Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How to survive an encounter with a physicist

If you’re reading this blog, there is a high probability that you will encounter a physicist at some point in your life.

Here’s a roadmap to surviving this conversation.

Introduction: If you’re like 99% of the population, you’ll have one of the following two reactions upon meeting a physicist: “Oh, I loved physics in high school!” or “Oh, I hated physics in high school!”

Guess what? We don’t care. Feel free to keep this thought inside your own head.

Note: If you choose to exit at this point, please try to leave politely. Wrong strategy: just walking away (it’s happened).We already have enough rejection in our lives (grants, papers, dating, etc).

Research: Your next question will probably be about our research. If you don’t care, just follow the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Many of us are quite happy to never talk about our research.

Should you decide to ask, be prepared to ask for clarification. Please don’t just stand there with a blank look on your face. It’s difficult to determine whether it’s because you’re bored or you don’t understand us.

Oh, can you explain…: the LHC or neutrinos or whatever new scientific discovery was on the Daily Show last night.

The chances are that the answer is no. Just because we’re physicists doesn’t mean that we know everything about physics. We can (and often will) offer our opinions, but these are still just opinions.

This is akin to asking your dentist to diagnose you for cancer. Yes, your dentist is a doctor, but focuses on a completely different body part than an oncologist.

Story-time: Somehow, you’ve survived the beginning of the conversation and are now telling a story.

Here’s an example of a story told to me by a friend after I got doored by a car on my bike:
P: I had a friend who was hit by a car last year.
Me: Was she biking?
P: No, walking, I think.
Me: How did the car end up hitting her?
P: She was in the cross-walk, and the car ran through.
Me: How fast was the car going?
P: I don’t know.
Me: Did the car stop?
P: I don’t know.
Me: Well, what happened to your friend, where was she hurt?
P: I don’t know.
Me: Is she recovered?
P: I don’t know! Why are you asking me all these questions!?

Because I’m a scientist! We’re extremely inquisitive and want all the details before forming opinions. We’re not trying to be jerks (most of the time). We’re taught to question everything in research, and this curiosity spills into our daily lives*.

So you have two choices: 1) Don’t tell any stories or 2) Be prepared for lots of questions. Forewarned is forearmed.

Final warning: Most physicists are extremely arrogant. It’s both our best and worst quality. Best because it makes us believe we can solve any problem in the world. Worst because we think we know everything. Try not to play into that arrogance or you could be in for a very long night.

If your conversation seems really awkward, don’t worry. The physicist is used to awkward social situations. Good luck!

*Side note: To be fair, this is a chicken and egg problem: Are we curious because we’re physicists? Or are we physicists because we’re curious?


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  2. On the topic of arrogant physicists maybe you'd enjoy this :) http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2556 :)