Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

The experiment/theory divide

Posted by Melissa on October 9, 2010

GMP at Academic Jungle asks the question, “Is it better to be a theorist/computational scientist or an experimentalist?” This question assumes that one has the skill set and the personality to be able to succeed and enjoy either realm. For many individuals, their interests or talents are only appropriate for one path or the other. Personally, I never could have been happy as a theoretical physicist.¬† Nevertheless, I readily acknowledge that physics only moves forward because of the contributions of both theorists and experimentalists, and both groups make equally significant contributions to the discipline.

GMP is a theory/computation person, but she concludes that it is better to be an experimentalist:

When I say experiment is better, I don’t say it’s because they have it easy. It’s hard, but you get the recognition. It is ultimately about how well your hard work correlates with the accolades from the scientific community. I think experimentalists win this one, no contest.

As someone who is not at a research university and has never been concerned about the prestige of my research interests, this isn’t a consideration that¬† impacts my thinking about being a theorist versus being an experimentalist. GMP also discusses the cost disparities between theoretical and experimental work, something that is occasionally on my mind. The one thing that she doesn’t mention is the difference in lifestyle flexibility for experimentalists and theorists. As an experimentalist, you must be physically present in the lab to do your work, and your presence is often required at odd hours of the day or night. Additionally, once your lab is built, you are anchored to a particular location. It’s not easy to pick up and move, nor can you work remotely for a year or two. For me, these lifestyle factors have been a source of frustration, particularly in trying to address the work-life balance equation and the two body problem, but even so, I know I never would have chosen to be a theorist.

What do you like/dislike about being a theorist or being an experimentalist? Were you suited to only one realm or could your path have led in either direction?

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One Response to “The experiment/theory divide”

  1. GMP said

    Hi, thanks for your post. Indeed, I omitted mentioning the cost and difficuly of relocation for an experimentalist; good point!

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