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Engineer -> Experimental Physicist -> Theoretical Physicist

  1. May 19, 2007 #1
    New member ! This is my first post.

    Long ago, I remember one of my friends talking about how engineers dream of becoming experimental physicists who in turn dream of becoming theoretical physicists. I remember the context but don't remember whether it was an explicit joke or musings of some engineer or physicist. Just wanted to know if any of you are aware of this and would point me to it's source.

    Having said that, I am myself an engineer (doing PhD atm) and I would love to be known as a physicist of some sort. http://img.tranceaddict.com/smilies/new/0711/noteeth.gif
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 19, 2007 #2
    I dont dream of becoming a theoretical physicist. :confused:

    Id like to build airplanes (like boeing), rather than derive equations. Much more interesting to me.
  4. May 19, 2007 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    Re the OP: I don't think this is true in general. In fact many engineers that I've known couldn't understand why someone would choose physics as a major.

    My answer has always been that I wasn't going to do that much work for something that I didn't love, but all along it was no secret that engineering degrees are more marketable than physics degrees; and that I would likely work as an engineer after graduation.
  5. May 19, 2007 #4


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    I'm going for my undergrad in physics, and there's times I just want to be an engineer. I'm constantly considering getting a degree in EE after I get my physics degree, but I probably won't because I'll want to spend that time working towards my career.
  6. May 19, 2007 #5
    Yeah I just remembered this but I haven't been able to find a reference to this quote, even if it's a joke. If one talks about progressive degrees of abstraction (and may I also say intelligence) required to do their jobs, theoretical physicists are probably at the top of the ladder.
  7. May 19, 2007 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    I came within hours of switching to an EE before starting my junior year, which is a pretty easy point to do this as the curriculum is much the same until then. But I bought one of the EE books and began so look it over, and then I grabbed a book for nuclear physics that I had already purchased, and looked it over...

    In fact I did want to learn more about EE, and did so after graduation.
  8. May 19, 2007 #7
    ok, this joke comes close...but i still think the stuff I remember involves only physicists and engineers. lol

    Psychologists think they're experimental psychologists.
    Experimental psychologists think they're biologists.
    Biologists think they're biochemists.
    Biochemists think they're chemists.
    Chemists think they're physical chemists.
    Physical chemists think they're physicists.
    Physicists think they're theoretical physicists.
    Theoretical physicists think they're mathematicians.
    Mathematicians think they're metamathematicians.
    Metamathematicians think they're philosophers.
    Philosophers think they're gods.
  9. May 19, 2007 #8


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    That's really ugly... it can be shortened by a ton

    Psychologists want to be biologists.
    Biologists want to be chemists
    Chemists want to be physicists
    Physicists want to be mathematicians
    Mathematicians want to be philosophers
    Philosophers want a job
  10. May 19, 2007 #9


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    I have a year left of physics, so I'm definitely going to go for it, but I might poke at an EE.

    Also, not to sound arrogant but considering that physics usually studies the general case, is it that tough to teach yourself EE once you've learned the physics?
  11. May 19, 2007 #10

    i can think of 2 examples of people going from engineering, not to any kind of physics, but all the way to pure math!! a prof at my old university did his first degree in electrical engineering, now he does pure math. stefan banach did engineering also, thinking that nothing new could be discovered in math. :surprised
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  12. May 19, 2007 #11
    I might hazard a guess that it's not. Although I hate to think that engineering is any easier than physics. Then again, engineering is generally the application of physics. Further, you need to distinguish theoretical physicists from experimental physicists. A number of the experimental guys might well be engineers.
  13. May 19, 2007 #12


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    as an undergrad, there's no difference between experimental and theoretical. We both receive the same undergrad training. I don't know if there's even that much difference in the grad programs.

    I don't want to differentiate myself with those labels since I don't completely understand them. I like both experimenting and theorizing.
  14. May 19, 2007 #13


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    I think it a joke. I start off in physics but moved into nuclear engineering - and did pretty much what I was going to do in physics + engineering.

    The work I do now is combination of theoretical development and the applying that in practical real world applications - basically nonlinear thermo-mechanical analysis of nuclear systems. Basically we solve very complex systems of equations (numerical models) which deal with the way materials behave in high-temperature radiation environments. There is also some chemistry in the mix, since we have to model corrosion processes and the attendendant degradation of mechanical properties.

    While we use empirical models, they are often based on the fundamentals in order to retain validity over a wide range of conditions. Of course, with better computing power and more experimental work, we can develop less empirical and more mechanistic models - which really is necessary if one uses a broad range of different types of materials and thermophysical conditions.

    I think nuclear engineering evolved from engineering physics at some universities. One of profs during undergrad had majored in engineering physics, and his work was primarily accelerators.
  15. May 19, 2007 #14
    My degree is in Math, but I work as a software engineer. I found there was more satisfaction in solving practical problems. In my spare time I study physics, but I don't think of myself as a scientist at all nor do I aspire to become one.
  16. May 19, 2007 #15


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    When i was in high school, i always saw myself like the lab coat type as my work. I liked the idea of studying physics, and becoming a theoretical physicist like Dirac... Anyway, when i started heading that way (college), i realized that what i liked was engineering and that i had a big misconception of what a physicist is/does.
  17. May 19, 2007 #16
    both physicists and engineers deal with physics and mathematics. the two professions mainly differ in the scope of their problems. physicists seek answers to fundamental questions whereas the engineers work for the industry. having said that, the physicists need engineers to test their ideas and develop instrumentation to refine measurement technology. the engineers need theorists to come up with better tools to develop new technology. kind of a circular dependence. it is quite possible to blur the distinction between a physicist and an engineer if the physicist works for industry or if the engineer works in fundamental fields of science like astronomy or particle physics.
  18. May 20, 2007 #17
    I never wanted to be a physicist. I've always loved design. To me, solving difficult problems within certain design constraints is extremely satisfying. I would not have been happy studying physics.
  19. May 20, 2007 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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    That was partly my thinking as well. Once you learn the most general case, the rest should be manageable. All in all I would say that is has served me well in spite of the obvious marketing disadvantages.

    Either way, college teaches you how to learn, and that is the most valuable skill of all.
  20. May 20, 2007 #19


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    I have known a number of physicists who were involved with development of instrumentation (look at IBM or GE), and I know (and work with) engineers who do fundamental research. Folks at the National Labs and NASA have physics and engineering degrees - and they overlap. In at least one case, an engineer works with a group of physicists. The engineer does do the primary application of the some software that was originally developed by the physicists, but the engineer learns the fundamental or theory behind the applications and works with the physicists to improve the software.

    In the field in which I work, there is a tremendous overlap of physics and various engineering disciplines, and there are those who do theoretical or numerical methods (simulations), those who design and manufacture components and integrated systems, and those who do experiments and applications. There is a dynamic feedback among the three - experimental results help us to improve the theory, the improved theory helps us develop better materials or at least understand how materials perform, and we devise better experiments or push further the performance envelope.

    One really hot area for physics and engineering is nano-technology. For example - FEI produces a line of electron microscopy systems, including TEM, SEM, DualBeamâ„¢, and FIB, which are designed, engineered and manufactured to address a wide range of applications. Different types of electron microscopes provide distinct capabilities for end-users.
    ( http://www.fei.com/Products/Types/tabid/59/Default.aspx [Broken] ) The folks at FEI are a mix of engineers and physicists, as are the end users of the equipment.

    Engineering is essentially applied physics, and depending on the discipline, the engineer may apply a little or a lot of fundamental physics. Certainly a structural engineer designing a bridge or other large structure is not going to use QM, QFT or Maxwell's equation, but an nuclear engineer working on a fusion device or other nuclear system may.

    And then there are hybrid folks like engineering physicists or material scientists.

    I often wonder why people get hung up on arbitrary distinctions or categories.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  21. May 21, 2007 #20
    What is the ordering relation that produces this chain?

    It could be reverse earning potential

    It could be about abstraction.

    It could be about ego/intelligence.

    It could be about reverse practicallity.

    But I don't think it is about any of these things. The ordering relation is about ambition. Not personal ambition, but altruistic ambition.

    No one wants to be useless at their job (peter principle: every worker is promoted just past their point of competence). I would rather (hypothetically) be a productive engineer than a fustrated mathematician who works on an obscure topic just because of 'publish or perish' pressure. I talked to a chemist once who said "I like the idea of engineering/physics but I would rather be a good chemist then an average physicist".

    In other words, ambition should be balanced by the ability to get results. Philosophy can effect the human race on the grandest of scales, but this is balanced by the fact that philosohpical insights are extremely rare. A top notch enginnering record is much more valuable to the world than an uneventful stint in philosophy, but those who contribute that which is truly worthwhile in this field deserve to be on top of our 'altruistic careers' heierarchy.

    Categories are useful for beginners, but not so much so to those with the experience to see through them.
    Last edited: May 21, 2007
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