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American Physicists

  1. Jul 4, 2010 #1
    So, I have just finished my first year of college. I wasn't a physics geek in high school and only got interested in it during my Senior year. I became intrigued by the subject because for once, I found something that I had to work at and gave me a challenge, and I enjoyed this, thus I chose to focus in Physics in college.

    Now even though I just started, I figure it's never too early to start looking into graduate school, so I as looking. I searched "Top Physics universities in the world" and variants, and I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback by what I found out. According to most of the sites I visited...The U.S. dominates. Now I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but if the U.S. has the by in large the most high ranking Physic's universities in the world, that leads me to question where all our great physicists are?

    Yes, I see all theses cool gadgets like the Iphone, and what not. I also am aware that our "great space program" NASA isn't quite up to par as it should be and will be going through some overhaul over the next couple of years (why would this be happening if we have so many great Physic's programs?) And saying that the students who go to these colleges/universities just return home so we don't benefit isn't an answer, cause we still have the professor's that taught those students...

    What my problem with what my quick little research found is not with the physicists, cause I doubt they are just being lazy...I'm frustrated by the inkling that it is the U.S. government (or just large, greedy businesses) who is probably holding our science industry back. Why are we still dependent on oil? Why have we not landed on Mar's yet? How did the EU construct the world's largest collider and the U.S. didn't (we even have way more land for it too!)? I just am wondering how in the world a country that is supposed to be "top dog" in the Physics community let that sort of potential go to waste. At this point, I honestly hope Area 51 isn't just some stupid conspiracy theory, because at least that way I would know that the U.S. government didn't ignore all of the potential they had.

    P.S. if there's something I'm not reading about that proves me wrong, please tell me, after all I'm new to the world of physics.
    P.S.S. Don't point me to military advances, Physics should create, not destroy, and so in my honest opinion, I don't count advances in military weapons as advances in physics until they can be used for civil means.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 4, 2010 #2


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    Do more research. Why are physicists suppose to solve the energy crisis? Why should we go to Mars? Did the US have different priorities 30 years ago when the LHC was being conceived (don't quote me on that number)? Hell, does it really have those priorities now? Are these all physics problems or could they be fiscal and engineering probems?

    You can't pick and choose. An advancement is an advancement. Was Einstein's energy-mass equivalence any less of an advancement because its first real application was a nuclear weapon?
  4. Jul 4, 2010 #3
    Part of why north american and british universities dominate those rankings is based on how they establish said rankings. For instance, one criteria is the "internationality" of the students and the staff. Since English is THE language of science, especially physics, it is not surprising that many physicists choose the USA or GB for their studies abroad. Something similar goes for the number of published papers and citations. Who can read and cite a paper written in Hindu?

    So those rankings should be taken with a grain of salt.

    And by the way, most of the big names in MY field... they might not be all american, but most of them do work at a US university.
  5. Jul 4, 2010 #4
    Could it also be that American universities tend to have more money available for the high-tech equipment physics departments need?
  6. Jul 4, 2010 #5


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    After giving the thread a second looking over, there's also a few more things you would want to consider. For example, the idea that 'evil greedy' corporations could be stiffling the solution to oil dependence is silly. If a corporation by some miracle found a way to keep us off of oil, they'd be overnight billionaires. Unless you're in an industry with just 1 major player, finding some sort of ground breaking idea is the holy grail.

    Also, I'm not sure what you really mean by "where all our great physicists are?". I have a feeling you think that there should be tremendous advances left and right coming out of the US because we have so many great universities. The fact of the matter is many people believe the time for physics to be the "it" science is done. I believe there have been a few threads around here that say it's time for biotechnology to start to come to the forefront of science and such. Physics probably had it's hayday in the early to mid 20th century. Not to say we aren't still doing astonishing things! It's simply how the field is perceived that has changed.
  7. Jul 4, 2010 #6
    So physics's heydays are over many believe? They are unable to really advance the field? I have read of some saying they don't think string theory will ever be provable, but I mean is the field really at the limit? My general perception is that there is a lot more to discover and find out, but I don't know if we ever will.
  8. Jul 4, 2010 #7
    There has rarely been a period in history where some didn't believe that physics had its heyday, which is really another way of formulating, "we're close to knowing everything". Put that way, we can really see the absurdity of the notion.
  9. Jul 4, 2010 #8
    This is true, and you have a valid point. I just don't like the idea that we as a civilization generally act first on how we can harness the technology for destruction and war, rather than progress and community.

    This is precisely what I would expect from a nation that is "top dog" in Physics. I mean I can understand the issues we're having now trying to solve the string theory and what not, but of all the effort that I know of, why is there not more support from the U.S. government? I'm not saying that the physicists should "pick up the slack" I'm saying the U.S. as a nation should. Why should one science be the entire focus of a nation. Take biotechnology, how far will this science advance before people realize that the other foundation sciences need to advance more so as to see progress in biotechnology?

    I'm sorry if my original post wasn't clear I wrote it at 3 a.m. and was a little tired. Hopefully, I can clear this up by saying that I find it troubling that the most powerful nation in the world is not very farsighted. You said earlier, "Why should we go to Mars?" I don't know what you think about this, but to develop technology that allows us to travel to Mars is a big step in space exploration. How will we ever traverse the stars if we don't take the first step which we are so easily ready for, if we (this includes all of humanity) would just put our minds to it. I mean, I'm not saying that all the responsibility lies on the U.S., but we do have the most advanced space exploration organization, and as is nature, those that are the best are looked upon to set the example. This is why we should go to Mars, to set the example that just cause we went to the moon, doesn't mean we've conquered space travel.

    In short summary, U.S. has tons of physicists. I'm not expecting great new theories to pop out left and right, but from the best, I expect the best, so why is it I don't see the best coming from the U.S? And when I say best, I mean such groundbreaking events that the whole world looks at it and says...Wow! (ie. flying cars -yes this exists now-, LHC, landing on the moon, the first nuclear bomb, breaking the sound barrier, etc.) There are things that we can do that could make the world say "Wow" if only there was support for it from larger players (ie. the government)

    P.S. I just remembered, now that I can think straight, I remember hearing something about a Mars mission (yes with real people) so I guess that example is kind of invalid now, but my general concern is still conveyed I hope.
  10. Jul 4, 2010 #9
    Looks like you are expecting physicists to do engineering.

    Physics heyday is over, thats not to say that physics is 'done'. But expect most advancement in the future to be centered around biology and engineering.
  11. Jul 4, 2010 #10
    And this is wrong how? I am a student majoring in Physics, yet I have also declared an engineering major because I think it's important to know how to apply Physics' theory. If engineers have to learn the theories in Physics, why not physicists learn how to apply Physics. This is my opinion, but I also want to ask you, why should physicists just stop developing their theories only when they've been proven right? What universal law says a physicist can't "engineer" applications for their theories? So physicists should just go around developing theory after theory without any bother to develop them beyond the chalkboard?

    Yes I expect a physicist to know how to at least apply his/her theories! If I walk into my Classical Mechanics class this Fall and ask the teacher, "What applications does this have in the world?" I expect him to know it and know it well. I expect a physicist to get fully involved in his/her work, this includes the engineering aspects.
  12. Jul 4, 2010 #11
    You don't have to engineer in order to know how and why physics works in an applicable sense. Why do physicists simply develop theory after theory, instead of just taking one theory and working on it for the rest of their lives in application? Thing is.. we have people to do that for us, they're called engineers. It takes a very long time for the cutting edge technology to be put into practice, long after the technology has already been discovered. There are economical problems that are part of the problem as well, and engineers are more qualified to deal with those I would think. This is a nice little system we have, the only problem with it is that we have a lag of a few decades between the discovery and the application. So some people go into engineering and some people go into science.

    For me, this is why I eventually chose physics over engineering. I want to be trained to be on the forefront, not just to apply a few concepts in order to do it forever. Besides that, it always seems to work better when people specialize in one thing and let other people specialize in another thing. That is, we let theoretical physicists be theoretical physicists (and not engineers) and we let engineers be engineers (and not theoretical physicists).
  13. Jul 4, 2010 #12
    Even Dirac, who respect the experimentalist and had an engineering background often didn't bother to explore the implications of his own research. Making demands of what your teacher should know is different from what others should know. There are Tellers, and there are Hawkings; we need them both.
  14. Jul 4, 2010 #13


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    This was what I was trying not to imply (I must not have done a good job!). This thread is seemingly not so much what physicists are doing as opposed to what they are perceived as doing. Physics just isn't in a state where so many of our advancements have immediate ground-breaking consequences. For example, testing string theory... what does that really do for humanity? Nothing as far as I know of. Not everything needs to help humanity in profound ways.

    You need to realize something. Just because you feel like something is important and the government should be funding something left and right (and who is to say throwing money at the problem would fix it?) doesn't mean all 300 million US citizens feel the same way. You're also implying that we need to throw all our money at physics until we're top dog but then seem to say that throwing all our money at one field (biotech) is wrong. The reality of the situation is that everybody needs funding and mostly everyone should get funding.

    Also, as you probably can tell, the US is having certain (read: massive) financial problems at the moment. While it may be acceptable to throw a little more towards theoretical physics research, you're going to be hard pressed to start sending people to Mars. When we put people on the Moon, it was a gargantuan effort from the entire nation, it wasn't something that was set aside by Kennedy as a pet project. Going to mars would be an issue on that sort of scale... which is probably precisely the reason the governments looking towards the private sector for any hope of such a thing being accomplished.

    You also need to look at things from a historic perspective. The a-bomb, the moon landing, breaking the sound barrier and things like that were military applications or military related because we had the Soviet Union around. We needed to be on top and we were willing to sacrifice things we aren't willing to now to do it. And again, many of the 'WOW' things aren't even physics problems! The moon landing was a tremendous engineering problem! You're building one of the biggest complex machines at the time... and then you're gonna basically put a bomb on it. Amazing work... yet something physicists can't really claim as being the #1 player in it.
  15. Jul 4, 2010 #14
    Physicists aren't wizards. They aren't gonna come up with some unbelievable discovery every other year (or do they?).

    Maybe you're looking too big. New discoveries are more common then you think, they just don't make headline news.

    The unfortunate fact is, there are usually more important things to spend money on in this world then physics. Going to Mars would be freaking cool, but is not something that should be a priority in the U.S. budget.

    And if it weren't for these "greedy" businesses, there would be little money for the science industry in the first place.
  16. Jul 4, 2010 #15
    Some physicists don't deal with world problems and rather focus on the theory. In relation to the universe, our worldly problems make little difference and I can see their reasoning. Why should all physicists be working on applications of theory when there's other science majors that can do that? There's other fields of science beyond physics. Personally as a math major, I'd rather be working on the theory so someone else can find the applications.
  17. Jul 4, 2010 #16
    Okay, I guess I understand the posts on the reasoning for engineers (as an fyi, I never thought they should be nonexistent), and so maybe its just me that is also interested in engineering aspects as well as the theories behind physics.
  18. Jul 4, 2010 #17
    Just going on a little tangent here but what do applied mathematicians do? I thought their job was to find out what the theory can be applied to. Can anybody help me? Is an engineer an applied mathematician?
  19. Jul 4, 2010 #18
    I think these sights would be particularly helpful:



    From the first link:
    ]Applied mathematicians use theories and techniques, such as mathematical modeling and computational methods, to formulate and solve practical problems in business, government, engineering, and the physical, life, and social sciences. For example, they may analyze the most efficient way to schedule airline routes between cities, the effects and safety of new drugs, the aerodynamic characteristics of an experimental automobile, or the cost-effectiveness of alternative manufacturing processes.

    Applied mathematicians working in industrial research and development may develop or enhance mathematical methods when solving a difficult problem. Some mathematicians, called cryptanalysts, analyze and decipher encryption systems—codes—designed to transmit military, political, financial, or law-enforcement-related information.

    Applied mathematicians start with a practical problem, envision its separate elements, and then reduce the elements to mathematical variables. They often use computers to analyze relationships among the variables, and they solve complex problems by developing models with alternative solutions.

    Individuals with titles other than mathematician also do work in applied mathematics. In fact, because mathematics is the foundation on which so many other academic disciplines are built, the number of workers using mathematical techniques is much greater than the number formally called mathematicians. For example, engineers, computer scientists, physicists, and economists are among those who use mathematics extensively. Some professionals, including statisticians, actuaries, and operations research analysts, are actually specialists in a particular branch of mathematics. (For more information, see the statements on actuaries, operations research analysts, and statisticians elsewhere in the Handbook.) Applied mathematicians frequently are required to collaborate with other workers in their organizations to find common solutions to problems. [/QUOTE]
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  20. Jul 4, 2010 #19
    Nvm. So they're people who know how to apply the theory into any field? Physicist/electrical engineers/economists/businessmen/etc.. are all applied mathematicians then right?
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2010
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