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Showing my love of physics February 17, 2007

Posted by dorigo in internet, news, physics, science.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a high school in Bassano del Grappa, where I held a 2-hour seminar about particle physics. The event was part of the program we have set up in Veneto this year for the Master Classes 2007 : students from the last years of high school get to attend a few seminars about XXth century physics and about the current research trends in particle physics, and then they visit the Physics Department in Padova where they are invited to measure some Z decay branching fractions using real LEP data.

There were only a dozen people attending my lesson, but they appeared extremely interested in what I showed them, and after two full hours of powerpoint slides and chalkboard graphs on the blackboard, they had the energy to ask quite a few questions, which I was of course happy to answer.

The comment from the teachers assisting the lesson was that I did a good job especially in showing how much I love the matter I explained to them. That, I think, is a strong message, which usually students do not fail to appreciate.

I of course also made a little advertising in the end, knowing that some of the students attending my lesson could end up becoming my collaborators one day. I encouraged them to come and visit me in Padova, and needless to say I had them write down the address of my blog 😉

The subject of the lesson was quite simply, “Particle Physics“. I had to avoid discussing in detail particle detectors, which will be the subject of another seminar by a colleague, but I had basically a free hand in choosing the topics and the examples I would illustrate.

So here is what I discussed, in a nutshell. I started by enunciating four basic concepts that are fundamental in our field of research:

  1. the importance of classification: I discussed Mendeleev’s discovery and how he could predict the existence of Germanium and Gallium from his periodic table; this was of use when later I showed that Gell-Mann’s quark model predicted the Omega-minus particle.
  2. The tight coupling between technological advances and progress in our science: I made the example of Thomson’s discovery of the electron in 1897, only made possible by the cathode ray tube, invented only months before. I also discussed Rutherford’s experiment, to explain the importance of accelerators to probe matter at short distance scales. Here I took a chance to make a digression about the problems that religion and superstition cause to the advancement of science, giving examples of scientists burned at the stake, all the way to laws slowing down research on stem cells. I also had a word or three about the US budget and how it is shared between the department of Defence and the financing of scientific research.
  3. The importance of spectroscopy: a mention of the discovery of the Balmer formula and its implication for the Bohr model, and the organization of energy levels and their use to identify atoms. This was later used when I discussed how physicists got convinced of the existence of quarks by discovering charm and looking at the Crystal Ball spectrum of charmonium states.
  4. the Ockham principle – which had several uses in the description of what I showed later.

After the introduction, I discussed the hadron spectroscopy of the fifties, and the discovery of baryon number and strangeness. Strangeness introduced the quark model, which showed the predictive power of classification (the omega-minus). Recalling the Pauli exclusion principle allowed me to introduce the color quantum number. Then I showed how electrons were used to prove the structure of protons, and the charm discovery.

Having established quarks, I discussed the Standard Model in brief, and went on to discuss the top quark discovery, landing finally to talk about the searches for the Higgs boson, at LEP II, the Tevatron, and the LHC.

I think I did a fairly good job all in all. I avoided formulas in my slides, but then I found myself using the blackboard a lot to write down Feynman diagrams of particle decays… The audience was not scared.

You can get the powerpoint slides of my talk at this link , but beware, they amount to 11.4 Mbytes. And… too bad, but they are in Italian. One day I will translate them, if I happen to give the seminar outside my country.



1. Bee - February 17, 2007

Hi Tom,

that’s cool 🙂 My Italian isn’t so really the best (let’s see – oohm – viva italia! basta. non parla italiano. that’s about it) So, would you say something more about pt. 4? I’d be interested to hear. Have a nice weekend,


2. Andrea Giammanco - February 17, 2007

Very good job, but the quote “E pur si muove” is really attributed to Giordano Bruno?
In the version of this specific piece of folklore that I know, these are the words that Galileo whispered one second after the abjura… anyway, I always considered that just as an educational legend.

3. dorigo - February 17, 2007

Hi Andrea,

my sources say it was uttered by Giordano Bruno before burning. It is allegedly referred to the motion of the earth. I know some attribute it to Galileo instead. It could just be that they both used it, in which case credit probably goes to Bruno.

Yes, it is maybe a legend…

4. dorigo - February 17, 2007

Hi Bee,

in the slides no further reference is made of Occam’s razor after citing it as a tool… I mentioned it when I discussed Gell-Mann’s hypothesis: is it a violation of the lex parsimoniae ? Not really, since by introducing only three new entities, you explain hundreds of them. And I also mentioned it later, when I talked about the extensions of the Standard Model, such as Supersymmetry (tens of new free parameters) or string theory (7 new dimensions).


5. Guess Who - February 17, 2007

I have a serious doubt: is this kind of outreach activity really compatible with your often stated views on the future of particle physics? Let’s face it, if all that turns up at the LHC is the SM Higgs, prospect of the tax payers funding the 50 klick monster known as the ILC will be bleak to say the least. The high energy frontier will be closed and particle physics will be over for the foreseeable future.

Does this strike you as the kind of setting into which to lure bright youngsters? There is plenty of more rewarding stuff for them to work on out there. You’ve read Kurzweil, so you know the list. I say let’s get immortality solved first. After that, we will have all the time in the world to get back to HEP. 😉

P.S. Regarding “E pur si muove”, the only attribution I’ve ever seen (many times) is the one given by Wikipedia:

t that the famous astronomer, philosopher and physicist Galileo Galilei muttered this phrase after being forced to recant, in front of the Inquisition, his belief that the earth moved around the sun.

6. dorigo - February 17, 2007

Hi GW,

quite possibly, it could be Galileo indeed. Wikipedia cannot be trusted on such matters – I found two days ago the quote attributed to Bruno by that very source, although I seem to be unable to find it again now – but I realize I was probably at fault.

In http://www.mlahanas.de/Physics/Bios/GalileoGalilei.html I read the following:

“The tale that Galileo, rising from his knees after recanting, said "E pur si muove!" (But it does move!) cannot be accepted as true: the penalty for going back on a confession before the Inquisition was to be burned at the stake (famously, in the case of Giordano Bruno and Jacques de Molay), and such a defiance would have been a ticket to follow Bruno to the stake. But the widespread belief that the whole incident is an 18th century invention is also false. (Drake, 1978, pp. 356–357). A Spanish painting, dated 1643 or possibly 1645, shows Galileo writing the phrase on the wall of a dungeon cell. Here we have a second version of the story, which also cannot be true, because Galileo was never imprisoned in a dungeon; but the painting shows that some story of "E pur si muove" was circulating in Galileo’s time. In the months immediately after his condemnation, Galileo resided with Archbishop Ascanio Piccolomini of Siena, a learned man and a sympathetic host; the fact that Piccolomini’s brother was a military attaché in Madrid, where the painting was made some years later, suggests that Galileo may have made the remark to the Archbishop, who then wrote to his family concerning the event, which later became garbled in re-telling.”

As for the motivation of youngsters, well… The idea is that the Standard Model is incomplete. I had it quite clear in my slides. I also criticized most of the proposed extensions, but I made it plain to them that we need new blood both in theory and experiment, to finally get out of a 30 years impasse. Of course, there are better employments out there – but continuing to foster new particle physicists is not a bad thing in itself, even if you don’t believe in SuperSymmetry or if you think the ILC will not be built. The thing is, we do not really know!


7. Guess Who - February 17, 2007

Just to clarify, I didn’t mean to say that Wikipedia is the only place where I’ve ever seen “E pur si muove!” attributed; I meant to say the attribution quoted there (to Galileo) is the only one I’ve ever seen, in many different contexts. I agree that it’s probably a distortion of the actual events.

Regarding the future of HEP… well, as Bohr used to say, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. But it’s also unavoidable. A teen now choosing a future career path must take job prospects into account, and if the LHC is the end of the line, job prospects in HEP will be nil for his or her generation. Any alternative career picked up after a decade+ of training for an inexistent job is going to be a very poor return on investment.

I understand that there is an instinctive wish to perpetuate one’s own chosen line of work when one is happy with it. But what may have been right for high school graduates two decades ago is not necessarily right now. If one of them were to ask me if physics might be a good choice, I’d say look into solid state or nanotech. But HEP I’d steer them clear of.

8. dorigo - February 18, 2007

Well, I think your point is a good one -hell, _I_’d take astrophysics if I were to start a career right now! – but it does not take away the fact that I believe what is most profitable and what is most in line with one’s liking are two different things (as you know I love astronomy, and it was by chance that that was out of my equation when I chose HEP). If I were suggesting to a class of students to take physics and plan to do HEP, I would probably be criticizable, but the fact is, I have only been trying to show how fascinating HEP is to students who were drawn to follow my seminar by their interest in the field.

Besides, I think they will have many other inputs by the time they need to make a choice….


9. Tony Smith - February 18, 2007

Tommaso, thanks very much for the slides of your brilliant talk.
I think that it would be good for students anywhere, whatever might
be their first language, since the vocabulary is limited enough that
a good Italian dictionary would enable interested students to read the slides
(and find out interesting things about Mendeleev and vodka, etc).

You said “only a dozen people” attended. How large was the high school,
I.e., roughly what percentage attended ?

Guess Who criticized such presentations to high school students on the basis that HEP is not “the kind of setting into which to lure bright youngsters”.
your closing words “In bocca al lupo!!”
told them that it would not be easy.
I hope that most of them responded “crepi il lupo”
that some of them might indeed through their future work turn HEP a happy feast of useful ideas and results.


PS – Here are a couple of relatively minor historical comments:

In slide 42 you mentioned CP violation, and I would like to see a reference to the work of Kobayashi and Maskawa in which they effectively predicted the third generation of quarks and showed how their 3×3 matrix scheme could account for some CP violation.

In slide 38 you mentioned Gell-Mann as the originator of the flavor SU(3) eight-fold way and has his picture next to the title about the quark hypothesis.
I know it is convenient of simplify history, but it bothers me to omit Ne’eman and Zweig.
According to The Second Creation (by Crease and Mann (revised edition, Rutgers 1996):
“… Yuval Ne’eman, a colonel in the Israeli army and an amateur physicist … went to London … to negotiate … purchasing two submarines and fifty centurion tanks … Ne’eman wanted to publish his own SU(3) [model]… In February [1961], he asked his former secretary at the embassy to type up the article … Ne’eman’s paper was bounced by the editor of Nuclear Physics because the Israeli embassy had single-spaced the manuscript … After retyping, the article was published in July of 1961

late in [1963, Gell-Mann]… read Finnegan’s Wake ..[and].. said … “That’s it … Three quarks make a neutron or a proton …”

Ne’eman … With … Haim Goldberg … worked out the mathematics of the quark model … and sent … Their paper … to Nuovo Cimento in February 1962 [over a year before Gell-Mann got the idea]

George Zweig …[also]… duplicated the quark model exactly at almost the same time [as Gell-Mann]. He called the quarks “aces” … the editors …[of]… Physics Letters would hear none of it … Zweig never published … Zweig was denied an appointment at a major university because the head of the physics department thought he was a “charlatan” …”.

PPS – In support of your slides 10 (in which you mention the USA military budget) and 65 (in which you mention the ILC), the total cost of the ILC is on the order of $10 billion,
the USA plans (with very little debate) to build a new aircraft carrier for about the same amount of money, even though aircraft carriers are no longer the powerful weapons that they were in World War II, and (as might be demonstrated by Iran if the USA expands its mideast war) may prove to be quite vulnerable to attack by modern missiles.

10. dorigo - February 18, 2007

Hi Tony,

thank you for taking the time to look at my slides. I appreciate your feedback.

About Kobajashi and Maskawa, I have only the following reference: Kobajashi, Maskawa, Progr Theor Phys 49 (1973) 652.
What I know comes from Burcham and Jobes’ excellent book “Nuclear and Particle Physics”, Longman 1995, at p.413 one reads:

“K. and M. were motivated by a desire to explain CP violation within the Cabibbo-GIM scheme. To this end it was necessary to introduce a complex number into the Cabibbo rotation matrix, but such a term can always be eliminated by a redefinition of the quark phases. They boldly introduced the third generation of quarks and a phase delta_13 which lies in the range 0-2pi with non-zero values giving rise to CP violation in the weak interactions”.

Did I mention that Burcham and Jobes’ book is the best in particle physics I ever read ?

I know you are good at searching the literature, so since the question is interesting to me, so if you or anybody else have further input on this issue I would be glad to hear about it.

About credit to Gell-Mann you are perfectly right. I oversimplified the picture – trivial facts such as who named the quarks are more meaningful to students than precise recognition of credit (I did mention Finnegans’ wake in the talk).

In any case, the points you raise are worth a separate post… Later.


11. Andrea Giammanco - February 18, 2007

> A teen now choosing a future career path must take job prospects into account

I don’t agree on that.
It is perfectly reasonable for an student after some years of university to choose his/her specialization according to the job prospects of the moment, but not for a teen! If it’s hard even for an experienced professional in the field to predict future trends, the wisest choice in my opinion is to study what is really appealing to you, at the same time trying to have an education as broad as possible; a teen who chooses to study physics with the idea of becoming a particle physicist, can deviate towards other subfields of physics at any moment. It’s not so unfrequent to see people changing from time to time, and in particular it’s quite frequent between master degree and PhD (more difficult when you are not a PhD student anymore but not yet tenured, and so you have to consolidate your CV in a sub-field before daring to commute to another… but there are exceptions also for this!)

> Any alternative career picked up after a decade+ of training for an inexistent job is going to be a very poor return on investment.

I strongly dissent also on that.
Just to make an example, good physics students are usually very appreciated in private companies, where they certainly don’t apply the most advanced knowledge that they studied at university, but other skills like problem solving and lateral thinking, that are very effectively trained in any research activity in any field.

12. Chiara Bortignon - February 18, 2007

I’m Chiara Bortignon, an italian student attending Liceo Brocchi in Bassano. I was at your seminar last Friaday in my school and i have to say that i’ve appreciated it a lot! You impressed me very much and now i’m pretty sure about my future phisycs studies!But anyway, i’m still a bit afraid…you know, it’s a big decision and it seems sooo important to me!but how can i be sure that i’ll have all the capabilities to face a carreer like yours?!i’ve millions of doubts in my mind but at the same time i fell like it would be a good decision! I liked your availability towards the students and i really hope to keep in touch with you! Thanks again for the very interesting lecture!

13. Tony Smith - February 18, 2007

Tommaso, thanks for recommending the book by Burcham and Jobes. I have ordered a copy ofit through Amazon.

Here are some details about the development of the Kobayashi-Maskawa model and its reception in the USA physics community, in the form of quotes from Kent Staley’s book “The Evidence for the Top Quark: Objectivity and Bias in Collaborative Experimentation” (Cambridge 2004). If this is too lengthy for a comment here, please feel free to delete it. Its length indicates that you made the right decision in not going into detail about credit assignment in your slide 42 mentioning CP violation, leaving it for discussion with interested members of the audience.

Some of my impressions from the quotes are:
that it is interesting that the CFS people at Fermilab who discovered the b-quark (I know almost everybody calls the third generation quarks “bottom” and “top”, but I strongly prefer “beauty” and “truth”, which are more consistent with “charm”, so sometimes I use the letters “b” or “t” to avoid using the terms I don’t like) were substantially unaware of the KM paper,
that the prominent USA physicist Weinberg (in 1976) attacked the KM paper, preferring extra Higgs to a third generation of quarks
(although within 2 years Weinberg seems to have changed his mind, according to Andrew Pickering who said in his book Constructing Quarks (Chicago 1984) “Steven Weinberg …. at the 1978 Tokyo Conference, pointed to the utility of the Kobayashi-Maskawa idea …”),
that the assignment of credit for charm seems to me to be an example of the procedure shown in the cartoon of slide 20 of your lectures, if the answer to the question in the last panel is “No. Of course we can vote for ourselves”.

Here are the quotes from Kent Staley, in his book “The Evidence for the Top Quark: Objectivity and Bias in Collaborative Experimentation” (Cambridge 2004), in which he discusses “… the introduction inot the Standard Model of the fifth (“bottom”) and sixth (“top”) quarks by Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskakawa in 1973. …”:

“… One of the most important physicists in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s was Shoichi Sakata of Nagoya University. Sakata proposed, in 1956, … the “Sakata model” …[in which]… the proton, neutron, and lambda were “fundamental” baryons …[and]… represented the fundamental baryons as expressions of SU(3) …
the Sakata model …[was]… supplanted by … the “Nagoya model” … in 1960 …[which]… present[ed] a model of hadrons and leptons simultaneously …
In 1962, experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory began to yield evidence of a second neutrino. That same year, two papers extending the Nagoya model to incorporate two neutrino appeared, one by … physicists at the University of Kyoto (Katayama, Matumoto, et al. …). … discussing at length both three- and four-baryon models …
in 1964 … Maki and Ohnuki …. hypothesized what they called “urbaryons” …[and that}… the fourth urbaryon … had to be treated differently …
… in the urbaryon proposal of 1964, the Nagoya physicists had their own version of the idea that the known baryons were composite states of more fundamental particles …

when [in 1964] J. D. Bjorken and Sheldon Glashow published the proposal that there might be “charmed” hadrons … some proponents of the Nagoya model had already been working with quartet schemes for two years …
Pekka Tarjanne and Vigdor Teplitz of Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory published such a model in 1963, based on … SU(4) …
Four CERN physicists (Amati, Bacry, et al.) explored various SU(4) models in a 1964 paper … and
Caltech’s Yasuo Hara proposed a four-baryon model early in 1964 …
In spite of all this, it is common for Bjorken and Glashow to be given sole credit for the charm proposal.

in the urbaryon proposal of 1964, the Nagoya physicists had their own version of the idea that the known baryons were composite states of more fundamental particles …

Kobayashi and Maskawa’s central claim was that no “realistic” quartet model allows for CP-violating weak interactions … Kobayashi and Maskawa considered … possible representations of a quartet scheme ….[and]… possibilities in which new fields are introduced … Only after these (forgotten) proposals were described did Kobayashi and Maskawa take up the “6-plet” model …[in which]… the 2×2 Cabibbo matrix must be replaced by a 3×3 unitary matrix … In order to retain unitarity, this matrix … must contain elements with a complex phase … that allows processes violating CP invariance … They did not discuss the top quark specifically …[and]… did not even present their discussion in terms of the quark model … For their reserve in presenting a revolutionaly idea, they were rewarded with several years of neglect.

The earliest citations of KM …[were]… first … a paper titled “CP Violation in the Six-Quark Mode” (Pakvasa and Sugawara 1976) …[in which they]… noted that “A few years ago Kobayashi and Maskawa pointed out the CP violation can be incorporated into the standard V-A Weinberg-Salam model if we increase the number of quarks from four to six”

The second paper … was by Luciano Maiani … in Physics Letters in May 1976 …[in which he said]… “The possible evidence recently found at SPEAR of a new charged lepton suggests that new quarks exist …” …[and]… he mentioned, in a footnote, that Kobayashi and Maskawa had already devised a similar scheme for CP violation

In PRL [1976], Steven Weinberg, noting the two papers just mentioned, cited KM not to praise it but to bury it. … Weinberg noted that “[f]rom the standpoint of the present paper, it is hoped that there are NOT more than four quarks, in order to insure that CP violation arises only from Higgs exchange” … involving more Higgs fields than required in the usual standard model formulation

The most generous … citation of KM … appeard in Nuclear Physics (Ellis, Gaillard, and Nanopoulos 1976)

the first of the new “heavy” quarks, the bottom quark, was unearthed at Fermilab by people at least some of whom were completely unaware of this theoretical development … The announcement of the true upsilon was made at Femilab at the end of June 1977 … Although the discovery of the upsilon eventually came to be recognized as the discovery of the bottom quark, Kobayashi and Maskawa’s paper does not seem to have any direct influence on this experiment. In their PRL article announcing the discovery, the Columbia-Fermilab-Stony Brook (CFS) collaboration does not include a citation of the KM paper. John Yoh, in later recollections, wrote:
“… The Kobayashi-Maskawa paper speculating on six quarks, though published in 1973, was totally unknown in the U.S., having been published in the obscure Japanese journal Progress of Theoretical Physics. …” …”.

Tony Smith

14. Guess Who - February 18, 2007

In response to Andrea Giammanco:

It is perfectly reasonable for an student after some years of university to choose his/her specialization according to the job prospects of the moment, but not for a teen! If it’s hard even for an experienced professional in the field to predict future trends, the wisest choice in my opinion is to study what is really appealing to you, at the same time trying to have an education as broad as possible

This is partially true, but the way things work, that poor teen has to make some pretty decisive choices. Suppose we’re talking about somebody who enjoys “hard”, i.e. math-based, science. Even recognizing this general direction, a decision must be made right there, typically well before the 20th birthday: science or engineering? University or polytechnic? While a few brave souls do switch later on, they are rare exceptions. Most are locked into their future path right there.

And some things don’t change even over several decades. For instance, it’s a no-brainer that an education geared toward fudamental physics research will leave you with only one prospective employer, which happens to be chronically cash-strapped, has no growth prospects and absolutely can not absorb most new graduates, while an engineering education offers an excellent gateway to the dynamic world of business.

Just to make an example, good physics students are usually very appreciated in private companies


No offense meant, but how would you know? Since (unlike anonymous bastards like me) you post your CV online, I took the liberty to have a peek, and as far as I can see you have spent your whole young life in academia.

I used to hear that claim being made, many years ago (I am much older than you) also from people who had never been outside academia. When I eventually got to test its veracity (and it may be relevant to mention that I was a disgustingly good student, always at the top of every class) I determined that they had absolutely no idea what the hell they were talking about. It was pure BS from people who were simply making stuff up.

Private companies appreciating physicists? Ha! Most don’t even know what a physicist is, let alone what one could be used for. At best, with a lot of explaining, you might be able to pass yourself off as some sort of surrogate engineer, to consider if they can’t afford to pay a real engineer’s salary.

That’s the bitter reality for the vast majority of physics graduates who simply can not be employed by academia.

15. dorigo - February 19, 2007

Ciao Chiara!

Thanks for your comment! Let me tell you that I fully understand your doubts, but I strongly agree with what Andrea wrote in this comments column above:

“It is perfectly reasonable for an student after some years of university to choose his/her specialization according to the job prospects of the moment, but not for a teen! If it’s hard even for an experienced professional in the field to predict future trends, the wisest choice in my opinion is to study what is really appealing to you, at the same time trying to have an education as broad as possible; a teen who chooses to study physics with the idea of becoming a particle physicist, can deviate towards other subfields of physics at any moment.”

I like to view the whole matter from a different angle, though. I think (and my experience agrees) that the branch of human knowledge you most feel attracted to is 90% of the time the thing that will make you the happiest to study, and 80% of the time the field in which your talents can best express themselves. And loving the matter you study is a bliss – what others struggle on, you breeze through.

That said, what Guess Who above warned about in his (or her) comment is a quite real issue, although what I think an italian student should worry about is not exactly the global stagnation of a research field (no pure research ever stagnates, as the flow of a creek it finds new riverbeds on which to continue its path). What I think is something to ponder on is the fact that a student in science (but not just physics!) in Italy faces three years with a meager paycheck during his or her PhD studies – less than 1000 euros/months currently – and possibly three to five more years of “limbo” with a similarly low salary. And even when one “arrives”, the salary of a professor of Physics at the University is hardly a motivation. That must be compared with pursuing a career in finance, or in the industry, when paychecks are way thicker.

So, if money is a real issue for you AND you are certain you will never consider living in another country (where paychecks to researchers are much more appropriate), then your decision must be pondered carefully. In the absence of that issue, please do allow your instinct to drive you to the right university studies.

Please do come and find me at the Padova University whenever you please, and I will show you what exactly is the work we do, and I will let you meet my colleagues and students, who will give you a deeper perspective on what our job as particle physicists is. But tell me beforehand (either by mail or here), I am often away.


16. dorigo - February 19, 2007

Tony, thanks for the inspiring material, I will post about this tomorrow using it.

17. dorigo - February 19, 2007

GW, thank you for your opinion on that… I think if Chiara reads it she will get a nice multi-point perspective on the matter, and it helps a lot.
I think that a student enjoying math-based science such as Chiara, or the other students who followed my seminar, need a strong motivation to start off well. And they have one: their fascination for physics. They would end up doing well in chemistry or biology too, or math or engineering. But they love physics. It is an open-ended commitment, and nobody can guarantee that it is the “best” choice, since the act of choosing one thing or another changes the landscape 🙂 a bit like a quantum mechanical wave function collapsing into its observed state. It is a choice nevertheless, and seen from downstream, three years afterwards, it usually makes a lot of sense. Whether there are good job opportunities at the end of the line is another matter, but it also is quite hard to predict it.


18. Tony Smith - February 19, 2007

Guess Who said: “… Private companies appreciating physicists? Ha! Most don’t even know what a physicist is, let alone what one could be used for. …”.

Not true. A google search shows available jobs such as:

“… Junior Quantitative Analyst, PhD/ MSc, Maths/Physics/Finance Hedge Fund

Location:   UK-London  

Updated:   16 Feb 2007  

Junior Quantitative analyst – Entry level Graduate, PhD /Msc – Hedge Fund, London.
Top Cash equities/portfolio management house is looking for an exceptional graduate (A’s at A level, 2.1/1st from top university + Phd or MSc in Maths, Statistics, Physics or Quantitative Finance) to be trained as a Quantitative Analyst working on asset backed portfolio management, client facing risk analysis.
Must be highly adaptable and able to communicate effectively in a demanding environment and demonstrate experience or knowledge of complex financial products.
IT skills in C++, VB and Excel preferred.
Tasks will include:
Statistical analysis, risk management, market research design and testing of trading strategies. …”.

However, even for financial sector jobs, as Tommaso said: “… Whether there are good job opportunities at the end of the line is another matter, but it also is quite hard to predict it. …”,
if there is a collapse of the present USA-dollar-dominated financial system (perhaps due to a change in control and/or supply of Persian Gulf oil), then a lot of the rich New York-London companies may go away and be replaced by a new regime (probably headquartered in Shanghai).
Even so,
the new system will also need math/computer people (maybe fluency in Mandarin as a second language would be a good idea).

Tony Smith

19. Andrea Giammanco - February 19, 2007

> No offense meant, but how would you know?

I’m not offended, don’t be afraid, but I base my claim on direct experience (*) and on indirect experience, i.e. since most of the physics students don’t go into academia, as you can imagine (in general only the brightest students have any chance to do some steps in an academic career of any kind; and some of the students, after all, are not even interested in it!), most of my friends from the university years are now working as programmers(**), consultants(***), and someone in R&D sectors of private companies (****).

(*) my CV was selected by McKinsey, when I still was a PhD student, for a mini-stage, devoted exclusively to recruiting young people with some research experience in mathematics and physics. I was not selected at the end of the mini-stage, but the ones who were, shared my same kind of CV:)
(**) which always sounds funny to me, since our academic training as programmers is poor, to say the least. I have several theories about why so many young physicists end up to be appreciated as programmers in the “Real World”, but I don’t want this comment to become too long.
(***) apparently, to be honest, the need of unexperienced young scientists by consulting companies follows some trends, closely linked to the state of the economy; I mean that, while 6 years ago McK was looking for people with absolutely no experience in finance (they claimed that they preferred virgin brains of proved brightness, and they paid BA’s in finance for them before sending them to customers, and they were confident that this was a good move), I’ve been told, by one of the people who was hired at the time, that this is not happening anymore: now, a 4-5 years experience in high-level finance is the minimum. But the trends could change again.
(****) An important microelectronics firm, ST, offered me a permanent job when I just got my bachelor degree (I declined because I preferred academia). They usually prefer solid state physicists, for the obvious reason that they do solid state devices, but I’m not a solid state physicist and I know quite a lot of non-solid-state-physicists who dropped from academia at different stages (after bachelor, after PhD, after a couple of post-docs) and were welcome in ST. This is one of the reasons why I say that specializing, let’s say, in geophysics means that you trashed all your possibility of becoming something different from a geophysicist all along your life.
Other fancy occupation for physicists of any kind: some banks hire mathematicians and physicists for analyzing and/or modeling the market behaviour. Some of my friends do that as a job.

In general, at least according to what I can see from my (biased, of course) point of view, a degree in physics is quite appreciated in the Real World. Certainly not as a degree in engineering (in fact, my parents tried to convince me to become an engineer:)), but in general situation is not so bad.

I conclude by being *absolutely* honest: if my son will express the desire of studying physics, first of all I’ll try to make him consider carefully if engineering would be a better choice (like my parents did with me!), but not because graduating in physics is particularly dangerous, but just because the two kinds of formations are quite similar and a career-oriented choice would still favour engineering.

20. Andrea Giammanco - February 19, 2007

> This is one of the reasons why I say that specializing, let’s say, in geophysics means (…)

Ooops, sorry, I meant “This is one of the reasons why I say that specializing, let’s say, in geophysics DOESN’T mean (…)”

Sorry for my poor english, it becomes even poorer when I write long sentences 🙂

[By the way, how do you do quotes in these comments?]

21. dorigo - February 19, 2007

Hi Andrea,

I have no idea!!! I think the comments window of wordpress allows html tags though.

Thank you for your contribution to this interesting discussion, by the way. It received the attention of some of the students who attended my seminar last week – and the varied input you guys gave is certainly a good thing.


22. Andrea Giammanco - February 19, 2007

> and possibly three to five more years of “limbo”

[Chiara and other students, please don’t read the next line!!!]

Tommaso, you are very, very optimist 😉

23. dorigo - February 19, 2007

Andrea, you are right and you are wrong…

Meaning that past experience shows that the time between a PhD and a permanent position as a researcher or professor in Italy can be indeed as long as 7-8 years (it took me 7), but past experience is based on the worst period research has faced in the last four decades as far as recruitment is concerned…

I think that despite the damage that the criticality of the system in the last few years has done to the career of young scientists, we can really be optimistic about the future.

I recall discussing the matter with Giorgio, a student of mine who did the laurea and then the PhD with me, as he started his laurea thesis, back in 2002: I told him that despite past experience, and despite predictions about the near-term future, he could be quite confident about his chances, because a research grant would be easy to get for him after a PhD, and by the time he would start looking for a permanent position, the retirements of 2008 would create a huge hole in the number of professors in the italian Universities, and that hole would need to be filled with new meat somehow.
Giorgio does not have a permanent position yet , but he got his PhD in 2006 and obtained a 4-year research grant straight away. The situation has evolved the way I predicted 5 years ago: the hole is becoming evident. I bet Giorgio and others like him will have no 7-years waiting list, much more something like 3 to 5 years.

Maybe I am too optimist, true…. But if you are not optimistic about your future when you are 18, when are you going to make bold choices in your life then ? We are not talking about getting a large paycheck here, but rather of getting a lifetime of fulfilling career, full of stimuli and challenges, and many rewards – ok, not monetary! You know it as well as I do, Andrea: we are scientists because we love our job! I think if we explain that straight away to students, we cannot do any damage to them.


24. WestHighlander - November 11, 2008

A bit off topic perhaps except….

I made a bet with Steve Weinberg on a 4th of July on the banks of the Colorado River (Texas variety) a few decades ago…

The bet — if the Proton hadn’t been found to obviously have decayed by 2000 — would be give back the prize?

As far as I know — the lifetime of the proton is still not explained by Standard Model and Weinberg is still keeping his Nobel

I recently made the same offer to bet to Frank Walczak at an MIT function on the banks of the Charles (Cambridge MA variety) — he wouldn’t take the bet

So — I think even if we find the Higgs — we can still try to find a proton decaying by “natural causes”


25. dorigo - November 11, 2008

Hi WH,

I am left slightly confused by your comment. It is in BSM theories that the proton decays. It is a peculiar signature of grand unification theories, for instance. Of course, we all tend to think at the SM as an effective theory, and whatever replaces it at higher energy scales has, in principle, some mechanism to allow proton decay. But is it a necessity ? I do not think so.
Weinberg got his Nobel for electroweak unification, not for hypothesizing any interaction that allows a proton to decay, or for GUT. So I do not see why he should be giving back his prize. In the SM there are no mechanisms for proton decay.

I imagine you are talking about Wilczek. Do you think that rivers have the powers of making famous physicists lower their guard ? 😉


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