Tag Archives: DoingScience

What Do Theorists Do at Work?

Picture a scientist at work. You’re probably picturing an experiment, test tubes and beakers bubbling away. But not all scientists do experiments. Theoretical physicists work on the mathematical side of the field, making predictions and trying to understand how to make them better. So what does it look like when a theoretical physicist is working?

A theoretical physicist, at work in the equation mines

The first thing you might imagine is that we just sit and think. While that happens sometimes, we don’t actually do that very often. It’s better, and easier, to think by doing something.

Sometimes, this means working with pen and paper. This should be at least a little familiar to anyone who has done math homework. We’ll do short calculations and draw quick diagrams to test ideas, and do a more detailed, organized, “show your work” calculation if we’re trying to figure out something more complicated. Sometimes very short calculations are done on a blackboard instead, it can help us visualize what we’re doing.

Sometimes, we use computers instead. There are computer algebra packages, like Mathematica, Maple, or Sage, that let us do roughly what we would do on pen and paper, but with the speed and efficiency of a computer. Others program in more normal programming languages: C++, Python, even Fortran, making programs that can calculate whatever they are interested in.

Sometimes we read. With most of our field’s papers available for free on arXiv.org, we spend time reading up on what our colleagues have done, trying to understand their work and use it to improve ours.

Sometimes we talk. A paper can only communicate so much, and sometimes it’s better to just walk down the hall and ask a question. Conversations are also a good way to quickly rule out bad ideas, and narrow down to the promising ones. Some people find it easier to think clearly about something if they talk to a colleague about it, even (sometimes especially) if the colleague isn’t understanding much.

And sometimes, of course, we do all the other stuff. We write up our papers, making the diagrams nice and the formulas clean. We teach students. We go to meetings. We write grant applications.

It’s been said that a theoretical physicist can work anywhere. That’s kind of true. Some places are more comfortable, and everyone has different preferences: a busy office, a quiet room, a cafe. But with pen and paper, a computer, and people to talk to, we can do quite a lot.

The Road to Reality

I build tools, mathematical tools to be specific, and I want those tools to be useful. I want them to be used to study the real world. But when I build those tools, most of the time, I don’t test them on the real world. I use toy models, simpler cases, theories that don’t describe reality and weren’t intended to.

I do this, in part, because it lets me stay one step ahead. I can do more with those toy models, answer more complicated questions with greater precision, than I can for the real world. I can do more ambitious calculations, and still get an answer. And by doing those calculations, I can start to anticipate problems that will crop up for the real world too. Even if we can’t do a calculation yet for the real world, if it requires too much precision or too many particles, we can still study it in a toy model. Then when we’re ready to do those calculations in the real world, we know better what to expect. The toy model will have shown us some of the key challenges, and how to tackle them.

There’s a risk, working with simpler toy models. The risk is that their simplicity misleads you. When you solve a problem in a toy model, could you solve it only because the toy model is easy? Or would a similar solution work in the real world? What features of the toy model did you need, and which are extra?

The only way around this risk is to be careful. You have to keep track of how your toy model differs from the real world. You must keep in mind difficulties that come up on the road to reality: the twists and turns and potholes that real-world theories will give you. You can’t plan around all of them, that’s why you’re working with a toy model in the first place. But for a few key, important ones, you should keep your eye on the horizon. You should keep in mind that, eventually, the simplifications of the toy model will go away. And you should have ideas, perhaps not full plans but at least ideas, for how to handle some of those difficulties. If you put the work in, you stand a good chance of building something that’s useful, not just for toy models, but for explaining the real world.

Science, the Gift That Keeps on Giving

Merry Newtonmas, everyone!

You’ll find many scientists working over the holidays this year. Partly that’s because of the competitiveness of academia, with many scientists competing for a few positions, where even those who are “safe” have students who aren’t. But to put a more positive spin on it, it’s also because science is a gift that keeps on giving.

Scientists are driven by curiosity. We want to know more about the world, to find out everything we can. And the great thing about science is that, every time we answer a question, we have another one to ask.

Discover a new particle? You need to measure its properties, understand how it fits into your models and look for alternative explanations. Do a calculation, and in addition to checking it, you can see if the same method works on other cases, or if you can use the result to derive something else.

Down the line, the science that survives leads to further gifts. Good science spreads, with new fields emerging to investigate new phenomena. Eventually, science leads to technology, and our lives are enriched by the gifts of new knowledge.

Science is the gift that keeps on giving. It takes new forms, builds new ideas, it fills our lives and nourishes our minds. It’s a neverending puzzle.

So this Newtonmas, I hope you receive the greatest gift of all: the gift of science.

Calculating the Hard Way, for Science!

I had a new paper out last week, with Jacob Bourjaily and Matthias Volk. We’re calculating the probability that particles bounce off each other in our favorite toy model, N=4 super Yang-Mills. And this time, we’re doing it the hard way.

The “easy way” we didn’t take is one I have a lot of experience with. Almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been calculating these particle probabilities by “guesswork”: starting with a plausible answer, then honing it down until I can be confident it’s right. This might sound reckless, but it works remarkably well, letting us calculate things we could never have hoped for with other methods. The catch is that “guessing” is much easier when we know what we’re looking for: in particular, it works much better in toy models than in the real world.

Over the last few years, though, I’ve been using a much more “normal” method, one that so far has a better track record in the real world. This method, too, works better than you would expect, and we’ve managed some quite complicated calculations.

So we have an “easy way”, and a “hard way”. Which one is better? Is the hard way actually harder?

To test that, you need to do the same calculation both ways, and see which is easier. You want it to be a fair test: if “guessing” only works in the toy model, then you should do the “hard” version in the toy model as well. And you don’t want to give “guessing” any unfair advantages. In particular, the “guess” method works best when we know a lot about the result we’re looking for: what it’s made of, what symmetries it has. In order to do a fair test, we must use that knowledge to its fullest to improve the “hard way” as well.

We picked an example in the middle: not too easy, and not too hard, a calculation that was done a few years back “the easy way” but not yet done “the hard way”. We plugged in all the modern tricks we could, trying to use as much of what we knew as possible. We trained a grad student: Matthias Volk, who did the lion’s share of the calculation and learned a lot in the process. We worked through the calculation, and did it properly the hard way.

Which method won?

In the end, the hard way was indeed harder…but not by that much! Most of the calculation went quite smoothly, with only a few difficulties at the end. Just five years ago, when the calculation was done “the easy way”, I doubt anyone would have expected the hard way to be viable. But with modern tricks it wasn’t actually that hard.

This is encouraging. It tells us that the “hard way” has potential, that it’s almost good enough to compete at this kind of calculation. It tells us that the “easy way” is still quite powerful. And it reminds us that the more we know, and the more we apply our knowledge, the more we can do.

Life Cycle of an Academic Scientist

So you want to do science for a living. Some scientists work for companies, developing new products. Some work for governments. But if you want to do “pure science”, science just to learn about the world, then you’ll likely work at a university, as part of what we call academia.

The first step towards academia is graduate school. In the US, this means getting a PhD.

(Master’s degrees, at least in the US, have a different purpose. Most are “terminal Master’s”, designed to be your last degree. With a terminal Master’s, you can be a technician in a lab, but you won’t get farther down this path. In the US you don’t need a Master’s before you apply for a PhD program, and having one is usually a waste of time: PhD programs will make you re-take most of the same classes.)

Once you have a PhD, it’s time to get a job! Often, your first job after graduate school is a postdoc. Postdocs are short-term jobs, usually one to three years long. Some people are lucky enough to go to the next stage quickly, others have more postdoc jobs first. These jobs will take you all over the world, everywhere people with your specialty work. Sometimes these jobs involve teaching, but more often you just do scientific research.

In the US system, If everything goes well, eventually you get a tenure-track job. These jobs involve both teaching and research. You get to train PhD students, hire postdocs, and in general start acting like a proper professor. This stage lasts around seven years, while the university evaluates you. If they decide you’re not worth it then typically you’ll have to leave to apply for another job in another university. If they like you though, you get tenure.

Tenure is the first time as an academic scientist that you aren’t on a short-term contract. Your job is more permanent than most, you have extra protection from being fired that most people don’t. While you can’t just let everything slide, you have freedom to make more of your own decisions.

A tenured job can last until retirement, when you become an emeritus professor. Emeritus professors are retired but still do some of the work they did as professors. They’re paid out of their pension instead of a university salary, but they still sometimes teach or do research, and they usually still have an office. The university can hire someone new, and the cycle continues.

This isn’t the only path scientists take. Some work in a national lab instead. These don’t usually involve teaching duties, and the path to a permanent job is a bit different. Some get teaching jobs instead of research professorships. These teaching jobs are usually not permanent, instead universities are hiring more and more adjunct faculty who have to string together temporary contracts to make a precarious living.

I’ve mostly focused on the US system here. Europe is a bit different: Master’s degrees are a real part of the system, tenure-track doesn’t really exist, and adjunct faculty don’t always either. Some particular countries, like Germany, have their own quite complicated systems, other countries fall in between.

Rooting out the Answer

I have a new paper out today, with Jacob Bourjaily, Andrew McLeod, Matthias Wilhelm, Cristian Vergu and Matthias Volk.

There’s a story I’ve told before on this blog, about a kind of “alphabet” for particle physics predictions. When we try to make a prediction in particle physics, we need to do complicated integrals. Sometimes, these integrals simplify dramatically, in unexpected ways. It turns out we can understand these simplifications by writing the integrals in a sort of “alphabet”, breaking complicated mathematical “periods” into familiar logarithms. If we want to simplify an integral, we can use relations between logarithms like these:

\log(a b)=\log(a)+\log(b),\quad \log(a^n)=n\log(a)

to factor our “alphabet” into pieces as simple as possible.

The simpler the alphabet, the more progress you can make. And in the nice toy model theory we’re working with, the alphabets so far have been simple in one key way. Expressed in the right variables, they’re rational. For example, they contain no square roots.

Would that keep going? Would we keep finding rational alphabets? Or might the alphabets, instead, have square roots?

After some searching, we found a clean test case. There was a calculation we could do with just two Feynman diagrams. All we had to do was subtract one from the other. If they still had square roots in their alphabet, we’d have proven that the nice, rational alphabets eventually had to stop.

Easy-peasy

So we calculated these diagrams, doing the complicated integrals. And we found they did indeed have square roots in their alphabet, in fact many more than expected. They even had square roots of square roots!

You’d think that would be the end of the story. But square roots are trickier than you’d expect.

Remember that to simplify these integrals, we break them up into an alphabet, and factor the alphabet. What happens when we try to do that with an alphabet that has square roots?

Suppose we have letters in our alphabet with \sqrt{-5}. Suppose another letter is the number 9. You might want to factor it like this:

9=3\times 3

Simple, right? But what if instead you did this:

9=(2+ \sqrt{-5} )\times(2- \sqrt{-5} )

Once you allow \sqrt{-5} in the game, you can factor 9 in two different ways. The central assumption, that you can always just factor your alphabet, breaks down. In mathematical terms, you no longer have a unique factorization domain.

Instead, we had to get a lot more mathematically sophisticated, factoring into something called prime ideals. We got that working and started crunching through the square roots in our alphabet. Things simplified beautifully: we started with a result that was ten million terms long, and reduced it to just five thousand. And at the end of the day, after subtracting one integral from the other…

We found no square roots!

After all of our simplifications, all the letters we found were rational. Our nice test case turned out much, much simpler than we expected.

It’s been a long road on this calculation, with a lot of false starts. We were kind of hoping to be the first to find square root letters in these alphabets; instead it looks like another group will beat us to the punch. But we developed a lot of interesting tricks along the way, and we thought it would be good to publish our “null result”. As always in our field, sometimes surprising simplifications are just around the corner.

When to Trust the Contrarians

One of my colleagues at the NBI had an unusual experience: one of his papers took a full year to get through peer review. This happens often in math, where reviewers will diligently check proofs for errors, but it’s quite rare in physics: usually the path from writing to publication is much shorter. Then again, the delays shouldn’t have been too surprising for him, given what he was arguing.

My colleague Mohamed Rameez, along with Jacques Colin, Roya Mohayaee, and Subir Sarkar, wants to argue against one of the most famous astronomical discoveries of the last few decades: that the expansion of our universe is accelerating, and thus that an unknown “dark energy” fills the universe. They argue that one of the key pieces of evidence used to prove acceleration is mistaken: that a large region of the universe around us is in fact “flowing” in one direction, and that tricked astronomers into thinking its expansion was accelerating. You might remember a paper making a related argument back in 2016. I didn’t like the media reaction to that paper, and my post triggered a response by the authors, one of whom (Sarkar) is on this paper as well.

I’m not an astronomer or an astrophysicist. I’m not qualified to comment on their argument, and I won’t. I’d still like to know whether they’re right, though. And that means figuring out which experts to trust.

Pick anything we know in physics, and you’ll find at least one person who disagrees. I don’t mean a crackpot, though they exist too. I mean an actual expert who is convinced the rest of the field is wrong. A contrarian, if you will.

I used to be very unsympathetic to these people. I was convinced that the big results of a field are rarely wrong, because of how much is built off of them. I thought that even if a field was using dodgy methods or sloppy reasoning, the big results are used in so many different situations that if they were wrong they would have to be noticed. I’d argue that if you want to overturn one of these big claims you have to disprove not just the result itself, but every other success the field has ever made.

I still believe that, somewhat. But there are a lot of contrarians here at the Niels Bohr Institute. And I’ve started to appreciate what drives them.

The thing is, no scientific result is ever as clean as it ought to be. Everything we do is jury-rigged. We’re almost never experts in everything we’re trying to do, so we often don’t know the best method. Instead, we approximate and guess, we find rough shortcuts and don’t check if they make sense. This can take us far sometimes, sure…but it can also backfire spectacularly.

The contrarians I’ve known got their inspiration from one of those backfires. They saw a result, a respected mainstream result, and they found a glaring screw-up. Maybe it was an approximation that didn’t make any sense, or a statistical measure that was totally inappropriate. Whatever it was, it got them to dig deeper, and suddenly they saw screw-ups all over the place. When they pointed out these problems, at best the people they accused didn’t understand. At worst they got offended. Instead of cooperation, the contrarians are told they can’t possibly know what they’re talking about, and ignored. Eventually, they conclude the entire sub-field is broken.

Are they right?

Not always. They can’t be, for every claim you can find a contrarian, believing them all would be a contradiction.

But sometimes?

Often, they’re right about the screw-ups. They’re right that there’s a cleaner, more proper way to do that calculation, a statistical measure more suited to the problem. And often, doing things right raises subtleties, means that the big important result everyone believed looks a bit less impressive.

Still, that’s not the same as ruling out the result entirely. And despite all the screw-ups, the main result is still often correct. Often, it’s justified not by the original, screwed-up argument, but by newer evidence from a different direction. Often, the sub-field has grown to a point that the original screwed-up argument doesn’t really matter anymore.

Often, but again, not always.

I still don’t know whether to trust the contrarians. I still lean towards expecting fields to sort themselves out, to thinking that error alone can’t sustain long-term research. But I’m keeping a more open mind now. I’m waiting to see how far the contrarians go.