Career, Physics and Goals (was: Artificial General Intelligence Speculations)

Okay, that makes sense. Thanks for clarifying.

I’m not opposed to meta discussions; I see why they can be necessary.

I was thinking about it and realized that I actually don’t want a response to the question I asked all that much. I’m interested in AGI stuff in principle, but 1) I don’t think I’d be able to have a very productive conversation about it until after I’ve learned more CR and better integrated it, 2) It doesn’t relate to any of my short-term goals, and my long-term goals are a confused mess.

Why don’t you make a topic and post about those to try to untangle them?

Hmmm, that prospect scares the sh*t out of me for some reason, but I highly doubt that my reasons are rational.

I’ll think about it.

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Do you know what your constraint is re untangling?

My problem situation (wrt goals) in broad strokes is:

My career so far has been dedicated to doing stuff that is basically like string theory, and I think I’ve refuted the idea that this is the best use of my time and effort, but I have doubts and don’t want to do anything drastic, especially given my sunk costs (I know some physics/math stuff that’s extremely difficult to learn). I can’t delay for long though, because 1) I’ll be forced to do something drastic in a few months because I have to choose an advisor, and 2) I’ve been doing a minimal amount of physics/math work recently because I don’t have a clear reason for doing most of it, so I’ve been falling behind.

Another problem is that if were to choose to do something else (maybe another field of physics, maybe not), I don’t know how I would decide among alternatives because I’m interested in too many things.

I originally started out by saying “I don’t know what my constraint is,” but having written the above, I think my constraint is that I don’t have definitive criticisms of my original career plan. So that’s what I should make a thread about.

Does that sound right?

I recall DD having a low opinion of string theory, though I don’t know much about it. Since you like DD’s physics work, I’m curious if you were aware of that and if you have a rebuttal.

Also @alanforr has a physics degree (I forget what type) so may have comments re string theory as well as re physics education and careers.

Do you have any job goals? Like professor or working in industry (I don’t know how many physicists get hired for what in what industries)? Idk what the other options are. I think pivoting to working in finance is one – I believe they try to hire some smart people who are good at math.

What’s wrong with what you’ve been doing and what do you think would be better?

I have a PhD. in physics, but I’m in the UK and I think the American system is different but I don’t know the details. I did experimental physics research for about four years.

On physics education and careers, there are industries that use physics pretty heavily such as optics, nuclear, health physics (scans and stuff like that) and semiconductors. There may be other options too. People in academia working in those fields would have some idea of what you should do to get into those industries and possibly some contacts too. You could try doing something along those lines and you might be able to simultaneously learn other skills like programming along the way.

If you know maths then finance, programming, data science and stuff like that are non-physics options that you should consider. You might be able to leave with a masters or something like that and go into that kind of work. Universities will hold career days and stuff like that where you can talk to employers.

My main advice would be to think about what to do ahead of time and not to sleepwalk into it.

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Did you like that? Recommend for or against it, or neutral?

I request this discussion about career be separated into a new forum post. This discussion is very relevant to me as well. This topic is what I tried hiring Elliot for, to get personal philosophy consulting advice.

I can start a new post but I think a moderator is required to split discussions to separate threads.

Physics research itself can be okay, you can pick up worthwhile skills while doing it and academic libraries are good. Academic physics research has all of the problems of working in academia. IME academics are anti-capitalist and biased against non-academics. Going above the PhD. level will often involve teaching undergrads and many undergrads don’t like the subject they’re studying and are bad at it. You’d also have to do lots of paperwork to apply for grants. I also wonder how long government will keep funding academia: it’s basically welfare for intellectuals. I don’t recommend it as a career, but if you’re in it already working out a graceful exit is better than crashing and burning.

Some of it is closer to funding propaganda than to welfare.

In Atlas Shrugged, they only needed one State Science Institute, not hundreds. But, although it’s expensive, there are advantages to having a significant portion of society on the government payroll, directly or indirectly, because it helps control those people. Academics cost a lot per person but they’re some of the elite influencers who do books and TV appearances. The media wouldn’t want to let the general public speak, nor to only talk to themselves – they need some semi-independent allies so they can bring on “independent experts” to say things (they also use e.g. some friendly “business leaders” and non-profit CEOs). Having “experts” with intellectual authority over things is useful, especially when you have a lot of influence over their paychecks/grants/careers. Science funding related to climate change and psychiatry are two examples of how the government pushes agendas through non-governmental partners. BTW, banking, K-12 education, healthcare and utilities are some other areas where the government has a lot of control of stuff outside the government itself, some of which is unacknowledged.


“Still, I’m worried. The intellectuals are our friends. We don’t want to lose them. They can make an awful lot of trouble.”

“They won’t,” said Fred Kinnan. “Your kind of intellectuals are the first to scream when it’s safe—and the first to shut their traps at the first sign of danger. They spend years spitting at the man who feeds them—and they lick the hand of the man who slaps their drooling faces. Didn’t they deliver every country of Europe, one after another, to committees of goons, just like this one here? Didn’t they scream their heads off to shut out every burglar alarm and to break every padlock open for the goons? Have you heard a peep out of them since? Didn’t they scream that they were the friends of labor? Do you hear them raising their voices about the chain gangs, the slave camps, the fourteen-hour workday and the mortality from scurvy in the People’s States of Europe? No, but you do hear them telling the whip-beaten wretches that starvation is prosperity, that slavery is freedom, that torture chambers are brother-love and that if the wretches don’t understand it, then it’s their own fault that they suffer, and it’s the mangled corpses in the jail cellars who’re to blame for all their troubles, not the benevolent leaders! Intellectuals? You might have to worry about any other breed of men, but not about the modern intellectuals: they’ll swallow anything. I don’t feel so safe about the lousiest wharf rat in the longshoremen’s union: he’s liable to remember suddenly that he is a man—and then I won’t be able to keep him in line. But the intellectuals? That’s the one thing they’ve forgotten long ago. I guess it’s the one thing that all their education was aimed to make them forget. Do anything you please to the intellectuals. They’ll take it.”

“For once,” said Dr. Ferris, “I agree with Mr. Kinnan. I agree with his facts, if not with his feelings. You don’t have to worry about the intellectuals, Wesley. Just put a few of them on the government payroll and send them out to preach precisely the sort of thing Mr. Kinnan mentioned: that the blame rests on the victims. Give them moderately comfortable salaries and extremely loud titles—and they’ll forget their copyrights and do a better job for you than whole squads of enforcement officers.”

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If you want to talk about your issues, make your own topic.

I was aware of that. I looked it up the first time I found out about Deutsch and all I remember finding is this interview (I also did a search just now and couldn’t find anything better). I was not discouraged by DD’s attitude, because

  1. The only potentially decisive criticism of string theory he gives in the interview seems to be that it is “not motivated by trying to solve a problem within theoretical physics,” but that’s simply false.
  2. He said “superstring theory is a worthwhile thing to explore but unlikely to work,” which is almost a quasi-endorsement.

I found an offlist 2010 email to an FoR reader where DD wrote:

I regard string theory as a research project which, it is hoped, will eventually yield testable theories. Be that as it may, my guess is that it will not yield any true theories. Nevertheless, it is a honourable and rational thing to attempt. In addition, there has been a certain amount of hype associated with it, especially in the press, which is a bit silly but no big deal.

Why is that false?

I originally had really long answers to these questions, but I tried to trim my answers to their fundamentals.

I originally planned to be a professor, which is the only profession that can use string theory. More recently I’ve decided that I almost certainly don’t want to do this, because I don’t think I could be a professor and also keep my integrity: Professor salaries come from student tuition and government grants, both of which are scam-like.

In approximate order of importance

  1. I am ambitious and I want to do something groundbreaking, but I no longer think it’s possible to do anything truly important in my field.
  2. It’s a lot of work, which conflicts with other interests that I have. Much of it is soul-draining busywork too, and no matter how much work you’re doing, you aren’t doing nearly enough work to get the ~1 desirable tenure-track professorship that opens up in the world every year.
  3. The salary (especially for PhD students) is extremely low.

If I had a clear answer to that question, I would just do it.

One thing to note is that the term “superstring theory” is kind of vague, and it encompasses a very large set of ideas. Deutsch might have a specific thing in mind, but his statement is false if interpreted to apply to all the things that people mean when they talk about string theory.

Here are some problems in theoretical physics that have motivated string theorists:

  • They were looking for a microscopic description of what we now call quarks. It turns out that the theory describing quarks as open strings was false, but it’s how string theory got started.
  • Classically, black holes can’t have microstates, but we know that they nonetheless must have entropy, which is a problem. String theory offers consistent descriptions of black hole -like structures that have a clear notion of microstates (basically you can model a black hole as a string in a highly excited state).
  • Classical gravitational field theories are notoriously badly behaved when you try to apply the methods of QFT to them. One problem is that they blow up at low length-scales. String theory solves the problem of wanting to have a gravitational theory that is well-behaved at low length-scales, and which reproduces a classical or quasi-classical theory at large length-scales.

There are problems with all the above solutions, but at least they are motivated by problems in theoretical physics.

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Are these thoughts and problems related to CF in some way, or pre-existing?

Writing more quickly/casually/informally/chatty might be better.