Why we Physics

There are a lot of good reasons to study theories in theoretical physics, even the ones that aren’t true. They teach us how to do calculations in other theories, including those that do describe reality, which lets us find out fundamental facts about nature. They let us hone our techniques, developing novel methods that often find use later, in some cases even spinoff technology. (Mathematica came out of the theoretical physics community, while experimental high energy physics led to the birth of the modern internet.)

Of course, none of this is why physicists actually do physics. Sure, Nima Arkani-Hamed might need to tell himself that space-time is doomed to get up in the morning, but for a lot of us, it isn’t about proving any wide-ranging point about the universe. It’s not even all about the awesome, as some would have it: most of what we do on a day-to-day basis isn’t especially awesome. It goes a bit deeper than that.

Science, in the end, is about solving puzzles. And solving puzzles is immensely satisfying, on a deep, fundamental level.

There’s a unique feeling that you get when all the pieces come together, when you’re calculating something and everything cancels and you’re left with a simple answer, and for some people that’s the best thing in existence.

It’s especially true when you’re working with an ansatz or using some other method where you fix parameters and fill in uncertainties, one by one. You can see how close you are to the answer, which means each step gives you that little thrill of getting just that much closer. One of my colleagues describes the calculations he does in supergravity as not tedious but “delightful” for precisely this reason: a calculation where every step puts another piece in the right place just feels good.

Theoretical physicists are the kind of people who would get a Lego set for their birthday, build it up to completion, and then never play with it again (unless it was to take it apart and make something else). We do it for the pure joy of seeing something come together and become complete. Save what it’s “for” for the grant committees, we’ve got a different rush in mind.

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