Fundamental Theoretical Physics is the driver of big science projects. Confirming old theories and testing new theories is how science advances. That said what do we really do when part of big science projects? The stereotype of the theoretical physicist is of a lone genius working in front of a chalkboard, or envisioning the mathematics written in brilliant light in the air in front of them, or dreaming of the solution to a deep problem. This does really happen. Theoretical physics is where the lone genius stereotype comes close to being true. Even then, it has always been just as important to bounce ideas off other physicists.
Newton was for all intents and purposes a theoretical physicist who dabbled in other areas. Areas where he invented the brilliant reflecting telescope and tried to use alchemy to turn base metals into gold. All his most famous work was done mainly alone but stimulated by his correspondence with other natural philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians of his time. Einstein had many physicists around him to use as a sounding board for his ideas, from his fellow students to his wife and colleagues at the various academies he worked at. The same is true of every single theoretical physicist.
As job listings will often put it, part of our role is to “contribute to the intellectual life of the institution”. Clear as mud. I am sure that is easy to do if one is Richard P Feynman what about us mere mortals?
What do we do in the heyday of big collaborative science projects?
This all comes to mind as I am now and have been for a while a SMALL part of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna ‘s Fundamental Physics Working Group.
Since just what theoretical physicists do as part of a large collaboration like this will vary, I will give you my perspective on this from time to time. This is a project that could last 20 or more years and come to define my career.
From my perspective as a theoretical physicist who is working on big astrophysics project, I have three basic task.
- Helping to devise model independent ways that LISA can be used to test or limit General Relativity and any theories which seek to extend or modify General Relativity. To understand other people’s theories and aid our project in testing them.
- To propose new hypotheses based on all available data which can be tested or constrained using LISA.
- To work as an educator in making sure there is a generation of new physicist ready to work on LISA in the future. This is important since from planning to launch and observing could be 20 years or more.
Those are the three things I will be trying to do with my life as a scientist from now on. The most important parts of this undertaking will be 1 and 3.
Understanding the alternative hypotheses there are to modify gravity from CDM to Horndeski gravity to unification proposals, well enough to derive meaningful test fo them, and working to educate the next generation.
The first part I can do now, computational modeling can contribute to that. The second part I can do but that kind of insight can’t be forced.
Three is the hardest thing. To make a larger contribution to the education of others I need to improve mine beyond an MS plus some hours beyond it … to a full PhD and trying to get work at an institution where I can supervise graduate students. I am a college professor but not at that level of institution. Some would say I am too old for more schooling to be worthwhile at 39. We live in an era where many of us will live to be 100 or more, and can be useful well into our 80’s. This isn’t the early 1900’s when such conceptions were solidified.
In short theoretical physicist working as part of big science projects more or less do the same things we would if not officially part of it. We work to understand other people’s theories, propose our own theories, and educate the next generation. Being part of a project, however, does bring a sense of focus to the work.