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Whats the difference between an engineer and experimental physicist?

  1. Nov 24, 2011 #1
    Apart from the obvious that one has a PHD and spent more time in school.

    When it comes to skillsets and capabilities, can one do more than the other?

    What about an engineer with a phd?

    Perhaps my idea of what a physicist does is that they just do very abstract work, can an experimental physicist compete with an engineer when it comes to technical 'hands on' work that is more grounded in reality?

    Also whats the difference between a theoretical physicist and an experimental one? When does one get to that divide where you can distinguish yourself from a theoretical physicist?

    for instance say theres an engineer and an experimental physicist, theyre both working at nasa's Jet propulsion lab, who would have the edge in developing and creating a new kind of propulsion system?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 24, 2011 #2


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    Engineering is more or less applied science. You use existing results that scientists (or maybe even other engineers) have figured out to create something that has applicable value (I would say "economic" but this is not always the case).

    I remember ZapperZ used to talk about accelerator physics where it is a very hands on kind of role and has similarities with engineering in that field (electrical), so hopefully he could chime in and clarify what I have said (and correct it if it is wrong).

    Also you have to realize that formal education doesn't dictate what you necessarily can or can't do. Some roles require that you are licensed engineer, but others will not, and in those roles it is not unheard of that people with physics training end up becoming experienced in something that would be considered engineering. It depends on the field you are looking about and the legalities surrounding that area.
  4. Nov 24, 2011 #3
    hm, thank you, although i heard that engineers can do research too, even more so if an engineer has a PHD.

    Also what differs an experimental physicist from a theoretical one?
  5. Nov 25, 2011 #4
    An experimental physicist focuses on creating experiments to explain/verify observed phenomena(usually), while a theoretical physicist would try to explain the verified observation of the experimentalist by coming up with a mathematical relationship to describe said phenomena. This isn't always the case, but I think it is roughly correct.

    An engineer with a PhD would be more concerned with researching new ways to create a new material or product that can advance humanity. The physicist is usually trying to understand what isn't known, and the engineer is usually trying to create new things from what is already known.
  6. Nov 25, 2011 #5
    Ok, I'm an experimental particle physicist, and I spend a lot on my time doing what I call engineering (actually, it's R&D). An Engineer is more practical, and we need them in a lab. An enginner actually knows the in and outs of electronics and mechanical devices, while I just try to solve all my technical problems with a screw driver or tweezers. I also spend way to much time programing and writing code, way more than any engineer (general, not talking about computer engineering here, more EE). The line between the two is very fuzzy, but I would say I know how and accelerator works, and what we are actually looking for (I know WAY more EM THEORY and QM and field theory and I can actually calculate a cross section), while an engineer can actually do really really useful stuff in the lab (like bond a silicon detector, machine a new cooling system, and yell at my amateur soldering job). When it comes down to it, I would say an experimental physicist knows some engineering, some computer science, a lot of physics (generally comes in handy only once a week), and probably (at least for particle physics) no chemistry. But, this is just a generalization for exp. particle physics.
  7. Nov 29, 2011 #6
    There is a good joke in here somewhere, waiting to get out. :smile:

    Seriously though, I've always believed that the difference is a question of focus. Both do similar work... but the engineer is more focused on the *building*, and the physicist is more focused on the *using*.
  8. Nov 29, 2011 #7
    Like nlsherrill said "The physicist is usually trying to understand what isn't known, and the engineer is usually trying to create new things from what is already known."

    A degree does help specialize these skillsets, but when you look at the people that work in these fields, you get people that are smart, and you get people that just think they're smart. You can't judge creativity based on a degree. That being said, engineers get a lot more credibility building a system, and physicist get more credibility developing an idea. There just happens to be more work building systems than developing ideas.
  9. Dec 3, 2011 #8
    hm..from what iv gathered so far it seems the engineer uses what is currently known and finds way to apply it OR even comes up with something that isnt yet discovered which is slightly out of reach to finish the job, whereas a physicist or an experimental physicist could go more far out with his ideas.

    for instance, if we dont know enough about time travel yet to build a time machine, the physicist(experimental or theoretical) would work at it till we do know enough.

    and where the point comes that we know enough to build a time machine, thats where an engineer would come in, correct?

    So an engineer would come into the picture when we are using current knowledge, to create something, or using mostly current knowledge, and an engineer could act like a catalyst and discover something that could help find the last missing piece of the puzzle.

    but unknown waters would mostly be the territory of a physicist?

    another example(forgive the science fiction references :P)

    We dont know enough about worm holes yet to travel through them, but say one day we have incredible breakthroughs and physicists finally discover what it would take specifically to build a time machine, thats where the engineer would come in yes? in other words most of the actual research and science thats required to build a time machine or to travel through a worm hole would be done by the physicist, but where the finishing touches are required or we can actually think of building a time machine as a viable possibility the engineer comes into the picture.

    Last edited: Dec 3, 2011
  10. Dec 4, 2011 #9
    Guys, Im perceiving my BE in electonics and communication engineering.. As i intend to be a theoretical physicist and my area of interest is particle physics/nuclear physics, i would like to perceive my ms abroad as the level of education here isnt satisifactory and at the moment im an average student as the environment here isnt that challenging enough.. My question is how does it go for an electronic engineer to go with masters in physics and what might be the problems for me as an average student in college who has a dream to learn lots of stuff in physics going abroad?
  11. Dec 4, 2011 #10


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    Hey Vinay Hebbar and welcome to the forums.

    You should check out Paul Dirac who did electrical engineering and who ended up becoming a pretty damn good theoretical physicist.

    His life path might give you a few ideas.
  12. Dec 4, 2011 #11
    Hey buddy thanks for the info.. You got any biographies or something based on him? If so, leave a link..
  13. Dec 4, 2011 #12
    Whatever may be the path at the moment.. I will be out with an undergrad degree in one and half years before that, there are lots of math skills that is to be learnt.. That threatens me.. Carrying both hand in hand.. The level of math required takes years to master.. Without that, I faeel im not eligible for that MS in physics.. Thats the problem now.. Probably Dirac had the same problem.. But the difference is i need to learn math in this duration of 1 and half years.. Got the problem? :P
  14. Dec 4, 2011 #13
    My kid built batteries out of lemons, carbon rods, and zinc coated nails for a science fair project. The power output was enough to get a small led to barely glow. One had to cup one's hands to see the glow. One of the judges made a comment that the led was pretty dim. My kid answered with, "Getting the led to light at all is physics. Lighting up a city is engineering." I love it when he listens :)

  15. Dec 4, 2011 #14
    Big Brother decides to do a test on conceptual problem solving. They put a male Engineer in one corner and a male Physicist in the adjacent corner. Against the opposite wall is an engaging lady with a table set for a romantic dinner. The Engineer and the Physicist are given the following direction:

    "Each of you has an equal opportunity to have dinner with the lady. The only stipulation is that as you move toward the table, you may only move one-half of the remaining distance. There will be monitoring equipment and severe consequences if you violate this stipulation."

    The testers come back several hours later. The Physicist is still in his corner. The Engineer and the lady are finishing up a lovely dinner. The testers ask the Physicist what happened. "I realized that since I could only move half the remaining distance each move - then I would never get there. I was stuck here working on a way to get by this.

    The testers then asked the Engineer. His response: "I never got completely there. But I got close enough."
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