Saturday, May 26, 2007

Experimentalists versus Theorists

An astonishing distinction in particle physics is between experimentalists and theorists. This is astonishing because how do you do the former without the latter, and the latter without the former?

Interestingly, this division spills over to more harmless areas like psycholinguistics. One prominent psycholinguist once talked to me about "us" experimentalists versus "you" modelers. What a world.

Here is the quote that got me started (New Yorker, Crash Course, sometime in May 07):

Particle physicists come in two distinct varieties, which, rather like matter and antimatter, are very much intertwined and, at the same time, agonistic. Experimentalists build machines. Theorists sit around and think. “I am happy to eat Chinese dinners with theorists,” the Nobel Prize-winning experimentalist Samuel C. C. Ting once reportedly said. “But to spend your life doing what they tell you is a waste of time.”

“If I occasionally neglect to cite a theorist, it’s not because I’ve forgotten,” Leon Lederman, another Nobel-winning experimentalist, writes in his chronicle of the search for the Higgs. “It’s probably because I hate him.”

There is one dichotomy in linguistics that mirrors the above situation that makes sense, however. Traditional armchair linguists really do tend to theorize in an empirical vacuum. I hate them too.