Most of the items on the
list of what can be taught in science labs are not of much (or
any) concern to theorists. A theorist typically will simply not know
many tricks of the trade, will not be suspicious of theory, will not
know (or care) what the current tools of the discipline are, will
not have much interest in (or knowledge of) experimental design, and
will not want students to go off on their own trying things the teacher
An exceptional theorist
may educate themselves to all these nuances of experiments. Most theorists,
however, will simply avoid things they are not familiar with and repeat
the experiments they did in high school (complete with "Plug
and Chug" analysis) or follow the canned instructions from some
scientific supply company.
Typically in physics, theorists
and experimentalists take the same theory courses through the masters
degree level, and often beyond. However generally theorists have no
laboratory experience in graduate school and, depending on the school,
little laboratory experience past the sophomore year. In most of the
world even this little laboratory experience is very crude by US standards.
Thus, although they may have a physics Ph.D., the theorist is probably
almost entirely ignorant of experimental theory and practice.
Thoughts from other fields:
Would you rather learn
to do a double back flip from a physicist who is expert in conservation
of energy and angular momentum, or from a slightly educated but
Would you rather learn
welding from that same physicist who is also fluent with Maxwell’s
equations, heat flow, and solid state theory or from a welder who
has actually earned their living welding?
Are you safer using lasers
under the direction of this very versatile theorist who can easily
explain the quantum mechanics of energy levels or from a technician
who has experience in the many tricks to keeping dangerous laser
light out of your eyes?
What if, however, YOU
are the theorist?
Then you have a lot of
interesting things to learn! Since teaching in general and labs
in particular are as much art as science, it may serve well to apprentice
yourself to an experienced teacher. Particularly effective is if
your lab can be scheduled a week after the lab you observe so you
have plenty of time to consider what you observed.
Please keep in mind that
just because you (with your superb theoretical training) don’t know
something (yet), you can’t assume it is of no use to anyone and
should be ignored. Experimentalists (those who deal with the real
world) need an astonishing variety of experiences and tools.
was hired fresh out of college with a masters in physics, quite
theoretical. The company evidently didn’t know there were both
experimental and theoretical physicist and that the theoretical
type know nothing of the real world. The company’s plan
was for me to assemble and run an ion accelerator in support of
ion rockets. The experimental apparatus involved ion sources,
accelerating and focusing ion beams, a mass spectrograph, a high
vacuum system, cryogenic pumping, . . . I know nothing of the
practical side of any of this. However I quickly read every
issue of the journal devoted to vacuum systems, every paper I
could find on ion rockets, and probably every paper on the particular
aspect we were investigating. I shamelessly leaned on my technicians,
the shop, the designers, and anyone I could find for practical
knowledge. Rather to my surprise all this newfound knowledge
actually worked, eventually! Still, to this day decades later,
I regularly find out experimental tricks of the trade that I should
have known then. Some of these “tricks” would have immensely
increased the safety of all of us working around the equipment.