|MadSci Network: Other|
Hi Shawn, The answer to your question really depends on the science in question. Most sciences are composed of two distinct groups: Experimentalists and theorists. Experimentalists perform all of the laboratory tests and experiments that are needed to verify existing theories and to discover new phenomena which have not been predicted. These might for example be biologists studying bacteria, chemists preparing and testing new compounds, or physicists using particle accelerators to probe sub-atomic particles. Theorists (theoretical physicists, theoretical chemists, etc.) use this experimental data to develop theories to explain what is actually happening in the experiments and explain how nature actually behaves. Theorists will often put forward ideas for new experiments to verify or falsify their claims. In some areas of science theory has advanced beyond our ability to test it, and so sometimes you will find areas (string theory for example) with little or no experimental work being done. Some theorists use computers to simulate physical systems, while others restrict themselves to analytic work (think paper and pen!). I have described these as being two distinct groups, but in practice there is an overlap between the two and there are many experimentalists who would also be counted as excellent theorists. I studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate and, although I am not sure this is what you had in mind, it may be a good example. The course had less emphasis on experiments than in a normal physics degree, and focused mainly on the mathematical frame work of physics. This basically means taking a few very simple assumptions and then using mathematics to make predictions about how physical systems behave. The mathematics for this might be simple algebra (Classical Mechanics), or it may be more complicated, requiring matrices, advanced calculus (Quantum Mechanics), or even differential geometry (General Relativity). While you would not be expected to know any of the more advanced mathematics when you enter the course, it does require an ability to pick up new mathematics very quickly. This heavy maths requirement often leads to a large number of people dropping out during first year. The above is true of theoretical physics, but may not hold well for other subjects. If you are worried about whether a theoretical course is for you, then I would suggest that you think about a more general course which will cover both theory and experiment. Such a course would allow you to leave your options open, while giving you experience of both sides (theoretical and experimental) which will prove invaluable later in your career. Some more information can be found on the two areas can be found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theorist#Science http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimentalist The University College Dublin mathematical physics department has a website describing some career paths for graduates of their theoretical physics course: http://www.ucd.ie/math-phy/theor/thph-car.html The above link lists some careers in industry, but the year I completed my degree everyone who graduated went on to further study, most studying for a doctorate in a specialised area of physics. I hope this is answer is useful for you when making your choice of college course.
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Other.