Arrogance or Experience

My tutoring contract has now, sadly, expired, leaving me with only one source of income left to me: freelance editing of scientific and engineering papers written by scholars from Japan and China. I can’t discuss the specifics of anything that I have done, as it involves unpublished original research and is therefore confidential*, but I am enjoying it. I would certainly prefer something with regular hours**, but I appreciate the chance to exercise my writing skills while still remaining current with developments in physics–including those branches with which I would not have cause to remain current in the normal course of my studies.

All of this has brought me to a shocking discovery, namely: Every other branch of physics is way more comprehensible than high-energy theory.

Now, I’ve suspected this for quite a while, to be honest–I’ve heard my friends in experimental particle physics tell me that they only had to use four equations in their entire Master’s Thesis***, for example–but until now, I’ve never had it so directly illustrated for me. I suppose that the main difference is that other branches of physics concern themselves with things that are actually, concretely, known to exist, and as such naturally tend to take on a vastly less speculative character. But on the other hand, I frankly think that a lot of theoretical physicists are woefully inept at conveying their findings in anything approaching an accessible fashion. To read a high-energy theoretical physics paper, one must fight their way through heaps of untranslated technical jargon and poorly fleshed-out derivations to get to the point, whereas in other branches, scholars seem far more careful to explain what it is that they are actually talking about. As I said, part of this is intrinsic to the discipline, but another part of this is certainly due to the inclination of the writer. Simply put, as someone with experience in the field, I think that there is a bit of a culture in theoretical physics which favours “showing off” over explaining things clearly.

While most theoretical physicists entered their field out of a sincere desire to learn as much as they can about the Universe, I feel that there is a significant minority who are in it primarily to gain cultural capital for being brilliant.  Showing off is typically done using such techniques as dismissing certain derivations as being “trivial,” rather than giving them the attention that they deserve, and being unable even to get through your abstract without forcing your readers to navigate their way through several paragraphs of densely-written jargon. All of this is, of course, calculated to illicit a certain reaction from their readers, namely, “Good Heavens! This scholar is so brilliant that this is simple to them!” or words to this effect. This is, essentially, the textual manifestation of the “asshole phenomenon” in academia.

Now, none of this is to say that theoretical high-energy physics is not very complicated–perhaps even more complicated than any other branch of physics. But needlessly complicating it further as a sort of intellectual pissing contest really needs to stop.

______________________________________________________

*And, in at least one case, proprietary.

**To say nothing of a higher rate of pay.

***My thesis required 118 numbered equations, and at least a dozen more that weren’t important enough to separate out from the main body of the text.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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2 Responses to Arrogance or Experience

  1. n8chz says:

    I know nothing about physics, and have no idea what the subject area called high energy theory consists of. Just out of curiosity, would thermonuclear weapons be part of that subject area? If so, then I assume the obscurantism is intentional, and arguably defensible, if naive.

    • No, high energy theory consists mainly of speculation about the sort of physics that would exist at energies several orders of magnitude larger than nuclear weapons. An example would be string theory.

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