What Does a Nuclear Physicist Do?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
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Physics is the study of the physical world and the rules that apply to it. There are many tiny particles at the nuclear level. A nuclear physicist studies the way these interact with each other, and how the characteristics of the nuclear world can be applied to engineering and human endeavors. Various subspecialties make up the field of nuclear physics, which include theoretical work, experimental examination of nuclear particles, and designing equipment.

The nuclear aspect to physics concentrates on the components of the physical world that include atoms, neutrons and protons. Many countries use nuclear engineering, based on an understanding of nuclear physics, to produce energy through nuclear power. Apart from the industrial applications of nuclear physics, the study of this type of physics elucidates knowledge about how the natural world works.

Academic jobs are one subsection of nuclear physicist jobs. Commonly, a nuclear physicist employed by a university performs research and also teaches students who are studying undergraduate and postgraduate nuclear physics. Research may be theoretical, or it may be applied, and normally, an academic physicist publishes studies in academic journals so other physicists can read about it. Theoretical research involves calculations and the development of mathematical equations to represent the actions of the physical nuclear world, and for this, a nuclear physicist commonly uses computer programs. He or she may also spend time developing computer programs for this purpose.


In private enterprise, a nuclear physicist may have a job as a researcher, working directly in conjunction with nuclear engineers to produce new forms of equipment, and new techniques for systems such as nuclear energy plants. Public service roles may also involve this type of work, as well as work in the military field in weapons inspections or development. Regulatory bodies can employ nuclear physicists as researchers or as experts to develop rules for safe levels of nuclear exposure. They may also be involved in testing the radioactivity of specific industries, or auditing the safety procedures of an industry. A nuclear physicist's day may involve regular hours, or if he or she is performing research or development, the work may require unusual hours.

Those physicists who move into supervisory roles may not perform as much hands-on research or development as previously. These roles instead require a supervisor to manage projects, envision directions for the team to go in, and organize budgets and funding. As most positions in nuclear physics require a doctoral degree, a person with a bachelor's degree typically has a career as a research assistant, or a technician servicing and maintaining the equipment.


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Post 5

A nice general article, although a little outdated. Since many young people who are interested in science read this website, I think it's very important to emphasize the very high unemployment rates among nuclear physics researchers and the rapid decline of the field world-wide.

Speaking as a nuclear physics researcher with ten years' experience and, like many of my peers, struggling with long periods of unemployment in between short-term contracts, I strongly recommend to any young people interested in nuclear physics to turn to engineering, radiation protection or nuclear medicine jobs instead.

Nuclear physics is a very interesting research field, but it requires many years of training and these days it usually leads to a programming job.

Post 3

@MrsPramm - What Madame Curie did was definitely helpful to the field of nuclear physics but I think that it's more useful to look at the work of Dr Rutherford and others during that time if you really want to see the basis of the modern science. She only really worked on the effects of what was going on and didn't discover the cause.

Rutherford basically came up with the theory of the atomic nucleus after he did those experiments where he shot particles of radiation at thin sheets of gold leaf.

His results were such that he realized current models had to be wrong and that there must be orbiting negatively charged particles around the nucleus. I mean, to be able to imagine that from the results he got, without being able to see what was going on is such an astonishing and wonderful leap.

Post 2

@pleonasm - What I enjoy is reading about how all these early scientists, men and women, discovered such amazing things about the world without the benefit of today's technology. Madam Curie became sick because of her research, but it was amazing what she managed to do. She basically went through tons and tons of rock, purifying it to find tiny amounts of certain elements so that she could prove their existence.

I'm just glad that she was given the Nobel prize for her research since she really deserved it. People don't think of nuclear research as being backbreaking, but for her it must have been.

Post 1

I think probably the most famous nuclear physicist was Madame Curie. I'm not sure if she would have been given that exact title, since she wasn't exactly working with the nuclear particles themselves, but with the radioactivity that they can produce, but I think she ought be given the credit for it anyway.

Female scientists back in the days when they were not common or encouraged are always going to be an inspiration to me and Madame Curie gave her life for her work, as she had no way of knowing what nuclear physicists do today, that you need protection in order to work with radioactive particles.

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