Why Not To Be a Physicist

This is more accurate than you might think.

Every time I tell somebody I’m in physics, they would widen their eyes, tell me how smart I must be, and proceed to tell me how difficult they found physics to be when they were in school.

At this point, I would interject that I, too, find physics hard and that, no, I’m not smart or I would have chosen a career that actually makes money and not requires people to live inside their heads almost 24/7.

Physics is difficult because it requires us to look at the world in a certain way. Physicists create models of systems and try to see if we can get a correct prediction. If we don’t, start again. We also learn to do it inside our heads by visualizing the model. In a way, we are pros of making abstract simulations inside our heads (and computers) which get harder and harder to convey in human-speak the deeper the problems get.

This leads to is a reduced pleasure in watching movies, especially action and science-fiction films.

Wait a minute! How is that related? Well, actually it is the very reason. See, if you are trained hard to see the world in a certain way, that will be how you see it. Being a physicist, or scientist in fact, does not stop the moment we put down our work. It’s ingrained into how we rationalize things. Same goes for all kinds of trainings: engineering, architecture, art, history, humanity, theology, sports, writing, etc. The name of the discipline is pretty much synonymous with the kind of thinking each field uses. If you want to be really good in any one of that, you seriously need to think like them.

So back to the training of physics. There is definitely a lot of logic, mathematics, conceptualization, and visualization involved. Conceptualization and visualization, I found, takes a lot of effort to accomplish. The best people in physics can see through a problem by using the combination of logic, conceptualization, and visualization without much need to resort to mathematics to do the basic conceptual prediction. The beautiful thing about it is you get to understand things that are a lot of time beyond everyday experience. Greg Chaitin, who is in fact a mathematician, described it best. In a BBC-four documentary Dangerous Knowledge, he compared the experience with climbing a mountain and get to see the most breath-taking view very few get to see. I think that is a very apt picture of what working in science is like sometimes. In a way, it’s a transcendence of the mind, of being somewhere else in the mental landscape.

With greater understanding of how the physical world works comes the great price of noticing when it doesn’t work the way we think it should. We have to be able to do that for three reasons: to be able to see when we’re wrong, to be able to see when other people are wrong, and to potentially get a Noble Prize someday because we  happen to spot evidence that points to our current model being fundamentally flawed (or, so we hope). Suspending disbelief is incredibly hard to do after a time. There is a little voice in the back of our heads that go “wait, what?” every time something seems slightly off.

Like, sound in space (Star Wars)? There’s nothing for it to propagate effectively. Flying humanoid mobile suits the size of a building to shoot ray guns (Gundam)? That is so inefficient.  A giant spaceship for deep-space travel built on Earth’s surface (Star Trek XI)? How much energy do you need to lift that off the ground and into orbit anyway? And did I mention to mysterious source of gravity or gravitational distortion in tons of movies (Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Space Battleship Yamato, Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, etc.)? Not to mention logical distortion of various scale (Dr. Who, Star Trek, lots)?

You do not want a physicist in your test screening. Period.

It’s not that I want to rally for a physically accurate movies. Honestly, an absolutely accurate movie has the tendency to be really boring. Movies (sans documentaries) are for fantasies no matter what “based on true story” suggests. Sometimes the law has to be broken for that dramatic twist. A good compilation of why breaking the law of physics makes a story better can be found in an article on io9 on 10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better. The author of the article is absolutely right that, at the end of the day, it is the stories of people that matters. The rest is setting the stage. We just need a stage that is good enough to support the story, and that’s it.

Knowing that doesn’t, in any way, shut the physics brain up no matter how hard we try to make it please take a vacation while we chill out. Some people might be able to do that better than others. I can do that sometimes with an action movie that’s realistic enough and has a good story that can get me emotionally invested, but I still keep seeing those little illogical things that would have been better to just dismiss. It sucks because I want to enjoy a movie as a movie. I don’t want to spend a good portion of the time telling the little voice in my head to please cease to narrate how wrong the things I’m seeing are, or what the character just said is contradictory, or to go into red-alert because something is wrong but it doesn’t know what.

Yes, that sounds annoying. Most of the time that happens, it is. Other times, well, I’ll confess of being a douche and say I get a kick out of spotting those moments if I really, really hate the movie. To my defense, that might be the only kind of entertainment I have in those occasions.

So, please, take my advice: don’t be a physicist.

P.S. I really encourage you all to watch Dangerous Knowledge (link to some sample). It gives you a pretty good view into how the concept of uncertainty arrives in math, physics, and history and how we have dealt with it, which is to say not that good. It’s just a bit too dramatic for my liking, but well, what can I say.

4 thoughts on “Why Not To Be a Physicist

  1. “Don’t be a physicist”, eh? Bit late for that, in my case.

    This really is a great article: it managed to be both funny and informative at the same time. Have a follow for your troubles.

    1. Hi, there! Great to hear from a fellow physicist, and I’m glad you find it funny.

      And, yeah, it’s too late for me, too. Waaaay too late. 🙂

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