What Is a Physicist?

by PhysicsJenn

Last Friday, I stumbled upon a paper on the arXiv called “Upper-Level Physics Students’ Perception of Physicists,” which investigates the question “what is a physicist?” from the perspective of undergraduate students pursuing a physics major. That evening, I listened while D tried to explain what he’d been doing that week to my mother. Now, my mom is a pretty savvy lady when it comes to what physicists do, but I realized while listening to the conversation that even she had a hard time understanding that the project that D was describing wasn’t even really his ultimate research goal, just a short-term task that, while important, wasn’t particularly interesting to him at the time.

These two things got me thinking about what physicists are and what they do. And how that’s not really the same thing much of the time. The paper asks for students to answer the aforementioned question and then sorted the responses according to four categories on a 2×2 grid. Responses could put either a high or low emphasis on the importance of research to identifying a physicist, and they could focus on internal mastery of physics concepts versus external performance that shows this mastery. The four categories were ranked such that physicists were perceived as anything from natural philosophers akin to Aristotle or Newton (“Physicists Are Researchers Who Answer the Unanswered Questions”) to simply a student who declares a physics major (“Physicists Are People Who Are Committed to Physics”), with varying degrees in between. In my view, it seemed like many engineers would certainly fall under some of these definitions of a physicist.

But that’s a good start. It addresses the important ideas about what it means to be “A Physicist,” versus just someone with an interest in physics. I’m not here to claim I have the answer to that. But it misses something important when discussing what a physicist does: physicists don’t always do physics all the time every day. When I was an undergraduate researcher, the post-docs were fixing some plumbing leak or other and we joked about how “physics” involved an awful lot of not-physics work. And one of the post-docs turned to the other and said, “God, I wonder what it’s like to be a theorist and actually do actual physics, like, all the time?” And then we all went quiet and thought about it for a moment, and then went back to mopping.

But it’s true: experimental physicists are often not physicists. We’re plumbers or electricians or mechanics. I was the resident plumbing “expert” in an old group because I was the only one who got a certain connection to not leak. And that’s what we tend to do on a daily basis. Then, there’s the weekly tasks. They’re actually physics experiments, but often they’re at the level of an advanced undergraduate lab: measure some constant or calibrate some equipment. It’s not at all new or groundbreaking, and no one is going to rise through the ranks, but just like making sure your plumbing connections don’t leak and your electronics don’t short-circuit, they’re necessary to advancing the interesting stuff. Heck, even the theorists, the ones that sit around all day thinking about “pure” science sometimes find themselves being computer programmers more than physicists.

And if someone were to go out for a drink or dinner during one of those weeks and asked “what did you do in the lab this week?” the answer would sound depressing and not very science-y. Or it might sound just science-y enough to be confusing because why aren’t you more excited about doing SCIENCE!? That’s where my mom was with D the other night when he was talking about how boring and uninteresting the task that’s been taking him all week is. She was confused because she thought this was his “thesis research.” And it is, inasmuch as it’s necessary to get to the good stuff on which his thesis will be based.

That’s something that I think it’s important to instill in young, aspiring physicists as much as the equations and concepts: being a physicist doesn’t always mean doing physics. But even the not-physics will ultimately advance knowledge in some, albeit indirect, way.