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Blog

What makes a physicist a physicist?

By Margaret Harris

In last week’s Facebook poll we asked

Do you consider yourself a physicist?

This proved to be one of our most popular polls yet, with 214 responses. Of these, a narrow majority (55%) said that yes, they considered themselves physicists, while 15% chose “no” and 30% agreed that for them, “it’s complicated”.

A number of people were kind enough to explain their responses in the poll’s comments section. We really appreciate this, because it tells us a lot more than the raw numbers can. For example, judging from the comments, there seems to be some difference of opinion over the question of what makes a physicist a physicist.

For some, it’s primarily down to training or education. “I feel that I really can’t call myself a physicist because I don’t have anything hanging on the wall saying ‘Tom Sullivan is hereby granted and honoured as a physicist’, “ wrote, er, Tom Sullivan, who answered “it’s complicated”. Another who mentioned training was Kate Oliver, a science writer who regularly contributes to Physics World’s “Lateral Thoughts” humour column. “I like to consider myself a physicist as I have the relevant training, read about it and think like it,” she wrote, explaining her “yes” vote. However, she added, “since I haven’t been in the lab for three years, my ‘physicistique’ may have expired”.

The idea that physicist-hood might carry an expiry date suggests an alternative definition – one that focuses not on who you are or what you know, but on what you do. (The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who believed that “to do is to be”, would love this definition.) Like Oliver, Bruce Etherington is a science communicator with a physics degree, but he answered “it’s complicated” because “Most practising physicists would probably not consider me to be one.” Another in the “it’s complicated” camp, Steve Douglas, wrote “I think to be a physicist you’ve got to specialize in it, rather than just be pretty good at it.”

At physicsworld.com, we tend towards a pretty broad definition of physicist – one that encompasses, at minimum, those who have studied physics at degree level (or higher) and who remain interested in learning about it.

But since these Facebook polls are about your views, not ours, we’ll leave the last word to Michael Eliachevitch, a soon-to-be physics student who wrote that “being a physicist means [being] part of a large adventure to discover the world we are living in”. Good luck on your adventure, Michael!

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