Blog » Self-doubt and String Theory

29 May 2006

Self-doubt and String Theory

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 1:39 pm

With two days left to my oral candidacy exam, I’ve been having an extra-strong experience of the emotional roller-coaster that is grad school in string theory — or, I imagine, any other advanced science.

The problem is, there’s just so much to know. Sure I’m learning things too, but it’s amazing how quickly the perceived relative sizes of the learnt and un-learnt bodies of material change in size over the course of even a day.

It is great to periodically realise that a particularly tricky area (in the most recent case, topological string theory), while still tricky, is easier than it was two years ago — and my resulting understanding is a lot deeper.

Unfortunately, the sense of knowledge often lasts only briefly, until someone’s question, or another paper, makes one look at the concept from another angle. All too often the nice, strong concepts out of which understanding has been built, turn out to be wafer-thin from another perspective, and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

And of course, there’s that constant niggle: there must be easier and better-paid jobs out there… But, would I be happy?

Well, back to work…

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  1. holding thumbs for you paul

    Comment by heather — 29 May 2006 @ 2:38 pm

  2. Holding thumbs? I don’t know what that is, so I’ll just say good luck!

    Comment by Adam — 29 May 2006 @ 8:21 pm

  3. Hmm, I just had this nice long insightful comment that I was about to post, but then I had to get on a plane and my phone lost it. Oh well, I’ll just tell you in person.

    (adam: holding thumbs=crossing fingers) : )

    Comment by Ellen — 29 May 2006 @ 8:53 pm

  4. So…how’d it go? Mind you, I’m not compensating for time difference here, so maybe it’s just still going. Regardless, hope it’s all good, chum.

    BTW, I also don’t get how crossing fingers is holding thumbs; surely your fingers aren’t crossed when you hold your thumbs ;)

    Comment by Chris — 31 May 2006 @ 2:54 am

  5. Clearly some more digital dexterity is called for here.

    Comment by Spleen — 31 May 2006 @ 7:07 am

  6. hmmm. perhaps south africans have different hands to americans ;) i can’t see how one can hold thumbs WITHOUT crossing fingers!

    Comment by heather — 31 May 2006 @ 10:23 am

  7. Not yet gone, actually — just a few hours left of last minute changes!

    Comment by paulcook — 31 May 2006 @ 10:41 am

  8. Passed!

    Presentation went fine, some of the questions afterwards hit EXACTLY the part of
    the material I was shaky on. Grrr…..

    Comment by paulcook — 31 May 2006 @ 5:13 pm

  9. Nicely done! Bet you’re glad it’s over hehehe.

    Yeah, I know what that’s like…I’m normally the one asking other students on the areas they’re “shaky” on!

    Still, bet you did just fine, bud.

    Comment by Chris — 1 Jun 2006 @ 12:31 am

  10. Well done! Thanks for the 2.20am phone call – it was magic to be able to share the moment of relief.

    Good luck with catching up with everything else, and China watch out!

    Comment by Sally — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:20 am

  11. Congrats Paul! Er, could it be possible that string theory has more, um, hard stuff to know? I think a wafer-thin understanding of string theory is like a waffle-thick understanding of say history (which, as I recall, featured a lot of waffling). So anyways, well done.

    Comment by Greg — 1 Jun 2006 @ 4:15 pm

  12. Thanks all for the congratulations! I am very happy. Surprising, isn’t it?

    And perhap string theory has a lot to know — it’s hard to say, I’ve never tried anything else. Waffling, admittedly, is tricky to do — rigour is easier to judge than in history.

    Comment by paulcook — 1 Jun 2006 @ 6:19 pm

  13. Congratulations! Great that you passed the orals.

    I know the feeling you mention, and I’m only a master’s student. I started my year thinking I had a pretty good understanding of physics. Two research papers later I felt like an idiot. When you learn something new, you get the short-lived thrill of having mastered something difficult. And then you read another research paper…only to feel dumb again.



    Comment by Dimitri Terryn — 5 Jun 2006 @ 12:52 am

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