Careers in General Physics

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Careers in General Physics

Unlike the general physics jobs from generations past, careers in physics, today, usually require the selection of a particular subfield of physics as a specialty. When the subfields were just being discovered, physicists would work in many different areas and you could argue that they had careers in general physics. Albert Einstein (1879–1955), for example, made a career of general physics study by working on problems in special and general relativity, solid-state physics, cosmology, statistical mechanics, Brownian motion, atomic spectra, and unified field theories. You could also classify Lev Landau (1908–1968) as having held a job in general physics because he worked on problems in quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, diamagnetism, superfluidity, plasma physics, and superconductivity.

Today, physicists seeking careers in general physics need to have a strong understanding of the various branches of physics: classical mechanics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, electromagnetism, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Undergraduate course work might lead to an entry-level general physics job that touches upon all of these branches, with the exception of relativity. In a graduate school that grants doctorates in physics, special relativity is part of a course in quantum electrodynamics, which is a subfield of quantum mechanics. A graduate school might offer a course in general relativity taught by someone with an understanding of this area. Of course, there are many career opportunities in general physics at colleges and universities.

There are no journals with the titles Careers in General Physics or General Physics Jobs because these are not specific areas of research. However, Physical Review A, published by the American Institute of Physics, and the Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical, published by the Institute of Physics, cover one of the main research areas in physics, spelled out in the second journal’s title and abbreviated AMO. The other areas of research in physics are condensed-matter physics, particle physics, astrophysics, geophysics, and biophysics.

A career in AMO means studying matter-matter and light-matter interaction on the scale of one or a few atoms. A job in condensed-matter means being a solid-state physicist. Particle physics is also called “high energy” physics because particle accelerators are used to create interactions at high energies. Astrophysics includes astronomy and cosmology. A job in geophysics means being an earth scientist. Many physicists develop careers in medical physics by working in radiation and radiology departments of hospitals. This might be considered an example of a job in biophysics.

Careers in Applied Physics

Applied physics is the application of the science of physics to helping human beings and solving their problems. It differs from engineering because engineers solve well-defined problems. Applied physicists use physics or conduct physics research to develop new technologies or solve engineering problems.

For example, medical physicists in radiation therapy departments of hospitals measure and calculate the radiation doses given to cancer patients. Research on improving dosimetry for the treatment plans of cancer patients is considered an applied physics job.

Caltech, Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Maryland all have departments dedicated to the subject. The applied physics career opportunies at these institutes of higher education and each generally indicates the particular area of physics that is being applied. Universities, private laboratories, and government laboratories do research in the areas where there is the most interest and activity and applied physics jobs are plentiful as a result. Fiber optics, astrophysics, vacuum tunneling, nondestructive testing, acoustics, semiconductors, laser and quantum optics, and condensed matter are booming fields at present. These areas of study are often integrated with allied disciplines such as electrical engineering, engineering material science, inorganic and organic chemistry, and biology.

All of these areas of research represent potential careers in applied physics in a number of smaller fields. Condensed-matter physics, for example, includes the study of crystalline solids, liquids, supercooled liquids like glass, amorphous materials like ceramics, and polymer compounds. The study of such materials has made possible revolutionary breakthroughs in a number of engineering fields, such as transistors, semiconductor-based lasers, and fiber-optic communication devices. To give another example, the study of nondestructive testing of engineering materials has made it possible for engineers to test heavy engineering structures without having to cause any damage or loss. Polymer technology has made possible ultra-light, bullet-proof uniforms for soldiers in action and lightweight aircraft parts.

Careers in Astronomy & Astrophysics

The two terms are generally linked when naming scientific journals covering the subject and graduate science departments because most professional astronomers have graduate degrees in physics. As a result we include astronomy jobs and astrophysics jobs in one category. The discovery that the universe is expanding was an astronomical advance, that piqued interest in astronomy and astrophysics careers worldwide. The theoretical equation relating the speed of a star with its redshift is an achievement atributed to career astrophysicists. Likewise, radio astronomy was responsible for the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), but astrophysics showed the connection between CMBR and the Big Bang. In 1000 BC, using visible light, Chinese astronomers measured the difference between the location of the sun on the shortest day and the longest day to measure the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis. So the overlap of careers in astronomy and astrophysics is quite prevalent. In addition to all of the electromagnetic spectrum, career astronomers now use neutrinos from the Sun and supernovae with detectors placed underground. There are also interferometers that respond to gravitational radiation instead of light, with arms that are 4 km long, to detect the gravity waves of general relativity.

There are a great many amateur astronomers and societies. A common activity is called star hopping, which involves locating faint stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects with the help of star charts and bright stars. Amateur astronomers often contribute to the lifework of career astronomers by monitoring the changes in brightness of variable stars, tracking asteroids, discovering comets, and observing occultations.

Dark matter and dark energy are hypothetical concepts whose existence is indicated by recent discoveries. Matters of current interest to career astrophysicists are the dynamics of stellar evolution, galaxy formation, black holes, and the origin of cosmic rays. Until very recently, the largest structures were thought to be superclusters of galaxies, which are bigger than clusters of galaxies. Now, there are voids, filaments and walls of galaxies, and gaseous structures 400,000 light years across. With all these new and exciting discoveries, its no wonder we have an abundance of astronomy jobs and astrophysics jobs listed on our boards.

Careers in Atomic & Molecular Physics (+ Optical Physics)

Careers in atomic physics were responsible for the advent of quantum mechanics. Atomic physics is easier to define than molecular physics since it concerns only isolated atoms and ions, electron configurations, and the excitation of electrons by photons or collisions. The property of the nucleus is relevant in atomic physics only when considering hyperfine coupling. Atomic physics jobs are the foundation of plasma physics and atmospheric physics. Careers in atomic physics are dedicated to the study of matter–matter and light–matter on the scale of single atoms or structures containing a few atoms. This broader field is called AMO physics or atomic, molecular, and optical physics.

Molecular physics jobs are usually dedicated to the study of molecules—electrons, nuclei, and chemical bonding—made up of a few atoms in the gas phase. Various types of spectroscopy (electromagnetic, electron, mass, etc.) are the most important experimental methods in this field so you will find that careers in molecular physics often incorporate this type of work. Molecular physics jobs overlap with quantum chemistry, physical chemistry, and chemical physics. Quantum chemistry is the use of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory in chemistry. Physical chemistry is the application of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and kinetics to phenomena in chemical systems. Chemical physics investigates chemistry using the techniques of scientists working in atomic physics, molecular physics, and condensed-matter physics. Whereas chemical physics studies chemistry from the point of view of physics, physical chemistry studies the physical nature of chemistry.

Optical physics is the study of the generation of electromagnetic radiation and its interaction with matter. Since the devices of optical engineering (lenses, optical sensors, lasers, fiber optic communication systems, etc.) are used for research in optical physics, there is no hard and fast distinction between optical physics, optics, and optical engineering.

Careers in Biophysics

The first career in biophysics began when Conrad Roentgen discovered that X-rays could be used to treat cancer and it became necessary to measure how much energy human tissue absorbs when exposed to various kinds of radiation. There are now many medical physicists who help physicians at hospitals diagnose and treat various diseases. In addition to human beings, biophysics jobs incorporate the study of all levels of biological organization, from molecules to ecosystems. Careers in molecular biophysics approach questions in biochemistry and molecular biology quantitatively by using fluorescent imaging, electron microscopy, X-ray crystallography, and spectroscopy based on nuclear magnetic resonance and quantum tunneling. Molecular biology, of course, is concerned with important molecules like enzymes, DNA, and proteins. The structure of DNA was determined by X-ray crystallography. Molecular biophysics jobs often overlap with nanotechnology, which involves manipulating materials one atom or one molecule at a time.

Biophysics careers also overlap with systems biology and bioengineering. Bioengineering applies engineering principles to biology and medicine, an example being designing prosthetics. Systems biology is the study of organ systems (biology systems) with an integrationist rather than a reductionist approach. The scientific method usually is associated with identifying the components of interactions and showing how complex systems can be reduced to simple systems. However, in biophysics work an attempt is made to understand the complexity of biological systems by observing multiple components simultaneously and integrating the observations with mathematical models and an understanding of statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and chemical kinetics.

Career biophysicists discovered the self-generating wave of electrochemical activity that allows nerve cells to propagate information over distances (action potential). The nerve cells of squids were used because the nerve axons are 1000 times wider than in humans, making it easier to insert electrodes. It was discovered that the action potential was caused by changes in the permeability of the cell membrane to sodium and potassium.

Careers in Computational Physics

Mathematical computations are an essential component of modern research in particle physics, condensed-matter physics, astrophysics, fluid mechanics, quantum field theory, quantum chromodynamics, and plasma physics. Computational physics jobs involve calculations and formulas. To give another example, in solid-state physics functionals (functions of another function) are used to investigate many-body systems (atoms, molecules, and condensed phases). One can also think of computational physics jobs as work in solving differential equations, calculating integrals, performing Monte Carlo calculations on a computer, solving matrix eigenvalue problems, etc. Computational physics careers appear to be part of theoretical physics, but some consider it to be a separate discipline. Mathematical physics is different from computational physics because computational physics relies on a quantitative theory that already exits. The Journal of Mathematical Physics defines its subject matter as the "the application of mathematics to problems in physics and the development of mathematical methods suitable for such applications and for the formulation of physical theories."

The Office of Science of the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) supports over 40 percent of the basic research in physical sciences in the United States and operates 10 major laboratories, such as the Argonne National Laboratory, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Its Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program promotes careers in computational physics and the use of tools to analyze, model, simulate, and predict complex phenomena important to the DOE. In 2001, it began the Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program that supports many computational physics jobs. The program is focused on advancing scientific discovery using supercomputers performing trillions of calculations per second (tera-scale). SciDAC projects are aimed at “developing future energy sources, studying global climate change, accelerating research in designing new materials, improving environmental cleanup methods, and understanding physics from the tiniest particles to massive supernovae explosions.” SciDAC publishes a journal and has established SciDAC Institutes at four major universities with a total of 13 universities participating in the partnership.

Careers in Computer Science

Careers in engineering involve the creative application of scientific principles to solving human problems. Electrical engineering began with Allesandro Volta's and Michael Faraday's discoveries and mechanical engineering began with James Watt's invention. A job in computer science is an engineering job and such careers started in the early 1940s when the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) was built for the U. S. Army. Computer science began with the work of Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and John von Neumann on algorithm theory (step-by-step procedures for solving a problem) and mathematical logic. Jobs in information technology focus attention on processing and transmitting information and only involve computer science because computers are used. A career in computer science, as opposed to a career in information technology, means understanding information processing and transformation.

A computer science engineer decides on the best types of programming languages, algorithms, and data structures (lists, arrays, records, stacks, queues, and trees) to use for a particular application. A career in computer science as a software engineer requires developing accurate and robust computer programs. A computer's memory limitation is one of many factors a computer science engineer needs to consider. Jobs in computer science include making operating systems, which control the overall functioning of a computer, easier to use and more efficient.

A computer science career can focus on computer architecture, which is the design and analysis of new computer systems. Computer science jobs in this area involve improving computers by increasing their speed, storage capacity, and reliability. Software and hardware models are developed that will ultimately result in new computers. Computer science careers in this sub-field often focus on particular tasks, such as image and signal processing or controlling mechanical systems (robotics).

Computer science jobs frequently involve research in artificial intelligence, which attempts to mimic human intelligence to improve our understanding of human learning, inference, cognition, and problem solving.

There are also many computer science careers available in robotics, which is the design and development of computer controlled mechanical devices. Such devices range from toys to completely automated factory assembly lines. Increasing the dexterity and adaptability of robots is a research area closely aligned with artificial intelligence.

Careers in computer science can also focus on research of the interface between humans and computers. Designing a better keyboard for handicapped individuals is an example of a job in computer science that focuses on the human-computer interface. Since there are many different computer applications and many different kinds of users, the development of input and output devices provides many computer science career opportunities. Other jobs in computer science are related to computer networking and communication, database systems, parallel computation, distributed computation, computer-human interaction, computer graphics, and numerical and symbolic computation.

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