Oh, the Places You’ll Do Theoretical Physics!

I won’t run lab tests in a box.
I won’t run lab tests with a fox.
But I’ll prove theorems here or there.
Yes, I’ll prove theorems anywhere…

Physicists occupy two camps. Some—theorists—model the world using math. We try to predict experiments’ outcomes and to explain natural phenomena. Others—experimentalists—gather data using supermagnets, superconductors, the world’s coldest atoms, and other instruments deserving of superlatives. Experimentalists confirm that our theories deserve trashing or—for this we pray—might not model the world inaccurately.

Theorists, people say, can work anywhere. We need no million-dollar freezers. We need no multi-pound magnets.* We need paper, pencils, computers, and coffee. Though I would add “quiet,” colleagues would add “iPods.”

Theorists’ mobility reminds me of the book Green Eggs and Ham. Sam-I-am, the antagonist, drags the protagonist to spots as outlandish as our workplaces. Today marks the author’s birthday. Since Theodor Geisel stimulated imaginations, and since imagination drives physics, Quantum Frontiers is paying its respects. In honor of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, I’m spotlighting places you can do theoretical physics. You judge whose appetite for exotica exceeds whose: Dr. Seuss’s or theorists’.


I’ve most looked out-of-place doing physics by a dirt road between sheep-populated meadows outside Lancaster, UK. Lancaster, the War of the Roses victor, is a city in northern England. The year after graduating from college, I worked in Lancaster University as a research assistant. I studied a crystal that resembles graphene, a material whose superlatives include “superstrong,” “supercapacitor,” and “superconductor.” From morning to evening, I’d submerse in math till it poured out my ears. Then I’d trek from “uni,” as Brits say, to the “city centre,” as they write.

The trek wound between trees; fields; and, because I was in England, puddles. Many evenings, a rose or a sunset would arrest me. Other evenings, physics would. I’d realize how to solve an equation, or that I should quit banging my head against one. Stepping off the road, I’d fish out a notebook and write. Amidst the puddles and lambs. Cyclists must have thought me the queerest sight since a cloudless sky.

A colleague loves doing theory in the sky. On planes, he explained, hardly anyone interrupts his calculations. And who minds interruptions by pretzels and coffee?

“A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems,” some have said, and theoretical physicists live down the block from mathematicians in the neighborhood of science. Turn a Pasadena café upside-down and shake it, and out will fall theorists. Since Hemingway’s day, the romanticism has faded from the penning of novels in cafés. But many a theorist trumpets about an equation derived on a napkin.

Trumpeting filled my workplace in Oxford. One of Clarendon Lab’s few theorists, I neighbored lasers, circuits, and signs that read “DANGER! RADIATION.” Though radiation didn’t leak through our walls (I hope), what did contributed more to that office’s eccentricity more than radiation would. As early as 9:10 AM, the experimentalists next door blasted “Born to Be Wild” and Animal House tunes. If you can concentrate over there, you can concentrate anywhere.

One paper I concentrated on had a Crumple-Horn Web-Footed Green-Bearded Schlottz of an acknowledgements section. In a physics paper’s last paragraph, one thanks funding agencies and colleagues for support and advice. “The authors would like to thank So-and-So for insightful comments,” papers read. This paper referenced a workplace: “

[One coauthor] is grateful to the Half Moon Pub.” Colleagues of the coauthor confirmed the acknowledgement’s aptness.

Though I’ve dwelled on theorists’ physical locations, our minds roost elsewhere. Some loiter in atoms; others, in black holes; some, on four-dimensional surfaces; others, in hypothetical universes. I hobnob with particles in boxes. As Dr. Seuss whisks us to a Bazzim populated by Nazzim, theorists tell of function spaces populated by Rényi entropies.

The next time you see someone standing in a puddle, or in a ditch, or outside Buckingham Palace, scribbling equations, feel free to laugh. You might be seeing a theoretical physicist. You might be seeing me. To me, physics has relevance everywhere. Scribbling there and here should raise eyebrows no more than any setting in a Dr. Seuss book.

The author would like to thank this emporium of Seussoria. And Java & Co.

*We need for them to confirm that our theories deserve trashing, but we don’t need them with us. Just as, when considering quitting school to break into the movie business, you need for your mother to ask, “Are you sure that’s a good idea, dear?” but you don’t need for her to hang on your elbow. Except experimentalists don’t say “dear” when crushing theorists’ dreams.

2017-01-13T10:05:46+00:00 March 2nd, 2014|Reflections, Theoretical highlights|7 Comments


  1. ychen March 2, 2014 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Quote (Theorists, people say, can work anywhere. We need no million-dollar freezers. We need no multi-pound magnets.* We need paper, pencils, computers, and coffee. Though I would add “quiet,” colleagues would add “iPods.”)

    I would add the communication skills and teamwork.

    p.s. Thank you for showing me who the Dr Seuss is.

    • ychen March 2, 2014 at 9:00 am - Reply

      Also, regarding how universal the theoretical physics is, or how theoretical physics relates to everything, it reminds me a story. Last Tuesday I joined a PI outreach opportunity which Rob Spekkens also participated. He gave a talk that you may probably know. Starting from the Simpson’s paradox, he presented how ubiquitous the causal structure and causal network are, and some exotic phenomena in quantum causal structure. This is a very useful tool that helps me think about the relations among all the things in my life.

      • Nicole Yunger Halpern March 2, 2014 at 1:07 pm - Reply

        Thanks, Yangang! Sounds like you’re exercising those communication skills; and I know you have teamwork skills!

        Interesting observation about causal structure. While I’m not familiar with this talk of Rob’s, I can see how it would be thought-provoking. Glad you’re finding richness in research and taking physics personally!

  2. Joe March 2, 2014 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    This was a fabulous read. Very witty and entertaining. 🙂

    • Nicole Yunger Halpern March 2, 2014 at 1:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Joe! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. Terry Kovacs March 23, 2014 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    Thanks Nicole. Your posts are terrific. You bring out the wonderful “people” side of physicists. My education is a lowly BS physics but I have had the extraordinary opportunity to have interacted with many research physicists and I have not met one I did not like. Maybe I’ve just been lucky but I suspect not. Thanks again, I look forward to your posts.

    • Nicole Yunger Halpern March 24, 2014 at 2:16 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much for your message, Terry! I’m thrilled that the writing resonates with you and glad that you’ve continued to engage with physics.

      Regarding the BS: Don’t worry; I don’t have one of those. 🙂

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