Preposterous Universe

Monday, September 06, 2004

As a Labor Day special here at Preposterous, we offer some advice for anyone out there who might be thinking of becoming a professional academic physicist. Fortunately, since the spirit of Labor Day is that you're not supposed to do any work, I can just link to other people who have already written various pieces of good advice.
  • Starting at the top, Nobel Laureate Gerard 't Hooft offers a crash course (that would only take a few years) on how to become a good theoretical physicist. 't Hooft, for those who don't know, is one of the startlingly smart physicists of the modern era. I interacted with him a little when we were thinking about time travel in three dimensions. He would make some sort of claim that we didn't believe, and give a thoroughly unconvincing explanation for why it was true, and almost always turn out to be right in the end. My hypothesis at the time was that he was actually a marginally-talented time-traveling physicist from the future, who knew all sorts of true things but had trouble justifying them. But he recommends my general relativity lecture notes, so I have to compliment his taste. (Although he insists on misspelling my name, which you would think he'd be more careful about, given his own struggles to get people to punctuate his name correctly.) His web page is also very charming, well worth checking out.

  • Amanda Peet, a string theorist at the University of Toronto (not the actress), has two very useful advice pages: one for high school students deciding what to major in, and another for undergraduates contemplating graduate school. Both are aimed at students who are particularly interested in string theory, but much of the advice is pretty universal. (Amanda is also using my book for a course she's teaching this year, so she also gets points for taste. You can see my criteria for deciding whom to link to -- it's all about me me me, baby.)

  • John Baez is a mathematical physicist working on quantum gravity, who has become well-known for his wonderful expository articles on all sorts of physics topics. He has a page of advice for young scientists that covers both philosophical issues and very practical matters.

  • Just because you've arrived at graduate school (or become a professor, for that matter) doesn't mean you have it all figured out. Michael Nielsen has written a thoughtful series of blog posts on the principles of effective research, something we're all constantly trying to figure out but rarely making explicit. (At the moment the site appears to be down, but I hope I have the url right.)

  • As a more specialized skill, my colleague Bob Geroch has written some suggestions on giving talks. Very few people will successfully implement his advice, but if more people at least tried the quality of talks in the field would be immeasurably higher.
These are the pieces of worthy advice that I know about; let me know if there are any good ones I've missed. I should say that I only point at all these well-intentioned articles with some trepidation, as reading them all at once could give someone the idea that become a physicist is an incredibly exhausting grind. The impression by no means inaccurate; but the rewards are more than commensurate!

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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