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What does it take to be a distinguished physicist?

  1. Dec 27, 2013 #1
    Disclaimer: ignore the word 'distinguished' in the title, what I mean is a person who is successful in their field of work.

    The topic of this discussion is what it takes to be successful in the field of physics. More specifically, if you need to be born with a certain quality. For example, "a sense to math" (never FULLY understood that one), "Good with realistic subjects" (I don't live in the USA, in my country subjects are divided to humanian subjects [similar to Liberal Arts] and realistic subjects [scientific subjects]).

    I like physics and the very nature of it, as of now I am in my final year of high school. I study something like "honor physics", a higher level physics, though, not university level. We studied electromagnetism, electricity, mechanics, optics and modern physics. Throughout my studies i've done well and my average is just shy of an A+. I don't understand theory immediately, maybe after I have read it again and have solved a couple of exercises. Some classmates in my group are nothing like that - They're sort of geniuses, so to speak, they understand the theory almost immediately and have no problem EXPLAINING it themselves, after maybe just one or two times of hearing the professor.

    As I am thinking of studying higher-level physics in the university and perhaps getting a masters or a doctorate, I can't help but wonder if I "stand a chance". It sort of frustrates me that sometimes, although I do understand the subject in the end, I tend to not fully comprehend what is being taught, and others (I realize that envying them will do no good) catch on to it at the speed of light. I'm suppose to choose my major next year and I really haven't made up my mind yet. I don't think my love for the subject makes up for perhaps my lack of X (I have no idea what X is, that's what i'm asking here. or even if there is such a thing).

    What are your opinions on this subject? are physicists born with certain mental faculties that provide them with the ability to excel at their field?
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 27, 2013 #2
    Why do you care about being a distinguished physicist? Why does that actually matter?
  4. Dec 27, 2013 #3
    If your main goal is to become a distinguished physicist, then you're setting yourself up for a giant disappointment. Such a thing is almost impossible. The chance you obtain even a professorship in physics is 1%. And a professor isn't even close to a distinguished physicist.
    Furthermore, if your goal is to be famous and stuff, then you're having the wrong mindset for physics. You should go into physics because you enjoy it and because you want to find out more about the world you live in.

    Also, just raw talent doesn't guarantee you success. Hard work on the other hand, is much more important. It is not uncommon that the smart people eventually fail because they never had to work hard, while the hard working people eventually get there.
  5. Dec 27, 2013 #4
    As I replied to Arsenic&Lace, I meant successful, not neccesarily famous. I do enjoy physics and have interest in it not because of how much of a millionaire i'm going to be as a physicist nor how many chicks would fall in love with me because of that. I appreciate your comment, thanks. I have seen other discussions of this type and there was never a definitive answer, maybe in physics its different than in other subjects.
    When I said distinguished I didn't mean famous, I thought the word means something else. I meant a physicist who has is successful and contributed to his field. sorry for the mix-up.
  6. Dec 27, 2013 #5
    The answer is yes, lots of slightly above average people become physics professors, I know some personally. You do not need to be a massive outlier. However the theorists tend to be maniacs, even the average ones, so from my anecdotal experience it depends upon whether you enter more applied or experimental physics or the theoretical stuff.
  7. Dec 27, 2013 #6
    Fair enough, thanks for the explanation.

    In my opinion, what it takes to be a succesful physicist is passion for physics, a lot of hard work, a bit of natural talent and a lot of luck.
  8. Dec 27, 2013 #7


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    This is a question that comes up quite often; if you do a forum search you’ll find countless other threads on the same topic.

    There is no X, no magical ingrained talent at birth. Hogwash.

    Studying physics is your best shot at being a distinguished physicists and anyone is capable of studying physics.
  9. Dec 28, 2013 #8
    I appreciate your answers :)
    I have another pretty basic question, do astrophysicists and cosmologists go under the theoretical physicists category, or is it a whole other category?
  10. Dec 28, 2013 #9
    there are really some genius level people doing amazing work in mathematics and physics. I wonder if you need pure talent to do algebra and calculations in your head. I kind of feel the same way, I'm working on Griffiths problems and it takes time, but I still have a passion for it and it's the best tuition. I keep thinking though of really great people too much like Feynman. It gives me satisfaction to find a solution that is more complex than my professor but without salary and funding I don't think you can really build a life on that
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2013
  11. Dec 28, 2013 #10


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    Astrophysics to my knowledge is a branch of astronomy, so there are both theorists and observers. Cosmology looks at the universes origins and what have you. I think there are both theorist and experimentalist here too.

    What is this fascination with doing calculations in your head? At most it's a party flavor. There are no practical purposes for doing calculations or algebra in your head. I don't understand the rest of what you wrote.
  12. Dec 28, 2013 #11
    There isn't a physics/math gene, no. There are, however, natural propensities that allows one to develop skills in physics/math problem solving at a faster/easier rate than those who do not have those propensities.

    I doubt most people would doubt that there exists athletic talents, it stands to reason that intellectual talents also exist.
  13. Dec 28, 2013 #12
    There are theoretical and experimental (and computational) aspects to every branch of physics. When you get a phd in physics, your expertise is not in physics generally, it's a very specific branch of physics. Contrary to what you might've heard on documentaries by Michio Kaku and the like, no ones job is theoretical physicist. You are a theoretical astrophysicist, a theoretical particle physicist, a theoretical solid state physicist, etc, etc, you get the idea. Theoreticians are alot of pen and paper mathematics as well programming and simulations (pertaining to your branch of physics obviously). Theoretical physicists don't all work on string theory or the life and death of the universe, also contrary to the documentaries. You might be a theorist whose mathematics pertains to the movement of electrons in a semiconductor for instance. You might be writing code simulating how particles move in a gas. It's a much more varied job than the documentaries would like to show.
  14. Dec 28, 2013 #13


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    I’ve never seen a paper linking above average levels of intelligence to genetics (or whether such a thing even exists), so it doesn't stand to reason at all. Do you have any research that dictates a preposition to faster/easier rates of learning having some kind of physiology mechanism behind it? Or is purely subjective and environmental, which seems the most likely reasoning.
  15. Dec 28, 2013 #14
  16. Dec 28, 2013 #15


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    R136a1, Im not talking about people with documented mental disabilities, so your first link is of no use.

    The second link borders on puesdo-science and even admits the failings of the research several times throughout each category. There is no way to accurately test for intelligence to any degree of certainty within the non disabled population.
  17. Dec 28, 2013 #16
    Of course learning has something to do with biology; how else would there be a clear distinction between humans and other animals in terms of intellect? As a simple example, a Chimpanzee can never be a theoretical physicist.

    As far as just being a physicist is concerned, I think a reasonable number of people (but not all) can do it. If you're trying to be Feynman, good luck with that.
  18. Dec 28, 2013 #17


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    Rampant hero worship, when will you end?

    I like how you're now taking the conversation to mean different species, talk about apples and oranges. We’re actually talking about average humans who lack any of mental disability A&L.
  19. Dec 28, 2013 #18
    So you actually believe that every average human can be like Feynman?
  20. Dec 28, 2013 #19
    The talk about various kinds of animals was mere to make unequivocal the fact that there is a biological basis for intelligence.
  21. Dec 28, 2013 #20


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    I would pose the question, what does that even mean? Any average human is capable of studying physics, thats my premise. Furthermore, anyone who studies physics is capable of making contributions to the field given time and resources.

    To suggest everyone can emulate someone, well thats impossible, as differing environmental, dumb luck, and interests in a topic also play a role (as well a thousand other factors that might impact said emulation.) What I’m arguing is there is nothing magical or ingrained that can be isolated and studied that will predict ones success in any given area.

    There is no intelligence factor, Einstein, Feynman, Neumann, they were all average men who did amazing things. Thats the distinction that needs to be kept clear.
  22. Dec 28, 2013 #21
    Exactly, and the links of mental retardation were meant to accomplish the same thing. If a certain genetic combination causes people to have a very low IQ, then it's not unreasonable that other combinations produce smart individuals (although other factors are clearly also important).

    As for the links being pseudo-science, the burden of proof is on you to show it's pseudo-science. You can't just call something pseudo-science because you don't like what it says!
  23. Dec 28, 2013 #22
    You should try to tutor people. You'll see immediately that some people get it immediately and other people just don't get it at all. You try and explain it hundreds and thousands of times using different methods and they don't get it. Telling me that they are capable of making contributions to QFT is a joke.

    Gauss did his fathers' finances at the age of three. Good luck finding many children who can do that. Clearly, he was not average.
  24. Dec 28, 2013 #23


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    The links itself comment on the pseudo-scientific conclusions that are drawn from admittedly flawed or inadequate research. Again, there is no suggestion of a mechanism by which intelligence can be quantified, or even an accurate way to measure to intelligence.

    Anyway, the burden of proof resides with the one who suggests there is a physical mechanism by which human intelligence varies in the average population. Obviously Fragile X and Down Syndrome impact intelligence due to the very fact that proteins need for brain development are silenced, missing, or otherwise damaged.
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2013
  25. Dec 28, 2013 #24
    Well I don't want to stress this point out, I agree that many average individuals can still make perfectly good physicists. But the notion that Einstein or Feynman were merely average is probably wishful thinking; however, I suspect there were and are very many people with similar abilities at the top of the class and far more rarely the bottom and middle. Just that there are lots of them doesn't mean that they are average, however.
  26. Dec 28, 2013 #25
    Which links exactly?


    No, you misunderstand the burden of proof. The burden of proof is with the one making the assertion. So if I assert "There is a physical mechanism" then I have the burden of proof. If you assert "There is not a physical mechanism", then you have the burden of proof. If you say "I don't believe your assertion that there is a physical mechanism", then you would not have the burden of proof.

    Indeed, I do assert that there is a physical mechanism. So I need to meet my burden of proof. I try to do so by posting the wiki links which you found unacceptable for some vague reason.

    However, you also make the assertion that there is no physical mechanism. This is not the same as not believing my assertion. Since you make the assertion, you need to provide evidence for it.
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