Creative drought – theory v. experiment – or lack of collaborators?

Have you ever had a period of mental block – an extended period? I’m in one. I have at least half a dozen research projects going (which, as a theorist, means stacks of intermingled paper including scraps of receipts, napkins, etc. strewn around my office and home), some of which have been going for several years, and yet I have been stuck in a mental block for months. Despite spitting out numerous preprints in the previous few years, I’ve only spit out one this year. Now, I have been working hard to get that one published and I also finally got around to sending a few of the older ideas in for review (after tweaking them, of course), but I haven’t made any progress worthy of another paper.

I firmly believe that part of the problem is that I don’t have a true collaborator. I regularly converse with a number of leading quantum theorists and I may have twisted at least one’s arm into helping me out. I also work closely with some of my colleagues in my department (and some other departments). But I haven’t really settled into a routine with anyone and haven’t been able to convince anyone to collaborate (despite shared interest and ideas). With a collaborator or two, I think it’s easier to push through the mental blocks. I mean, every student of physics knows this (or should know this) – it’s why I tell my students to study and do their homework in groups.

Another thought I had is that, perhaps, this is one problem perhaps more closely associated with theorists. To paraphrase string theorist Ed Witten, much of theory is sitting around and thinking. You never know where that might lead. I mean, it seems like I’m either lost in a maze sometimes with no idea how to get back to the beginning, or that I’m running around in circles.

Experimentalists, on the other hand, seem to have a clearer sense of what to do or what they want to do. They’re much more like engineers (which I once was, so I know). Partly, I think, experiment seems to more obviously point you in one direction or another – it’s more concrete.

So why don’t I switch to experiment, you ask? Let’s just say there’s a reason I’m no longer an engineer and humanity is safer as a result…


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