Sunday, August 16, 1998
A career in physics
By Taru Bahl
PHYSICS, as defined by the dictionary in simple layman terminology, is the science that deals with matter, energy, motion and force. A physicist is therefore one who specialises in physics. For some reason, professionals in this field choose to remain low key. It is only when there is something spectacular like the recent nuclear tests, or the launching of a space shuttle that the brains behind it find themselves in the midst of media glare.
Physicists are engaged in far more serious research and development projects like testing the accuracy of advanced medical equipment and gadgetry; coming up with new and sophisticated space technologies; studying the behaviour and structure of the universe; observing the effects of energy on matter and such like.
It is an absorbing profession for those who are passionately interested in physics. The government and other public sector undertakings are in the coming years going to pump in additional funds in training and re-training their staff and bringing state-of-the-art technology to institutes where serious work is being carried out.
Since physics is a fundamental science, scientists from other streams too need to have a smattering of the subject. Which is why you see chemists, doctors, engineers and biologists delving deep into fundamentals of physics physicists always have the option of branching out into related fields of astrophysics, geophysics and biophysics. To put it mildly, physicists determine the basic laws which govern phenomena such as gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear interactions. These in turn, lead to new findings in nuclear energy, electronics, aerospace technology, communications and medical instrumentation.
The world's premier centre NASA comprises of more than 21,000 civil servants who, along with their colleagues in the US, industry and in other countries, are dedicated to exploring space and sharing their discoveries with people across the world. Among their best known projects are the Space Shuttle Hubble Space Telescope, the Galileo Mission to Jupiter and its aeronautics research. It has more than 15 centres dedicated to specialised areas of physics and maths.
The Johnson Space Centre for example is NASA's primary centre for design, development testing of spacecraft and associated systems for human flight. In India too the government is spending resource and manpower in selecting and training astronauts, planning and conducting human space flight missions and in participating in medical engineering and scientific experiments that get carried aboard space flights.
You have Ph.D. mathematicians and physicists dedicated to creating computer-aided engineering software doing exceedingly well, especially on foreign shores. Usually you have interdisciplinary teams working together on mega-projects. They comprise computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, statisticians, librarians, information scientists, engineers and managers all dedicated to creating and developing hi-tech software.
Study of physics after class XII is offered in the B.Sc. (Hons) course or in the five-year programmes offered by the IITs. You can further specialise in physics by enrolling in a postgraduate or postdoctoral study. BITS Pilani, IIT Kanpur and Kharagpur offer five-year integrated courses. Entrance is through the IIT Joint Entrance Examination. IIT Mumbai offers a four-year B.Tech course in engineering in physics. To apply you have to have PCM at the plus two level.
At the postgraduate stage you would be studying nuclear physics, solid state physics, astrophysics, medical physics, astronomy, electronics optics acoustics, plasma physics, health physics and communication. Higher studies can be pursued at Pune's Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics; Calcutta's Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics; Thiruvananthapuram's Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Bhuvanesvara's Institute of Physics and Mumbai Centre for Advanced Studies in Astronomy.
Bangalore where much of the activity is centred has three prominent institutes Raman Research Institute, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the Indian Institute of Science, Gandhi Nagar has the Institute of Plasma Research. M.Sc. in applied physics can be done from Punjabi University, Patiala, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, MS University, Vadodra, Devi Ahlya Vishvavidyalaya, Indore and Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad. Entry to most of these universities is through a written test and interview.
Specialised courses in computer engineering and computer applications are offered by IIT Delhi. BITS Pilani conducts an M.Tech in information systems. IIS Bangalore offers computers to B.Sc graduates with a first class degree. If wanting to undertake any of the courses offered by private training institutes, make sure that they are accredited with the Department of Electronics Government of India.
To enter the field of research in electronics and communications, you will have to do your M.Tech followed by a Ph.D. from any of the institutes of technology. Admission to postgraduate courses, with scholarship can be taken on clearing the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE). This is conducted jointly by the IIT and the IIS. Once you do this, you can conveniently find placement in DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), Minister of Defence and the research and development divisions of industries research organisation and telecommunications division.
Since knowledge of physics is imperative for the growth and development of industry, education, culture and defence, the services and expertise of a physicist are not necessarily restricted to the research and technical side. Usually people associate physicists with atomic energy missiles spacecraft programmes. If you peep into the pages of history and observe the contributions made by Galileo, Kepler and Newton, you will see the vast spectrum covered by them. Engaged in what is traditionally referred to as the classical side of physics, their research was in the area of mechanics, heat, thermodynamics, sound, electricity, magnetism and light. In recent years the scope of physics has spread to include significant achievements in the field of relativity, quantum theory and atomic and nuclear structure.
Most institutes in India are engaged in the study of aeronautics, human exploration and development of space, earth science and space science. One can explore the possibility of postdoctoral studies in physics overseas but with the latest ruling of the Clinton Government where Indian physicists are likely to be sent back to India, there is confusion on this score too.
Being a member of prestigious institutes like the society of rheology in the US, can be a big boon for the physicist who wants to expand his horizons. Rheology, which is a branch of mechanics, was formed in 1929 and is one of founding members of the American Institute of Physics. It publishes technical and science papers and meets at least once a year. Members comprise physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers and mathematicians who are interested in advancing and applying rheology which is the science of deformation and flow of matter.
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