What does a Physicist do?

We live in an age where we make extraordinarily high demands on young people, on their performance and on their ability to make choices. I can’t say, in all honesty, that I agree with the latter principle of modern life. Years ago, when I ran a Cub pack, I found the hard way that giving full democracy to the cubs lost their interest very quickly, as they really didn’t have the knowledge to make good choices. So the best we can do today, especially in the subjects like Physics (my own passion and today’s subject) that are deemed “difficult”, to give them the information to make the hard choice. With our heritage, it can come in three sections: culture, satisfaction and reward.

Culturally, both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland have extraordinary credentials in the subject. We have been instrumental in understanding light and climate change; we helped split the atom; we discovered absolute zero temperature and the rudiments of thermodynamics; we discovered electromagnetic precession, key to MRI scanning among many other things; we helped link Europe and the Americas with the telegraph. Oh and we named the electron and that’s just for starters. Other cultures would give their eye teeth for such a heritage but I bet few readers of this article know those facts and fewer still could name the individuals.

On to satisfaction; what does a Physicist do? This is a question I have been asked all my working life, at least since I chose to go to NUU to read the subject some 42 years ago. All physicists report the same problem and sometimes I think that has helped drive them into keeping their own company. Fortunately one other, Sheila Gilheany- the policy officer for Institute of Physics in Ireland (North and South), has also suffered that question endlessly. She hasn’t dodged it but taken it full on and produced a report, just published, entitled “Physics-the brightest minds go farther”, a full survey of what physics graduates do with their degrees and their lives.

The principle headline of the report is that Physicists are very employable and if you want to get an idea of the jobs, check out http://www.iopireland.org/careers/life/page_49525.html , where 28 days in the life of 28 young physicists are profiled. Few physicists have done the same thing for many days in a row and many have had diverse and exciting careers in many walks of life.

Material rewards don’t tend to figure highly in our motivations but I’m sure parents and partners would be glad to note in the survey that a good proportion earn over £100,000 a year, with 5% breaching the £150k pa! Much of the report would have been valid in my own day but a welcome change is the trend towards full gender balance in the youngest cohort of the sample set.

To keep up the tradition and to rebuild our ailing economies north and south, physics and the other science subjects are no longer just “nice to have”. It should be clear by now, as it was to Sean Sherlock TD Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Jobs & Innovation and Department of Education & Skills with responsibility for Research & Innovation , who helped launch the report,  that making money just out of money or even property has gone for a generation. We need to make our livings from high added value exports and services, where knowledge and its practitioners make the best differentiators. Thus I would urge every family to have a look at the report or better still to keep a regular eye on the IOP web-site:

http://www.iopireland.org/education/resources/what/page_49919.html .

Information is really is power!


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