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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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Theory Grad Student Q&A (Part 3)

And now for the exciting conclusion of “Theory Grad Student Q&A!”

Are you at CERN?

I should probably clarify that unlike many of my experimental colleagues here, I am unfortunately not based at CERN and instead spend most of my time with the theory group at the Laboratory for Elementary Particle Physics in Ithaca, NY. And yes, for the record, I’m jealous of all the experimental grad students who get to spend so much time in Geneva! (Especially during the freezing upstate New York winters.)

Even in the age of Skype and teleconferencing, it is important for experimentalists to be able to spend time at CERN where all the action is happening. This is because when you’re part of a group of experts on a particular facet of a large experiment like ATLAS or CMS, you need to be able to communicate efficiently with each other and with the rest of the large experimental team without worrying about different time zones.

Theorists, on the other hand, work in much smaller collaborations that are often with other researchers at their home institutions. Inter-institutional collaborations are also common, but in this case it’s much easier to just visit each others’ universities. There is a very vibrant theoretical physics group at CERN, but it is less common for American theory grad students to visit.

What does a theoretical physicist actually do?

Theoretical physics research is a mixture of pen-and-paper work, running numerical simulations, checking ideas against experimental constraints, and –most importantly– communicating with others. While theoretical physicists are often imagined by popular media to follow the mold of the patent office clerk working in isolation, the real way theoretical research moves forward is through collaborative work between physicists. Such collaboration allows people to bounce ideas off of each other, take complimentary approaches to a problem, check work, and generate new ideas.

This last point is perhaps the key to outstanding theoretical work: creativity plays a big role in research, where questions are open ended and don’t necessarily have straightforward answers. One needs to ‘think outside of the box’ to find new ways of describing old problems and then use them to find novel solutions. (This, by the way, is the key to all good science: theoretical or experimental.) Sometimes this means thinking in terms of higher dimensions, or maybe understanding a mathematical formula in terms of physical processes (or vice versa), or applying a clever trick from a previously solved problem.

In a sentence one could summarize a theorist’s daily life as the iterated process of (1) thinking about problems and (2) discussing their thoughts with others.

What’s it like being a theory grad student?

As a theory graduate student I spend a lot of time learning many of the tools in my field and slowly trying to develop my own set of tools to address parts of the ‘big questions’ of our time. This involves coursework early in graduate school but moves on to more individually motivated work reading papers as one catches up to the forefront of research.

One big activity that theory grad students often take part in are journal clubs. These are informal discussions where students present current research papers to help keep the entire group abreast of what’s going on in the field. This is also doubles as a chance for participants to practice their scientific communication skills with one another.

Because of the nature of our work, theory students aren’t tied down to a particular lab and many of us have favorite places to go when crunching through a tedious calculation. I’m especially partial to coffee shops, though I know of others who prefer to get their work done at bars or even sitting outside in the park.

Another aspect of grad student life that is especially true for theorists is recreation. Since most of our work can be packed away in a folder or on a USB stick, it’s easy to ‘bring your work home’ and end up working all the time. In order to stay balanced, it’s important to have recreational activities (preferably those that get you outside!) to rest your brain.

Theorists vs. Experimentalists?

If softball is any indication, then experimentalists seem to have the upper hand. For years the SLAC National Laboratory held an annual softball game pitting representatives of the experimental group against their theory counterparts. Historically victories for the theory team were few and far between. In fact, as an undergrad one of my proudest moments was learning that my adviser was a member of one of the few victorious theory softball teams. Unfortunately with SLAC’s recent restructuring and focus on a broader scientific program, the “theory versus experiment” matchup also was restructured into an “accelerator versus research” duel. The ‘research’ team is composed of theorists and experimentalists from particle, astroparticle, material, and laser physics while the ‘accelerator’ team is made up of scientists and engineers working on present and future accelerators.

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