So it occured to me today...

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jdhooghe
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So it occured to me today...

Postby jdhooghe » Wed Apr 09, 2008 11:52 pm

that I really don't know what the difference is between a "theorist" and an "experimentalist." If these really mean that one is a model maker and one is a model tester, what do each do besides the obvious write on a chalkboard vrs. build experiments ect. Do people really just have time to do one or another? This seems a rather silly division seeing how physics is an experimental science and not philosophy...but then again how are we to test Dark Matter or Extra Dimensions? Do each receive the same training in courses? Or is there separate course patterns?

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quizivex
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby quizivex » Wed Apr 09, 2008 11:59 pm

Yeah I was dismayed the first time my prof asked me "do you want to be a theorist or experimentalist?" I hadn't heard those terms before and I was so confused... isn't the whole basis of phyiscs (and science in general) the interplay of theory and experiments, forming hypothesis and testing them... I was shocked to hear that nobody ever seriously does both simultaneously.

If there's such a strict separation, it leaves me to wonder what the real definition is of each kind... Is a theorist just supposed to forumulate ideas without being able to verify them? Is an experimentalist just supposed to do the tedious grunt work and test whether someone else's theories are accurate or not??

Are chemists split into two types too?

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fermiboy
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby fermiboy » Thu Apr 10, 2008 12:20 am

There's a huge difference. Experimentalists spend all day saying

"Where did that damn socket wrench go?"

While theorists spend all day saying

"Why won't this damn thing compile?"

Would you rather ask "where?" or "why?"

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Helio
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby Helio » Thu Apr 10, 2008 12:34 am

I am going to add to the mix... my work is considered neither.... i am a computational physicist and data analyst

christopher3.14
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby christopher3.14 » Thu Apr 10, 2008 12:34 am

This is actually a little frustrating to me as well. Especially in condensed matter there is a huge division where the experimentalists measure something and then give it to a theorist to tell them the WHY part. Or a theorist suggests an experiment that is then conducted. As an experimentalist, one of my little goals is to get enough math and theory under my belt to not have to rely so heavily on outsiders to figure out what's happening.

doom
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby doom » Thu Apr 10, 2008 12:41 am

It's interesting to me that some people didn't realize the theory/experiment divide. Maybe that's because I've been telling people that I'm going to be a theoretical physicist since I was 12 years old (long before I really knew what that meant). I just knew Stephen Hawking was a theoretical physicist, so that's what I wanted to be.

I know the importance of experiment, and that all ideas, no matter how beautiful, are useless if they disagree with experiment. And I'm happy that there a lots of good people who want to do experiments, because I cannot ever see myself doing them. I've never had much interest in building gadgets and hardware and things of that nature. I think my lab work throughout college has also shown that I don't have the necessary attention to detail to be a good experimentalist.

I dunno, I've just been aware of the divide for a long time, and I've always known which side of the divide I would be on.

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twistor
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby twistor » Thu Apr 10, 2008 10:20 am

While theorists spend all day saying

"Why won't this damn thing compile?"


That's what I do and I'm no theorist. The difference experimentalists can actually get the damn thing to compile eventually whereas theorists resort to Fortran 77.

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twistor
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby twistor » Thu Apr 10, 2008 10:24 am

jdhooghe wrote:that I really don't know what the difference is between a "theorist" and an "experimentalist." If these really mean that one is a model maker and one is a model tester, what do each do besides the obvious write on a chalkboard vrs. build experiments ect. Do people really just have time to do one or another? This seems a rather silly division seeing how physics is an experimental science and not philosophy...but then again how are we to test Dark Matter or Extra Dimensions? Do each receive the same training in courses? Or is there separate course patterns?


Most students will end up taking the same core set of classes and maybe a few concentrated in their area of specialization. Most of your training will come from your advisor (so you hope) and the research group that you work with.

The main difference is funding: theorists don't have any.

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dlenmn
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby dlenmn » Thu Apr 10, 2008 11:14 am

jdhooghe wrote:Do people really just have time to do one or another?


For the most part, the answer seems to be yes. There are a few exceptions. Keeping a lab -- with lots of equipment -- running is a full time job (so experiment -> theory is hard), and equipment is expensive and it takes a long time to build up a lab (so theory -> experiment is hard). But it's not like a experimentalist never writes an equation on a blackboard (although perhaps theorists never do anything in a lab... maybe for good reason). I guess a theorist could work in someone else's lab, but it's hard to get much done without committing a good chunk of time.

jdhooghe wrote:This seems a rather silly division seeing how physics is an experimental science and not philosophy...


I think it makes perfect sense given how the scientific method works and the limits of what one person can do -- the tasks of prediction, experiment, and interpretation can be done separately (and not everyone is equally skilled at each).

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guguma
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby guguma » Thu Apr 10, 2008 1:08 pm

dlenmn wrote:I think it makes perfect sense given how the scientific method works and the limits of what one person can do -- the tasks of prediction, experiment, and interpretation can be done separately (and not everyone is equally skilled at each).


What dlenmn brings to our attention is actually the sole reason behind all the separation.

But the distinction between theory and experiment is not so discreet as it would seem to be. A theorist can only walk blindly without understanding the experimental basis of the data he endeavors to explain. And an experimentalist cannot do an experiment without understanding what to look for.

It has something to do with time too. Faraday did not look for an induced field when he was observing, but Michelson-Morley knew they were looking for a change in speed of light (which came out to be constant), and today you definitely cannot stumble upon an accelerator by chance and observe Higgs. Also the work of the mathematicians in earlier periods did come in handy when it came to explaining an experimental data and as a basis for a theory, but nowadays physicists need to construct the mathematical basis of theories merely from scratch.

More than a strict separation the issue of theory and experiment is more like an inclination. The theorist puts weight on one aspect and the experimentalist on the other aspect of the same problem.

The only people that does not fit in the group above are of course the string theorists. They may be classified as pure theorists. Although I am not in favor of such an inclination, they are doing a hard work of creating a new mathematical basis which is colossally abstract, but may come in handy at some point later (but I really see no point in wasting too many clever minds on huge abstractions when there is still too much work to be done on phenomenological physics, I find it too early to find sanctuary in abstraction).

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fermiboy
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby fermiboy » Thu Apr 10, 2008 3:13 pm

twistor wrote:
While theorists spend all day saying

"Why won't this damn thing compile?"


That's what I do and I'm no theorist. The difference experimentalists can actually get the damn thing to compile eventually whereas theorists resort to Fortran 77.


LOL, that's funny, because I do use Fortran 77.

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twistor
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby twistor » Thu Apr 10, 2008 7:07 pm

At least you're not still writing in Pascal.

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fermiboy
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Re: So it occured to me today...

Postby fermiboy » Thu Apr 10, 2008 7:11 pm

Yeah they have a new name for Pascal these days...it's called Java




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