[ExI] Discontent with the path physics is taking

Brent Neal brentn at freeshell.org
Thu Aug 18 00:09:50 UTC 2011

On 17 Aug, 2011, at 13:24, Kelly Anderson wrote:

> 2011/8/17 spike <spike66 at att.net>:
>> Dan, this has long been a concern of those outside string theory, but I look
>> at it this way.  String theory has few if any commercial applications.
>> There is *plenty* of physics going on in microdevices and other areas where
>> there are enormous economic incentives.  String theory is not competing with
>> that, and that is where the money is.  I don’t worry if a few physics
>> professors struggle over their 14 dimensional mathematics and eat up some
>> small and dwindling theoretical research budget supplied by governments.  I
>> cheer for them, hope they find interesting stuff.  I am interested in
>> theoretical physics myself.  I worry they may have taken a long and
>> fruitless path.  But I don’t lose any sleep over it.
> I am not a theoretical physicist, so these are the opinions of a
> poorly informed amateur... but I am interested from that perspective.

OK, so I -am- a theoretical physicist, although one who has been doing experimental physics for his day job for the past few years. But, given that, let me weigh in with my view.

If one believes that string theory, QCD, and all the weird, wild mathematics behind gauge theories and many-body theory are the sum total of theoretical physics, I weep for your ignorance. :)  There are areas of theoretical physics that are being studied now that weren't even an option for me to study when I started in grad school over a decade ago. Soft matter physics immediately comes to mind, since that's the area I'm working in now. It wasn't even considered "real physics" until de Gennes got a Nobel for it, but now the Soft Matter and Polymer Physics section of APS is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing section.  These areas are very highly studied and funded (even the theoretical folks) - but, of course, in anti-intellectual America, not funded nearly well enough. There are other areas, including biophysics, where the rigorous discipline and mathematical formalisms that are characteristic of physics have been applied to problems that were formerly only studied by chemists, biologists, and scientists from other disciplines. The breakdown of that ivory tower wall is something I believe has been good for physics as a field of study and good for scientific endeavor in general.


Brent Neal, Ph.D.
<brentn at freeshell.org>

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