What does a theoretical physicist do all day? We sit and think.
Most of us can’t do all that thinking in our heads, though. Maybe Steven Hawking could, but the rest of us need to visualize what we’re thinking. Our memories, too, are all-too finite, prone to forget what we’re doing midway through a calculation.
So rather than just use our imagination and memory, we use another imagination, another memory: a piece of paper. Writing is the simplest “other brain” we have access to, but even by itself it’s a big improvement, adding weeks of memory and the ability to “see” long calculations at work.
But even augmented by writing, our brains are limited. We can only calculate so fast. What’s more, we get bored: doing the same thing mechanically over and over is not something our brains like to do.
Luckily, in the modern era we have access to other brains: computers.
As I write, the “other brain” sitting on my desk works out a long calculation. Using programs like Mathematica or Maple, or more serious programming languages, I can tell my “other brain” to do something and it will do it, quickly and without getting bored.
My “other brain” is limited too. It has only so much memory, only so much speed, it can only do so many calculations at once. While it’s thinking, though, I can find yet another brain to think at the same time. Sometimes that’s just my desktop, sitting back in my office in Denmark. Sometimes I have access to clusters, blobs of synchronized brains to do my bidding.
While I’m writing this, my “brains” are doing five different calculations (not counting any my “real brain” might be doing). I’m sitting and thinking, as a theoretical physicist should.
“Sometimes I have access to clusters, blobs of synchronized brains to do my bidding.”
From at least the 19th century (if not sooner) and on into the early 1960s, it was not uncommon to use synchronized real human brains to do the bidding of scientists and engineers, in rooms full of people sitting at desks simultaneously did the kind of calculations that we now delegate to computers, under the coordination of someone at the front of the room.