What is a Physicist?

Physicists study the universe and everything in it, from the very small (quantum) to the very large (cosmology).

A physicist explores and identifies the basic principles that govern the structure and behaviour of matter, the interaction between energy and matter, and the generation and transfer of energy. These principals can be used in both theoretical and practical areas.

What does a Physicist do?

A physics student standing in front of a blackboard in a classroom.

Physicists typically specialize in one of many subfields, and some will go further to specialize in a subdivision of one of these subfields:

Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics
Consists of research on atoms, simple molecules, electrons and light, and their interactions

The study of physical processes in stars and other galactic sources, galactic structure and evolution, the early history and evolution of the universe, and the sun and solar activity

Biological Physics
The study of biological phenomena using physical techniques

Chemical Physics
Provides understanding for a broad range of systems, from atomic collisions to complex materials, as well as the behaviour of the individual atoms and particles that make up the system

Computational Physics
Explores the use of computers in physics research and education, as well as the role of physics in the development of computer technology

Condensed Matter Physics
Concentrates on such topics as superconductivity, semi-conductors, magnetism, complex fluids, and thin films

Fluid Dynamics
The study of the physics of fluids with special emphasis on the dynamical theories of the liquid, plastic and gaseous states of matter under all conditions of temperature and pressure

Laser Science
Also called laser physics, is a branch of optics that describes the theory and practice of lasers

Materials Physics
Applies physics to complex and multiphase media including materials of technological interest, and uses physics to describe materials in many different ways such as force, heat, light and mechanics

Nuclear Physics
The study of fundamental problems related to the nature of matter

Particles and Fields
The study of particles and fields, their interrelationships, interactions and structure, and the design and development of accelerators and instrumentation techniques for high energy physics

Physics of Beams
The study of the nature and behaviour of beams and the instruments for their production and use

Plasma Physics
Plasma, solid, gas and liquid are the four states of matter. Plasma physics is the study of plasma charged particles and fluids interacting with electric and magnetic fields.

Polymer Physics
Focuses on the physics of natural and synthetic macromolecular substances

The reason there are so many diverse subsections in physics is because physicists study the universe and everything in it, from the very small (quantum) to the very large (cosmology). It is exactly this large scope of learning that excites prospective physicists; they are afforded the opportunity to study a host of different areas before focusing on a subdivision in which they can become experts.

Physics has compartmentalized different fields so that the research of different areas of the universe is more manageable. For instance, astrophysicists apply their knowledge of principles of physics to try to understand the origin of stars, planets, galaxies, and other components of space. Atomic physicists conduct research into atoms; a different section of physics.

The important thing to remember, no matter which area of physics excites you, is that being a physicist requires commitment and diligence. An insatiable appetite to understand complex concepts and to comprehend the relationship between energy and matter should be inherent in any person wishing to pursue a career in this field.

Are you suited to be a physicist?

Physicists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also artistic, meaning they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive.

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What is the workplace of a Physicist like?

Physicists can be found working in high schools, colleges, universities, research labs, hospitals, power plants, museums, the military, NASA, law firms, oil fields, the government, various industries, and businesses.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Physicists work in other areas apart from scientific research laboratories?

The perception that the majority of physicists only adorn white coats and work in laboratories undertaking ground-breaking scientific research is misleading.

Physicists are sought after in a range of diverse industries. The skills physicists acquire provide them with outstanding analytical, mathematical and critical thinking abilities. These characteristics are worthwhile no matter which industry a physicist finds employment.

One area in which physicists can expect to work in greater numbers in the near future is the energy sector, most especially the renewable energy sector. Physicists are collaborating with other experts to establish the most effective and efficient methods of sourcing renewable energy. Photovoltaics, in particular, is one region of renewable energy in which a physicists' knowledge and expertise is required.

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What does the typical working day of a Physicist involve?

This varies depending on the type of subdivision in which a physicist has decided to specialize. However, in almost every work day a physicist will have to conduct some reading, some computational analysis, data analysis and perhaps some experimentation.

Physicists, by their very nature, are inquisitive and every day seek to learn something new in their field. Sometimes a physicist’s day can become frustrating if experiments do not produce expected results or if work is not proving fruitful. On the other hand there are many rewards to be derived and if a physicist’s workings are successful it can be highly satisfying.

If a physicist is working in a high school teaching capacity, they will primarily be working in a theoretical capacity and will be imparting their knowledge to students. Physicists at third level in universities will conduct research and write journal articles as well as focusing on pedagogy.

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What is a Theoretical Physicist?

Theoretical physicists have been made famous by such names as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. These great minds have provided watershed moments in science and their ground-breaking research has enhanced our understanding of the universe in which we live.

Someone who studies theoretical physics might never see the inside of a laboratory, but their work is crucially important. They formulate mathematical models to decipher the mysteries of the universe. Their work also aims to affirm the work of experimental physicists.

A strong mathematics and calculus background is advantageous for a theoretical physicist to have, so incorporating mathematics into your major would stand you in good stead if you want to specialize in a branch of theoretical physics.

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