For many who measure time according to a university calendar, summer is a time to unwind. My experience, however, is that it is rare to find physics departments empty over the summer break. Many of us use the vacation period without classes to catch up with research, and I imagine that a colleague of mine speaks for many when he says that summer provides him with the freedom to do the physics he wants to do, and this is all the break needed to prepare for the next academic year!
This reminds me a little of the Wobbling Plate story in “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman”? When Richard Feynman had just started at Cornell following his time at Los Alamos, he felt burned out, and was wondering why he did not feel the same enthusiasm for physics that he used to. He writes: “I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing it didn’t have to do with whether it was important … but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.” After some thought, he decided that the solution was perhaps not to worry about any possible utility of his research but rather to focus only on what he thought was fun.
In a cafeteria one day, he noticed someone throwing a plate in the air and seeing it wobble. Intrigued, he started to work out the equation of motion. He worked this out easily, but he then went on further and started to think about other equations for other wobbles and then electron orbits in relativity. Ultimately this led him to quantum electrodynamics. The way he describes it is wonderful: “There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate”.
Unfortunately, I suspect that it is unlikely that anyone these days would be able to cite playing around with equations as justification in a research grant application. But we should not forget the essential moral of this story. Doing research can be and should be fun. And while we will probably always prioritize problems that are deemed “important”, sometimes just solving problems for their own sake can bring unexpected rewards.
So as the new academic year gears up at the time this edition of e-EPS will be published, let’s perhaps decide to spend some of our time away from what we or others may think is important. Let’s remember to do some physics just for fun.
John Dudley, EPS President