different ways.
Henderson does an excellent job also of explaining what the real problem is with doing this kind of research: that of figuring out what the right thing to calculate is. For everyone, but especially for those at the beginning of a career, the subject is a huge collections of topics one doesn’t understand. One has to somehow choose a direction to pursue, and it most likely won’t go anywhere:
Writers talk of the terror of facing a blank page, but it’s no different for theorists like Rajeev 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.
Sticking with this and making a career of it involve some combination of good luck (being in the right place at the right time), ability, self-confidence, not having a family to support, and a host of other factors. As Rajeev explains to him:
Without naming names, he ticked through a catalog of his contemporaries who’d succeeded in theoretical physics even without having the towering mathematical intellect that I was sure it took and that Rajeev surely has. They’d made it, Rajeev explained, by focusing on problems that played to their strengths, or by taking advantage of computers, or by collaborating with peers who had complementary skills. Some socially gifted but not so mathematically talented types had gone quite far this way, earned a lot of renown.
Anyway, the whole piece is well-worth reading. Another recently published Nautilus piece that I learned about from a link on this one is The Universes of a Woman in Science. It’s by Kate Marvel, who shares with Henderson (and hundreds if not thousands of others…) the experience of getting a theoretical physics Ph. D. (string cosmology in her case), and then leaving the subject for another field (in her case, climate science, which she blogs about here).