MadSci Network: Other

Re: What exactly is a Theorectical Scientists job?

Date: Mon Jan 8 18:18:59 2007
Posted By: Joe Fitzsimons, Grad student, Quantum and Nanotechnology Theory Group, Department of Materials, Oxford University
Area of science: Other
ID: 1168158022.Ot

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

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:

The University College Dublin mathematical physics department has a website
describing some career paths for graduates of their theoretical physics

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

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