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Physics Overview - Preparation - Specialty Areas - Day In The Life - Earnings - Employment - Career Path Forecast - Professional Organizations 

Specialty Areas
- Acoustics
- Astronomy
- Astrophysics
- Atmospheric Physics
- Biophysics
- Chemical Physics
- Cryogenics
- Crystallography
- Electromagnetism
- Energy
- Engineering
- Environmental Physics
- Fluid Mechanics
- Geophysics
- Materials Science
- Medical Physics
- Metallurgy
- Molecular Physics
- Nuclear Physics
- Oceanography
- Optical Physics
- Particle Physics
- Plasma Physics
- Rheology
- Solid State Physics
- Space Physics
- Thermal Physics
- Vacuum Physics

Environmental Physics
Environmental Physicists use the principles and techniques of physics to study the earth's environment. Scientists often consider factors that have an impact on the Earth's air, water, and land in their studies of the environment. Advances in physics have resulted in a number of efforts to keep the planet clean. Some examples include the application of research in laser physics and computing techniques, development of techniques to monitor levels of air pollutants; developments in materials processing and design resulting in the creation of more efficient energy generation methods and recycling techniques; and the use of geophysical methods to monitor radioactivity in the development of new clean-up technologies. Environmental Physicists have made contributions to understanding global climate change and the ozone hole.

   Related Associations:
       American Institute of Physics

Fluid Mechanics
Fluid Mechanics and Fluid Dynamics is the study of matter in the liquid state. Fluid mechanics is the sub-discipline of continuum mechanics that studies fluids, that is, liquids and gases. It can be further subdivided into fluid statics, the study of fluids at rest, and fluid dynamics, the study of fluids in motion. Fluids tend to flow or conform to the boundaries of their containers. Physicists studying fluids study the physical and flow properties of liquids in order to understand turbulence, wave motion, and the interactions between structures (such as wings, ships, ocean platforms) and the flowing fluid that surrounds them.

Geology is the study of the origin of the Earth, its history, its shape, the materials that constitute it, and the processes that are or have affected it. Geologists depend on knowledge gained in physics as well as other sciences to understand the materials they are studying. Geophysics is the application of the investigation of physical phenomena in the study of the Earth and its internal composition, e especially by seismic, electromagnetic, and radioactivity methods.

   Related Associations:
American Geophysical Union
       Society of Exploration Geophysicists

Materials Science
Materials Science is an applied science concerned with the relationship between the structure and properties of materials. Materials science unites applications from many scientific disciplines that contribute to the development of new materials. Materials physics has had many practical applications for the benefit of mankind and the economy; for example, research in the area led to the development of Teflon which is found in everything from cookware to apparel to medical transplant materials.  Find out more about Materials Science and Engineering.

Medical Physics
Medical Physics is the application of physics research to the medical arts for the design of equipment and techniques used to safely study the human body and diagnose and treat diseases. Some examples of the application of developments in physics to the medical arts are the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed axial tomography (CAT scan), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and x-rays, mammography equipment, and radiation in the treatment of cancer. Medical physicists also study the health effects of radiation in non-clinical environments.

   Related Associations:
American Association of Physicists in Medicine

Metallurgy is the science and technology of metals - - their characteristics and behavior.

Molecular Physics
Molecular Physics is concerned with the interaction of the structure of atoms with the bonds between the atoms. It is the study of the physical properties of molecules and of the chemical bonds between atoms that bind them into molecules. Its most important experimental techniques are the various types of spectroscopy. The field is closely related to atomic physics and overlaps greatly with theoretical chemistry, physical chemistry and chemical physics. Atomic Physics is the study of the structure and behavior of the atom itself. One important aspect of molecular physics is that the essential atomic orbital theory in the field of atomic physics expands to the molecular orbital theory.

   Related Associations:
American Physical Society Division of Atomic, Molecular
          and Optical Physics

Nuclear Physics
Nuclear Physics is the study of the structure of the atom's nucleus and the relationship of the properties of the nucleus to the fundamental constituents and laws of nature. Nuclear physics includes the investigation of the weak and strong interactions between nuclear particles and the radiation emitted from unstable nuclei. It also encompasses the study of the splitting of nuclei into smaller parts and the merger of nuclei into larger nuclei, called fission and fusion, respectively. The application of nuclear physics in the generation of electrical power and the treatment of cancer are just two of many that have had a major impact on mankind. Nuclear physics has three main aspects: probing the fundamental particles (protons and neutrons) and their interactions, classifying and interpreting the properties of nuclei, and providing technological advances. Experiments with nuclei continue to contribute to the understanding of basic interactions. Investigation of nuclear properties and the laws governing the structure of nuclei is an active and productive area of research, and practical applications, such as nuclear power, smoke detectors, cardiac pacemakers, and medical imaging devices, have become common.

   Related Associations:
American Institute of Physics
American Nuclear Society

Oceanography deals with all aspects of the oceans, including the delimitation of their extent and depth, the physics and chemistry of their waters, marine biology, and the exploitation of their resources. Oceanography is generally divided into four major categories of research - - physical being one, along with chemical, biological, and geological research. Physical oceanographers provide explanations of the physical state of the oceans, particularly the distribution of water masses, the conditions that create them, and the great currents that disperse and mix them.

Optical Physics
Optical Physics is the application of physical laws to the study of the production and transmission of light and its interaction with matter. Optical physics primarily deals with the nature and properties of light and seeks to explain the optical phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of rays (behavior of light as a wave as opposed to behavior as a particle). Optical physics is the study of the generation of electromagnetic radiation, the properties of that radiation, and the interaction of that radiation with matter, especially its manipulation and control. It differs from general optics and optical engineering in that it is focused on the discovery and application of new phenomena. There is no strong distinction, however, between optical physics, applied optics, and optical engineering, since the devices of optical engineering and the applications of applied optics are necessary for basic research in optical physics, and that research leads to the development of new devices and applications. Often the same people are involved in both the basic research and the applied technology development. Researchers in optical physics use and develop light sources that span the electromagnetic spectrum from microwaves to X-rays. The field includes the generation and detection of light, linear and nonlinear optical processes, and spectroscopy. Lasers and laser spectroscopy have transformed optical science. Major study in optical physics is also devoted to quantum optics and coherence, and to femtosecond optics. In optical physics, support is also provided in areas such as the nonlinear response of isolated atoms to intense, ultra-short electromagnetic fields, the atom-cavity interaction at high fields, and quantum properties of the electromagnetic field. Other important areas of research include the development of novel optical techniques for nano-optical measurements, diffractive optics, low-coherence interferometry, optical coherence tomography, and near-field microscopy.

   Related Associations:
Optical Society of America

Particle Physics
Particle Physics, also referred to as high-energy physics, is the study of the most fundamental particles of which matter is made. It is also called "high energy physics" because many elementary particles do not occur under normal circumstances in nature, but can be created and detected during energetic collisions of other particles, as is done in particle accelerators. A large number of elementary particles have been discovered in the last few decades and are still believed to be comprised of still more fundamental particles. Theoretical physicists working in this area are currently trying to discover a single unifying concept that relates all fundamental forces and elementary particles. Particle physics is being called the frontier of contemporary physics. Particle physicists internationally agree on the most important goals of particle physics research in the near and intermediate future. Approached in several distinct ways, the overarching goal is to find and understand what physics may lie beyond the standard model. There are several powerful experimental reasons to expect new physics, including dark matter and neutrino mass.

   Related Associations:
American Institute of Physics

Plasma Physics
Plasmas are the most common phase of matter. Some estimates suggest that up to 99% of matter in the entire visible universe is plasma. Since the space between the stars is filled with a plasma, albeit a very sparse one (see interstellar medium and intergalactic space), essentially the entire volume of the universe is plasma. Plasma Physics deals with the study of the physics of plasma (a high-temperature gas of electrically charged particles), which has been called the fourth state of matter because plasmas possess properties not found in ordinary solids, liquids, and gases. Plasma is a state of matter found in stars and can be hot enough for thermonuclear reactions to occur in them. Plasma physicists have been attempting to initiate nuclear fusion by the production and manipulation of plasma in the laboratory.

   Related Associations:
American Institute of Physics
IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society

Rheology applies physics to the study of the deformation and flow of matter. In practice, rheology is principally concerned with extending the "classical" disciplines of elasticity and (Newtonian) fluid mechanics to materials whose mechanical behaviour cannot be described with the classical theories. It is also concerned with establishing predictions for mechanical behaviour (on the continuum mechanical scale) based on the micro- or nanostructure of the material, e.g. the molecular size and architecture of polymers in solution or the particle size distribution in a solid suspension. An example of rheology is the application of the principles behind the observation in the differences in the flow of ketchup from a bottle before and after shaking the bottle.

   Related Associations:
The Society of Rheology

Solid State Physics
Solid State Physics is the branch of physics that deals with the internal structure and properties of solids in which physicists determine how the behavior of atoms and molecules within solids gives rise to their observed properties. Products of solid state physics include the transistor, which was based on theories and experiments about the electrical properties of semiconductor solids; the photoelectric cell; and the light-emitting diode. The bulk of solid-state physics theory and research is focused on crystals, largely because the periodicity of atoms in a crystal -- its defining characteristic -- facilitates mathematical modeling, and also because crystalline materials often have electrical, magnetic, optical, or mechanical properties that can be applied to engineering functions.

   Related Associations:
American Institute of Physics

Space Physics
Space Physics is the study of the physical properties and phenomena of the region beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Exploration of space is conducted to extend knowledge about the Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. Practical applications of space research includes the development of meteorological satellites that aid in weather forecasting; communications satellites that increase the number of international communications channels available and make possible the intercontinental transmission of television; navigation satellites that guide ships; military satellites that perform vital reconnaissance; geodetic satellites that allow the creation of maps of unprecedented accuracy; and many other products of space technology that are utilized on Earth. Space Physics encompasses a far-ranging number of topics, including the sun, solar wind, planetary magnetospheres and ionospheres, auroras, cosmic rays, and synchrotron radiation. Space physics is a fundamental part of the study of space weather and has important implications not only to understanding the universe, but also to practical every-day life, including the operation of communications and weather satellites.  

Related Associations:
American Institute of Physics

Thermal Physics
Thermal Physics deals with the mechanical action or relationship between heat, work, temperature, and energy. It is the study of the statistical nature of physical systems from an energetic perspective. Starting with the basics of heat and temperature, thermal physics analyzes the first law of thermodynamics and second law of thermodynamics from the statistical perspective, in terms of the number of microstates corresponding to a given macrostate. In addition, the concept of entropy is studied via quantum theory. A central topic in thermal physics is the canonical probability distribution. The electromagnetic nature of photons and phonons are studied which show that the oscillations of electromagnetic fields and of crystal lattices have much in common.

Related Associations:
American Institute of Physics

Vacuum Physics
Vacuum Physics is the study of matter in an environment at low pressure with little or no surrounding gas. Physicists can control and study a single particle without interference by passing the particle through a vacuum, using electrical and magnetic fields to guide particles to a particular target. This type of study aids in the investigation of molecular structure. Applications of vacuum science and technology lead to advances in solid state physics and other fields.

Related Associations:
American Vacuum Society (AVS)

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the American Institute of Physics.

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