What kind of tools do physicists use?

  • Thread starter nst.john
  • Start date
I know physicists use measurement tools to measure things from speed to capacitance, but a lot of people tell me that physicists have hands on work..................where is this hands-on work? Besides doing the math and measuring data in experiments, what do physicists do that can be considered hands-on work?
Building an experiment piece, taking apart lab equipment if something breaks, etc. You aren't just going to sit in an office crunching numbers. You will have your sleeves rolled up in a lab. There is a certain amount of grunt work that has to be done before you can start collecting data.

The physics department at my school has a dedicated machine shop just these said purposes. Yes there is some one who runs the shop, but you are there half the time explaining what you need and helping make something. Maybe i'm different.
If you are different I would like to join you with that. I love physics and the idea of getting my hands "dirty"
Physicists come in two varieties: theorists and experimentalists. Einstein was of the first kind, Faraday of the second. Some happen to be both, but that was more frequent in the past. It should be said that experimentalists must have solid training in the theory of physics, and theorists must follow the current state of experimental knowledge very closely.


Gold Member
Where is the "hands on work" for physicists?

One example is a mine-hunting sonar project I worked on. We had built two complete experimental sonar systems for our customer. We brought one out to sea for testing aboard our research ship. Several miles off the coast we laid down on the bottom a few actual underwater mines (inert, of course), each one a different type. Our plan was to dip the sonar (lower it on a long cable) from our ship and try to locate and identify the mine targets. Using an ultrasonic frequency, similar to that used for medical ultrasound devices, we were able to locate and partially identify those mines at some ranges. We measured those ranges, bearings, sound velocity, salinity, temperature, acoustic attenuation, target cross-section, plus more. We tested for several months. Our customer was happy. Now, that was "hands on" work.


Science Advisor
There is a lot of variety in the types of experiments that physicists do, so it depends. Often, there are optical measurements or lasers, which require some alignment of mirrors, prisms, gratings. These need to be realigned when the environmental conditions change. Sometimes, it's quicker to build a component yourself, so you probably need to be handy with electrical circuits and stuff. A lot of labs use vacuums, so you might need to clean stuff really well and check leaks and stuff. Sometimes, you have to adjust some physical thing; make a measurement; adjust it again; make another measurement; etc. Sometimes you have to climb into confined spaces, or deal with cryogenics, or move heavy equipment. It all depends.

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