Physics employment

Recently, I heard somebody talking on the radio about ways to start a day with positive energy. The person suggested all sorts of things, ranging from the things to eat or not to eat, the kinds of exercises to do and also even meditation. It occurred to me how fortunate I am that I don’t need to waste all that time on getting positive energy. When I wake up and I ask myself “what am I going to do today?” The answers is “physics!!!” and there I get all the positive energy that I need. It is my profession, my purpose and my passion.

Then I read the lamentations of Peter Woit in a blog post on the job situation in theoretical high energy physics. So, while it may be great to have a passion for physics, it is not a given that one can make it your profession. Indeed, I can remember that for as long as I’ve been in this field, the job situation was challenging. 

Students at University of Toronto
Students at University of Toronto

Part of the problem is the way that physics as a profession is being practiced. One typically starts as a student studying physics, but what are the career expectations? Most physics students apparently expect to become physics professors at universities. Well, if you look at the number of students compared to the number of faculty positions in physics, then it is obvious that such expectations are quite unreasonable. Moreover, if every physics professor produces scores of physics PhD’s during his or her career, then obviously there would be a huge oversupply of physics PhD to replace that professor.

So where do these PhD’s go to work? First they become postdocs. The ideal postdoc is a person that basically runs the research program for a professor. They come up with the ideas of what to investigate and they even supervise the professor’s PhD students. But what are the professors doing then? They travel and give talks, raising their profile, building their networks, and increasing their impact. Some of them don’t even touch any research. It’s all about fame and glory. The postdocs basically become cheap labor to produce the content on which these professors are riding their ego trips. More than once, when I’ve asked such “eminent researchers” questions after their talks at conferences, I’ve discovered that they don’t really understand what they are talking about.

So what can be done? Firstly, the poor students studying physics need to understand this situation and be realistic about their expectations. Other career choices include teaching (in schools, not universities) or industry. The latter represents the idea of an “industrial physicist.” However, in this case there is a different form of competition. The industry is better geared for engineers, for obvious reasons.

Another thing. When you decide to do physics, please do it for the right reasons. If physics is you passion and will remain your passion for the rest of your life, by all means proceed. Somehow you’ll find a way to live out your passion. But, if you want to do physics because you want to show off how bright you are, then rather join Mensa and leave physics to those that are passionate about physics. And, if you want to do physics because you want to be famous, like Einstein and those guys, rather consider a career as a rock star or a movie star. Very few physicists ever become really famous, contrary to what they may think.

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Transcending the impasse, part VII

Vanity in physics

In this penultimate posting in the series on transcending the impasse in fundamental physics, I’ll address an issue that I consider to be one of the major reasons for the impasse, if the main reason. It is a topic that I feel very passionate about and one that I’ve written about in my book. It is a very broad topic with various aspects that can be addressed. So, I can see this topic becoming a spin-off series on its own.

Stating it briefly, without ranting too much, one can bring this issue into the context of the scientific method itself. As remarkable as the scientific method is with all the successes associated with it, if the very foundation on which it is based starts to erode, the whole edifice in all its glory will come tumbling down.

Now what is this foundation of the scientific method that could be eroded away? Well, the scientific method shares the property with capitalism and democracy in that it is a self-regulating feedback system. Each of these mechanisms is based on a property, a driving force, found in human nature that makes it work. For democracy, it is the reaction to the conditions one finds oneself in as provided by the authorities. For capitalism, it is basically greed and the need for material possessions. For the scientific method it is curiosity and need for knowledge and understanding.

So, the basic assumption is that those that are involved in the scientific process, the scientists, are driven by their curiosity. It has to a large extent been the case for centuries, and we have the accumulated scientific knowledge obtain through this process thanks to this curiosity.

However, during the past century, things started to change. It some point, due to some key event or perhaps as a result of various minor events, the fundamental driving force for scientists started to change. Instead of being internally motivated by their curiosity, they became externally motivated by … vanity!

Today, one gets the impression that researchers are far more concerned about egos than the knowledge they create. To support this statement, I can provide numerous examples. But instead of doing that, I’ll focus on only aspect: how this vanity issue impacts and causes the current impasse. Perhaps I’ll provide and discuss those examples in followup posts.

In the aftermath of the disappointing lack of results from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), some people blamed other prominent researchers for their ludicrously exotic proposals and predictions. None of which survived the observations of the LHC.

Why would highly respected physicists make such ludicrous predictions? The way I see it, is as a gamble with high stakes. Chances were that these predictions would not have panned out. But if one of them did receive confirmation from the LHC, the return on investment would have been extremely high. The person that made the prediction would have become extremely famous not only among physicists, but probably also among the general public. It would probably have ensured that the person receives a Nobel prize. Hence, all the needs for vanity would have been satisfied instantly.

What about knowledge? Surely, if the prediction turned out to be correct, then it must imply a significant increase in our knowledge. True, but now one should look at the reality. None of these exotic predictions succeeded. This situation is not really surprising, probably not even to the people that made these predictions, because they probably knew the probability for their success to be extremely low. In that context, the motivation for making the predictions was never about the increase in knowledge. It was purely aimed at vanity.

An extreme example is this one physicists, who shall remain unnamed. He is known for making random predictions at a remarkable rate. It is obvious to everybody that he is not making these predictions because he expects them to work out. It is simply an attempt to be the first to have made a specific prediction in the off-chance that one of them came true. Then he’ll probably hope to receive all the vanity rewards that he so desperately craves.

It might have been amusing, were it not for the fact that this deplorable situation is adversely affecting progress in physics, and probably in science in general, albeit I don’t have such extensive experience in other fields of science. The observable effect in fundamental physics is a significant slowdown in progress that is stretching over several decades.

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