Against theoretical minima

Here is a link to a page set up by Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft, called “How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist.” I’m lucky I decided to be an experimentalist! More seriously,  ‘t Hooft is putting together a fascinating, incredibly valuable resource, but has framed it in a way that I find unpleasant. And unpleasant in a specific way symptomatic of how too many physicists present themselves, in my view. Basically, it goes like this: being a theoretical physicist is damn near impossible, so forget it. Go play with some toys or something instead.

Here’s what I mean: having looked at that page, I immediately despaired of ever having a “good” understanding of theoretical physics. And I’m a Russian Jew! We’re the people most likely to have theoretical physicists as role models! We’re told early on in our lives that being physicists is something we can aspire to! We’re inured to thinking we don’t belong in this group! And, also, I have a Ph.D. in physics! If it immediately makes me feel I don’t belong in the club, imagine how literally anyone else – someone starting out in studying physics – is likely to feel.

‘t Hooft isn’t modest about the goals here. He basically says, this is what you need to know to be a Nobel Prize winning theorist. That may be. But then that’s sort of my point. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to be a good physicist. And you certainly don’t have to have winning the Nobel planned out before you start studying physics. You start because something interests you, and then that leads to something else, and you learn more and more, incrementally. Of course, some people relish the kind of challenge that ‘t Hooft’s list presents. Perhaps they are the people that become Nobel Prize winning theorists (I haven’t hung around Nobel Prize winning theorists, so I wouldn’t know). But I am willing to bet that for the vast majority of people for whom ‘t Hooft’s list and links could be enormously useful, and who could become good theorists (“good” in the conventional sense rather than ‘t Hooft’s) this framing is basically terrible.

A couple of admissions. If you read the preamble, ‘t Hooft seems to have been motivated to start this list on receiving grand theories written by amateur physicists (i.e. crackpots). Being e-mailed obviously wrong theories by crackpots is definitely annoying. Surprisingly, many of them are not very discriminating with the recipients of their theories, so it’s not just ‘t Hooft – I get these e-mails too. Thus it may be that discouraging people is part of ‘t Hooft’s point. But if so, that’s even worse. Crackpot e-mails are annoying, they are less annoying than penis enlargement e-mails or whatever other spam*. I think discouraging people from trying to understand physics just because they mildly annoy you is not a good idea.

Also, I understand that partly it’s just a matter of ‘t Hooft’s bristling personality and writing style (I think among physics Nobel winners, he is disliked less than only Samuel C.C. Ting and Hans Dehmelt. Unlike Ting and Dehmelt, though, I don’t really understand why all that well). And yet universally beloved figures like Landau have their own lore of “theoretical minima” as well. I don’t like it, and I don’t think it improves the physics community.

 

*Just to class this post up a bit: speaking of penis enlargements, this spammer prank is absolutely hilarious.

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