Skip to content

what do physicists do? [Q&A]


Atul, who wants to be a theoretical physicist, wants to know what exactly is it that they do? Do they sit and derive things all the time? Do they teach? How do they go about their work?

Theorists, yes, in general sit behind their desk either with a pencil and paper, or in front of a computer, solving equations to understand the physical phenomena that they come across. It could be to explain some existing experimental observations or simply to predict a new phenomenon, challenging the experimentalists, based on what is known or simply by imagination. Some theorists can be computational (using equations which have a number of variables) to see certain trend under some assumptions or using known facts whereas others could be even more fundamental starting from first principles to look for entirely new possibilities. The success of a theorist (just like an experimentalist) obviously depends on the accuracy of his/her predictions, degree of difficulty and soundness of explanation, and of course how it stands valid over the time. One of the most successful theories (known as BCS theory) is by J. Bardeen, L. N. Cooper and J. R. Shrieffer who were able to explain the phenomenon of superconductivity nearly five decades after its discovery. At times, with the most unusual and exciting predictions an entirely new sub field of scientific research can develop for example, the topological insulators what is currently one of the hottest areas of investigation in physics.

In the universities the theoretical professors are also required to teach in a classroom for students at all levels. In addition supervise prospective students in their PhD thesis work, write research proposals to obtain funds to carry out research, attend conferences to present their latest findings and write articles based on their research to publish in scientific journals to be read by the peers.

If a theorist works in an industrial setting, they benefit companies by solving problems that are part of the ongoing program there. Similarly, if one is employed in a research institution or a national lab they usually have a program that is complimentary to the place or do something which is akin to university.

Essentially one’s job or career, most of the time, is in one’s hand – be motivated, acquire knowledge and think smartly, work diligently and aim to learn/improve at all times.

It is a good idea to read the biography of some well known theorists such as Dr. A. Einstein, Dr. S. Chandrashekhar, Dr. Ramanujam, Dr. R. Feynman …..

One Comment