Sometimes, some scientists work alone. But mostly, scientists collaborate. We team up, getting more done together than we could alone.
Over the years, I’ve realized that theoretical physicists like me collaborate in a bit of a weird way, compared to other scientists. Most scientists do experiments, and those experiments require labs. Each lab typically has one principal investigator, or “PI”, who hires most of the other people in that lab. For any given project, scientists from the lab will be organized into particular roles. Some will be involved in the planning, some not. Some will do particular tests, gather data, manage lab animals, or do statistics. The whole experiment is at least roughly planned out from the beginning, and everyone has their own responsibility, to the extent that journals will sometimes ask scientists to list everyone’s roles when they publish papers. In this system, it’s rare for scientists from two different labs to collaborate. Usually it happens for a reason: a lab needs a statistician for a particularly subtle calculation, or one lab must process a sample so another lab can analyze it.
In contrast, theoretical physicists don’t have labs. Our collaborators sometimes come from the same university, but often they’re from a different one, frequently even in a different country. The way we collaborate is less like other scientists, and more like artists.
Sometimes, theoretical physicists have collaborations with dedicated roles and a detailed plan. This can happen when there is a specific calculation that needs to be done, that really needs to be done right. Some of the calculations that go into making predictions at the LHC are done in this way. I haven’t been in a collaboration like that (though in retrospect one collaborator may have had something like that in mind).
Instead, most of the collaborations I’ve been in have been more informal. They tend to start with a conversation. We chat by the coffee machine, or after a talk, anywhere there’s a blackboard nearby. It starts with “I’ve noticed something odd”, or “here’s something I don’t understand”. Then, we jam. We go back and forth, doing our thing and building on each other. Sometimes this happens in person, a barrage of questions and doubts until we hammer out something solid. Sometimes we go back to our offices, to calculate and look up references. Coming back the next day, we compare results: what did you manage to show? Did you get what I did? If not, why?
I make this sound spontaneous, but it isn’t completely. That starting conversation can be totally unplanned, but usually one of the scientists involved is trying to make it happen. There’s a different way you talk when you’re trying to start a collaboration, compared to when you just want to talk. If you’re looking for a collaboration, you go into more detail. If the other person is on the same wavelength, you start using “we” instead of “I”, or you start suggesting plans of action: “you could do X, while I do Y”. If you just want someone’s opinion, or just want to show off, then your conversation is less detailed, and less personal.
This is easiest to do with our co-workers, but we do it with people from other universities too. Sometimes this happens at conferences, more often during short visits for seminars. I’ve been on almost every end of this. As a visitor, I’ve arrived to find my hosts with a project in mind. As a host, I’ve invited a visitor with the goal of getting them involved in a collaboration, and I’ve received a visitor who came with their own collaboration idea.
After an initial flurry of work, we’ll have a rough idea of whether the project is viable. If it is, things get a bit more organized, and we sort out what needs to be done and a rough idea of who will do it. While the early stages really benefit from being done in person, this part is easier to do remotely. The calculations get longer but the concepts are clear, so each of us can work by ourselves, emailing when we make progress. If we get confused again, we can always schedule a Zoom to sort things out.
Once things are close (but often not quite done), it’s time to start writing the paper. In the past, I used Dropbox for this: my collaborators shared a folder with a draft, and we’d pass “control” back and forth as we wrote and edited. Now, I’m more likely to use something built for this purpose. Git is a tool used by programmers to collaborate on code. It lets you roll back edits you don’t like, and merge edits from two people to make sure they’re consistent. For other collaborations I use Overleaf, an online interface for the document-writing language LaTeX that lets multiple people edit in real-time. Either way, this part is also more or less organized, with a lot of “can you write this section?” that can shift around depending on how busy people end up being.
Finally, everything comes together. The edits stabilize, everyone agrees that the paper is good (or at least, that any dissatisfaction they have is too minor to be worth arguing over). We send it to a few trusted friends, then a few days later up on the arXiv it goes.
Then, the cycle begins again. If the ideas are still clear enough, the same collaboration might keep going, planning follow-up work and follow-up papers. We meet new people, or meet up with old ones, and establish new collaborations as we go. Our fortunes ebb and flow based on the conversations we have, the merits of our ideas and the strengths of our jams. Sometimes there’s more, sometimes less, but it keeps bubbling up if you let it.