Thursday, January 20, 2011

Horrible Article On Becoming A Physicist

I probably shouldn't waste my time on something like this. But if *I* can find such article easily, someone else who might really be looking for information can find it as well. So leaving it as it is will be an utter disservice.

This person by the name of "Timothy Sexton" (BA in English) somehow thought that he could write an article titled "How to Become a Physicist and What to Expect when You Become One". Now, before we examine his article, tell me something. What are the chances that someone who has never obtained a degree in physics, and has never worked in physics, would know well enough what one needs to do to become a physics, and then know what to expect when one becomes a physicist? That's like me writing an article on how to become a lawyer ("Yes, you should get a law degree first, and then take the bar exam"), and then what to expect when you become a lawyer ("Oh, just file lawsuits against a lot of people!"). Not only does he not have first hand knowledge of what he's writing, it appears that he also hasn't been doing his homework, or talking to other physicists about it.

There are several glaring mistakes, and others that make you go "Huh?". For example:

Get yourself a bachelor's degree in physics and then get a master's degree in physics and then get yourself a doctorate if you want to be anywhere near the top of the ladder. If you are interested merely in teaching physics, you can get a job somewhere with just the B.A. A Master's in physics may net you a community college professorship or a research position, but it's not the road toward becoming the next Einstein or Stephen Hawking.

There is this silly notion that (i) you need a Ph.D to become the next Einstein or Hawking, and (ii) everyone with a Ph.D aims for, or must become, the next Einstein or Hawking. This is ludicrous. That's like saying all lawyers must become the next Supreme Court justices, failure of which must mean that your career is insignificant. Phooey!

But the biggest mistake comes in the next page when he revealed clearly of his ignorance about the world of physics:

Decide if you want to pursue the arena of theoretical physics. Theoretical physics covers the waterfront known as exploration of the very essence of the universe. Theoretical physicists look to understand how the universe began, go to where it is now and where it is going. To get a good job as a theoretical physicist where you engage in research and development based on the expansion of knowledge about the universe's origins, you'll need a doctorate. Even a Master's from the Univ. of Chicago isn't going to cut it. If you don't want to become a theoretical physicist, then decide on a discipline to pursue. Among the fields that a physicist can find work in are atomic and molecular physics, optics, acoustics, nuclear energy, plasma, superconductivity, crystallography and biophysics.

This is obviously wrong. Atomic and molecular physics, optics, nuclear physics, plasma physics, SUPERCONDUCTIVITY, etc.. etc.. all have theoretical work and have theorists. Phil Anderson, Bob Laughlin, John Bardeen are all theorists in condensed matter who have won Nobel Prizes in it. This person thinks that only cosmologists and probably elementary particle physicists are "theorists".

The rest of the article gave some superficial description about job prospects, and managed to include some rather incendiary remarks, such as:

Your best friend from physics class in high school may be conducting research aimed at developing more practical applications that all those people who you view as intellectually inferior can enjoy.

Even as a physicist, it took me a lot of effort and a lot of time to actually write my article "So You Want To Be A Physicist". It wasn't easy, and even in its current form, I still think I missed quite a bit of stuff that I will eventually include into the article. And this is coming from someone who went through the process. It boggles my mind that some people simply have no qualm about writing on something which they almost know nothing about. But I suppose that is no different than, say, Deepak Chopra or the author of "The Secret", who latched on quantum mechanics to justify their ideas, as IF they've actually understood QM. There are just too many people who really do not care about the quality and level of their knowledge, but yet, have no problems in using those in ridiculous ways.



Berserk Dad said...

Did you read the author's credentials? He has BA in English and has twice been named in Who's Who Among American Teachers. So not only is he writing this gibberish, but he may be teaching our children... hopefully he isn't a guidance counselor.

Josh said...

Sounds like he watched the aforementioned show in his article and proceeded to cherry pick just about every stereotype that the general public was already aware of. I guess we can only hope that if someone was able to find this article, they would be so much inclined to do a bit more research into the career paths of a physicist.

Berserk Dad said...

The more I look around the Yahoo "Contributor Network," the more it looks like anyone can simply write an article about anything and they will post it there. It doesn't look like you really need to have any qualifications. Nor does it appear there is much editorial oversight that goes into the article. Basically, it is a big huge Yahoo blog.

rob said...

i was kinda annoyed at the list of physics disciplines he listed:

"atomic and molecular physics, optics, acoustics, nuclear energy, plasma, superconductivity, crystallography and biophysics."

I mentally added extra areas like:

wave, electron, particles in boxes and inclined plane.

Back off man! I'm a scientist! I have a PhD in PLASMA!1!1!!

Fidustek said...

We (Computer Science graduates and students) are used to "how to XYZ (insert here your favourite language, protocol or database) in 24 hours".

One has to be very boastful to do the same with physics...

Let's look for a bit more and we'll find the Maths version :-)

Rodrigo said...

Well, more one person caught on TV influence.