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Name: Jake
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What does a nuclear physicist do? We have a nuclear power plant in our town. Do they have nuclear physicists?

There probably are not nuclear physicists at the plant, but I would bet there are nuclear engineers. In general, physicists are a bit more interested in understanding and engineers a bit more focused on making things work. As such, a physicist might be interested in understanding some of the science involved in the process, but, thankfully, plants will employ engineers so that everything works properly. It may be possible that occasionally a physicist shows up to study something, but for the most part physicists will only be around reactors built especially for research purposes.

As for careers in nuclear physics, there are several options that fall into two categories (sort of): applied and basic science. For applied science, you will often find nuclear physicists working with other researchers to understand how to improve nuclear energy, or in the realm of weapons related work. Energy research will often be done at a national lab or dedicated research reactor. There are many people working on improving fission style reactors and many still believe that nuclear fusion may one day be a useful source of energy. Those that work on weapons related research will often study how nuclear chain reactions occur with very high temperature and pressure physics. After all, if you must understand how those things work, it is much better to know about them without actually having to explode one. Another area in which there are nuclear physicists hard at work is in improving our ability to detect nuclear material so that we are capable of preventing terrorist attacks.

As for basic science, there are several flavors of nuclear physicist. Many study the properties of the nucleus or work to understand other forms of nuclear matter. In addition to neutrons and protons, there is a whole zoo full of nuclear matter, all with different properties. Another very common area of study in nuclear physics has to do with these mysterious particles known as neutrinos. If we are able to understand neutrinos better, then we will also be able to know a great deal more about the universe as a whole(and in particular the early, early universe).

All that being said, I am not a nuclear physicist and so I very well could be mistaken about exactly what goes on where and who does exactly what. It is also very common for a single researcher to have multiple interests and thus span many different research areas.

Michael S. Pierce
Materials Science Division
Argonne National Laboratory

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