The way physicists are

© 2012 by  Fernando Caracena


Physicists are are often portrayed as in the movie "I. Q.", which starred  Walter Matthau playing the part of Albert Einstein. Although way beyond ordinary intelligence, they behaved like children.

Seeking out New Ways of Seeing

Scientists are always seeing the universe in new ways—curiosity is the mainspring of science. Scientific experience does not come casually; it is obtained methodically and through hard work. It is gained either through very careful observation, as in astronomy, or through planned happenings—experiments, where the whole set-up of equipment is designed to ask nature a question. The experimenter records his answers as data—in physics, usually a lot of approximated numbers that come out of seeking out New Ways of Measuring. The numbers are approximate because there are limits to the measuring process that result in errors in observation.

Experimentation involves a lot of planning. Nature does not give up her secrets easily. To test their ideas (theories) Scientists, reasoning from all available knowledge, predict the result of a  new experiment, and then proceed to build an apparatus to test that prediction. The experiment results of the experiment either confirms or proves false the predictions of a theory. Once a theory is falsified by experiment, it is either discarded or modified. In that way, theory in physics is a living document that reflects current understanding of the subject. Unlike the way the word, "theory", is used in common speech, in science, "theory" means a set of ideas, the truth of which is backed up by a lot of experience, and which has yet to be disproved.  Experiments in physics are usually embodied in special equipment, which can be either very simple or very elaborate, from the work of one man to that of an international team of investigators.

Walking and hiking with physicists

Albert Einstein, the internationally famous theoretical physicist of the early 1900s, spent a his time deep in thought, puffing on a pipe, writing equations on a blackboard, talking with colleagues, playing the violin, taking long walks, and sailing; but he was always turning over problems in his mind. At the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton , he was a often seen in the company of his close friend and colleague Kurt Gödel. Gödel was the mathematician who changed the course of mathematical research with his famous Incompleteness Theorem. Einstein and Gödel enjoyed walking home together from the Institute, perhaps stopping for an ice cream cone along the way. Once Gödel announced that he found a special solution for Einstein's equations of General Relativity for a rotating universe that allows for time travel.

At restaurants

I have heard that the famous painter Pablo Picasso used to sometimes pay for his dinner by  drawing on a napkin or on a table cloth. When physicist did this, they paid the restaurant owner for the napkin or table cloth, because the information contained thereon was valuable to them.

Groups of famous physicists gathered in a public place have been known to use almost anything at hand to write down and explain their ideas during an exciting discussion in the process of making dramatic, theoretical breakthroughs—the back of an envelope, a napkin, or a table cloth. If this happens at a restaurant, other people are treated to the spectacle of crazy guys getting very excited while scribbling equations all over a table cloth.These spectators see only the outward half of what is going on. The world of ideas can be very exciting.

Some physicists are at home with both theory and experiment. Enrico Fermi was such a man. He would often spend time at home, away from his team of experimenters studying a problem theoretically, deriving equations, and perhaps doing numerical calculations. Later, he would meet with this team and tell them what results they should expect from the next round of experiment. Fermi also loved to take walks, especially hikes into the mountains (in Italy the Alps), taking cheese, bread and wine for a picnic. He and his colleagues had many animated discussions about physics while hiking in the Alps.

Conversations with physicists

If you picture physicists as nerds who cannot even tie their shoes, you are wrong. Physicists are a very animated bunch of people and very enthusiastic. Often, they are interested in many more things than the average person. A professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University preferred to sit with theoretical physicists at lunch in the cafeteria, because they had many more interesting things to say than the psychologists. He said that theoretical physicists had IQs of over 135, whereas psychologists mostly fell below that score.I always wondered how people are able to measure the intelligence of others who are much smarted than they are.

Richard P. FeynmanDoing physics in strip joints and hiking in Copper Canyon

Richard P. Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in Quantum Electrodynamics, also played the bongo drums. During his single years, he liked to do physics in strip joints; perhaps, because nobody would bother him by asking about all his strange Greek writing. The guys around him were too focused on other things to bother him. Later, he and his wife took a hiking trip in the very rough and wild country of Copper Canyon in Northwest Mexico and lived among the Tarahumara Indians. Just before he died of cancer, he and a young friend had a lot of fun planning to take a trip to Tana Tuva somewhere in Mongolia. Richard Feynman is famous to the general public for the dominant role that he played in investigating the Challenger Disaster. His description of his involvement is available in an audiobook online. He demonstrated in front of the TV cameras that the rocket blew up (see video), because the elastic rings separating sections of the solid fuel rocket became so stiff under the cold weather at launch that they broke their seal and allowing rocket exhaust to leak out of the side of the rocket resulting in an explosion.

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Fig. 1 If I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel prize.--Feynman (From Wikimedia, Public Domain).

Feynman, my favorite physicist, was a very interesting public speaker, a real showman who explained profound concepts in a Bronx accent. He spoke to reporters on a number of subjects, such as beauty. His style of working in physics was described by contemporary colleagues as that of a wizard.  He got his idea for his diagrammatic representation of particle interaction (see Fig. 1) by watching a busboy drop a load of plates. Stephan Wolfram (view his TED talk), the author of the Mathematica Software, spoke about his association with Richard Feynman.

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