The Real World

By Sean Carroll | December 17, 2006 11:53 am

The Real World In her post below, JoAnne refers to “the real world” in the literally accurate sense — the physical reality that exists independently of our understanding, in contrast to the tentative frameworks put forward by theorists as hypothetical models of that reality. But there’s a more metaphorical sense in which physicists (and academics more broadly) use the phrase “the real world” — to refer to the socio-economic milieu peopled by those outside the academy. We say things like “she spent a couple of years in the real world before going to grad school,” or “most of the time I hang out with physicists, but I do have some friends in the real world.”

I figure we can’t be the only people who talk this way. Professional actors or musicians (I’m guessing, and would love to hear confirmation/refutation) might think of themselves as being distinct from “the real world,” as might people serving in the military, or working in politics. We have the idea that certain kinds of lifestyles are stereotypically “real,” while others are somehow in a separate zone. And it’s generally a point of pride to consider one’s self and colleagues as non-real — we are privileged enough to operate outside the petty concerns of conventional reality, concentrating our powers on esoteric specialties with petty concerns of our own.

So, is there a flipside to this, with a corresponding feeling of pride? That is, are there occupations or milieux that think of themselves as quintessentially “real,” and wouldn’t have it any other way? (Presumably ones where people don’t babble on about “milieux.”) My many non-physicists friends are generally happily cocooned in lifestyles that are just as non-real-world as mine, so I don’t have much data here.

  • Michael Saelim

    While I’m a physics major, most of my friends are not – most of them major in the biological and biochemical fields. That being said, they still also use the “academia”/”real world” division in that manner. In fact, one of my friends is planning to go “into the real world” to work for a pharmacutical company.

    I think there are some that think their work is inherently more real – namely, people whose jobs integrate more with the day-to-day affairs of all people. This includes people involved in business, accounting, mom-and-pop stores, clerk/cashier/salesperson jobs, etc. This also includes people who, while their jobs are a bit disconnected from how the world actually is, may be oblivious to this fact. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, watch the comedy Zoolander. Ignorance is bliss.

    I suppose some of it also stems from our relative minority, both in understanding our fields and in scientific literacy. I wish that weren’t the case, though I still like the feeling of “academia” being separate from the “real world.”

  • Plato

    I most certainly think that devoting the time and years of schooling you have, would make you feel different. A sense of kinship between those you work with, and those that are apart from the dynamics and sociological thinking that dominates your science.

    So in the “other world” you might find the thinking vastly different then the responsibility you had assigned yourself. Have you ever tried to talk to a mechanic about the work of another mechanic trying to discredit them, lets say “within your group” in the “real world?”

    I take exception to those that try to understand the “real world” of scientists, and thought less of because of the positions in life they may assume. By chance, the pizza guy who a true interest about the world you people working, and the chance person sitting beside you on that airplane. We have heard your stories.

    My son when very young asked me once, if the “neighborhood” we were driving through was the world. It seems our lives can be circumvented to what is observble at the time. It may take a greater perspective to step back and see it all beyond the neighborhood? Our “feelings” may doimnate or our “thought processes” keeping us separate?

    Yet we are all basically the same from a humanistic standoint? None of us should be thinking we are on some pedestal higher then another.

  • Manas Shaikh

    There is no real world :)

  • dm

    I don’t know, what exactly is the definition of reality? Something to do with observers or conciousness or something.

  • Guillermo Alcántara

    Manas, you are mixing it. There’s a real world, just no spoons in there… 😛 How much life in cube farms is real world? It feels real, except for never seeing that brilliant star who opaques the others. You basically deal with people with your major; but people think that’s how life is.

  • Youssef Faltas

    It is funny how the discussion of what do people in academia mean when they talk about “the real world” is confined within academic circles. What Sean suggests about this being true in most other fields generalizes to: “The real world” is a concept that is always going to be discussed outside of “the real world”! It seems that “the real world” is a secert too precious to be let out in “the real world.” One simply can’t be in “the real world.”

    I know many people who would agree that they are better off having no connection with “the real world”. But I think it is worth visiting once in a while: to help amd be helped, or just for a change of view.

  • bws

    I’ve noticed that many people outside of academia also think of it as being distinct from the real world, but in a pejorative way.

  • Cynthia

    To be brutally blunt, I find this MTV-style “Real World” stuff way over the top! It’s absolutely nauseating that these Hollywood/MTV types actually believe they hold a privileged status in the Universe: the status of cosmic interloper freely roaming–to and fro–between Reality and Fantasy.

    Such nonsensical brand of thinking can only be defined as mere magic, pure and simple. No matter how hard these folks want to convince themselves–much less–persuade ordinary mortals that they really know the true ins and outs of Reality, they are eternally destined for failure. Thus, I strongly suggest that these real life wantabees remain fixed within the Cocoon of Fantasy—the only place they are worthy of existence.

  • spyder

    I had the great fortune to have two parallel careers, one in academia and the other in emergency services-lifesaving. The difference between “worlds” was visceral, palpable. Nine months in classrooms on campus, were offset by four or five months (seasonal time and weekends during recreation months) on the beaches of SoCal, and then parks of NorCal. I too often found myself using that “out there in the real world” distinction, which though quite relevant, seemed to distance myself from my work in my other vocation. Surrounded as i was by professionals in both worlds who spent all of their time solely in those environments, i realized i was truly blessed. There is a quality to life that being on campus provides. It is the freedom to BE in one’s head, to listen and talk intently with the “disinterested spectator” (as Blake referred to our internal thought conversations), putting precedence to theory, formulation, philosophical wonderings, etc. But there was also the intense satisfaction from living in the now, interdicting in the lives of thousands, being cognizant as possible of paying attention to the needs and behaviors of others, not ever really thinking about oneself. In retrospect i would never trade one for the other, nor regret that i didn’t focus solely on just one. Retirement is the perfect blend.

  • Peter Fred

    Sean asks

    So, is there a flipside to this, with a corresponding feeling of pride? That is, are there occupations or milieux that think of themselves as quintessentially “real,” and wouldn’t have it any other way?

    It is my belief that when theoretical physics undergoes its sorely needed revolution and its newly accepted theories meet Einstein’s “close to experience” criterion, physicists will take pride at living in the “real” world and will be offended when accused of living in an ivory tower.

    I believe that General Relativity and quantum mechanics and its iterations are the chief offenders that have to be gotten rid of. They will only disappear, as Ptolemaic Astronomy did, by being replaced by a more realistic, “close to experience” theory. When that happens, theorists and experimentalist will take pride in the applications that the new theories produce as what happened when Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism came on the scene in the last half of the 19th century.


    for reference to “close to experience” Sci. Amer. April 1950, p.13.

  • Quasar9

    Sean the ‘physical reality’ is the commonality that people bumper to bumper on the highway experience during rush hour – of course aside from that ‘fact’ their reality is different, they are either listening to different tunes, talking to different people on the mobile, or angry at the world for whatever reason, each in their own version or vision of reality in their own little cocoon or mind, inside their own individual coccon or body – inside their own individual coccon or tin box with wheels (motorvehicle).

    Like when you are on a plane (jumbo jet) you are sgaring the ‘physical reality’ with all the other passengers, but as you know each individual is travelling on their own ‘plane’ – just sharing the same spacetime with all the other passengers – ie only one can sit on each seat, or only one can use the toilet at a time, unless you are joining the mile high club.

    But theoretical physics, like all other theories is the art of the possible. After all heart transplants were ‘impossible’ not that long ago – now they’ll transplant just about every part of your body (including hair onto Elton John’s head) – but not teeth it seems.

    Yep, you’d think that if we can grow skin, organs, and nerve cells – teeth & nails would be childplay.

    And head transplants – no, not frankestein revisited – you know some in medical science theory believe they may be able to make man inmortal – or even transplant your memory ‘chip’ into another brain.
    But how can this be – can man’s memory and ‘soul’ possibly be ghost particles in another ‘dimension’ you think.

    Possible? – Physics is The Art of the Possible.
    After all if it is not possible, it is not ‘physically’ possible – right?

  • Garrett

    In the real world…

    Most people are religious, but spend all their time trying to make money — except on weekends. People play on weekends, often with their kids.

    In the real world the average IQ is 100.

    I go there sometimes to get groceries. Or to play, on weekdays — never NEVER on weekends.

    I tried living in the real world once, briefly, and decided I really didn’t like it.

  • Ed Minchau

    In the Real World, actions have consequences.

  • Garrett

    Now I seem to spend all my time worrying over factors of 2.

  • Douglas

    I think it entirely healthy to talk of “real world” activities outside of your job. I think it speaks to the fact that people need to feel more viscerally connected to their creations and the consequences of their work. There is something terribly noble and exciting about physics, but there is also something quite removed about it. Coming from my (extremely limited) experience, you can’t show your work to someone outside the field with pride. There is (rarely) artistic merit to your papers. And your paper only helps other people in a very detached way; it is nearly impossible to argue how your work matters to your mother.

    In addition, physics work is awfully sedentary, and that lack of exercise can decrease your satisfaction with life — exercise is necessary to maintaining a healthy outlook!

    So please, let’s use that phrase as often as possible. Maybe it will encourage us to interact with the “real world” more!

  • Vince

    The real world consists of gravity and the standard model Lagrangian. Everything is a direct result of these two things, including our society and our thoughts and actions.

    I must go now and continue fulfilling my sector of the standard model + gravity = my life.

  • Pyracantha

    There are fans, and there are mundanes. There is very little way to bridge the gap between them. If you know science fiction culture, you will know what I mean. At conventions you can instantly tell the difference betwen fans and mundanes. Fans are even shaped differently than mundanes. I believe that fans are born different from mundanes. Some physicists are fans. Some physicists are mundanes. Which ones make the best scientists?

  • Yvette

    I’m a junior physics major, and next semester I will be studying abroad in New Zealand. It forever interests me that the only people who think this is a bad idea are physicists: profs who think I should get a head-start on my senior thesis, students who think I’ll be missing out on important classes, stuff like that. As I’m fairly certain they have physics in New Zealand and my senior thesis can wait until, gasp, senior year, I’m not too worried.

    I just find it odd that physicists, who in one sense should be the most connected with the world around them, are often the ones who are least in touch with it. I hope I don’t find myself forced too much to choose between them.

  • topher

    In medical school, we don’t refer to it as the “real world” but instead as our “previous life.” Everything before seems totally separated from the present, and unlike the “real world” example, we can’t exactly go back.

  • Vince

    “I just find it odd that physicists, who in one sense should be the most connected with the world around them, are often the ones who are least in touch with it. I hope I don’t find myself forced too much to choose between them.”

    Don’t worry, for there is no such thing as free choice anyway. Your thoughts and actions are a result of gravity and the standard model. You are just a bunch of particles governed by gravity and the standard model. Whatever you “decide” won’t matter. The laws of physics will take care of you, my friend.

  • Sean

    Vince, now you’re just being a troll. If you don’t have anything to add, resist the temptation to leave a comment.

  • Manas Shaikh

    Let us define real world as

    Ensemble of each individual(‘s) world.

    (Not exactly the serious physics theory, but maybe an analogy?)

  • Scott

    It seems that most of us have a need for at least some amount of fantasy, imagination, creativity and humor in our lives. This seems like a very REAL part of what it’s all about to be human–at least that’s the view from my world.

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  • Vince

    You’re right, Sean. I’m sorry.

  • Rob Knop

    The real world is like Lake Woebegone — everybody is above average.

    Just as science fiction fans often like to sit around and convince themselves that they are smarter than non-science fiction fans, I suspect that everybody thinks that some group they are a part of makes them special. As such, most people think that they are separate from the real world… except for those who think that they are in the real world, and those who aren’t in the same group as them aren’t in the real world, but that’s really just the same phenomenon under a symmetric parity transformation.

    The fact is that academia is part of the real world. People may scoff and talk about how academics are disconnected, but there are real job stresses, other people you interact with, money to be made and bills to be paid, stupid coworkers to interact with, frighteningly interesting coworkers to interact with, clueless management, and so forth. It’s real, we’re real people.

    It can be a great job to be an academic, but I reject the idea that it somehow disconnects us from the real world– just as I reject the idea that physicists know more about everything just because they know more about physics.

  • Adam S

    I’ve also heard the “real world” describe the place where those who are underprivileged, etc. may live. In this sense, not only academics but investment bankers, etc. (including myself) are sheltered from the hardships of much of the rest of the world. Members of the “real world” of this sense definitely use the term proudly, at times.

  • Josh

    I agree whole-heartedly with Rob’s comment (#26). As a post-doc in physics, I certainly don’t feel like I live in an ivory tower and I don’t really like the implication. I take the bus to work like everybody else(well, that’s not quite true in LA but you get my point). I don’t make much money. I have all sorts of job stress, too. I think the differences are in how things are structured: for instance, I don’t have a 9-to-5 schedule.

    Sure, it may be hard to explain what I do to people but I don’t think that’s limited to academia. My brother is in finance and I haven’t quite been able to tell what he actually does(something about energy futures I think).

  • Aaron

    I believe that General Relativity and quantum mechanics and its iterations are the chief offenders that have to be gotten rid of. They will only disappear, as Ptolemaic Astronomy did, by being replaced by a more realistic, “close to experience” theory.

    That’s too bad… it would be a shame to come all this way, past black holes and entanglement and pions and quasars and vacuum energy and dark matter and light cones and Hawking radiation and Higgs bosons and neutrino oscillations and quarks and squarks and gravity waves, only to find that it was all a dream, and the universe is actually a stupid, boring place.

  • Elliot

    I have had real jobs — postman, waiter, cook, and “unreal jobs” — songwriter playwright and some I classify as in between — software developer, marketing director, and most currently telecom sales, and I have to say that the less real the job the more it continually impinges on your consciousness and will not leave you at peace. The jobs that involved physical labor were in many ways more pleasurable precisely because they could be left behind.


  • conical flask

    Sean I very much enjoyed your talk today in Durham. I hope you find time to blog about it…

  • citrine

    # 15 Douglas

    …it is nearly impossible to argue how your work matters to your mother.



    My mom does have a vague idea of my work – because she edited a scientific journal. Some of my friends even have mothers who are – gasp – actual research scientists and heavily influenced the academic choices made by their offspring. :)

  • Babbler

    I used the real/non-real world distinction mainly in reference to the various blogs and forums of the Internet.

    What more unreal than the blogosphere?

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    An example: I was trying on a tie for a part in a play I was in, and the costume fitter asked me if I knew how to tie a tie and if I had my own dress shoes. I admitted to both and she said: Oh, yeah, I forgot. You’re a real person. In contradistinction, I guess, to the actual actors.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Some occupations blend better than others. Actors, musicians, gangsters, academics, and physicians all tend to live pretty much in their self-contained worlds. For the military, there are several worlds, each a universe away from the others – civilian life, in the military, downrange (deployed to a combat zone), and outside the wire (in Iraq or Afghanistan, outside the base, turtled up in your body armor, and in high danger of enemy fire.) Other wars had their analogs and their own jargon.

  • Paul Schmit

    It’s entirely clear that this is a matter of perception and definition. I have to adopt the viewpoint of Thomas Paine’s idea of the social contract (yes, for some reason I recall a little bit from the humanities courses that my curriculum required in order to ensure that we reclusive and socially-impaired physics majors didn’t walk away from college believing we could rob a store because some set of initial conditions left us helpless to stop ourselves from doing so). The real world is the “state of nature,” the every-man-for-himself struggle to survive and procreate, and not a whole lot more. Our development of an intellect (which is a big question mark in evolutionary theory, and some believe we developed it as a mating attractor, just like a peacock’s feathers) added new dynamics to this “state of nature,” and in the end we developed language and the ability to form explicit social contracts (implicit social contracts appear in other parts of nature as well, ie ant colonies and herds of buffalo). In our social contracts we forfeit certain aspects of our innate right to do “anything and everything,” and in return we receive protection from harm from our fellow man and other competing forces and an enhanced ability to coordinate our efforts and increase our chances for survival.

    So what does any of this have to do with the “real world” discussion? Well, it tugs on my heart strings any time I am talking with another person, whatever their profession and background, who seems completely concerned with paying their taxes, avoiding conflict in their family/relationships, and working their job to keep food on the table. This is the daily struggle that most people refer to as part of the “real world,” and in many respects it is a result of the social contract we all subscribed to when we were born. Most people’s daily thoughts and concerns are focused on issues that are largely social constructs, and that mental activity in and of itself exhausts most to the point where they don’t see or care to see reality beyond that afforded by their roles in their respective societies. Most non-scientists don’t care to take note of anything going on in science because they are too busy working 50 hours a week to feed their families, and that’s the real world.

    Now I’m not saying I resent our social organizations, because without them there wouldn’t be any academia, or any of the comforts we as a society have grown accustomed to. And we should be concerned about paying our taxes, and working our jobs so that money flows in, because after all, much of that is directly tied to our ability to provide ourselves and our loved ones for the basic means for survival (food, water, shelter, safety, etc). But I think as physicists we are afforded the opportunity to actually look into the “real world,” beyond our daily concerns manufactured largely by our societal organizations rather than any fundamental natural forces. We see the big picture, the picture that says that if we choose not to pay our taxes, the resulting perturbation will be negligible throughout the vast majority of the universe and things will continue going on the way they do. We realize that no piece of modern technology would exist if we hadn’t taken the time to ponder over how the natural world, independent of social or biological concerns, behaves and evolves. We are part of nature, our formation of societies and cultures was part of the natural process, and thus our day to day concerns are most definitely *part* of the real world, but there is so much more to it, and most people don’t even get the chance to consider whether or not they even *should* care about it, because those societal concerns have entirely preoccupied them and cast a veil over their eyes.

  • Sean

    conical flask, thanks. Probably there will be little more than the occasional lightweight blogging between now and New Year’s, as those pesky real-world responsibilities assert themselves.

  • Scott

    It really hit home to me how all the philosophizing and intellectualism can change when there are extreme challenges in the environment; I saw a Vietnam vet who had a bumper sticker that read: “University of Saigon School of Philosophy.”

  • bittergradstudent

    Paul Schmidt-

    Have you read much Rousseau? I would think that you would connect with his type of social contract theory a lot more than the much more Lockean Paine.

  • Rob Knop

    What more unreal than the blogosphere?

    Second Life?

    World of Warcraft?

  • Spatulated

    My dads friend is a concrete finisher, and wouldn’t have it anyother way. he “build seattle” with his bare hands and keeps asking his son (my friend) to drop physics and come work with him in “the real world” (though note, he is very supportive most of the time)

  • Zero

    Sean, I am in awe of your credentials. You are to be commended for your
    True, everyone is into their own world and that’s good.
    I don’t know the meaning of “milieux”, so I tried to look it up. I assume
    it means middle since I could only find “milieu”.
    IMO, life’s answers cannot be found with a telescope or microscope.
    Infinite has two directions, big and small.
    Reality is between “too big” and “too small”, plus and minus.

    Happy Hollidays


  • Sissi

    I always described myself as someone trying to fit in the real world. I love abstract issues and had a hard time to find peers with same interests. Today I work at a bank, here in Brazil. I started dressing better, learning how to relate with different people, that not always understand what i say (actually, most of the time). I learned how to deal with different grades of schorlaship (dont know if this is right, used to speak english a long time ago, lol), people that dont know (nor want to) simple things, like an excel formula. I miss the “unreal world” and sometimes want to be locked up in a room, studing phylosophy, physics, whatever, and relating with people that make me want to study even more. To live what you live. But i feel this is not “right” (why?!). My father is a real world man. He is bright, incredible on this real world thing. And my dream is to be like him. I feel my craving for knowledge, my wanting to live the academic world, they are my weakness, which i have to hide.

    Maybe i’m hybrid real/unreal. :o)

  • Kaleberg

    Do physicists break their work into the physics world, doing science, and the real world, making a living doing science? Is attending a funding meeting, doing a budget or reading through a pile of resumes more real than reading the literature, building a model or analyzing data?

    There is also the half world, the world of courtesans, questionable gentlemen and those not quite respectable. The French call it the demimonde, and presumably it has spin of 1/2. I have no idea of how members of the half world refer to the real world, which presumably has a spin of 1.

  • Maureen

    “This is Maureen. She graduated, and now she’s a real person“–my roommate, on introducing me to a friend.

    The University of Chicago is a bubble. And I mean that in a loving way. We were aware of the world outside Hyde Park–we protested against the war and helped political campaigns–but after long immersions in the warm bath of intellectual debate, it’s difficult to make small talk at the Thanksgiving table with extended family members whose concerns are more pragmatic–the need to pay the cable bill, feed the dog, get the kids to school, and finish the status report before Tuesday. Add to that the fact that I majored in mathematics but found my true passions in the intricacies of politics and public policy and the somewhat related field of intellectual history/ history of science… and the fact that I never watched TV… I found that asking about people’s children was safe.

    So I’ve graduated. And I’m typing this at a workstation at the job I’ve had for the past six months but which I’ll be leaving tomorrow (project work, don’t you know). I’m currently looking forward to staying in the “real world” of relatively non-intellectually-challenging work for about eighteen to twenty-one more months (as soon as I find a new job… and then law school. It’ll be good to engage in intellectual play again.

    Maybe that’s why people accuse academia of not being “the real world”–because research and learning are play, of a sense. Most people are forced to enter jobs that don’t allow the full exercise of their mental faculties, and they envy those who have the resources to choose to do otherwise.

  • Qubit

    I’ve been dying to right a comment in this post, but I just can’t think of anything to say about “the real world”. I guess it just exactly where I live, middle England as in middle class, “blue collar worker”, as my manager like to remained me when I ask for sick pay. We get Smack heads with hoods up and itchy noses walking passed our house, looking for easy raise.

    Going down to the local for a pint it not any better, say the wrong thing to some people and they will ether kick hell out of you or buy someone a pint to stamp on your head until blood comes out of your ears.
    I confronted some people in my garden the other night, I ask them to get out and the just said to me “You best just go back in side mate!”

    “The real world!” it’s just a place were most people are trying to escape from!


  • Qubit

    I mean remind not remained.

  • Sean

    Qubit, the real world is a big place. I was at a pub in England just last week, enjoying a Guinness and working through a calculation, with Scott Dodelson’s Modern Cosmology book in front of me. The young bartender asked to take a peek at it, and was fascinated, although he admitted to “not having the maths.” But he had read The Elegant Universe, so I gave him a few more recommendations along those lines. Takes all kinds — fortunately.

  • citrine

    Everyone in the workforce produces goods, services, ideas or a combination thereof. It seems to me that people characterize an occupation as real according to the value they place on the end product/ service etc.

  • Christine Dantas

    Sissi wrote:

    sometimes want to be locked up in a room, studing phylosophy, physics, whatever, and relating with people that make me want to study even more.

    This would be paradise for me.

    I’ve been in a “bubble” for a long time (most part of my life) and suddenly found myself in the “real world” (out of academia, but at technically demanding job: developing embedded software for rockets). Now I’m in the process of somehow “getting back”. I’m eager to have this opportunity soon.

    I simply don’t see how one can live a life without dedicating herself (professionally) to the fundamental questions of nature. So when I am “forced” not to do this, it is… painful.

    Christine (also from Brazil).


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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