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What Does Any of This Have to Do with Physics? (nautil.us)
362 points by dnetesn on Dec 29, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments



A great read.

Something that stuck with me throughout the article was that the concept of "you can do anything" was almost masked by the fact that he had placed all of his "apples" into one basket--Rajeev. Of course this was a different time, and I think it highlights just how important the internet and technology have become in our professional success.

Had this been present day, Henderson could have tried to make use of others through collaboration, just as Rajeev himself pointed out towards the end. Somewhere in the article he mentioned his doubts within his teacher, and that's something that I think most people need to realize. Teachers are just people with their own faults. Nowhere does it state that your teacher is going to know the answer to your success. If you continually find yourself lost and doubtful, you should extend your reach and try to seek help from other minds as well.

He was on a journey with thousands of forks within thousands of roads, and simply locking yourself in a room for 15 hours a day, essentially brute forcing different paths isn't a healthy way of going about research or anything in life.


Henderson seems a bit melancholic but he did just fine.

Should it really matter to him or anyone else that he "quit" Physics? I don't think so. Too many people get hung up on having a continuous unbroken progression of career advancement in one "field" whatever it is.

You CAN do anything. And that includes changing your mind, your job, and your values. He didn't stick with Physics after getting his PHD... so what?


That's what a dream is, though, isn't it? You decide that something matters to you. Sure, you can change your mind, but then the dream goes away, and it hurts to have your dreams crushed. I think that's really all he's saying.


My thoughts exactly. Sounds like he matched up with a pretty great advisor (good person, good manager, helpful, smart), worked on interesting problems, made progress on some, published, and graduated. To boot, when he decided to move on, his physics skills made him highly employable in the financial industry. I'd call that a success story as far as grad school goes.


Funny thing is that when he asked Rajeev why he had failed, Rajeev had probably been asking himself the same question for years. A lifetime dedicated to cyclotomic fiber bundles that will probably end up in the dustbin of history.

If your only measure of success is to do something truly transformative, well, you've got Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, and then everyone else who has tried and failed, so good luck. Wall Street was probably the better choice. And it could have turned into a Swiss patent office thing that formal academia would have denied anyway.

Grass is always greener on the other side.


> he had placed all of his "apples" into one basket--Rajeev

That sense of "blaming" doesn't come across in the article. I'm wondering why you would choose to see it that way.


I wouldn't deem my sentence as blaming. But I don't think collaborating with what reads from the article with one person (read: Rajeev) as an ambitious yet confused grad student, for what seemed as years, is the right way to go about seeking the Holy Grail. Especially considering the Holy Grail was something arbitrary Henderson had concocted in his head.


Quantum gravity is an arbitrary goal concocted by the author?


David Bohm posited reality is what we think and talk about. Private vs. Public, if you will. I would say quantum gravity is an arbitrary goal concocted by humanity, but that initial idea had to come from someone's brain to kick it off the concoction.


Reality is immaterial without context.

Can you imagine a universe without qualia? I cannot.


[joke about that imagination being your own subjective experience here]


Let me clarify what I meant. I could be misreading materialism, but the way I understand it is that the universe is essentially a runtime with statically-compiled, singleton objects. The behavior for said objects is determined at runtime.


[ joke abut how people oversimplify the universe differently depending on their field of study ]


This quote could be shortened I guess, but on the other hand, people could do worse than read the whole book, just that bit talking about the automation of labour in passing is way beyond even the more serious attempts to discuss it today, and the "hopeless confusion" and "parroting" she mentions is on full display on HN... anyway, regarding language, the private and the public:

From "The Human Condition" by Hannah Arendt, 1958 ( http://sduk.us/afterwork/arendt_the_human_condition.pdf )

> This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.

> While such possibilities still may lie in a distant future, the first boomerang effects of science's great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that the "truths" of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought. The moment these "truths" are spoken of conceptually and coherently, the resulting statements will be "not perhaps as meaningless as a 'triangular circle,' but much more so than a 'winged lion' " (Erwin Schrodinger). We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.

> However, even apart from these last and yet uncertain consequences, the situation created by the sciences is of great political significance. Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being. If we would follow the advice, so frequently urged upon us, to adjust our cultural attitudes to the present status of scientific achievement, we would in all earnest adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful. For the sciences today have been forced to adopt a "language" of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech. The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgment of scientists qua scientists is not primarily their lack of "character"—that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons—or their naivete — that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed they would be the last to be consulted about their use -— but precisely the fact that they move in a world where speech has lost its power. And whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about. There may be truths beyond speech, and they may be of great relevance to man in the singular, that is, to man in so far as he is not a political being, whatever else he may be. Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.


The author refuses to see mathematical notation as an (advanced) form of speech. Certainly, someone has had the same problem with writing, whenever and wherever it had been first introduced. Naturally, the notion of 'speech' changes over time, one thing being constant: speech is the means of communication - whatever the form.


Wow, I see how this is relevant to startups, because it's one of the best essays about grad-school and PhD research as I've seen. The people who attempt it are capable and driven, but a good advisor is often critical. There are a lot of hills to climb and the most important thing to learn is how to guide yourself when the way isn't clear! We want to change the world...

When I saw these lines I thought maybe his Advisor wasn't doing such a good job:

A year or so of research with Rajeev, and I found myself frustrated and in a fog, sinking deeper into the quicksand but not knowing why. Was it my lack of mathematical background? My grandiose goals? Was I just not intelligent enough? Or maybe it was the type of research Rajeev had me doing.

Then he moved on to a thesis and graduated, which shows that Rajeev was doing his job as a Boss and Professor. Advice about using your strengths, working with others, focusing on success and minimizing mistakes... it really does translate to most quests.

I'm sad the writer doesn't remember being happy since he starting his PhD. Choosing to make your dream your job is a dangerous thing, especially if you can't still enjoy the path. He's good at writing so I hope he enjoys that now.


> minimizing mistakes

Agree with everything but that. Making lots of mistakes was the best part about academia. Just don't hold on to them for too long (sunk cost fallacy), don't take things too seriously (ie stake your identity on any one idea), and treat them as the most valuable learning opportunities.


I agree with you... science is really all about fixing mistakes. What I meant was exactly what you say, to minimize their emotional impact, not their rational effects.


A quote from this long article.. --- “Now you know what makes theoretical physics so hard,” he said. “It’s not that the problems are hard, although they are. It’s that knowing which problems to try and solve is hard. That, in fact, is the hardest part.” --- As with startups, all startups are hard but knowing which one to pursue and give life is very hard.


Same with gamedev. Ask anyone who is into it how many ideas for games they have (heck just tell someone you make games and they'll likely tell you an idea they had for a game they want to see made). Figuring out which one could be a success in terms of fun, popularity, or finances, is the question. Which is why rapid prototyping of core mechanics to "find the fun" is so critical.


As a physicist, I see people all the time wondering what to do with it and looking for a justification for all the hard work. But physics is a hobby subject. It's rim is so vastly complicated that you can push and push at the boundary your whole life and get no where. You have to do it because you love it and you have to accept the abstract nonsense of it all. I also studied math and art history so I was down to do thinks I thought were abstract awesomeness without wondering about a job. I was lucky in that I'm a software dev so I had a job anywhere but my point is that I really feel for people who follow what they love and then become disillusioned. It really sucks.


Beside the fact that it's interesting, I think there's also a bit of prestige involved, nobody bats an eye if physicists say "we are improving the world, advancing man kind", as opposed to the same smart man becoming a financial trader, where lots of people will say that you are scum living on the back of others, or even a software developer working on something like ads.


The same writer also wrote about his finance career: http://nautil.us/issue/31/stress/what-i-learned-from-losing-...


This is so true, I feel like I have to justify to people what I'm doing with my life and why it's important and even necessary, which I wouldn't have had to do if I stayed in my physics PhD program. It's actually rather depressing, to be honest.

There's nothing spectacular about writing code for apps which I wouldn't even use and which will probably flop within a year. But when I was a student, I felt like what I was doing was actually important. Writing apps and websites for people who will end up using time and money on them feels so unimportant in that "Oh, do you really wanna be selling sugar water for the rest of your life?" kind of way.


"Shut up and calculate" was indeed not coined by Feynman. It was, in fact, coined by David Mermin in an essay he had written once.

The amusing thing is that Mermin himself had forgotten that he had coined it and claimed Feynman to be the source. Eventually, he looked into it and found the earliest reference to the phrase was his own essay! (with no reference to Feynman)

His book, Boojums All The Way is one of the most entertaining books about his adventures as a physicist.

(For those who do not know him, he co-wrote the standard text book on Solid State Theory).


Here is the essay he wrote about his realization that he coined the term: "Could Feynman have said this?" www.gnm.cl/emenendez/uploads/Cursos/callate-y-calcula.pdf

Also highly recommend his Boojums.


Worth noting that Mermin intended the phrase to be derisive, a not-so-thinly-veiled criticism of the Copenhagen interpretation.


Mermin's special relativity book is fucking fantastic as well. His writing style is very motivated.


This is possibly the best article I've ever read about grad school. If you haven't read it yet, do. You'll like it.


It jives with what I've observed the grad students I've known going through.

I think it's important to frame oneself as a mental athlete. Olympic athletes don't exert themselves for 20 hours and then get 4 hours sleep and expect any kind of peak performance. You need sleep, you need a mix of focused effort, and unfocused consolidation / inspiration time, etc.

Programmers and students have a tendency to ignore lessons about training and peak performance that are well understood by those in physical sports.

This course changed my life: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn


Irrelevant grammatical nitpick: I think the word you're looking for is "jibe", not "jive". From M-W: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jibe

    verb: to be in accord


Weird, I've always heard "jive" informally used as "to be in accord", and it seems like it's commonly held slang: http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/jive-and-jibe


Thanks.


This piece moved me to tears. It feels like watching my own life retold by someone who’s so much more articulate than me.

It’s strange when the source of your intellectual self-worth is also the source of your depression.


> You can do whatever you want

This is very dangerous advice to give a young person. But the author should have done a better job at interpreting the message. If your father tells you that you can do whatever you want, do you conclude that you can get good enough at tennis to win the US Open? No, of course not, that's absurd. But winning the US Open is MUCH EASIER than discovering the Holy Grail of physics. Properly understood in this context, the father's message meant "if you want, you can become a physicist" - and it was probably correct. The author's downfall was that he overinterpreted the promise of the message and was also too ambitious to accept the lesser reward of "merely" becoming an average professional physicist.


What we’d created is called a “toy model”: an exact solution to an approximate version of an actual problem. This, I learned, is what becomes of a colossal conundrum like quantum gravity after 70-plus years of failed attempts to solve it. All the frontal attacks and obvious ideas have been tried. Every imaginable path has hit a dead end.

Isn't that a clue that one of the premises is fundamentally wrong? I'm no scientist but I rely on the scientific method, and questioning my assumptions when I'm stuck almost invariably proves more productive than refining my hypothesis. OK, my problems are very shallow, but nature's complexity generally seems to be the result of simple processes, elaborated and iterated. The author's description reminds me very much of the experience of painstakingly 'solving' one side of a Rubik's cube before realizing the more general iterative approach.


Some problems are just damn hard. I don't know enough Physics, but in CS there are many examples of problems that have been open for decades were we still don't even know where to begin with a proof. The most prominent example is P vs NP. It's been open for forty years and all we have is a number of proof techniques where we know that they can't work. Complexity theory in general is a field where all the interesting problems either are solved or have been open for a long time and researchers retreat to working on very special cases of very special problems.


Figuring out the null hypothesis (toy model) can be a big first step. For instance, planets should move according to an ellipse, but they don't because of the gravitational pull of other planets and moons. This deviation from the null hypothesis can be quite informative and help with further discovery.


Well, physicists know that some of the premises are fundamentally wrong. For example, the strong suspicion is that space (or time) it not continuous and smooth at it's deepest level. But finding a solution is a whole different thing.


"Shut up and calculate" hasn't produced much in the way of concrete or practical results compared to the heyday of fundamental physics in the first half of the 20th century that produced quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, the atomic bomb, etc. It has produced extremely complex mathematical systems like string theory that seem to have led nowhere.

Quantum mechanics is probably "incomplete" as Einstein argued. Hence attempts to unify general relativity and the current quantum theory are likely to fail, as they appear to, since a revised quantum theory is needed.

If the data -- angular velocity distributions of start etc. -- used to support "dark matter," "dark energy" and other patches to the prevailing theory of the Big Bang and cosmology is in fact evidence that Newtonian gravity does not apply at galactic scales and above, then general relativity is not correct at galactic scales and above. Again this would make unifying the established quantum theory and the established general relativity theory incapable of matching observed reality.

The ubiquitous lack of secure longer term jobs like Einstein's civil service job at the patent office -- he was not a post-doc -- make deeper conceptual analysis of the outstanding problems in physics today difficult, probably impossible.


"Shut up and calculate" is the mentality that produced nearly all the XX century advances on the quantum physics theories.

It's not that everybody subscribed to it - I don't think anybody ever fully subscribed to it - but that advances insisted on only coming on those times people were thinking this way. That's why people teach it today.

But at the relativity side, it seems that "shut up and calculate" never gave good results.


Everyone calculates. In my mind, "shut up and calculate" refers to a very strong emphasis on calculation and symbolic manipulation to the near or total exclusion of conceptual analysis expressed in words and pictures.

In particular the "losers" at the 1927 Solvay Congress -- Schrodinger, Einstein, and de Broglie -- seem to be the antithesis of "shut up and calculate" and all contributed very critical elements of quantum theory.

Schrodinger found the Schrodinger equation, the differential equation that describes so much correctly, through his approach. This is significant because the operator methodology of Heisenberg and Gottingen either did not work, despite the claims it is equivalent to the Schrodinger equation, or was essentially impossible to use to make predictive calculations. Schrodinger's publication of the Schrodinger equation provided an easy way to calculate results in QM that proved correct using well-know differential equations/calculus methods.

For whatever reason, perhaps to keep their research program afloat, the "winners" at the Solvay Congress jettisoned the conceptual underpinnings of Schrodinger's approach and married it to the operator formalism leading to quantum field theory with its intractable infinities and other problems that remain to this day.


I'd say it is strong emphasis on models predictive power, to the exclusion of judging if it improves our understanding of the world. The "shut up" part is more key than the "calculate".


I am not sure if we disagree here or not.

Predictive power has not always trumped understanding as a goal. The original Copernican theory did not work as well as the Ptolemaic model used by astronomers. The Ptolemaic model as it had evolved in the 16th century was extremely complex with many fit parameters and predicted planetary motions relatively well.

All of the models shared the incorrect assumption of uniform circular motion and epicycles, both the Copernican, Tyco Brahe's hybrid system, and the traditional Ptolemaic model which by virtue of the thousands of years of effort invested in it -- it arguably dates back to ancient Sumeria -- actually predicted the motions of Mars and other planets best.

It was only the addition of elliptical orbits with non-uniform motion by Kepler that resulted in the new model surpassing the Ptolemaic model.

In the case of planetary motions, understanding ultimately proved critical. We can predict planetary motions to about 1 in 100,000 accuracy versus about 1 in 100 with the Ptolemaic model of the 16th century.


Understanding always trumps simple accuracy, because it defines new mental models which can tested experimentally.

I don't think it's about low-hanging fruit so much as the difference between analytical understanding/talent and deep creative insight.

Science-as-career has become institutionalised and conservative, and slanted more towards the semi-industrialised production of regular publishable refinements and less towards deep insights.

It's correspondingly less likely that a mind like Einstein's would be able to make equivalent contributions today.


I think Kepler was the epitome of "shut up and calculate". Measure the motion of the planets, come up with detailed formulas describing them. Newton transcended that by identifying simple relations and invariants that unfolded to exactly those equations. I'd argue Newton and Einstein are the only two who have transcended "shut up and calculate". In the latter case we otherwise would have patched in Lorentz transforms and stated "just because" like Kepler. In quantum mechanics, I feel like it's still something on a Kepler level, equations "just because", waiting for a more fundamental understanding.


I would say certainly not. In Nova Astronomia in which Kepler lays out his discovery, one finds chapters and chapters (originally in Latin) of verbal analysis of what is going on. He did not just find a formula that worked blindly. Rather he envisioned an influence -- either magnetism or something similar to magnetism -- which he calls specie (a Latin term used in magic and mysticism) extending out from the Sun guiding the motions of the planets. This was a clear precursor to the concept of a gravitational field.


Reading your post again, I think we agree.

I'd just point that, even tough Schrodinger and de Broglie were pretty much focused on understanding, their contribution to quantum theory was very prediction-based, and not so much understanding based. As I said up there, it's not that they believed that, it is that they only got results when working this way. I took Einstein away from your list, there are always exceptions.

What I think is most interesting is that the XX century got an example of each of those "ways of doing science" working. There was probably a "right tool for the job" effect there, as people certainly weren't trying to create a predictive-only theory.


<"Shut up and calculate" is the mentality that produced nearly all the XX century advances on the quantum physics theories.>

I tend to agree with the gist of this comment but there is an important wider context. The Copenhagen interpretation was not a win for one side versus the other but a truce. That truce has degenerated into the dogma of "shut up and calculate" which is now used to shutdown any questioning of the philosophic premises and implications of QM/SR/GR which was never the intent. Here is a comment I posted to another thread;

============================================================

I agree but I think there are important philosophic[1] questions raised by quantum mechanics and, to a lesser extent, special relativity. One hundred years ago the founders of the new physics had the same questions but could not resolve them to everyone's satisfaction. One of the founders of modern physics (I forget who) said (I am paraphrasing) that all the different views on the "meaning" of the new physics amounted to where you want to hide the contradictions. The Copenhagen "interpretation" was not a definitive win but a truce.

These brilliant men argued for a decade and could not resolve it so they decided to bury the questions. It was not unreasonable in that context to accept that they did not know the answers but the theories work so let's use it and see where it leads. I am sure the hope was that the answers to the philosophic questions would become clear as our understanding of the new physics grew. There was a lot of work to do aside from the philosophic questions. Fast forward 100 years and here we are, the philosophic questions are still unanswered, and the Copenhagen interpretation has hardened into dogma banning any discussion of fundamental questions in physics. I have respect for Smolin for at least trying to re-raise these important questions.

[1] I am of the view that philosophy is distinct from physics in that it studies the nature of reality and knowledge, thus it applies to ALL fields not just physics. WHAT do we know and HOW we know is the more (or the most) fundamental science. The physicists are throwing out the baby with the bath water when they reject philosophy en masse instead of rejecting bad philosophy.


    The ubiquitous lack of secure longer term jobs like Einstein's civil service job at the patent office -- he was not a post-doc -- make deeper conceptual analysis of the outstanding problems in physics today difficult, probably impossible.
This seems completely wrong. Why would more secure longer term jobs help with the advancement of physics? Gone are the days where the "low-hanging fruit" of physics still existed such that a patent clerk could have the time and resources to tackle an open problem. Furthermore, we have a whole system where people are literally paid to think about physics all day. Why would anything else be better for the advancement of physics?


I truly don't think Einstein's work at the patent office was "low hanging fruit." -- quite the opposite. Most major scientific breakthroughs have required at least five years of work, usually frustrating trial and error, failures, blind alleys etc. A post-doc with a two year appointment, which is typical, simply does not have the time. He or she needs to publish something "impressive" in that two years. Einstein was in the enviable position of not having to worry about his next post-doc or whatever from 1903 onwards. In addition his patent work involved electrical and electromagnetic inventions that dovetailed well with his interests and background.

Modern physics has very few long term secure jobs to think about actual physics. Tenured faculty spend most of their time writing grant applications and fund raising -- not the same thing.


this depends on the faculty...a theorist with little experimental costs would spend less time applying for grants.


Perhaps. Theory costs less but there is a lot less money available for theory. For example, in 2014, the total High Energy Physics (HEP) budget of the US Department of Energy (DOE) was about 750 million dollars, nearly all of it experimental, with only about 6-7 percent (63 million dollars) for theory.

http://science.energy.gov/~/media/hep/hepap/pdf/201403/Rolli...

The DOE HEP Theory budget has supposedly been dropping since 2014 -- actually 2012:

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=8998

I suspect the amount of time spent on writing grants and informal fund raising is related to the level of competition, how many theorists are pursuing how little money rather than the absolute amount of money available.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has many billions, but the probability of getting a grant is very low due to the huge overproduction of biology Ph.D.'s consequently researchers and would be researchers spend enormous amounts of time writing grant proposals, most of which are turned down.

https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2015/06/29/what-are-the-chances...

The success/award rates in the above article (about 18 percent) actually seem high. I have seen numbers as low as 9 percent in some articles.


Very good read, and resonated with me because I had read the same new agey books at the time, went to study physics with the same "I'll find the grail" philosophy and had felt the painful blow of disillusionment, together with other blows that convinced me to leave the path much earlier than the author of the article.

Many years later, I feel that "the grail" is still the driving force behind most of my thoughts, but frankly, I doubt it is reachable by thought. Suppose someone will solve quantum gravity. I'd be very excited and curious - it would be wonderful and fascinating, but I believe any claim that "Physics is solved" that might be stated after that would be as misguided as lord Kelvin's claim at the time. Any solution would eventually just set the stage for the next grail chase, with more food for the mind to chew on from an infinite supply and no answer will really make a dent in the armour surrounding the question of what is the essence of this food supply or it's relation to the thoughts that contemplate it. I can't prove any of this of course...


<...but I believe any claim that "Physics is solved" that might be stated after that would be as misguided as lord Kelvin's claim at the time.>

Perhaps and maybe even for a long time but you can't have an infinite progressions of "fundamental" theories at some point the questions will be answered such that "this" is as far as we can go. The problems and questions in physics are philosophical (more specifically epistemology) and revolve around what is a valid measurement when you get down to the limit of measurement?, what is an observer and what distinguishes the observer from the observed? Unfortunately, the vast majority of physicists disdainfully reject philosophy as bunk and continue to mathturbate even as their own theories become indistinguishable from bunk.


One thing I got from this article is that the art of doing science takes years to develop. Developing a taste for what is good research and a direction for what is a good path only comes from an apprenticeship model where you copy and learn from your mentor. It really shows how important taste, guidance, and perseverance is in order to avoid getting lost or distracted.

Wonderful article.


Great essay, really hits the nail on the head about how hard it is to do fundamental research. I especially liked the comment about controlling your emotions.


A former boss of mine (head of a 20-person or so game studio) told me this once, but I didn't appreciate it at the time.

I've been living this for the last couple of years, though. So true.


I went in to University (not physics) with the same stars, but I'd read far more history of science. I knew that almost everyone who tries to make something more than an incremental discovery fails miserably, I just thought it was very honorable to make the attempt, if you thought you might have what it takes.

I left because, when I looked around after many years, it was very clear that (where I was) absolutely none of the professors around me had any intention of solving the problems they were paid to discuss, nor any interest in doing so. They were quite capable of becoming angry at any sign that others did. So even if I did want to solve the problems (which I still did) hanging around them would be more hindrance than help. They wanted the prestige, they wanted to cash the people's checks - just so long as they didn't have to do the job, because it might pose some small risk that reputation, and affect the size of their wine cellar.

Rajeev's eventual answer had to more to do with reputation than big problem-solving, he may have been a functionary when push comes to shove, as well.


Wow, I rarely read pieces like this all the way through. But this was simply too good to just scroll through. (Realized this after scrolling halfway through).

So, scrollers beware.


This is an interesting read, a perspective on expectations vs reality and possibly upbringing.

I always loved science as a kid. I studied physics because it is fun. I did not think about the future then. I went for a PhD somewhere between theory, experiment and computer simulation because it was fun. I did not think about the future then either.

I knew that I was average+ in Physics and knew that I would never get a Nobel Prize but the pleasure of doing Physics was important to me. Then I quit, right after my PhD to pursue other fun things in IT. I am still there because it is fun. I still do not think about the future and the fact that I will be the next Gates or Zuckerberg.

I strongly believe that one should be driven by the CAPACITY to make CHOICES and that this is what makes someone happy. This is also what I tell my ~11 yo children. It is not "you can do what you want" but "I will torture you into getting the right marks and schools to enable you to make a choice when you choose your university. You can be an artist, a physicist, a doctor, an accountant or a baker. The important part is that you will be armored to be able to use the word CAN. So get back to homework."


Would recommend reading for everyone. There's so much more here than getting a phd in physics.

There a few different life lessons here to learn from or to think about.


It seems like academia needs a "20% time" thing like Google. You can get a grant for doing cyclotomic fiber bundles in a single dimension, because it's mathy and publishable and not too far from the mainstream, even if the likelihood of this being The Grail (or real in any way) is low.

You can't get funding to look at something completely off the cuff. Even 100 years ago Einstein couldn't have gotten funding to investigate some idea that distorts distance and time. I think 20% time to investigate whatever crazy idea you want would be beneficial to making more substantial progress in the real fundamental problems.


Grad school is tough.



tl;dr: success (in many walks of like, as in science, especially in abstract branches like theoretical physics and mathematics) is simply not quitting, and has almost nothing to do with winning big (Nobel, Fields, Abel). And those who stay long enough gain tenure.

It's not glamorous, it's shitty. Long hours, low pay. But you do science. And no one ever can take that away from you, which is nice.


I do not this is a message conveyed by the author, much less a summary of the article.


This story resonated with me deeply, I enjoyed every word.




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