Black Holes and Blackboards: What Theory Research Looks Like
Using math to understand how the universe works has always excited me beyond measure. Before coming to UCSB, however, I had absolutely no idea what research in theoretical astrophysics actually looks like. Would my days consist of aimlessly scribbling equations? Would I spend my time reading stacks of dense papers? Would my hair somehow turn white and disheveled like Doc Brown’s from Back to the Future? As it turns out, some of these are closer to the truth than others. Here is what I actually do as a theoretical astrophysicist studying simulations of black hole accretion disks in Professor Omer Blaes’s Accretion Group.
In “The Lab”
Being a theorist means that my “lab” is pretty much anywhere that grants access to a laptop and plenty of hot coffee. In other words, I essentially wake up already “in the lab”. My day typically begins with a review of the work I did the night before, which means flipping through my notebook and going through whatever code I wrote the previous day. If I have the time, I also make my way through some of the recent literature and write down any technical questions for my advisor.
Next Step: Collaboration
The lack of physical lab space means that in order for me and my advisor to collaborate, we have to specifically set aside time to spend in front of the blackboard discussing the physics and working through problems and questions. These meetings are usually the second portion of my typical research day, and they are possibly the most important.
Our meetings usually have the following progression:
- Discuss plots and figures generated from the code since our last discussion
- Further develop the context of these problems and explore next steps
- Decide what trends we want to investigate more deeply
- Address any questions I have about the project/literature
During the meeting, I am always sure to jot equations or vocabulary that I want to explore on my own when I revisit the literature later.
Coding and Calculation
This aspect of my research is both the most challenging and the most rewarding. After meeting with my advisor, I usually take time to reflect on the ideas we discussed and write details in my notebook. I may even consult the literature again to fill in any gaps in my knowledge or to revisit a concept we discussed. Additionally, I spend time deriving any relevant equations to get a deeper feel for the mathematics, and I begin to work on the code.
The main function of these codes is to calculate and graph solutions to the derived equations. This is the real “meat and potatoes” of my research: deriving equations and then finding the proper way to visualize their solutions so that they reveal the relationships we want to investigate. I then document the method I used to generate these graphs, and I make a note of any issues or difficulties I encounter along the way.
Although most people immediately associate research with working in a lab, research in theory heavily reflects all of the methodology and collaboration one expects to find in an experimental setting. This unique dynamic is actually one of the things that draws me to theoretical physics: the semisweet balance of independence and collaboration. Although the days vary greatly – sometimes with much more time spent meeting with colleagues, and others spent buried in the literature – I learn more about the universe every single day. That is ultimately what I think makes research so great.