What Science Would You Do If You Had the Time?

I know a lot of people who worry about the state of academia. They worry that the competition for grants and jobs has twisted scientists’ priorities, that the sort of dedicated research of the past, sitting down and thinking about a topic until you really understand it, just isn’t possible anymore. The timeline varies: there are people who think the last really important development was the Standard Model, or the top quark, or AdS/CFT. Even more optimistic people, who think physics is still just as great as it ever was, often complain that they don’t have enough time.

Sometimes I wonder what physics would be like if we did have the time. If we didn’t have to worry about careers and funding, what would we do? I can speculate, comparing to different communities, but here I’m interested in something more concrete: what, specifically, could we accomplish? I often hear people complain that the incentives of academia discourage deep work, but I don’t often hear examples of the kind of deep work that’s being discouraged.

So I’m going to try an experiment here. I know I have a decent number of readers who are scientists of one field or another. Imagine you didn’t have to worry about funding any more. You’ve got a permanent position, and what’s more, your favorite collaborators do too. You don’t have to care about whether your work is popular, whether it appeals to the university or the funding agencies or any of that. What would you work on? What projects would you personally do, that you don’t have the time for in the current system? What worthwhile ideas has modern academia left out?

10 thoughts on “What Science Would You Do If You Had the Time?

  1. Chris Bolger

    Can the postulates of Quantum Mechanic be derived from one or two more fundamental principles as well as energy, momentum, space, time and other observables.

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    1. Marwa

      I tried to think about this. The black hole information problem, the cosmological constant problem and other quantum gravity problems might shed some light into the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

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  2. David Horgan

    Given a completely free hand I have spent my time exploring polyhedra in physics. It’s a lifelong obsession I suppose which started when I was given a beautiful book called polyhedron models when I was about 10 years old. I was lucky enough to study theoretical physics at university and then graduate work.

    I’ve spent the last few years studying the quantum tetrahedron, writing python code to calculate quantum geometric quantities and writing a blog about it and studying quantum polyhedra in general – there is some wonderful work being done in this area. Now I’ve started to look at the theory of motifs, associahedron and of course the Amplituhedron. It is so exciting and beautiful. Of course I’m fortunate not to be in academia anymore so I can study what I like when I like and how I like, I’m in heaven.

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  3. Joelson Fernandes

    The examples above are very interesting, but as a condensed matter physicist I will give a different example. If I have time enough to work without concerns about financial issues I will work with the search of the microscopical origin of High T_c superconductivity. From a rigorous view point all attempts (with different tools since traditional computational tasks to AdS/CFT) are not satisfactory, but the physicists has leave the more deep explanations due financial reasons for long time ago.

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  4. Nick Markov

    I actually made time by quitting a well-paid corporate job, I self-funded a Sabbatical year,… and was rewarded by the experimental results I was hoping for 9 months later. They say “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, but we all currently live in the same basket called Earth. What keeps us on Earth is the conservation law dogma – to move forward one needs to throw something back, and one quickly runs out of stuff to throw if trying to reach an exoplanet, for example. So here I am, the heretic, bypassing the dogma experimentally, by aligning electrically billions of little quantum engines (represented by ammonia molecules, where the nitrogen atom makes quantum tunneling jumps billions time a second). The aligned micro-engines sum up nicely producing a reactionless propulsion drive. And, … it is interesting that nobody wants to publish the simple experimental results, for I am outside the System.

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  5. lamboom

    Congratulations on taking a sabbatical, and conducting serious research to investigate an interesting idea. You are indeed a scientist. As for the publishing, that’s a tricky question. It would seem that satisfying requirements for publication would be no problem for “Popular Science”, yet might be more difficult for “Physics Today”.
    Something as significant as what you have demonstrated in your experiments should be very interesting to any serious scientist. Publishers of new work in research; however, range from “The National Inquirer” to “Nature Physics”
    Soooo.. methinks you need a very powerful paper … might also attach a documentary video .. 🙂

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