A Career in Theoretical Physics

I remember the day my mother was shuffling through old newspapers and found a picture of a bearded, wild-looking old man with grizzly eyebrows, a bushy moustache and a coiffure that looked most astonishing. My mother asked me, “Do you know who he is?” I had absolutely no clue. She replied, “Actually neither do I, but I do remember that he was one of the most brilliant scientists ever.”

That day, I felt intrigued to know about this eccentric-looking man. I had loved mathematics since the day I could add and subtract. As I grew and my knowledge of the world around me increased, I learnt he was a man called Albert Einstein, a German to my delight (I was learning German at that time). Then it was the reverence that followed. After researching on his theories and the way he had revolutionized physics nearly a hundred years ago, I was sure I wanted to someone like him.

Theoretical physics is surely not one of the more popular careers today. It may have its own reasons. To many, it is too abstract, something that they will rarely apply in daily life. To some, it’s too theoretical; there is no way one could make millions using something that you cannot even make a product out of. For others, it is just too tough and sophisticated, and maybe not even worth the effort. But only a few people realize what theoretical physics has done and could do in the future. It is hardly known that all electronic devices in use today, from the snazzy iPod to the biggest supercomputers rely on a phenomenon called Quantum Tunneling, which was understood thanks to Quantum Mechanics, a cornerstone of theoretical physics. Most simply put, theoretical physics is about discovering the laws according to which everything around us, from dust to intergalactic nebulae, works. It involves extensive knowledge of mathematics which may seem too esoteric to many.

I feel the scope of theoretical physics is probably the biggest in anything that a man could do in life. It overarches every other intellectual subject that man has ever learnt. For example, Biology deals only with living organisms; Chemistry is all to do with elements, compounds and their reactions but Physics has something or the other to do with everything as it seeks to understand the whole universe. It tries to comprehend how everything from the DNA in an organism to the organic alcohols, is made up from the same fundamental constituents. Even Mathematics seems like a pillar of something greater, which is theoretical physics.

Recently, there has been tremendous focus on theoretical physics owing to the development of new theories such as the string theory (or rather, the M-theory) and the loop quantum gravity theory. Also, experiments such as the much-hyped Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN have brought theoretical physics in the limelight. The history of our technological and scientific progress is filled with great physicists whose work took us into completely undiscovered areas. Be it Newton who gave us gravity and equations of motion, or Einstein who gave us relativity; such physicists are truly one of the greatest achievers in mankind’s history. Some renowned physicists alive today include Michael Greene (author of The Elegant Universe), Edward Witten (father of the M-Theory), Michael Duff, Abhay Ashtekar (developer of Loop Quantum gravity).

Some of the best places to pursue theoretical physics are renowned institutions like Cambridge, MIT, Princeton, California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago etc. It is a very demanding career requiring great skills, a curious intellect and the joy of discovering how things around you work.

For me, personally, there can nothing as satisfying, as gratifying and as interesting as theoretical physics. I hope I can play a part, no matter how little it is, in fulfilling the legacy of the greatest physicist ever, Einstein, by helping in the unraveling of the Grand Unified Theory.

Sainyam Gautam

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