Melissa at Confused at a Higher Level offers some thoughts on the relative status of experimental vs. theoretical science, spinning off a comprehensive discussion of the issues at Academic Jungle. I flagged this to comment on over the weekend, but then was too busy with SteelyKid and football to get to it. since I’m late to the party, I’ll offer some slightly flippant arguments in favor of experiment or theory:
Argument 1: Experimentalists are better homeowners. At least in my world of low-energy experimental physics, many of the skills you are expected to have as an experimental physicist translate very directly to real-world problems. If you can wire up an electrical circuit for precision measurements, you ought to be competent enough to change a light switch or electrical socket. If you can change the oil in a Welch rotary vacuum pump, you should be able to change the oil in your car. At the very least, it gives you a better appreciation of what you’re paying professionals to do for you.
Theorists, on the other hand, spend all their time playing with computers, and are thus less likely to be able to repair physical objects. The obvious counter-argument, though, is that high-energy experimental physicists spend at least as much time dinking around with computers as low-energy theorists do, so this may not be a general advantage of experiment over theory.
Argument 2: Theorists are better with computers. People who do theoretical science these days are usually very comfortable with computer code, which leaves them better prepared to deal with our modern computerized world than experimentalists, whose preferred mode of solution is likely to involve a big hammer.
The obvious counter-argument (aside from the high-energy experimentalists, who screw everything up) is that most physics theory involves esoteric things like FORTRAN code running on Unix machines, meaning that most theoretical physicists are just as befuddled by Windows as everybody else.
Argument 3: Experimentalists get better toys. Experimental physics apparatus looks like this:
That’s something you can show off on a tour of the department and it’s guaranteed to make an impression on prospective students and parents. Hot theoretical apparatus, on the other hand, looks like a stockroom at Best Buy. That could be a supercomputer, or it could be a rack full of discount desktops with some additional blinking LED’s.
The counter-argument, of course, is that when experimental apparatus breaks, it’s all expensive and custom-built stuff that takes ages to repair. When a theoretical apparatus breaks, you just order an identical replacement machine and have it overnighted to you.
Argument 4: Theorists have better
boondoggles workshops. Theoretical scientists get to go to all sorts of summer schools and month-long workshops in California and Italy and so on. The nature of theoretical science is such that you can get a whole bunch of theorists together in some place within easy reach of a beach or a ski resort, and productive work can come from having them just hang out and talk to each other.
Experimentalists, on the other hand, are tied to their labs. Even if you’re the kind of experimentalist who uses a billion-dollar facility somewhere other than your home institution, you’re stuck in the lab when you go there. While a given user facility may be located someplace nice, when you’re there, you’re on the clock, with limited beam time or whatever. You don’t get a lot of time to enjoy the ambience before you have to go home and analyze your data.
The weak counter-argument for this is that experimentalists are occasionally invited to these theoretical events, to serve as a reality check. This only works for a small and select group of experimentalists, though.
Argument 5: Experimentalists have to know a bit of theory, while theorists don’t need to know anything practical. Most experimental physicists need to be able to hack a bit of theory. For one thing, you can’t really begin to interpret your results without some understanding of the underlying theory. And it’s often extremely useful to be able to bang together a quick-and-dirty theoretical model to see if your results have the right basic shape before you call in the real theorists to do the model without extreme simplifying assumptions.
Theorists, on the other hand…. Experimentalists are mildly amazed when a theorist manages to find two matching socks. Nobody expects a theorist to be able to debate the relative merits of round vs. square wire or solder two wires together, let alone align a Ti:Sapph laser. Thus, training in theory requires less breadth of expertise, and is the clear choice for students seeking an easier path to the Ph.D.
(In case the note at the beginning of the post and the general tone of the arguments wasn’t clear enough, this is not entirely serious. While the arguments have some small basis in reality, they are exaggerated for humorous effect, and should not be taken as an accurate representation of my opinion of my theoretical colleagues.)