11 March 2007

The hockey of physics

In many ways, physics is very much like a competitive sport. Here are a few analogies I have encountered in my chosen sport of hockey.
  1. You really have to want it.
    In hockey, there is a saying that the person who wants the puck the most always get it. Hard work pays off. Unfortunately, in physics, it takes a really long time for hard work to pay off.
  2. Don't give up.
    Coaches have told me over and over that they often see a player shoot on the goal, fail to score, and then slump his/her shoulders and take himself/herself out of the play. In hockey, you can't afford to have mental lapses like that and the same applies in physics. You have to stay alert during that tough-to-understand talk; you have to not give up on that feisty calculation.
  3. Discipline is required.
    The mistake I'm most often guilty of committing is leaving my area of defensive responsibility. It gets boring when nothing is happening in your defensive zone and it's tempting to jump into someone else's zone so that you can get into the play. The problem with doing that is you also make it hard for your team to break out and the team just ends up getting stuck playing defense even longer. Similarly, there are a lot of boring tedious activities involved in learning physics and conducting research. But they are not things you can shortcut your way through.
  4. It's really really hard, but when everything comes together, you're flying.
    Of all the sports I've played, I've found hockey the most difficult. You have to learn (in sequential order): a) how to skate, b) how to stick handle, c) how to stick handle while skating, d) how to play positional defense, and e) how to get open and create offensive opportunities. The common experience for hockey players is to spend the first two years trying to figure out what is going on. Hockey is not only physically complex; it's also really fast, so it's hard to learn. I've been playing hockey for about three years and it hasn't been until now that I understand where I should be on the ice and how to skate and handle the puck. I feel pretty much the same way in physics. I have no idea what's going on in my field. But I hope that one day, I will have my shining moment (just like in hockey) when I finally put everything together. I won't have to think about the individual steps (how to skate, how to shoot, etc), but I can just run with my instincts (play hockey) and do physics.

What I find frustrating is the very long timescale for physics research. You often feel like you're accomplishing nothing for weeks on end. When I feel this way, I try to tell myself: physics is just like hockey, it just takes a little longer.

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