Real Physicists Do Not Read Popular Science Books

At least this is what I believed for quite a while. Now I think I was wrong – not only for the reason that also real scientists might enjoy light entertainment or simply stay informed about the science communication activities of their colleagues.

First of all I am not even sure if I would qualify as a real physicist anyway: I have a PhD in physics and had been employed as a scientist, but I turned to what is called “industry” in academia (as a side note I always found that term a bit misleading as a lot of physicists end up in the consulting business which I would not call consulting industry). Fortunately in my country you can work as a self-employed physicist much like a Professional Engineer in other countries, thus theoretically I am entitled now (again) to call myself a professional physicist.

Having said that I must admit that with regard to contemporary theoretical physics I might just count as a member of the educated public. I had specialized on applied physics, in particular solid state physics, superconductors, optics and laser physics. This required me to deal with related theories, such as the BCS theory of superconductivity or the theory of many-particle-interactions. But I never learned anything about general relativity for example or the standard model (as theory is concerned, lectures on experimental aspects of nuclear physics do not count).

Some time ago – out of the blue, in the middle of a career in the corporate world – I decided that I wanted to understand better what the LHC in CERN is good for in detail, what the Higgs particle was etc.. I was really clueless: it took me some time to find out that so-called Quantum Field Theory deals with the same stuff I had been known in terms of 2nd Quantization or Quantum Statistics. Given the fact that I was working on different stuff in a quite exhausting day job, I think I did fairly well in working with text books, lecture notes and videos on QFT and string theory.

Even I was surprised that I was able to follow mathematical derivations, it was quite hard for me sometimes to “get the big picture”, such as the conceptual differences of QFT applied to particle physics and to condensed matter physics. Actually this is something generic about learning (at least my learning): I can remember how hard it was to calculate the Coriolis force in the first semester of undergraduate studies (before I had learned some uses vector algebra) and how proud I was to be capable of reproducing results mathematically. However I think I did not get the concept of rotating reference frames really at that time. Richard Feynman refers to this in his famous Physics Lectures: The more complicated problems become, the easier it is to follow the math but the more likely it is to miss the concepts. I believe that thorough training in theoretical physics allows one to grasp these deep conceptual messages immediately from just reading the equations, whereas somebody like me spends too much time with digesting the math.

In addition I believe that you learn more than you think from being embedded into a community, that is from informal discussions (“on the floor”). This holds true for any technical subject according to my experience. After all scientific discovery and technical innovation are also social process happening in a community that follows specific rules. I understand any type of discovery much better if I know more about people involved and their motivations and opinions. Or probably this is just a shortcut which is useful specifically for me – to tag equations with stories with a human touch.

To some extent popular science books might be a bit of a replacement for all this. If I read books like The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin or Warped Passages by Lisa Randall  it is easier for me to put all those technical stuff into context.

But I still believe that such books are much, much more helpful if you are also willing to learn about the details. I have read Lisa Randall’s book before and after I had learned at least some QFT, General Relativity and String Theory, and I felt that I was able to really understand much more. All of those book start out with concepts that can be understood fairly well in terms of high school or freshman physics (e.g. special relativity and simple quantum mechanics, Schrödinger wave function etc.) but then concepts become more and more abstract (as very often these books roughly follow the historical development). I think I could track down the page or section of science books where I had to admit that I am lacking the mathematical background and where I could effectively just understand the topics in terms of very crude (and I believe often misleading) analogies. The good news is that this effect allows you to track your progress in understanding by re-reading the books after some exploration into the world of hard text books.

So I still believe that popular science books can give you the comforting – but false – feeling that you have understood the concepts of modern physics. My goal is to advance the topics from a humble perspective and better assume I did not fully understand them unless I have also confronted myself with some of the equations behind. And I am aware of the fact that process is slow. But my motto (for this blog, but also in general) is to combine a lot of diverse stuff, so my benchmark is not to understand as much as a real professional theorist, but to do fairly well compared to an engineer, a physics former colleague now working in industry or a science writer who is interested in theoretical physics. My motivation for writing this blog partly stems from the self-commitment that is involved in declaring such goals to “the internet community”.

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