Advice to a Young Physicist

By Robert Cordery 

So, you want to be a theoretical physicist? While this advice may not seem totally original, hear me out.  Focus on the three Rs.

Physics combines mathematical theory and experimental measurement to understand how the world works.  Success in physics requires particular capabilities in reading, writing, and arithmetic. An investment in developing expertise in all three skills will pay dividends with a flourishing career.

No matter how much you read, there will always be more fascinating papers you should have read. There are more than 250 physics papers published every day. You need triage just to monitor the most relevant knowledge for your current research topics. Identify the publications that best match your needs. You must become a kind of speed reader. Skim relevant papers to extract their key ideas and integrate them with your knowledge. Rigorously analyze the arguments and results in a few of the most critical papers.  Your analysis may go as far as reproducing calculations and computer simulations. After you understand the question a paper is addressing, think about how you would approach the problem.

You need a peer network. Develop a list of physicists you follow. Build relationships with them at conferences and during university visits. The number of single author papers is declining, while collaborations are skyrocketing.  Actively seek out collaborators.

Every few years, change your research focus. You will avoid becoming stale. As you mature as a scientist, you will find creative opportunities in the fertile ground between the well-trodden paths.

Take a writing class. Train in writing grant proposals. Remember the reader. Even for a specialist audience, very few have spent a comparable effort studying the topic of your paper.  Pay special attention to the comments of editors and peer referees. They may be a majority of the people who read your work attentively.

Writing requires practice. Imitate the best features of the papers you enjoy. Write topic summaries and develop the logic of physics arguments for yourself. The effort of writing decrease, but only with practice will your quality improve. Your ability in mathematics and physics does not extend to writing.  You will have to work at it, starting now.

Over the last three millennia mankind has advanced the twin frontiers of mathematics and of our understanding of the universe in lock-step. Eugene Wigner called it “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” The partnership between mathematics and physics is not ending.

You can never know all the mathematics that could help you gain a deeper understanding of the universe. Pay extra attention to mathematics of symmetry. The beauty of physics is intimately tied to the symmetries and broken symmetries of the universe. The deep connections between algebra and geometry always sheds light on the nature of physics.

The days of doing mathematical physics on paper are regretfully ending. Systems that are not addressable by simple equations are routinely addressed with computer simulations. Computer languages and styles will evolve. The way of formulating problems for computer solution will improve.  But the ability to express an aspect of the world with an algorithm running on a computer will always be in demand.

After you have learned to read, write, and calculate, after you have built your network, remember this one last thing: follow the experiments.


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