Why So Many Theorists?

When I was looking over the Great Discoveries series titles for writing yesterday’s Quantum Man review, I was struck again by how the Rutherford biography by Richard Reeves is an oddity. Not only is Rutherford a relatively happy fellow– the book is really lacking in the salacious gossip that is usually a staple of biography, probably because Rutherford was happily married for umpteen years– but he’s an experimentalist, and you don’t see that many high-profile biographies of experimental physicists.

When you run down the list of famous and relatively modern scientists who have books written about them, they’re almost all theorists: Einstein and Feynman, of course, and Dirac. There’s a recent-ish book about Pauli and his obsession with the number 137, there are books about Schwinger, and Schrödinger, and Heisenberg, and Gell-Mann. There will undoubtedly be lengthy biographies of Hawking and Witten at some point, and Wheeler is recently enough deceased that I expect to see books about him soon.

Books about experimental physicists, particularly experimental physicists in the 20th Century, seem to be much rarer, and not nearly as well promoted. I found out about the new Feynman biography not because I obsessively follow the Great Discoveries series (I don’t), but because it was being talked up all over my RSS feeds. I’m pretty sure I stumbled across the Rutherford book in the library, though, and I wasn’t aware that they had one about Madame Curie at all. And even relatively obscure theorists seem to get written up before experimentalists– I’ve got an unsolicited review copy of a biography of Ettore Majorana sitting on the shelf that I’m never going to read, but that got a lot of publicity push.

So, why is that? Why are theorists so much more likely to be written up in high-profile biographies? Let’s consider some possible explanations:

Experimentalists are more anonymous: Quick, name some 20th Century physicists. How many of the names that come to mind immediately are theorists? Odds are pretty good that theorists are in the majority, because when we teach students about the history of physics (in passing, while introducing key concepts) most of the names that come up are those of theorists. Theorists get equations named after them, and thus their names get cited all the time. Experimentalists get experiments named after them, and thus their names get cursed by students in physics labs.

In addition to the disparity in named features, experimental physics, particularly in the modern era, is a much more collaborative endeavor. It’s much harder to associate experiments with a single transformative genius, because particularly in high-energy physics, experiments are the work of large numbers of people working as a team. The Nobel committee will name individuals to receive prizes, but within physics, it’s widely known that even experiments for which single people were honored were, in fact, done by large groups.

A biography, sort of by definition, is focussed on one person. The highly collaborative nature of modern experimental physics makes it difficult to associate breakthroughs in experimental physics with a single person. The story of a physics experiment is the story of many people, and thus moves into a different category of book, which is less likely to be written and published.

Experimentalists are less likely to be crazy: Quick, name some insane experimental physicists. Kind of hard to come up with candidates, isn’t it? Especially if you then draw up a list of crazy, or at least highly quirky, theoretical physicists. That list is easy to populate, and lots of the people on it are the subject of high-profile biographies.

For whatever reason, theoretical physicists and mathematicians are far more likely to be barking mad than experimental physicists. Maybe because concrete comparisons to experimental data require a sort of basic groundedness that theory does not. Maybe because the crazy would-be experimentalists all electrocute themselves early on, and those who survive switch to theory.

Whatever the reason, it’s widely acknowledged to be much easier to write compelling biographies of crazy people than relatively well-adjusted ones. So a higher incidence of crazy in the theoretical physics community leads quite naturally to a larger number of biographies of theorists.

Experimental physics is really hard: A large part of the game of experimental physics is chasing down and ruling out other possible explanations. For every “Eureka!” moment, there are a dozen control experiments and tests of systematic uncertainties, and subtle refinements of the apparatus to allow greater precision, and so on.

The sort of things that take up the bulk of an experimentalist’s time are really, really boring to do, let alone read about someone else doing. When a theorist spends six months getting nowhere, a biographer can wax rhapsodic about their titanic struggles to grapple with the majesty of nature. Or at least fall back on stories about how they were diddling a colleague’s wife on the side. When an experimentalist spends six months tracking down an intermittent ground loop in the thousands of wires connecting the pieces of their apparatus, going home every night too exhausted to even look at a colleague’s wife, well, there’s not much you can do to make that interesting.

Theorists write most of the books: Quick, name some popularizers of physics. How many of them have a background in experimental physics? Not that many, I bet. The biggest names that come to mind– Greene, Hawking, Krauss, Kaku– come from the theory side. Theoretical physicists are much more likely to write books about physics than experimentalists, and when they do, they mostly write about theory.

I suspect the reason has to do with workflow. If you’re a theorist by training, writing a book isn’t all that different from the way you do research– instead of writing equations on paper or typing simulation code into a computer, you’re writing words on paper, or typing them into a computer. Either way, though, you’re sitting at a desk to do it.

Experimental physics, on the other hand, is less desk-bound than theoretical physics. When you’re trained as an experimentalist, you spend most of your time in the lab doing stuff. Sitting at a desk is something you only do when there’s data to analyze. Or, more likely, paperwork.

(The experimentalists who write books also tend to come from the high-energy end of physics, which also involves a lot of desk time writing code to sift through mountains of particle track data. Low-energy experimental physics authors of pop-science books aren’t completely unheard-of– Jim Kakalios and Diandra Leslie-Pelecky come to mind– but we’re much rarer.)

Whatever the reason, you’re more likely to see general-audience books about physics written by theorists about theoretical physics. And those books serve as the source material for writers of biographies, leading to a greater preponderance of biographies about theoretical physicists.

(While it ought to be obvious, I should probably state explicitly that these explanations are not entirely serious. Not that it will help…)

So, anyway, those are some possible reasons for the relative overabundance of theorists in the science biography shelves. If you have quibbles with my reasoning, alternative theories to present, or really great biographies of modern experimental physicists to suggest, you know where the comments are.

10 thoughts on “Why So Many Theorists?

  1. Faraday, Meitner, Rontgen, Lawrence, Chadwick, Rayleigh, Rabi, Cockroft, Millikan, Michelson, Townes, Hertz, Thomson, Bragg

    I read several of these as a teen.
    Still became a theorist…

  2. Man with a dictionary spots Schrodinger at work here:

    the crazy would-be experimentalists all electrocute themselves early on, and those who survive switch to theory.

    Surviving electrocution poses certain logical problems which can only be resolved with empty sets. Surviving an electric shock is quite frequent though.

  3. Not a biography per se but “Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit and the Ultimate Experiment” by Gary Taubes about Carlo Rubbia. That was the last one i read about experimentalist physicists.

  4. Millikan was an asstard, and I don’t Rutherford really was the most agreeable of people. At least that’s the impression I took away from The Strangest Man – but of course, that too is about a theorist, so maybe it’s a deliberate slander.

    Bragg was awesome, though.

  5. Is there really a connection between mathematicians and theoretical physicists and mental illness. Personally I think confirmation bias keeps this going… Godel, for example, goes crazy later in life, as many old people unfortunately do, and huzzah, it’s because of his connection to the incompleteness theorem.

  6. Surviving electrocution poses certain logical problems which can only be resolved with empty sets. Surviving an electric shock is quite frequent though.

    -@3, Sam C

    Oh SNAP Orzel, your shit just got WRECKED.

    Where is your physics now??

  7. Americans are not well-educated, especially in the sciences, AND they are highly religious: impressed by superstition, unprovable claims – oh yes! theoretical physics is easily misunderstood as being based in the same noncausal realm of the supernatural. Anyone can read a biography of a theoretical physicist, and then impress his friends with a totally botched version. Experimental physics requires being able to follow the science.

  8. I think it is all the fault of a horrible catalytic reaction between a celebrity-centered media and Albert Einstein, fed by the cult-building efforts of Sir Arthur Eddington, among others.

    Regarding biographies of experimental physicists, I have a couple of suggestions that go beyond what is mentioned above. The book “The Second Creation” is a first rate treatment of many individuals and groups that were central to the development of experimental particle physics. Treatment of some is relatively shallow (not much beyond the physics and the challenges of the experiments). It might seem odd, but a big chunk of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” concerns the development of nuclear physics, which was driven almost entirely by experiment. Although shallow in some spots, it goes deeper at some key junctures around the discovery of the nucleus and the discovery of nuclear fission (which is due in no small part to nuclear chemistry done correctly by chemists rather than incorrectly by a famous physicist).

    It was only for a short period of time (I’d say from after the J/psi in 1974, peaking with the W/Z being seen in 1983 exactly as predicted) that particle physics operated under the assumption that theorists knew best. However, those events were so important that they swamped the reality of how few predictions were actually correct.

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