Tag Archives: DoingScience

Physics Acculturation

We all agree physics is awesome, right?

Me, I chose physics as a career, so I’d better like it. And you, right now you’re reading a physics blog for fun, so you probably like physics too.

Ok, so we agree, physics is awesome. But it isn’t always awesome.

Read a blog like this, or the news, and you’ll hear about the more awesome parts of physics: the black holes and big bangs, quantum mysteries and elegant mathematics. As freshman physics majors learn every year, most of physics isn’t like that. It’s careful calculation and repetitive coding, incremental improvements to a piece of a piece of a piece of something that might eventually answer a Big Question. Even if intellectually you can see the line from what you’re doing to the big flashy stuff, emotionally the two won’t feel connected, and you might struggle to feel motivated.

Physics solves this through acculturation. Physicists don’t just work on their own, they’re part of a shared worldwide culture of physicists. They spend time with other physicists, and not just working time but social time: they eat lunch together, drink coffee together, travel to conferences together. Spending that time together gives physics more emotional weight: as humans, we care a bit about Big Questions, but we care a lot more about our community.

This isn’t unique to physics, of course, or even to academics. Programmers who have lunch together, philanthropists who pat each other on the back for their donations, these people are trying to harness the same forces. By building a culture around something, you can get people more motivated to do it.

There’s a risk here, of course, that the culture takes over, and we lose track of the real reasons to do science. It’s easy to care about something because your friends care about it because their friends care about it, looping around until it loses contact with reality. In science we try to keep ourselves grounded, to respect those who puncture our bubbles with a good argument or a clever experiment. But we don’t always succeed.

The pandemic has made acculturation more difficult. As a scientist working from home, that extra bit of social motivation is much harder to get. It’s perhaps even harder for new students, who haven’t had the chance to hang out and make friends with other researchers. People’s behavior, what they research and how and when, has changed, and I suspect changing social ties are a big part of it.

In the long run, I don’t think we can do without the culture of physics. We can’t be lone geniuses motivated only by our curiosity, that’s just not how people work. We have to meld the two, mix the social with the intellectual…and hope that when we do, we keep the engines of discovery moving.

Inevitably Arbitrary

Physics is universal…or at least, it aspires to be. Drop an apple anywhere on Earth, at any point in history, and it will accelerate at roughly the same rate. When we call something a law of physics, we expect it to hold everywhere in the universe. It shouldn’t depend on anything arbitrary.

Sometimes, though, something arbitrary manages to sneak in. Even if the laws of physics are universal, the questions we want to answer are not: they depend on our situation, on what we want to know.

The simplest example is when we have to use units. The mass of an electron is the same here as it is on Alpha Centauri, the same now as it was when the first galaxies formed. But what is that mass? We could write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms, if we wanted to, but kilograms aren’t exactly universal. Their modern definition is at least based on physical constants, but with some pretty arbitrary numbers. It defines the Planck constant as 6.62607015×10−34 Joule-seconds. Chase that number back, and you’ll find references to the Earth’s circumference and the time it takes to turn round on its axis. The mass of the electron may be the same on Alpha Centauri, but they’d never write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms.

Units aren’t the only time physics includes something arbitrary. Sometimes, like with units, we make a choice of how we measure or calculate something. We choose coordinates for a plot, a reference frame for relativity, a zero for potential energy, a gauge for gauge theories and regularization and subtraction schemes for quantum field theory. Sometimes, the choice we make is instead what we measure. To do thermodynamics we must choose what we mean by a state, to call two substances water even if their atoms are in different places. Some argue a perspective like this is the best way to think about quantum mechanics. In a different context, I’d argue it’s why we say coupling constants vary with energy.

So what do we do, when something arbitrary sneaks in? We have a few options. I’ll illustrate each with the mass of the electron:

  • Make an arbitrary choice, and stick with it: There’s nothing wrong with measuring an electron in kilograms, if you’re consistent about it. You could even use ounces. You just have to make sure that everyone else you compare with is using the same units, or be careful to convert.
  • Make a “natural” choice: Why not set the speed of light and Planck’s constant to one? They come up a lot in particle physics, and all they do is convert between length and time, or time and energy. That way you can use the same units for all of them, and use something convenient, like electron-Volts. They even have electron in the name! Of course they also have “Volt” in the name, and Volts are as arbitrary as any other metric unit. A “natural” choice might make your life easier, but you should always remember it’s still arbitrary.
  • Make an efficient choice: This isn’t always the same as the “natural” choice. The units you choose have an effect on how difficult your calculation is. Sometimes, the best choice for the mass of an electron is “one electron-mass”, because it lets you calculate something else more easily. This is easier to illustrate with other choices: for example, if you have to pick a reference frame for a collision, picking one in which one of the objects is at rest, or where they move symmetrically, might make your job easier.
  • Stick to questions that aren’t arbitrary: No matter what units we use, the electron’s mass will be arbitrary. Its ratios to other masses won’t be though. No matter where we measure, dimensionless ratios like the mass of the muon divided by the mass of the electron, or the mass of the electron divided by the value of the Higgs field, will be the same. If we can make sure to ask only this kind of question, we can avoid arbitrariness. Note that we can think of even a mass in “kilograms” as this kind of question: what’s the ratio of the mass of the electron to “this arbitrary thing we’ve chosen”? In practice though, you want to compare things in the same theory, without the historical baggage of metric.

This problem may seem silly, and if we just cared about units it might be. But at the cutting-edge of physics there are still areas where the arbitrary shows up. Our choices of how to handle it, or how to avoid it, can be crucial to further progress.

A Taste of Normal

I grew up in the US. I’ve roamed over the years, but each year I’ve managed to come back around this time. My folks throw the kind of Thanksgiving you see in movies, a table overflowing with turkey and nine kinds of pie.

This year, obviously, is different. No travel, no big party. Still, I wanted to capture some of the feeling here in my cozy Copenhagen apartment. My wife and I baked mini-pies instead, a little feast just for us two.

In these weird times, it’s good to have the occasional taste of normal, a dose of tradition to feel more at home. That doesn’t just apply to personal life, but to academic life as well.

One tradition among academics is the birthday conference. Often timed around a 60th birthday, birthday conferences are a way to celebrate the achievements of professors who have made major contributions to a field. There are talks by their students and close collaborators, filled with stories of the person being celebrated.

Last week was one such conference, in honor of one of the pioneers of my field, Dirk Kreimer. The conference was Zoom-based, and it was interesting to compare with the other Zoom conferences I’ve seen this year. One thing that impressed me was how they handled the “social side” of the conference. Instead of a Slack space like the other conferences, they used a platform called Gather. Gather gives people avatars on a 2D map, mocked up to look like an old-school RPG. Walk close to a group of people, and it lets you video chat with them. There are chairs and tables for private conversations, whiteboards to write on, and in this case even a birthday card to sign.

I didn’t get a chance to try Gather. My guess is it’s a bit worse than Slack for some kinds of discussion. Start a conversation in a Slack channel and people can tune in later from other time zones, each posting new insights and links to references. It’s a good way to hash out an idea.

But a birthday conference isn’t really about hashing out ideas. It’s about community and familiarity, celebrating people we care about. And for that purpose, Gather seems great. You want that little taste of normalcy, of walking across the room and seeing a familiar face, chatting with the folks you keep seeing year after year.

I’ve mused a bit about what it takes to do science when we can’t meet in person. Part of that is a question of efficiency: what does it take it get research done? But if we focus too much on that, we might forget the role of culture. Scientists are people, we form a community, and part of what we value is comfort and familiarity. Keeping that community alive means not just good research discussions, but traditions as well, ways of referencing things we’ve done to carry forward to new circumstances. We will keep changing, our practices will keep evolving. But if we want those changes to stick, we should tie them to the past too. We should keep giving people those comforting tastes of normal.

Science and Its Customers

In most jobs, you know who you’re working for.

A chef cooks food, and people eat it. A tailor makes clothes, and people wear them. An artist has an audience, an engineer has end users, a teacher has students. Someone out there benefits directly from what you do. Make them happy, and they’ll let you know. Piss them off, and they’ll stop hiring you.

Science benefits people too…but most of its benefits are long-term. The first person to magnetize a needle couldn’t have imagined worldwide electronic communication, and the scientists who uncovered quantum mechanics couldn’t have foreseen transistors, or personal computers. The world benefits just by having more expertise in it, more people who spend their lives understanding difficult things, and train others to understand difficult things. But those benefits aren’t easy to see for each individual scientist. As a scientist, you typically don’t know who your work will help, or how much. You might not know for years, or even decades, what impact your work will have. Even then, it will be difficult to tease out your contribution from the other scientists of your time.

We can’t ask the customers of the future to pay for the scientists of today. (At least, not straightforwardly.) In practice, scientists are paid by governments and foundations, groups trying on some level to make the future a better place. Instead of feedback from customers we get feedback from each other. If our ideas get other scientists excited, maybe they’ll matter down the road.

This is a risky thing to do, of course. Governments, foundations, and scientists can’t tell the future. They can try to act in the interests of future generations, but they might just act for themselves instead. Trying to plan ahead like this makes us prey to all the cognitive biases that flesh is heir to.

But we don’t really have an alternative. If we want to have a future at all, if we want a happier and more successful world, we need science. And if we want science, we can’t ask its real customers, the future generations, to choose whether to pay for it. We need to work for the smiles on our colleagues faces and the checks from government grant agencies. And we need to do it carefully enough that at the end of the day, we still make a positive difference.

What You Don’t Know, You Can Parametrize

In physics, what you don’t know can absolutely hurt you. If you ignore that planets have their own gravity, or that metals conduct electricity, you’re going to calculate a lot of nonsense. At the same time, as physicists we can’t possibly know everything. Our experiments are never perfect, our math never includes all the details, and even our famous Standard Model is almost certainly not the whole story. Luckily, we have another option: instead of ignoring what we don’t know, we can parametrize it, and estimate its effect.

Estimating the unknown is something we physicists have done since Newton. You might think Newton’s big discovery was the inverse-square law for gravity, but others at the time, like Robert Hooke, had also been thinking along those lines. Newton’s big discovery was that gravity was universal: that you need to know the effect of gravity, not just from the sun, but from all the other planets as well. The trouble was, Newton didn’t know how to calculate the motion of all of the planets at once (in hindsight, we know he couldn’t have). Instead, he estimated, using what he knew to guess how big the effect of what he didn’t would be. It was the accuracy of those guesses, not just the inverse square law by itself, that convinced the world that Newton was right.

If you’ve studied electricity and magnetism, you get to the point where you can do simple calculations with a few charges in your sleep. The world doesn’t have just a few charges, though: it has many charges, protons and electrons in every atom of every object. If you had to keep all of them in your calculations you’d never pass freshman physics, but luckily you can once again parametrize what you don’t know. Often you can hide those charges away, summarizing their effects with just a few numbers. Other times, you can treat materials as boundaries, and summarize everything beyond in terms of what happens on the edge. The equations of the theory let you do this, but this isn’t true for every theory: for the Navier-Stokes equation, which we use to describe fluids, it still isn’t known whether you can do this kind of trick.

Parametrizing what we don’t know isn’t just a trick for college physics, it’s key to the cutting edge as well. Right now we have a picture for how all of particle physics works, called the Standard Model, but we know that picture is incomplete. There are a million different theories you could write to go beyond the Standard Model, with a million different implications. Instead of having to use all those theories, physicists can summarize them all with what we call an effective theory: one that keeps track of the effect of all that new physics on the particles we already know. By summarizing those effects with a few parameters, we can see what they would have to be to be compatible with experimental results, ruling out some possibilities and suggesting others.

In a world where we never know everything, there’s always something that can hurt us. But if we’re careful and estimate what we don’t know, if we write down numbers and parameters and keep our options open, we can keep from getting burned. By focusing on what we do know, we can still manage to understand the world.

At “Antidifferentiation and the Calculation of Feynman Amplitudes”

I was at a conference this week, called Antidifferentiation and the Calculation of Feynman Amplitudes. The conference is a hybrid kind of affair: I attended via Zoom, but there were seven or so people actually there in the room (the room in question being at DESY Zeuthen, near Berlin).

The road to this conference was a bit of a roller-coaster. It was originally scheduled for early March. When the organizers told us they were postponing it, they seemed at the time a little overcautious…until the world proved me, and all of us, wrong. They rescheduled for October, and as more European countries got their infection rates down it looked like the conference could actually happen. We booked rooms at the DESY guest house, until it turned out they needed the space to keep the DESY staff socially distanced, and we quickly switched to booking at a nearby hotel.

Then Europe’s second wave hit. Cases in Denmark started to rise, so Germany imposed a quarantine on entry from Copenhagen and I switched to remote participation. Most of the rest of the participants did too, even several in Germany. For the few still there in person they have a variety of measures to stop infection, from fixed seats in the conference room to gloves for the coffee machine.

The content has been interesting. It’s an eclectic mix of review talks and talks on recent research, all focused on different ways to integrate (or, as one of the organizers emphasized, antidifferentiate) functions in quantum field theory. I’ve learned about the history of the field, and gotten a better feeling for the bottlenecks in some LHC-relevant calculations.

This week was also the announcement of the Physics Nobel Prize. I’ll do my traditional post on it next week, but for now, congratulations to Penrose, Genzel, and Ghez!

When and How Scientists Reach Out

You’ve probably heard of the myth of the solitary scientist. While Newton might have figured out calculus isolated on his farm, most scientists work better when they communicate. If we reach out to other scientists, we can make progress a lot faster.

Even if you understand that, you might not know what that reaching out actually looks like. I’ve seen far too many crackpots who approach scientific communication like a spammer: sending out emails to everyone in a department, commenting in every vaguely related comment section they can find. While commercial spammers hope for a few gullible people among the thousands they contact, that kind of thing doesn’t benefit crackpots. As far as I can tell, they communicate that way because they genuinely don’t know any better.

So in this post, I want to give a road map for how we scientists reach out to other scientists. Keep these steps in mind, and if you ever need to reach out to a scientist you’ll know what to do.

First, decide what you want to know. This may sound obvious, but sometimes people skip this step. We aren’t communicating just to communicate, but because we want to learn something from the other person. Maybe it’s a new method or idea, maybe we just want confirmation we’re on the right track. We don’t reach out just to “show our theory”, but because we hope to learn something from the response.

Then, figure out who might know it. To do this, we first need to decide how specialized our question is. We often have questions about specific papers: a statement we don’t understand, a formula that seems wrong, or a method that isn’t working. For those, we contact an author from that paper. Other times, the question hasn’t been addressed in a paper, but does fall under a specific well-defined topic: a particular type of calculation, for example. For those we seek out a specialist on that specific topic. Finally, sometimes the question is more general, something anyone in our field might in principle know but we happen not to. For that kind of question, we look for someone we trust, someone we have a prior friendship with and feel comfortable asking “dumb questions”. These days, we can supplement that with platforms like PhysicsOverflow that let us post technical questions and invite anyone to respond.

Note that, for all of these, there’s some work to do first. We need to read the relevant papers, bone up on a topic, even check Wikipedia sometimes. We need to put in enough work to at least try to answer our question, so that we know exactly what we need the other person for.

Finally, contact them appropriately. Papers will usually give contact information for one, or all, of the authors. University websites will give university emails. We’d reach out with something like that first, and switch to personal email (or something even more casual, like Skype or social media) only for people we already have a track record of communicating with in that way.

By posing and directing our questions well, scientists can reach out and get help when we struggle. Science is a team effort, we’re stronger when we work together.

To Elliptics and Beyond!

I’ve been busy running a conference this week, Elliptics and Beyond.

After Amplitudes was held online this year, a few of us at the Niels Bohr Institute were inspired. We thought this would be the perfect time to hold a small online conference, focused on the Calabi-Yaus that have been popping up lately in Feynman diagrams. Then we heard from the organizers of Elliptics 2020. They had been planning to hold a conference in Mainz about elliptic integrals in Feynman diagrams, but had to postpone it due to the pandemic. We decided to team up and hold a joint conference on both topics: the elliptic integrals that are just starting to be understood, and the mysterious integrals that lie beyond. Hence, Elliptics and Beyond.

I almost suggested Buzz Lightyear for the logo but I chickened out

The conference has been fun thus far. There’s been a mix of review material bringing people up to speed on elliptic integrals and exciting new developments. Some are taking methods that have been successful in other areas and generalizing them to elliptic integrals, others have been honing techniques for elliptics to make them “production-ready”. A few are looking ahead even further, to higher-genus amplitudes in string theory and Calabi-Yaus in Feynman diagrams.

We organized the conference along similar lines to Zoomplitudes, but with a few experiments of our own. Like Zoomplitudes, we made a Slack space for the conference, so people could chat physics outside the talks. Ours was less active, though. I suspect that kind of space needs a critical mass of people, and with a smaller conference we may just not have gotten there. Having fewer people did allow us a more relaxed schedule, which in turn meant we could mostly keep things on-time. We had discussion sessions in the morning (European time), with talks in the afternoon, so almost everyone could make the talks at least. We also had a “conference dinner”, which went much better than I would have expected. We put people randomly into Zoom Breakout Rooms of five or six, to emulate the tables of an in-person conference, and folks chatted while eating their (self-brought of course) dinner. People seemed to really enjoy the chance to just chat casually with the other folks at the conference. If you’re organizing an online conference soon, I’d recommend trying it!

Holding a conference online means that a lot of people can attend who otherwise couldn’t. We had over a hundred people register, and while not all of them showed up there were typically fifty or sixty people on the Zoom session. Some of these were specialists in elliptics or Calabi-Yaus who wouldn’t ordinarily make it to a conference like this. Others were people from the rest of the amplitudes field who joined for parts of the conference that caught their eye. But surprisingly many weren’t even amplitudeologists, but students and young researchers in a variety of topics from all over the world. Some seemed curious and eager to learn, others I suspect just needed to say they had been to a conference. Both are responding to a situation where suddenly conference after conference is available online, free to join. It will be interesting to see if, and how, the world adapts.

Grants at the Other End

I’m a baby academic. Two years ago I got my first real grant, a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union. Applying for it was a complicated process, full of Word templates and mismatched expectations. Two years later the grant is over, and I get another new experience: grant reporting.

Writing a report after a grant is sort of like applying for a grant. Instead of summarizing and justifying what you intend to do, you summarize and justify what you actually did. There are also Word templates. Grant reports are probably easier than grant applications: you don’t have to “hook” your audience or show off. But they are harder in one aspect: they highlight the different ways different fields handle uncertainty.

If you do experiments, having a clear plan makes sense. You buy special equipment and hire postdocs and even technicians to do specific jobs. Your experiments may or may not find what you hope for, but at least you can try to do them on schedule, and describe the setbacks when you can’t.

As a theorist, you’re more nimble. Your equipment are computers, your postdocs have their own research. Overall, it’s easy to pick up new projects as new ideas come in. As a result, your plans change more. New papers might inspire you to try new things. They might also discourage you, if you learn the idea you had won’t actually work. The field can move fast, and you want to keep up with it.

Writing my first grant report will be interesting. I’ll need to thread the gap between expectations and reality, to look back on my progress and talk about why. And of course, I have to do it in Microsoft Word.

Kicking Students Out of Their Homes During a Pandemic: A Bad Idea

I avoid talking politics on this blog. There are a few issues, though, where I feel not just able, but duty-bound, to speak out. Those are issues affecting graduate students.

This week, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that, if a university switched to online courses as a response to COVID-19, international students would have to return to their home countries or transfer to a school that still teaches in-person.

This is already pretty unreasonable for many undergrads. But think about PhD students.

Suppose you’re a foreign PhD student at a US university. Maybe your school is already planning to have classes online this fall, like Harvard is. Maybe your school is planning to have classes in person, but will change its mind a few weeks in, when so many students and professors are infected that it’s clearly unreasonable to continue. Maybe your school never changes its mind, but your state does, and the school has to lock down anyway.

As a PhD student, you likely don’t live in the dorms. More likely you live in a shared house, or an apartment. You’re an independent adult. Your parents aren’t paying for you to go to school. Your school is itself a full-time job, one that pays (as little as the university thinks it can get away with).

What happens when your school goes online? If you need to leave the country?

You’d have to find some way out of your lease, or keep paying for it. You’d have to find a flight on short notice. You’d have to pack up all your belongings, ship or sell anything you can’t store, or find friends to hold on to it.

You’d have to find somewhere to stay in your “home country”. Some could move in with their parents temporarily, many can’t. Some of those who could in other circumstances, shouldn’t if they’re fleeing from an outbreak: their parents are likely older, and vulnerable to the virus. So you have to find a hotel, eventually perhaps a new apartment, far from what was until recently your home.

Reminder: you’re doing all of this on a shoestring budget, because the university pays you peanuts.

Can you transfer instead? In a word, no.

PhD students are specialists. They’re learning very specific things from very specific people. Academics aren’t the sort of omnidisciplinary scientists you see in movies. Bruce Banner or Tony Stark could pick up a new line of research on a whim, real people can’t. This is why, while international students may be good at the undergraduate level, they’re absolutely necessary for PhDs. When only three people in the world study the thing you want to study, you don’t have the luxury of staying in your birth country. And you can’t just transfer schools when yours goes online.

It feels like the people who made this decision didn’t think about any of this. That they don’t think grad students matter, or forgot they exist altogether. It seems frustratingly common for policy that affects grad students to be made by people who know nothing about grad students, and that baffles me. PhDs are a vital part of the academic career, without them universities in their current form wouldn’t even exist. Ignoring them is like if hospital policy ignored residencies.

I hope that this policy gets reversed, or halted, or schools find some way around it. At the moment, anyone starting school in the US this fall is in a very tricky position. And anyone already there is in a worse one.

As usual, I’m going to ask that the comments don’t get too directly political. As a partial measure to tone things down, I’d like to ask you to please avoid mentioning any specific politicians, political parties, or political ideologies. Feel free to talk instead about your own experiences: how this policy is likely to affect you, or your loved ones. Please also feel free to talk more technically on the policy/legal side. I’d like to know what universities can do to work around this, and whether there are plausible paths to change or halt the policy. Please be civil, and be kind to your fellow commenters.