Physics Needs Research and Balance

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Physics Needs Research and Balance


Sean Bentley

Director, Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma

Sean BentleyCuriosity may have killed the cat, but it has also inspired many physicists. (In Schrödinger’s case, perhaps it did both.) Our natural curiosity leads us to start asking questions from the time we are young, questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” “What causes the seasons?” and “How do planes fly?”

These are questions that could be quickly answered by a parent, a teacher, a book, or, if all else fails, a quick search on your phone. But if you keep asking deeper questions, you will eventually come upon one for which we do not yet know the answer.

Many would call it a day, at that point, and go happily on their way. Those of us who don’t, who must get to the answer, do research. Welcome to science!

I will make two major claims (that I hold to be self-evident): First, there cannot be physics without research. Second, physicists need to strive for balance.

Many groups, including SPS, have official statements declaring that all students of physics should have a meaningful research experience, and for good reason.1 Learning what came before is of great importance, but until you have a moment of discovery in which you are creating new knowledge, you haven’t fully experienced the joy of physics. Some love research, and others decide it is not for them. Either way, it is something you should explore firsthand.

A problem is that much like watching your favorite show on Netflix, research can be addictive. Many professional physicists eat, sleep, and breathe research. While this drive can lead to great breakthroughs, I find that there’s an inherent danger in the lack of balance. All physicists should also engage in teaching, outreach, and advocacy. Unfortunately, many researchers find other endeavors to be a distraction. (Perhaps you’ve known some of these researchers, and possibly even had them for a class.)

Without dedication to teaching, though, we are not properly preparing the next generation. Without outreach, the public will not understand and appreciate the value of physics. Without advocacy, the government will not have the information it needs to deal with critical issues facing the world.

I hope you will have wonderful undergraduate research experiences. You may be starting a career in research or just having a taste before starting a career in a field such as engineering, law, medicine, finance, or teaching. Wherever your dreams may take you, I hope that you will strive for balance in all that you do.



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