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profen4
09-26-2012, 08:35 PM
I'm wondering how a kid, 12-years-old, would describe what a theoretical physicist does/is, assuming that is what their dad is, and someone has asked them to explain what their dad does at work.

Anyone have any experience with this?

Kenn
09-26-2012, 09:39 PM
Theoretical physics is a skill not a job, so he could do almost anything (it's a bit like asking what somebody in insurance does for a living). In reality, a lot of them work in universities, so teaching plays an important role. Others will spend a lot of their time justifying their time to accountants by filling in research proposals etc. When they aren't doing this, they're likely to be staring at a computer screen. But the field they work in could be almost anything (lasers, nuclear, astrophysics, superconductors...).

LJD
09-26-2012, 10:10 PM
That someone wants more detail than "my father is a scientist (or professor)"? Do you mean specific tasks they do at work, or a more specific research field, or what exactly theoretical physics is?

Drachen Jager
09-26-2012, 11:00 PM
Agree with the above. There really isn't a job title 'theoretical physicist'.

Where does he work, what does he do? Is he running experiments at CERN, or working with NASA, a university, or something else? What does he do within the sphere of theoretical physics? It's quite a large range really, from the macro of Astrophysics to the micro of particle physics.

profen4
09-26-2012, 11:11 PM
Ah, I see. Thank you all. I was just pondering a new idea and it seems I have to delve deeper.

Theoretical Physicists don't actually build stuff, right? They might consult on the designs but they'd need electrical and mechanical engineers to do the actual building, right?

Drachen Jager
09-27-2012, 12:01 AM
Theoretical Physicists build theories.

They do occasionally build things for their experiments, but no they don't generally build things for those outside of their lab to use.

For instance, a theoretical physicist invented the laser, but it was up to engineers and such to turn it into a commercial product. Planck came up with the theory, which was later refined by Einstein, Ladenburg did the actual experiments proving that it could work, then Lamb and Rutherford finally made a working prototype. From there, it took engineers to turn the laboratory model into something for more practical use.

woozy
09-27-2012, 12:48 AM
Oddly enough, I have a secondary character who's mother is a theoretical physicist (who teaches at a university, U.C. Santa Cruz or S.J.S.U, or a fictional composite). I was wondering just what sort of research she would do or does she sit around thinking about things. But I hadn't put together an actual question...

As my story involves kids witnessing and experiencing and participating in events across time I thought I might have the mother have some b.s. type theory of shared quantuum probability waves between different points of space time. Then it occured to me that I couldn't even begin to imagine what type of research could possible confirm or support any such theory. So I'm probably going to leave it out (that and it'd be distracting), but I might leave in that "her mother had theories but chose not to explore them".

But back to the original question:
"What does your father do?"
"He's a scientist?"
"What kind of scientist? Does he study animals? Play around with chemicals?"
"No, he _____________________"

Drachen Jager
09-27-2012, 01:17 AM
As my story involves kids witnessing and experiencing and participating in events across time I thought I might have the mother have some b.s. type theory of shared quantuum probability waves between different points of space time.

If you decide to go down that road, look up quantum entanglement, sounds like it's similar to where you're headed.

woozy
09-27-2012, 01:25 AM
If you decide to go down that road, look up quantum entanglement, sounds like it's similar to where you're headed.

Yeah... but, um, can one actually *do* experiments in quantum entanglement? I mean I can't really have the mother walking around a beach waving a wand conected to a power pack on her back and saying things like "Hmm, I'm picking up abnormally high traces of quantumatrons in this area but the probability wave of my actually remembering it when I write up my notes is only 46.23 percent", can I?

benbradley
09-27-2012, 03:04 AM
...
But back to the original question:
"What does your father do?"
"He's a scientist?"
"What kind of scientist? Does he study animals? Play around with chemicals?"
"No, he _____________________"

"He reads books, scribbles notes on papers, and writes articles for magazines. He showed me an article he wrote once, but he called it a paper. I couldn't read half the words he used. Some of the writing looked like Greek to me, but he said that part was mathematics. He also teaches a college class, but he doesn't like that part."

"Is that all he does?"

"Every once in a while he goes to some big conference where they talk about each others' magazine articles. Dad went overseas for one last summer, he said that one was a big deal."

"He did? What's your dad's name?"

"Peter Higgs."

Pyekett
09-27-2012, 05:24 AM
I wonder if the Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle in Time series might be a good resource, at least to see how one writer handled it. The father was a scientist studying tesseracts, which is about as theoretical-physicky as you get.

LJD
09-27-2012, 06:36 AM
But back to the original question:
"What does your father do?"
"He's a scientist?"
"What kind of scientist? Does he study animals? Play around with chemicals?"
"No, he _____________________"

When I was that age and said my father was a scientist (not a theroetical physicist), very few people asked further questions, and those who did were usually adults, not my peers. They would ask his field of study, and I would tell them. If they weren't familiar with it, I'd give some vague description involving alternative energy, but no one expected too much of a response...

ClareGreen
09-27-2012, 04:26 PM
You could always nick a Tom Lehrer quote and turn it about - you never know what children think their parents really do.

"Dad works at Los Alamos, as a spy."

blackrose602
09-28-2012, 08:04 PM
It really depends on the kid, too. Is he a science geek with a deep understanding and interest in what his dad does? Or is he flunking basic math and science? It seems you might actually need to answer two separate questions here: First, what DOES dad actually do? Second, how much does junior know and care? Actually, maybe a third question, too: Who's doing the asking and how much do they care?

jaksen
10-01-2012, 04:22 AM
Quite often scientists in this field are working on state or government-funded projects, or for an institute. Sometimes they are on privately-funded projects. I was only a science teacher, now retired, but I had a lot of students whose parents were scientists and they'd refer to their parents as working on a 'project' or as part of a research team. Those working in geology, paleontology, marine sciences, and even the physical sciences, were often 'in the field,' or supervising other scientists, or graduate students in the same way. I had students whose parents were astronomers or astrophysicists and their parents were always 'flying off somewhere' to get time on certain telescopes, or were traveling to meet others in their field, to confer, share notes, experimental results, etc.

If I asked specifically, well what is the project about, I'd get answers that varied from the very vague, umm, something to do with the shuttle, to complicated replies about quantum physics. To more than one student I'd reply, okay, that's over my head!

But I loved the parents who'd come in and share what they were doing with my classes.

Quentin Nokov
10-03-2012, 11:08 PM
I think the following is probably a fairly accurate example of a conversation between teacher and pupil on what their parents do for a living.

"So, what does your father do, Johnny?"

"My dad's a scientist."

"Oh, really, what sort of things does he do?"

"Um. . .I don't know. He does science-stuff."

Most 12 y/o kids probably can't even pronounce theoretical physicist, let alone have any idea what type of scientific field that is. Obviously, if you don't know what your theoretical physicists does then neither will his kid. Sometimes less is more, you don't have to elaborate.

Simply: "He works at a university." Or "He works for Nasa."

profen4
10-04-2012, 12:41 AM
This is all great information.

Here's another question. Let's say the transporter from Star-Trek was real. What kind of background would the inventor need to have. What kind of scientist would they be?

RichardGarfinkle
10-04-2012, 12:50 AM
This is all great information.

Here's another question. Let's say the transporter from Star-Trek was real. What kind of background would the inventor need to have. What kind of scientist would they be?

That one's tricky. In general the presumption is that a transporter inventor would need to have a strong background in quantum mechanics. But that would be the person who would work out how it could work. The actual inventor of a practical device would likely be an engineer.

An experimental physicist might be able to fill both of these roles. The big problem is that the gap from current theory and application to a transporter (assuming one was possible) is pretty vast.

So do you mean a transporter being invented today or in the future. If the latter the branches of science could have changed. Several branches of modern science did not even exist a hundred and fifty years ago.

For example: Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Particle Physics, Genetics (just to branch out briefly from physics), etc.

Ergodic Mage
10-06-2012, 01:55 AM
This is all great information.

Here's another question. Let's say the transporter from Star-Trek was real. What kind of background would the inventor need to have. What kind of scientist would they be?

I'd recommend reading Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. There is plenty of interaction between the MC theoretical physicist and the engineer who takes ideas into practical inventions.