Where do Physicists go?

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Where do Physicists go?


There is a great variety of applications in which a physicist’s broad training would be a great advantage. A recent survey of Northwestern physics/astronomy undergraduate alumni who chose not to attend graduate school revealed a remarkable diversity of career paths. The largest group, about 24% of the total, had become self-employed entrepreneurs, mostly in the areas of computer and engineering consulting. Other employment paths included industrial research and development, business management (often in technological companies), computing, government public-policy research, law, engineering, medicine, the military (with technical/ engineering duties), technical sales (such as very expensive, very complex CAT-scan equipment), high-school teaching, accounting, museum or library work, police forensics, nonprofit social work, freelance writing, veterinary medicine, and stock brokerage.

From spandex to blackberries to bioinformatics to stock market to flight control to spintronics to wind energy, physicists can be found in nearly every job sector in some of the coolest and apparently most farfetched careers imaginable.

With a major in Physics you can be a Nuclear Scientist, Nuclear Engineer, Radiation Scientist, Health Physicist, Medical Doctor/Surgeon, Audio Specialist, Industrial Technologist/Engineer, Science Teacher in Schools and Community Colleges.

Training physicists for industry, by Patrick Young

Examples of Relevance of Physics Education and Training

MEMS (MicroElectroMechanical Systems):

A real understanding of how to extend standard fluid dynamics knowledge to nontraditionally small length scales in MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) is useful for systems that perform fluid mixing, DNA sensing, and chemical sensing on a single chip (the so-called lab-on-a-chip, useful from drug development to emergency room care).

Physics and Biology:

Protein crystallography: the human genome in 3-D: Recent developments in X-ray crystallography at synchrotron radiation sources and progress in the production of good-quality protein crystals are leading to important advances in our knowledge of protein structure and function. See http://physicsweb.org/article/world/11/5/8/1 for how recent advances in protein crystallography are providing new insights into their structure and properties.

Structural Biology:

The field of structural genomics needs the fastest and best ways of deciphering the three-dimensional shapes of thousands of proteins—representing most families of protein folds that exist in nature. Synchrotrons are considered to be one of the best tools for deciphering protein structures. For this effort structural biologists will have to rely on, and work with, computational specialists, structural biologists and physicists.

Physics and Pharmacy:

In addition to academic preparation, you should evaluate your personal qualifications to meet pharmacy’s demands for judgment, dependability, and conscientious performance. Pharmacists must be able to pay attention to detail. As with others on the health care team, the pharmacist’s decisions and actions effect human life and well being. Pharmacists, by law, are entrusted with the proper handling and dispensing of potentially dangerous and habit-forming substances. They must have high ethical standards, communicate well with patients and other health care providers, maintain reliable records, and be knowledgeable about existing and new medications on the market to ensure each patient has optimal drug therapy results.

Physics and Medicine:

The interaction between physics and medicine has been strengthened with advances in nuclear and elementary particle physics. The dialog between these two disciplines resulted in the employment of essential diagnostics and treatment tools such as the X rays and imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance and others, modern strategies to fight tumors, adrotherapy (the use of particles beams to destroy tumor tissues), the employment of particle detectors as tools for medical diagnosis, and the possible applications of the grid in medicine. The cooperation between physics and medicine has been of great impact not only on the society in general, but also on the development of some industrial sectors. See also http://physicsweb.org/article/world/11/11/7.

Physics and Engineering:

Preventing Rail Track Accidents

Cracks occur in rail tracks due to various reasons. A cracked track is dangerous since it can derail the train. The problem is that cracks do not grow steadily — they are born slowly, then expand quickly. A new device, being developed in England, can detect potentially dangerous cracked rails and make safety checks less disruptive and expensive. Railway companies currently use specialized trains to scan rail tracks with ultrasound, revealing cracks in the same way that ultrasound waves show a baby in the womb. The new device, fitted to the passenger or freight train itself, sends electrical pulses in the rail which generate stresses that are released as ultrasound waves. The waves reflected back to the device reveal cracks in the rail, and their size, thus giving an indication of the severity of any damage.

Physics teaches you how to model the whole problem, propose mechanisms for crack (fracture) origin, how the crack propagates, how fast it propagates, and when the failure occurs. You will also learn how to determine the device parameters such as the device response time (how fast you need the information about the crack, its location and size) and its reliability, among others.

This type of project requires collaboration between physicists, civil and structural engineers, mechanical engineers, and computer scientists. In fact, this non-contact approach was developed by researchers in the University of Warwick’s, Department of Physics , in England.

For more information, see here. http://www.nature.com/physics/physics.taf?file=/physics/highlights/6997-1.html

For a discussion of rail tracks and pictures of cracks in rail tracks, check the websites below.

Can Spinach Create Electricity And Run Computers?

We know spinach gives power to Popeye, it could work for computers too. US researchers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made electrical cells that are powered by plant (photosynthetic) proteins from spinach. These biologically based solar cells, which convert light into electrical energy, could be used to coat and power laptops, providing a portable source of green energy. The proteins come from the chloroplasts of spinach leaves; tiny structures that help plants convert light into energy. As the reaction proceeds, electrons move around and create electrical currents. Extracting the proteins however was not easy since the molecules are delicate and tend to stop working when removed from their natural environment. So the researchers used a novel technique to create such an environment. See the above link for more information.

Physics is required to study this project since it underlies the principles of electron transport, and mechanisms and efficiency of conversion of light into electricity.

This type of project requires collaboration between physicists, electrical engineers, and biologists/bioscientists and agricultural scientists.
For more information, visit

Robots with a Sophisticated Sense of Touch?

Did you ever wonder about sending your robot to do your grocery shopping? How does a robot squeeze a tomato just right to see if it is ripe without squishing it? Or how about trusting your robot to pick flowers for your wedding? Did you ever wonder how the skin on the robots in the Terminator movies was formed? Science is moving so fast what we think is science fiction today is becoming a reality of tomorrow. Scientists such as Takao Someya at the University of Tokyo in Japan, and Toribio Fernández Otero and Maria Teresa Cortés of the Polytechnic University of Cartagena, have been working on giving the “feel of touch” to robots. Takao Someya developed an electronic skin as sensitive to touch as our own. Toribio Fernández Otero and Maria Teresa Cortés of the Polytechnic University of Cartagena make their robotic finger from a “smart polymer.” Called polypyrrole, this material expands in response to electric current and conducts differently in response to changes in pressure. While a lot of research has gone into vision and voice recognition for robots, touch sensitivity is receiving attention more recently. Such sensitivity can make robots not just to see things and follow commands, but to carry out delicate tasks. This is very important in a variety of applications. One such is telesurgery, where a surgeon at one location can operate on a patient at another location via the Internet. But to create an electronic skin we need to understand how our own skin works. Our skin contains a battery of touch sensors that produce nerve signals when pressed. For gentle pressures, the main sensors are tiny bulbs of layered tissue called Meissner’s corpuscles. Their behavior is mimicked in plastics such as polyvinylidene fluoride, which generate an electric field when squeezed and are used to make pressure-sensitive pads for computer keyboards and other touch-triggered devices.

A project like this requires a strong team of physicists, material scientists, engineers and chemists.

A detailed knowledge of physics is required here to understand the mechanism of conduction between Meissner’s corpuscles, piezoelectric effects (conversion of pressure into electricity and vice versa), and construct a model of how all these factors come together.

For a recent discussion on this issue, see http://www.nature.com/news/2004/040628/full/040628-14.html.

Physics and Forensics? What have they in common?

Do you remember or at least have heard of the 1995 release of sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway killing 12 people and the shooting of the country’s top police official? Or of the woman suspected of killing four people at a festival by putting arsenic in her curry? An instrument called a synchrotron which physicists use as a unique source of radiation for a wide range of industrial research and development studies provided solutions to these cases. A synchrotron provides high intensity light across a wide spectral range including infra-red, visible, ultraviolet and x-ray radiation, and hence may be used as an effective probe to understand the underlying structures and properties of matter, and analyze physical, chemical, geological and biological processes. The massive SPring-8 synchrotron, yields a powerful X-ray beam that can reveal the chemical makeup of tiny samples, hence can analyze the smallest traces of impurities, whether they are from a fired bullet or in cooked curry. According to Dr. Akito Kakizaki, a physicist at the University of Tokyo, the police would not have a case without SPring-8, located in Hyogo, Japan, is the world’s most powerful synchrotron which can analyze samples weighing only trillionths of a gram – which, in criminal evidence, is often all that is available.

Only two other synchrotrons can handle samples as small as those in the shooting or arsenic case: the US Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (http://www.esrf.fr/) in Grenoble, France.

For a look at Hidden Physicists visit http://www.spsnational.org/cup/profiles/hidden.html