What is Physics?

We're all born with an urge to understand the world around us. This leads us to ask questions such as "How does a mobile phone work?" "How does the Sun keep on shining?" "What is dark matter?" "What are the ultimate constituents of matter?" "How did the Universe begin?" If you find that the more answers you discover, the more questions you want to ask, then you're on the road to becoming a physicist, and should be considering taking a physics course through higher education.


As well as being concerned with deep fundamental questions, physics forms the basis of most present and future technology. Without an understanding of the basic physics of a problem, we'd be shooting in the dark. For example, when compact disc players were developed, it was crucial that the physics of solid-state lasers and the interaction of light with matter were well understood. This in turn depended on an understanding of atomic physics and quantum mechanics. Other new technological developments depend on modern physics in a similar way.


One of the key ideas in physics is that behind the complexity of the world around us, there is an underlying simplicity and unity in nature. This is often expressed through all-embracing fundamental concepts, such as the principle of conservation of energy. Such concepts, when put to work using mathematics, provide explanations for how things happen. Research at the frontiers of physics leads to a deeper understanding of the way things work and how matter behaves in difficult circumstances, and from this understanding follow the many practical applications of physics. Indeed, physics is the basis for most forms of engineering and the other sciences.


Apart from its importance and flexibility, physics is fascinating and can be fun. At its heart, physics is about finding things out - about understanding what lies behind everyday phenomena like rainbows, red sunsets and blue skies, as well as the more revolutionary concepts of quantum theory, relativity and cosmology. Physics research can be very creative and stimulating, with lots of opportunity for contributing your own ideas. Don't overlook the fact that if you take a degree in physics, within just three or four years time you could be a member of a team involved in a major research project!


What do Physicists do? A physicist's work usually involves both experimental investigations and theoretical analysis, though some physicists specialise in one or the other of these. Physicists are increasingly using advanced computers in the solution of scientific and engineering problems, particularly for modelling complex processes. If the simulation is not based on correct physics, then it has no chance of predicting what really happens in nature.


The employment prospects for those with qualifications in physics are generally good. Physics provides a route into many careers, and opportunities exist both in Britain and throughout Europe, as well as North America. These prospects are not confined to research - they extend into a wide range of industries, including food, medicine, finance, marketing, business and management. The general skills of analysis and problem-solving that a physics degree fosters help physics graduates to contribute effectively to most areas of an organisation's activities.


Though many physics graduates go on to work in academic research and teaching, the main areas of employment are in industry, particularly in the research and development sections of 'hi-tech' industry. Good examples are industries concerned with opto-electronics, computing, telecommunications, materials, motor vehicle technology, semiconductors, and power generation. There are also opportunities in medical physics, meteorology, and research concerned with an understanding and protection of the environment. The list of major employers of physics graduates includes most of the large British and multinational companies and a host of smaller ones. Physics graduates, because of their broadly-based training, often become leaders of the increasingly common multi-disciplinary teams employed on research and development projects.


Teaching physics at school or college level offers not only the opportunity to work with young people, but challenges as well. You may have to explain to them some of the more complex aspects of physics, with the opportunity to share your enthusiasm for the subject.


In summary, a degree course in physics brings you face-to-face with the important fundamental concepts and knowledge that underlie our understanding of nature. A degree course in physics offers many advantages in terms of flexibility - in the choice of topics within the course, and also in the wide range of careers to which a physics degree can lead.


Author: Philip Diamond, Manager, Higher Education & Research, Institute of Physics

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