Why Major in Physics?
The scientist does not study nature because it is useful: he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. -Henri Poincare
As with any human endeavor, there are as many reasons for pursuing physics as there are physicists. This page will help you learn about some of these motivations and begin to develop your own reasons for a career in physics.
You might begin by meeting the people who do physics, or by exploring descriptions of physics, museums, and histories of science on the web. Or you may prefer to learn about the main branches of physics research. As you become more informed you will be interested in the professional organizations that physicists form.
If you are really serious about physics, you should start doing undergraduate research and see if you like it.
- Nobel laureates Meet those who have been awarded physics highest honor.
- The contribution of women has been significant though underpublicized.
- Here are some examples of people who do physics from physics central.
- A link to the AJP website which redirects you to many useful websites for learning about physicists.
- A nice compliation of famous Physicists and Astronomers
- My favorite physicists: Richard Feynman , N. David Mermin , Kip Thorne , and Stephen Hawking .
- Read descriptions of the field of physics at AIP or APS.
- Check out the links at Science Hobbyist.
- You may be interested in these Physics Success stories.
- Perhaps the best hands-on museum in the nation is the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
- There is an excellent Physics Museum at Oxford and of course there is the Smithsonian.
- Celebrate 100 years of the American Physical Society
- Develop perspective by following links to the History of Physics.
- Or start your own web search from physics web.
- Learn about physics at the Physical Science Resource Center.
Branches of Physics:
Each bulleted item links to a representative page (rather shaded towards my favorite universities). Similar pages exist at other universities in each topic area. The pages chosen here present one perspective and should not be taken as the definitive description of that research area. For other perspectives you can visit a comprehensive list of graduate programs in the US. At each university you can search for a page on research interests for that department.
In practice most of these branches of physics employ both theorists and experimentalists. Occasionally an individual wears both hats.
Condensed Matter Physics - www.lassp.cornell.edu
Condensed matter physics is the field of physics that deals with the macroscopic physical properties of matter. In particular, it is concerned with the condensed phases that appear whenever the number of constituents in a system is extremely large and the interactions between the constituents are strong. The most familiar examples of condensed phases are solids and liquids, which arise from the bonding and electromagnetic force between atoms. More exotic condensed phases include the superfluid and the Bose-Einstein condensate found in certain atomic systems at very low temperatures, the superconducting phase exhibited by conduction electrons in certain materials, and the ferromagnetic and antiferromagnetic phases of spins on atomic lattices.
Condensed matter physics is by far the largest field of contemporary physics.A lot of progress has also been made in theoretical condensed matter physics. By one estimate, one third of all American physicists identify themselves as condensed matter physicists. Condensed matter physics has a large overlap with chemistry, materials science, nanotechnology and engineering.
One of the reasons for calling the field condensed matter physics is that many of the concepts and techniques developed for studying solids actually apply to fluid systems. For instance, the conduction electrons in an electrical conductor form a type of quantum fluid with essentially the same properties as fluids made up of atoms. In fact, the phenomenon of superconductivity, in which the electrons condense into a new fluid phase in which they can flow without dissipation, is very closely analogous to the superfluid phase found in helium 3 at low temperatures.
Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics - www.its.caltech.edu/~qoptics/
Atomic, molecular and optical physics is the study of matter-matter and light-matter interactions on the scale of single atoms or structures containing a few atoms. The three areas are grouped together because of their interrelationships, the similarity of methods used, and the commonality of the energy scales that are relevant. Physicists sometimes abbreviate the field as AMO physics. All three areas include both classical and quantum treatments.
Individual atoms or small groups of atoms are the focus in this field. Some researches use single trapped atoms to make extremely precise measurements to confirm theories about Quantum Mechanics or Relativity. Others are exploring the interaction between atoms (or molecules) or the interaction between light and atoms. Lasers and laser physics are an important part of this research area.
Nuclear Physics - www.krl.caltech.edu
Nuclear physics is the branch of physics concerned with the nucleus of the atom. It has three main aspects: probing the fundamental particles (protons and neutrons) and their interactions, classifying and interpreting the properties of nuclei, and providing technological advances. Nuclear physics includes the fission and fusion reactions that provide nuclear power, as well as the nuclear synthesis process that fuels the sun and other stars.
High Energy Particle Physics - www.lns.cornell.edu
Particle physics is a branch of physics that studies the elementary constituents of matter and radiation, and the interactions between them. It is also called high energy physics, because many elementary particles do not occur under normal circumstances in nature, but can be created and detected during energetic collisions of other particles, as is done in particle accelerators.
The current state of the classification of elementary particles is the Standard Model. It describes the strong, weak, and electromagnetic fundamental forces, using mediating gauge bosons. The species of gauge bosons are the gluons, W- and W+ and Z bosons, and the photons, respectively. The model also contains 24 fundamental particles, which are the constituents of matter. Finally, it predicts the existence of a type of boson known as the Higgs boson, which has yet to be discovered.
Another major effort in theoretical particle physics is string theory. String theorists attempt to construct a unified description of quantum mechanics and general relativity by building a theory based on small strings, and branes rather than particles. If the theory is successful in this, it may be considered a Theory of Everything.
Astrophysics - www.tapir.caltech.edu
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties (luminosity, density, temperature and chemical composition) of astronomical objects such as stars, galaxies, and the interstellar medium, as well as their interactions. The study of cosmology is theoretical astrophysics at the largest scales.
Because it is a very broad subject, astrophysicists typically apply many disciplines of physics including, but not limited to, mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics. In practice, modern astronomical research involves a substantial amount of physics.
Physics Education Research - www.phys.washington.edu/groups/peg/
This is a relatively new field in physics departments. The practitioners are physicists who observe students learning physics and examine the difficulties encountered. Their work is changing the face of the college physics courses nationwide.
Interdisciplinary Research - www.physics.cornell.edu/physics/research/resrch.otherdepts.menu.html
A growing number of departments support degree candidates who want to straddle two disciplines in their research. Topics like biophysics are indicative of the programs available.
These sites have multiple pages with considerable content and many related links.
- AAAS American Association for the Advancement of Science
- AAS American Astronomical Society
- AIP American Institute of Physics
- APS American Physical Society
- AAPT American Association of Physics Teachers
- NAS National Academy of Sciences
- NSF National Science Foundation
These sites focus on facilities and research problems. They also contain related links and cool pictures.
- Argonne National Laboratory
- Brookhaven National Laboratory
- Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility
- Department of Energy
- Fermi National Laboratory
- Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
- Los Alamos National Laboratory
- National Institute of Standards and Technology
- NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory
- Sandia National Laboratory
- Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
Related Fields or Professional Societies
Links and content. Some focused, some broad.
- Women in Science and Engineering
- AMS The American Mathematical Society
- Optical Society of America
- Acoustical Society of America
- American Astronomical Society
- American Association of Physicists in Medicine
- American Geophysical Union
- IEEEInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
- STSCI The Hubbell Space Telescope Science Institute
- NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- The LIGO Project
- PIRA Physics Instructional Resource Association
- PSRC Physical Sciences Resource Center
The best way to know if you want a career in physics is to do some physics research. There are many opportunities to do this both during the year and over the summer. The key is to identify an area of research that interests you, and try it out.
- You are of course welcome/encouraged to work with the physics faculty at CLU
- List of REU programs funded by the NSF
- Many of the UC campuses have summer research opportunities
- You can surf at Caltech
- Most government labs have undergraduate research programs such as NASA and Lawrence Livermore and SLAC
- List of graduate programs in the United States
- Career planning, or a report on graduate programs from NAS.
- Some graduate school advice at Sonoma State University
- Search on departments in other countries, and a list of universities around the world.
- SPS and AIP
Other Physics Careers:
This list is not comprehensive. Links are added as we become aware of them.
- Companies that recruit at Caltech
- Nanofabrication Groups at Caltech and Cornell
- Companies in Thousand Oaks: Rockwell Scientific, Baxter Scientific and Amgen
- Careers in Medical Physics
- Careers in Finance and Consulting
Some professions that require a strong physics background: