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What is Computational Physics?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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Computational physics is a field that utilizes both existing physics formulas and numerical algorithms to make large-scale calculations with computers that would be extremely time consuming and tedious to perform by hand. Essentially, it is a branch of physics that is concerned with making mathematical models and solutions by using computers and programming. The mathematical models that physicists aim to create often involve vast amounts of information that require very powerful computers to process.

The exact classification of computational physics in the overall field of physics is often debated. Some consider it to be a branch of theoretical physics, as it tends to be involved with areas of physics that are still deeply theoretical with little solid experimental support. Others believe that it should be considered a branch of experimental physics, as the data used typically comes from experiments. For the most part, though, scientists agree that it falls somewhere in between the two disciplines, and has both theoretical and experimental components.

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Modern physics relies heavily on computers to work out much of the complex mathematical aspects of experiments and theories. Physics fields such as astrophysics, fluid mechanics, and accelerator physics both depend on programming and computation. In accelerator physics, for example, computers must monitor, record, and analyze vast quantities of information each time that particles are collided in a particle accelerator. Computational solid-state physics attempts to discover the link between the atomic properties of solids and their large-scale properties by analyzing large amounts of information about solids at the molecular level.

There are many other tasks solved through computation that can be loosely grouped under the field of computational physics. Often, such tasks as solving differential and integral equations or evaluating very large matrices are used to make calculations about physical systems. These tasks could easily be classified either as pure mathematics, which is mathematics performed purely for the sake of mathematics. However, when performed to discern information related to physics, they can just as easily fall into the category of computational physics.

Many colleges offer courses in computational physics, though any pre-collegiate instruction in the field is rare. Introductory college courses tend to teach basic programming principles and how to apply them to problems relating to physics. Later courses, often taught at the graduate level, teach how to manipulate and solve large problems made up of large quantities of data through the use of algorithms and advanced programming practices.

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anon320561
Post 8

Well, to be fairly honest, most theoretical physicists I know (and that's a lot) use computer programs to solve problems. Last time I checked, they were all busy with their computers while at work (and no, they weren't checking their emails or playing warcraft). Terming the practice of using computers for analyzing problems in physics "Computational Physics" is just a cool way of putting things for the simple-minded (think "oh my god, that guy is a computational physicist!"); it's something they do all the time.

Anyway, when all is said and done, computers have now become an integral part of physics, and it is very useful for the kids who aspire to become physicist to have know about computer programs from an early age.

And, I especially like your post sunnySkys.

anon272736
Post 7

I'm doing Computer Science engineering right now and want to take up Computational Astrophysics. What are the requirements?

SarahSon
Post 6

My son has always been very good with computers. When he was living at home, I never had to worry about something going wrong with my computer because he could always fix it.

He is also very good at mathematics and took a computational physics course when he was in college. Even though I am his mom, I definitely think he is intelligent enough to make a career out of this, but he ended up changing his mind.

He realized he was more interested in the computer part of the program than he was the physics part. He currently works in the computer programming field, but in an area that is not really connected with physics.

julies
Post 5

I have never given much thought to the different branches of physics. If someone had a computational physics job, what kind of setting would they work in?

I know a lot of people who work in a variety of jobs, but don't think I personally know a physicist. I picture them as someone who wears a white lab coat, wears glasses and works all day in a lab.

The computer must have brought major advances to the field of physics. Many of the things that took so long to compute and figure out by hand can now be down with the computer.

What kind of salary does the average physicist make? With the specialized schooling they have, I imagine they would make a pretty decent salary.

bagley79
Post 4

My nephew is a physics major and has studied computational physics. He is also very tech savvy, so this all comes pretty easy for him.

With computational physics he can combine his love of physics with his interest in computers and programming.

He was one of those kids who always excelled in math and science courses. I don't remember how young he was when he realized how talented he was in this area, but he has always been extremely smart.

For someone like me who doesn't understand physics and has no training in any kind of computer programming, I am amazed at what he does.

Just listening to him talk about algorithms and formulas makes my head spin.

JessicaLynn
Post 3

I bet there are a lot of physics jobs available in computational physics! It sounds like computational physics is a big field with a lot of different applications. You could perform experiments or work on theories. Plus, as the article said, a lot of other branches of physics rely on the computer also.

I imagine some kind of background in computers and programming would probably help if you were interested in this field. I wonder if a lot of computational physicists hold dual degrees in physics and computer science?

strawCake
Post 2

@sunnySkys - I think technology has a huge impact on science. Obviously I can't predict the future, but I imagine that all of our different mobile technologies will have a huge effect on science in the coming years. I think tablets and cell phones could have a lot of data collecting uses, for example.

Anyway, I don't have any background in mathematical physics, so I'm not an expert. But I definitely see how you could make an argument that computation physics is both theoretical and experimental. In fact, I bet that physicists probably argue over it at conferences!

sunnySkys
Post 1

I think it's so interesting that there's an entire branch of physics dedicated to making computations on a computer. I never did anything like that when I took introduction to physics in high school! Although I assume that the calculations computational physicists do are way more complicated than anything I did in high school!

Anyway, this branch of physics would never have been possible if the computer hadn't been invented. I bet there are tons of discoveries that never would have been made without using a computer to do the computations. This makes me wonder what other scientific disciplines we'll invent in the future because of other new technologies!

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