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Can You Be an Experimental and Theoretical Physicist?

  1. Apr 12, 2009 #1
    I would like to build stuff and conduct experiments but i would also like to take walks in the park think of theories. So how do i choose between these two. Maybe i can become an experimental physicist and then come home and write a bunch of stuff. Can you be both an experimental and theoretical physicist?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 12, 2009 #2
    You can think about theory, as an experimentalist. You can tinker in your basement as a theorist, but you can't honestly do both at a serious level. As an experimentalist though, you can do much more theory than you could do meaningful experimentation as a theorist.
  4. Apr 12, 2009 #3


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    Most people don't make a choice on the matter until they get to the graduate level. Either way, you can always do a little bit of both. Experimentalists have to know theory. Theorists have to correlate their theories with experimental evidence.
  5. Apr 12, 2009 #4
    Yeah, i think it would be a better thing to do if you were an experimentalist and think of theories when ever you want. In order to make up theories all you need is a pencil and a notebook while conducting an experiment often takes large and extremely expensive equipment. Also you need a large workspace to perform most experiments while you can sit on a rock and make up a theory;)
  6. Apr 12, 2009 #5
    If you know you want to be an Experimentalist should take more lab-based classes as an Undergrad? Can you become an Experimentalist through an Engineering degree? Are there certain skills that one should focus on if experimenting is where they want to end up?
  7. Apr 13, 2009 #6

    Dr Transport

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    I would concentrate on getting the best education you can get as an undergrad. A good program will have both theory and experimental work. One thing I would add, the best experimentalists have a very good grasp of their undergrad theory.

    As for becoming an experimentalist after getting an engineering degree, it is possible, very possible. My first TA as an undergrad was a 1st year grad student who had taken a couple of advanced undergrad modern physics courses as electrical engineering student then switched to physics. He was one of the most talented experimental physicists I have ever known, and right now works as a design engineer developing new physics lab rigs for a company who specializes in lab equipment.
  8. Apr 13, 2009 #7
    As people said before, there are no pure experimentalists or theorist. It is more like a superposition of both.
    However, I just want to add some side note, experimentalist seems to need to have grasp of everything.
    For instance, when I looked into one of my professor research, which is about nuclear physics, he needs to have some knowledge of condense matter to construct the Superconducting Magnet Assembly (some equipment, in short). And he needs some knowledge of chemistry to understand some of the tested molecule properties, etc.
    So yes, basically he needs to know almost everything.
    Side note: This actually make me think of a joke: don't let physicists construct the experiment and don't let engineers do the experiment if you don't want to ruin your experiment.
  9. Apr 15, 2009 #8
    Why not have a crack at it? Read a biograpy of Enrico Fermi...
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