Friday, December 14, 2007

The Big Debate -Part 1

For a beginning graduate student in Physics, it is not particularly easy decision to choose a certain area of research and a suitable advisor. Even if you have narrowed down your interests to a certain field , say for instance, Condensed Matter or Astrophysics, it can be hard from there on to zero in on what you are likely to enjoy the most (or, put differently, get the least frustrated by) . Ideally, you would like to try your hands in everything and develop some expertise and a feel for the nature of research activity involved. However, that is too much to ask in a normal circumstance given the limited duration to explore the options. Not to mention the courses and other things that keep you occupied for a substantial part of the time.
If High Energy Theory happens to be your inclination, then aside from the above predicaments, there is a whole new troublesome issue to deal with. That is if you are considering String Theory, a field whose ambitious goals are only matched by the controversy surrounding it. Over the past few years, this topic has become an issue that majority of people who are aware of it fall into distinct categories: those who passionately advocate it's mertis and those who severely condemn it as a grand failure. The middle ground in this case is virtually empty. And it is all the more bizarre that many (by no means all) of these very-opinionated individuals seem to have little or no understanding of the actual content, though somehow that fact does little to refrain them from foming premature opinions.
There is so much being said about it, strong reactions coming from everywhere, and when the subject is as advanced and mathematically sophisticated to the point that introducing it in more quick, direct manner would involve great oversimplification to render it quite useless for serious consideration, it is difficult to form a meaningful opinion yourself. And when the whole hoopla has reached crazy proportions, with some proponents going so far as to issue death threats against critics, it makes you all the more uncertain. Go over to any popular Physics blog or speak to any academic about it and you cannot escape the heat of this controversy. I am not an expert on the history of Physics, let alone science, but I can't think of anytime when something has been argued on for so long and with such energy but with no resolution in sight. Sure, the first quarter of the previous century can ring a bell as one reads this but the big difference in that glorious era was that opinions were ultimately tilting one way or the other. However, here it has been static for more than half a decade ( counting from the sharp rise in criticism, not the origin of the approach itself ) and what's most frustrating is that (and ironically the only thing in this issue that is definite), there is every reason to believe this is how it is going to be in the foreseeable future.
Some of the physicists working on it are even practical enough to advise students not to get into it in view of the poor job situation. But that is not a convincing reason to deter the curious and motivated. Or is it?

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