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What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for me?

  1. Jun 9, 2012 #1
    Hi, Im only in grade 1o right know but i've spent almost an entire year learning about what steps to take and what to look ahead for after high school, im pretty much set for the goals i want to complete in my educational life and how to do them. Theirs just a couple of things, I don't exactly understand. What do physicist actually spend doing everyday in government labs and research companies? How do they actually do various research? Does all physics research require the use of specific instruments and lab equipment?

    I'm also not sure if I would actually enjoy being a physicist as a career. I love to watch documentaries learning about the universe, i would love to spend my time learning and researching about the mysteries of the universe (also enjoy math) but I fear that's not what being a physicist is really about. How can i find out if physics is really right for me? Do you think I see physics as more of a fairy tale then the reality it is?:confused:

    Thanks for the answers, sorry for poor spelling (and that im repeating already asked questions)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 9, 2012 #2
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    I'll give you two example of physics and a practical application (medicine and biochemistry specifically).

    A major contributor of heart disease is eating too much fat and carbohydrates. This is because fats and carbohydrates are, as the name implies, made of hydrogen and carbon (and some oxygen). Your body derives its energy by stripping electrons from these chemicals and transferring them from one molecule to the next (redox reactions) around your body and inside your cells and eventually to oxygen (this is why you need oxygen.)

    Eating too much of those puts your body in a state of "oxidative stress" or "redox imbalance." You have too many electrons (from the over-abundance of fats and carbohydrates) coming in and in a part of cell called the mitochondria, this leads to the formation of "free radicals," molecules with extra unpaired electrons. These molecules are highly reactive and can damage your proteins, DNA and even whole cells. If this happens in the heart, this damages and even kills heart cells and makes the whole heart weaker and can lead to heart disease or even cause heart cancer.

    One way to test the effectiveness heart disease medication (Tempol or Apocynin for example) is to use a technique developed by physicists called "Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy" (ESR). This is a technique to detect free radicals; chemicals are put in the machine, suspended at cold temperatures and in a magnetic field and blasted with long electromagnetic waves. If those waves hit free radicals, they will bounce a signal back. The more free radicals => stronger signal.

    If you give a lab rat heart disease, take its heart, homogenize it (grind it up into a slurry) and put that slurry in an Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy machine, you'll see a strong signal, because it's heart tissue has a lot of free radicals.

    If you give the lab rat heart disease but give it Tempol or Apocynin (heart disease medication), take its heart, homogenize it and put the slurry in the machine, you'll see a much smaller signal. That's because Apocynin inhibits the generation of free radicals in cells and Tempol "scavenges" (neutralizes) free radicals. This is how you know the drugs work.

    I saw an interesting lecture at the Eastern College Science Convention on how Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy is being used to make a "safer cigarette." The reason smoking causes lung cancer is because the act of simply burning anything makes free radicals which then go into your lung cells and damages their proteins and DNA. These guys from Cornell sucked cigarette smoke into an ESR machine and found that a single cigarette generates something like 150 TRILLION free radicals.

    However, they found that by putting just a tiny smudge of tomato paste (of all things) inside of a cigarette filter, the amount of free radicals that got sucked into the ESR machine dropped to about 20%. This is because tomatoes make a chemical called lycopene (the red pigment) that neutralizes free radicals on contact. They tried putting pure lycopene in the filter and the amount of free radicals that got through dropped to about 1%-2%. They showed this with another technique developed by physicists called "Mass Spectrometry" (MS). It's sort of like a tiny linear particle accelerator.

    When a free radical scavenging molecule hits a free radical, it either donates a part of itself (and becomes lighter) or absorbs the free radical (and becomes heavier). MS machines blast chemical samples into smaller fragments with electron beams and then launches them through a magnetic field. The different masses and charges of the fragments make them travel through the magnetic field differently. When they took the fresh lycopene and took the used-cigarette-filter lycopene and put them through the MS machine, they both showed different signals, which shows that the lycopene neutralized the free radicals in the cigarette smoke.

    So techniques and machines developed by physicists have many applications in biology and medicine.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2012
  4. Jun 10, 2012 #3
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for


    Anything else anyone can tell me?:confused:
  5. Jun 10, 2012 #4
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    Except that most of what CYP450 mentioned is what one learns in chemistry, not physics.
  6. Jun 10, 2012 #5
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    Well, I'm not so sure. At my school, we learned HOW TO USE ESR's and Mass Spec's in Chem, but we learned HOW THEY WORKED in Physics. I'm pretty sure the ESR and Mass Spec wasn't invented by chemists.
  7. Jun 10, 2012 #6
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    For many of us who work in theory and simulation, the answer is no. Nearly all of my work can be done with an internet connection, some textbooks, a MacBook Pro, and large quantities of coffee.

    I spend my time reading, calculating, inventing thought experiments, writing numerical code, typesetting in LaTeX, and figuring out how to make plots look intelligible. Some of my colleagues need more computing power than I do, so they use a bunch of cheap CPUs and graphics cards networked together. But many of us never actually wear a lab coat or spend time in laboratories.

    Of course, the models we're developing are designed to fit experimental data, and those data were collected using expensive things like He-dilution refrigerators, space-based telescopes, and nuclear reactors. So our research requires someone else to use specific instruments and lab equipment.
  8. Jun 10, 2012 #7
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    There are two types of Physics lectures:

    1. Experimental Physics

    Here you will learn about the notable experiments that were conducted, the ideas derived from them, enough formulae to explain "mathematically" what happens. I dont enjoy this at all, but to most physics students, its the cool part.

    2. Theoretical Physics:

    Here, you learn about the theoretical explanations of physical phenomena. Theoretical physics work happens in two ways. The first one being that something was discovered through experiment and theorists try to explain it theoretically, the other one being that theoretical physicists make something up on their own which then has to be verified by experiment. Theoretical physics is often in limbo because the student lacks the rigorous mathematical context of what actually happens.

    I lean more towards this, but as you might have understood from what ive written, I dislike it for the lack of rigor.

    You will have to take both of these sets of classes.

    In addition, you will learn math. Not in the sense of being able to perform calculations but by writing down rigorous proof of concept. If you are in high school right now, this is something you havent come in contact with. This is really tough for students who skip classes and generally dont give a **** about mathematics because they dont like it. But the beauty of mathematics is that they derive everything from first principles, meaning that as long as you keep going to the lectures and putting in the time, you can not fail these. There are no mental leaps performed that you just have to "get". Everything follows from something already introduced and they begin at the very beginning, postulating the existence of natural numbers (1,2,3...).

    "Does every physicist need a lab or expensive equipment?"

    Obviously not. If you frequent the documentaries, you must have heard about Stephen Hawking. He is a theoretical physicist, focusing mostly on stuff revolving about the origin of the universe. Thats a topic you cant perform experiments on, even if you wanted to. Everything he does happens in his head. Some experimentalists despise this kind of work. Some theorists despise the experiment tards. Normal anymosity between different groups. Nothing serious.

    Whats the work youre going to do? Thats an interesting question:

    Going down the rabbithole that is education in physics, you will gradually realize that the existing problems people work on are really small in scope. In history and documentaries, you only hear about the big discoveries. These big discoveries arent big discoveries at all. Take einstein for example. The guy "revolutionized" physics with his special/general relativity. What the media doesnt tell, what it might not even know, is that that guy called Poincare spent his entire life laying the mathematical foundation for general relativity. All Einstein did was to apply it to physics. Any other guy could have done this. Im not trying to put Einstein down, but he didnt invent the mathematics necessary, which is like 95% of the GR work. If you attend a GR lecture, its all about the mathematics.

    When you some day begin performing research in physics, it might be your job to just sit at a particle accelerator doing night shifts just being there to make sure nothing goes wrong.

    Right now, many PhD candidates are tasked to find the violation of a certain particle physics rule. Most of them will not find said violation, because its fairly well proven. If they dont find it, they wont have a future. Publish or perish.

    I think the biggest thing you need to understand is that what yyou will end up working on is a really small problem - one that people think youre able to actually perform work on. Those big discoveries wont be your job. Academia is, btw, the most competitive industry in the world. Finding a job here is like winning a lottery, but only MIT grads with top grades get a lottery ticket. (this is hyperbole, but im trying to make a point)

    Now that weve talked about the problems i see with physics (or the difference between physics and what outsiders think physicists do), let us examine the positive side:

    You get to learn a lot of very applicable skillsets to all kinds of businesses or situations in general. You will be one of the best educated people in the world. Studying physics, you will be able to exit the field at any point in your physics career and be able to find a good job with a highly recognized firm doing more or less intellectually interesting work.

    You should take a look at text books if youre not sure whether youre cut out for it. Visit the MIT homepage, find introductory level courses and check which books they recommend. Try to find those books (we all know how to find books on the internet), and see whether thats something youd like to do for the next 4 years. The MIT has some classes recorded. I recommend the lecture on linear algebra. If you can keep up with that, youll succeed in studying physics, assuming you put in the work.
  9. Jun 10, 2012 #8
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    Wow:surprised, after reading CYP450, Wayn3 and NegativeDept answers. I really don't know if i even want to do physics anymore. I've been wanting to be a physicist for a whole year know and i was bale to stand through all the cautions and disadvantages but after reading the physics forum for almost a month know, i think im done with this field, too much risk and too many things that sound boring too me.

    Guess i'll have to find something i don't like. :frown:

    :cry::cry: :cry::cry: :cry::cry: :cry::cry:
  10. Jun 10, 2012 #9
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    Before you decide to not do physics, you should learn about your options.

    As an engineer, you dont build a car from scratch. Starting out, if you can even land a job with a car manufacturer, you might be responsible for one of the less important pieces of the engine or the gear box. You dont get to build a whole thing. If you dont get one of those cool jobs, youll end up with some dishwasher manufacturer in back**** nowhere. remember how i just talked the "cool" jobs down. imagine grabbing one of the suckier ones.

    As a mathematician, only a select few will actually perform real research. If you did a phd in pure maths, youd most likely apply a technique one of your superiors applied to a problem to a very similar problem.

    As a biologist, you get to handle a couple substances. Record data, perform day-to-day lab work. When you rise through the ranks, maybe you get to lead a lab, in which case youre basically a manager.

    When you go into crime scene investigation, they dont give you a gun and designer sunglasses. Youll sit in a basement of some building writing reports on stuff you performed standardised routines on.

    As a sports professional, you will follow a strict diet plan and rigorous workout regimen. Youll get traded around on a somewhat above average salary that isnt all that great once you figure out how much of it you need to spend to support the lifestyle. Sure, if you are kobe bryant, youll be rich. kobe bryant is kobe bryant because hes very tall for the position he plays and because hes a badass who trains 10 times as hard as everyone else. on top of all the god given talent. for every kobe bryant, there are 1000 luke waltons. who? exactly. for every luke walton, there are 10000 who dont even get to play in the nba.

    As a doctor, youll pull ridiculous shifts and are everyones malpractice *****. If some exotic disease walks into the hospital, you dont get the **** out of the way. you get to stick your hands in there.

    As an attorney, if you dont graduate from yale, you dont move to new york and you wont be a partner in a big law firm. youll be the sorry bastard who gets to defend the drug addict who cant afford a real lawyer. Even if you graduate from yale, youll spend most of your waking life at the firm for the next 20 years til you are a partner. Every other year, 90% of your "class" will drop out of that career path because they werent among the top 10%.

    This is a general problem caused by hollywood. life is just not as awesome as it looks on tv. if tv was as dull as real life, nobody would watch it. people in their 40s know that. kids do obviously not.

    Even if you join the military, and you probably "get" that thats not as cool as on tv, the only time youll hold a weapon is in basic training. After that, youre some kind of support technician at a military base or on a ship, so youre doing a job you could just as well do at home, for the same money but the added benefit of turning into road rash whereever you go. becoming a navy seal takes just as long as becoming a top level manager in some firm.

    The awesome that you see on tv is the top 0.1% of what the entire field does. There are many professors out there that nobody has ever heard of. At "secondary" schools like duke for example.

    You might have watched some doctor show like greys anatomy that depicts the bad sides of being a doctor, like the long hours. You should be aware of the fact that greys anatomy still is about the top trainee program for doctors in the usa and thus probably in the world. these people trade in a part of their life for fame, interesting work and really fat paychecks. for every one of them, there are a hundred thousand who will spend the rest of their life treating forearm fractures and delivering flu shots to the local crack addicts on 2k a month working 24 hour shifts in between 6 hour sleep breaks.

    Pick something you like to do and do that for as long as possible. In my opinion, Physics is not that bad of a choice.

    All the stuff i write about might seem fatalistic, but its really not. life is just life. you can do a lot of amazing ****. you should just not expect your job to be awesome just because you studied x.
  11. Jun 10, 2012 #10
    Re: What do physicist actually do in various jobs, how do they research and is it for

    Just to clarify: we aren't all full-time codemonkeys and calculators. I am, but some of my colleagues fly off to France and Hawaii to build neutrino detectors - and some get their hands dirty working in labs that really do look like a mad scientist's lair from a sci-fi movie.

    Almost all physicists have to do calculations and computer programming. But for many physicists, that's only part of the job.
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