Life is too short…

Today not being a bank holiday in Ireland – though it is in the UK, it’s our turn next Monday – I’ve been trying to finish off my examination marking and haven’t had time to write a proper post. Instead of doing that I thought I’d share the following picture, which I found on Facebook. It’s from the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. I hope my colleagues in the Department of Experimental Physics don’t take offence!

Lest anyone gets the wrong idea about my view of the Experimental versus Theoretical Physics
divide, let me repeat some thoughts I posted a while ago.

Regular readers of his blog will know that here at Maynooth University there are two Physics departments, one the Department of Theoretical Physics (of which I am a Faculty member) and the other the Department of Experimental Physics. These two units are in the same building but have so far have been largely separate in terms of teaching and research; Experimental Physics (EP) is somewhat larger in terms of staff and student numbers than Theoretical Physics (TP).

For instance, when students enter on our General Science degree programme they have to choose four subjects in the first year, including Mathematics (much as I did when I did my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge back in the day). Picking `double physics’ (i.e. Experimental Physics and Theoretical Physics) uses up two of those choices, whereas Physics was a single choice in the first year of my degree. In the second year of this programme students do three subjects so can continue with both Theoretical and Experimental Physics (and another) , as they can in Year 3 where they do two subjects, and in Year 4 where they can do a single Major in either TP or EP or a double Major doing a bit of both.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics relatively recently and some of our documentation still carries that title. Quite often I get asked what’s the difference between Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Physics? As far as Maynooth is concerned we basically use those terms interchangeably and, although it might appear a little confusing at first, having both terms scattered around our webpages means that Google searches for both `Mathematical Physics’ and `Theoretical Physics’ will find us.

The Wikipedia page for Theoretical Physics begins

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

This is what Wikipedia says about Experimental Physics:

Experimental physics is the category of disciplines and sub-disciplines in the field of physics that are concerned with the observation of physical phenomena and experiments. Methods vary from discipline to discipline, from simple experiments and observations, such as the Cavendish experiment, to more complicated ones, such as the Large Hadron Collider.

I count myself as a theoretical physicist (that’s what I did in Part II at Cambridge, anyway) though I do work a lot with data and many of the researchers in my discipline (cosmology) actually work at the interface between theory and experiment, so the distinction between theorists and experimentalists is perhaps not a very useful one.

As a matter of fact I think there’s a good case for theoretical physicists to have at least some experience of practical experimental work. There are two reasons for this:

  1. to understand about errors in measurement and how to treat them properly using statistical methods;
  2. to learn how easy it is to break expensive laboratory equipment.

In the past during Open Days I have asked the audience of prospective physics students if they could name a famous physicist. Most popular among the responses were the names you would have guessed: Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Dirac, Newton, Schrodinger, and some perhaps less familiar names such as Leonard Susskind and Brian Greene. Every single one of these is (or was) a theorist of some kind. This is confirmed by the fact that many potential students mention similar names in the personal statements they write in support of their university applications. For better or worse, it seems that to some potential students at least Physics largely means Theoretical (or Mathematical) Physics.

Although it is probably good for our recruitment that there are so many high-profile theoretical physicists, it probably says more about how little the general public knows about what physics actually is and how it really works. No doubt there are many prospective students who are primarily drawn to laboratory work just as there are many drawn to theoretical calculations. But there are probably others whose interests encompass both. For me the important thing is the interplay between theory and experiment (or observation), as it is in that aspect where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Life is too short for arbitrary divisions!

2 Responses to “Life is too short…”

  1. My sister tells me that a friend of hers was surprised to discover that a theoretical physicist is a real person!

  2. Newton did experiments in optics. And Maxwell should certainly be in the list of most famous physicists.

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