A commenter, slim potato, implicitly asked a really good question earlier. It was a comment on a post I did yesterday about my struggles with a computation I was working on. I gave an answer, but since I know that a lot of readers don’t read the comments, and because one of the missions of this blog is to give a window on what scientists such as myself do and (importantly) how we do it, I thought I’d elevate the comment and my response into a post. Feel free to add your own thoughts to it in the comments, either as a non-scientist, a scientist, a specialist from another field, or other.
I would have assumed that most of your time when working on a paper was involved on catching good ideas, not getting muddled with conventions and calculations.
Thanks. That’s a common misunderstanding of what we do. What makes a field of physical science like physics work is computations – all of that business with calculations (including checking that your computations conventions are internally consistent) is vital to the field.
Frankly, “Good Ideas” are a dime a dozen. Anyone in my field ought to be able to think of at least six of them before breakfast. What makes a good idea go from a good idea to an idea that actually is useful and relevant is those several hours of muddling away with computations and calculations, testing out the idea and seeing how it fits into the scheme of things, and how it fits into the larger tapestry which is all the calculations that have ever been done in physics for generations. You can’t just make up stuff out of whole cloth, you see. Sitting around dreaming or talking is important to do too, but it is all utterly worthless (as science) without calculation. This is vital to what makes what I do science, at the end of the day. Finally, if I were working on an aspect of the subject that was directly related to a physical phenomenon “out there” in the world (this project is not so directly related, as far as I know, it is more about what’s going on “under the hood” of string theory), then the value of the good idea and the computation is also tested by comparison to a well-designed experiment, which has its own sequence of stages of ideas and computations (and worrying about conventions) to go through to bring it to fruition.
Thanks, slim potato!
There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll leave it at that for now. For more snapshots of the sort of things that I (and several others) do in our day to day work in (theoretical) physics, I’ve collected together some of my earlier posts of the same sort as yesterday’s, and you can find it on the page “Notes From the Day”.