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What Does a Quantum Physicist Do?

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  • Written By: Bobby R. Goldsmith
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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A quantum physicist studies the physical laws that govern atomic and sub-atomic objects. These physicists have performed a number of groundbreaking experiments that have revolutionized our understanding of the behavior and nature of matter itself. While research and experimentation is at the core of a quantum physicist's job, the position often involves affiliation with a college or university, and that affiliation may require the physicist to teach classes as well. In addition, a quantum physicist often must engage in the solicitation of grants and participate in the publishing process, including writing papers and peer-reviewing the research of other physicists.

Quantum mechanics involves the movement and behavior of sub-atomic particles and other objects. It became an established field of scientific inquiry in the 20th century with the discovery that elementary particles do not behave in accordance with Newton's laws, which describe the behavior of larger objects. Atomic and sub-atomic objects behave in a highly unpredictable, probabilistic way. This behavior is in stark contrast to the behavior of large objects, such as vehicles or even planets. A quantum physicist studies the probabilities that describe sub-atomic behavior.

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Experimentation in quantum mechanics, which is much of what occupies a quantum physicist's time, can be extremely difficult. For example, color confinement, is a phenomenon that occurs at the sub-atomic level. Hadrons are composed of quarks, a basic unit of matter, and every quark acquires a particular "color" that denotes its field charge when it is observed. One of the earliest experiments in quantum mechanics revealed that a quark and its partner in the hadron take on the same "color" no matter how far apart the particles are separated from one other. This complicates any attempt to directly observe such particles.

For quantum physicists, much research and study involves hypotheses derived from a logical, mathematical, or referential framework. As with physical experiments, much of the theoretical research is performed by teams of physicists and mathematicians. It is rare for a quantum physicist to work independently.

Quantum physicists publish regularly in scientific journals that focus on their particular field. Many universities will hire well-published physicists to perform research in the university's program and to instruct university students in either undergraduate or graduate coursework. The university structure may also require the physicist to apply for and earn research grant money from a government agency or from a private endowment and to continue publishing in the field of quantum physics.

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