What is the reality of being a physicist?

  • #1
Hacker Jack
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Who are the people that work on the ground breaking theories and the major discoveries, the big stuff! Why aren't most physicists the next Einstein or "Insert famous scientist here" and what do they work on for their day to day work?

I wonder this because a lot of people who don't know much about physics (like me besides high school physics I half remember) but are aware of major mainstream physics events think that physicists do all the cool things and spend their time doing cool things that change the world. Maybe it is like any profession where there is an idealism towards it but then there it a reality that splits apart into various different sections of work and what is more in tune with what people think it is and other sections are what some may call boring (even though that is subjective).

What makes you passionate about physics knowing you could live the rest of your life being wrong about something or never really contributing anything to physics but still being a physicist?
 
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  • #2
russ_watters
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Who are the people that work on the ground breaking theories and the major discoveries, the big stuff! Why aren't most physicists the next Einstein or "Insert famous scientist here" and what do they work on for their day to day work?

I wonder this because a lot of people who don't know much about physics (like me besides high school physics I half remember) but are aware of major mainstream physics events think that physicists do all the cool things and spend their time doing cool things that change the world.
It's rare today that a single physicist in relative isolation can make a truly groundbreaking discovery/new theory. Relativity was primarily a mathematical exercise. Things like the use of the LHC to discover the Higgs Boson are the product of teams of hundreds of people (not including the construction team for the device itself), and the groundwork of predicting it involved a lot of work the general public never hears about. I have a somewhat close relative (mom's cousin) that was on the team that won the Nobel*, and didn't even know it until well after, even though I was (via news) familiar with the work.

[edit]
*Oops, wrong discovery. It was a neutrino discovery:
https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/mcdonald-lecture.pdf
https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/mcdonald-lecture-slides.pdf
Check out the list of 263 authors, near/at the bottom.
 
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  • #3
Rive
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... you could live the rest of your life being wrong about something or never really contributing anything to physics ...
Being wrong makes most of the work. You just have to be right about wrong, and then you do contribute :wink:
 
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  • #4
chemisttree
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Physicists help operate medical devices like the proton beam used in cancer treatment. Still work to be done in that field. I would feel reeeeealy good about being a physicist operating one of those machines... even knowing that I would never be recognized by the Nobel Committee!

https://aapm.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/mp.13206
 
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  • #5
collinsmark
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You might want to check out Dr. Becky. (I'm subscribed to her YouTube channel). While most of her videos discuss recent developments in astrophysics and what's up in the night sky, sometimes she discusses life of being an astrophysicist. She's really quite relatable.

Here's an example of recent video (yesterday):
 
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  • #6
gleem
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Why aren't most physicists the next Einstein or "Insert famous scientist here" and what do they work on for their day to day work?

You might ask similar questions of athletes, musicians, or artists. Do they all aspire to fame and fortune when they start out? What do they do between MVP awards or masterpieces?

Between if there is a between their Ah -Ha! moments physicists must firm up their discoveries and fill in the details so that they can convince themselves and their colleagues of the validity of their discoveries. This may require considerable effort and time waiting through periods of relative nonproductivity either due to the need to develop new skills, making the yet unrecognized "obvious" relationships, distractions, fatigue, equipment failure, waiting for results or cooperation from others, keeping up with the literature, backtracing due to errors, and the usual human afflictions.

What makes you passionate about physics knowing you could live the rest of your life being wrong about something or never really contributing anything to physics but still being a physicist?

What made me interested (passion was not yet discovered when I started out ) in physics was not a Nobel prize quest or looking to make the great discovery that would change the course of physics but a simple curiosity about our universe and what made it tick. I learned that most physicists contribute bits of knowledge and information into the discipline to"grease the wheels", so to speak, of its progress. This work is interesting and satisfying to the individual as it develops skills and opens new sometimes unforeseen opportunities. I learned that physicists are human too, just skilled in a particular niche of human activity.
 
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