The Irons in the Fire Metric

I remember, a while back, visiting a friend in his office. He had just became a professor, and was still setting things up. I noticed a list on the chalkboard, taking up almost one whole side. Taking a closer look, I realized that list was a list of projects. To my young postdoc eyes, the list was amazing: how could one person be working on so many things?

There’s an idiom in English, “too many irons in the fire”. You can imagine a blacksmith forging many things at once, each piece of iron taking focus from the others. Too many, and a piece might break, or otherwise fail.

Perhaps the irons in the fire are fire irons

In theoretical physics, a typical PhD publishes three papers before they graduate. That usually means one project at a time, maybe two. For someone used to one or two irons in the fire, so many at a time seems an impossible feat.

Scientists grow over their careers, though, and in more than one way. What seems impossible can eventually be business as usual.

First, as your skill grows, you become more efficient. A lot of scientific work is a kind of debugging: making mistakes, and figuring out how to fix them. The more experience you have, the more you know what kinds of mistakes you might make, and the better you will be at avoiding them. (Never perfect, of course: scientists always have to debug something.)

Second, your collaborations grow. The more people you work with, the more you can share these projects, each person contributing their own piece. With time, you start supervising as well: Masters students, PhD students, postdocs. Each one adds to the number of irons you can manage in your fire. While for bad supervisors this just means having their name on lots of projects, the good supervisors will be genuinely contributing to each one. That’s yet another kind of growth: as you get further along, you get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t, so even in a quick meeting you can solve meaningful problems.

Third, you grow your system. The ideas you explore early on blossom into full-fledged methods, tricks which you can pull out again and again when you need them. The tricks combine, forming new, bigger tricks, and eventually a long list of projects becomes second nature, a natural thing your system is able to do.

As you grow as a scientist, you become more than just one researcher, one debugger at a laptop or pipetter at a lab bench. You become a research program, one that manifests across many people and laptops and labs. As your expertise grows, you become a kind of living exchange of ideas, concepts flowing through you when needed, building your own scientific world.

2 thoughts on “The Irons in the Fire Metric

  1. Madeleine Birchfield

    What are your thoughts about this article, which was put up on the arxiv about a month ago? The authors claim that the hierarchy problem in quantum field theory and high energy physics isn’t actually physically real, but is just an artifact of the techniques commonly used to calculate stuff in the theory.


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      Hmm, weird.

      I don’t yet understand the article enough to critique it, but a few thoughts:

      Leaving aside the physical claim the paper is making, calculationally being able to get any arbitrary scattering amplitude with no intermediate UV divergences is kind of a holy grail of my subfield. Since the sources they’re basing their method on don’t look that obscure, I’m curious whether a) they’re somehow misunderstanding what the method can do b) the method works but is super-inefficient so in practice people avoid it or c) it really has just been systematically overlooked.

      I might be misunderstanding something here, but it looks like they’re fixing the parameters of the theory in the IR. If you can do that then you can certainly solve the problem (things just have the masses they are observed with, no surprises there), but it doesn’t make sense from a reductionist standpoint: we expect our observations on larger scales to be determined by what happens on smaller scales, not the other way around. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad direction to look, I’ve idly speculated this might be what you need to fix the problem anyway. But you need an actual physical principle that lets you fix things in the IR, you can’t just do it and act like that solves the problem.

      Liked by 1 person


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