An example of a successful career in theoretical physics was Albert Einstein’s who discovered a number of mathematical models and abstractions in many different fields of physics. This was possible in the early part of the 20th century, but now a physicist has to decide what branch of physics to specialize in and then decide whether to look for jobs as a theoretician or an experimentalist. Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), who carefully plotted the location of the “wandering stars” as seen from Earth, was an experimentalist. Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), who said the planets followed elliptical paths, was a theoretician and Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was a better one. Many successful careers in theoretical physics involve making calculations with existing models and equations. There are many full professors at major universities with dozens of publications in prestigious peer-reviewed journals who only show up when googled because of their university affiliation or publications.
One benefit of a career in theoretical physics as opposed to experimental physics is that experiments have to be funded. Doing experimental work involves getting access to laboratory facilities. Theoretical work, unless it requires the use of high-speed and powerful computers, can be done at no cost. On the other hand, there are more jobs for experimental physicists since there is a demand for scientists to work in laboratories that are already funded and in existence. There are also more career opportunities in industry for experimentalists than for theoreticians.
A successful career in theoretical physics requires selecting an area of research where you can make a contribution to knowledge. Einstein, for example, spent decades trying to improve upon the quantum mechanics of Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) and others without success. A famous theoretical physicist that is often described as brilliant by his peers because of a paper he wrote in his early 20s about quantum electrodynamics is Freeman Dyson (b. 1923). However, he has not accomplished much else in this area. Being famous is also no criterion for measuring career success. Stephen Hawking (b. 1942), for example, is more famous than many of his peers that have made more contributions to physics. The first winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics was Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923) in 1901 for an experimental discovery. The prize can be given to three individuals for two different achievements and there have been 183 winners. The ratio of winners in theoretical physics to experimental physics varies from decade to decade. But overall, the chance of a theoretical physicist getting the prize is greater.
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