Nuclear and Particle Physicist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Physicists Career Video

Insider Info

dotNuclear and particle physicists study the smallest detectable units of matter. They answer the question: What is the universe really made of?

dotThose smallest elements are atoms -- tiny clusters of protons, electrons and neutrons. Physicists break up the atoms and watch how the individual protons, electrons and neutrons behave. They reduce matter to quarks -- the particles that make up protons -- and mesons, pions and muons.

Eventually, nuclear physicists reach the bottom of the particle barrel. Subatomic particles are just little points of energy.

dotParticle and nuclear physicists do much of their work in particle accelerator facilities, such as TRIUMF at the University of British Columbia and CERN in Switzerland. Inside these giant doughnuts, a particle beam is accelerated around and around the loop, then smashed into a tank of other particles.

As the particles collide and spin off in all directions, electronic detectors capture the information like a photograph.

As nuclear physicist Dave Axen explains, you can tell something about a particle by the way it reacts when struck. It's much like studying billiard balls on a pool table.

"Say you shoot the cue ball at some billiard balls," says Axen. "One of the balls is made of a squishy spongy material. It would scatter very differently than the hard billiard balls would. By its reaction to the collision, you could tell something about its make-up."

dotAxen is mainly concerned with the nuclear parts of the atom. He wants to learn about the force that holds protons together in the nucleus. This nuclear force must be strong to overcome the electrical forces that would normally push protons away from each other.

Particle physicists, on the other hand, are interested in those frustrating little subatomic particles of which protons and neutrons are made.

dotOutside universities and research facilities, nuclear physicists can work in the nuclear power industry, using their research and knowledge to help harness the energy in uranium atoms. Particle physicists work mainly in universities and research centers.

dot"In the '50s and '60s, nuclear power seemed to hold immense potential, but the industry has slowed down," says Axen. "Nuclear power is expensive, and alternative energy sources, such as hydroelectric power and fossil fuels, have gained favor."

Al Stetz says nuclear physicists are a vanishing breed. "There are people in nuclear engineering, but there aren't the mainline career opportunities there were in the past." Stetz says most work with the nucleus has moved into particle physics.

dotThis type of work doesn't require a great deal of physical strength, but you do have to think a lot. That usually means a good deal of sitting at a desk or in a lab.

At a Glance

Study the smallest detectable units of matter

  • You have to think a lot in this career
  • Much of the work is in universities and research facilities
  • You can find work with just a master's degree