Careers in Condensed Matter Physics

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Before 1978, when the American Physical Society changed the terminology, a career in condensed matter physics meant having a job in solid-state physics. The new field now includes the study of liquids, but not how fluids move and the forces acting on them, which is covered by fluid mechanics. One-third of the physicists in the United States have jobs in condensed-matter physics.

Condensed matter physics jobs include the study of Bose-Einstein condensate, a phenomenon predicted by the famous developers of Bose-Einstein statistics 70 years before physicists with jobs at JILA (a research institute operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado) discovered it. This new state of matter emerged when the temperature of rubidium gas was cooled to 1.7 x 10-7 K. At this low temperature, the momentum of the atoms became more known and their location less known to the extent of forming a single quantum state.

Many jobs in condensed matter physics involve the study of superconductors, which have zero resistivity and other technologically useful properties. It is a quantum mechanical phenomenon thought until 1986 to occur at temperatures near 0 K, but certain ceramics make the transition at 90 K. Superconductors can produce the stable magnetic fields required by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a multi-billion dollar business. There are condensed matter physics career opportunities in this subfield which is related to magnetic levitation for transportation, digital circuits, power cables, and electronic filters that operate in the frequency range used by broadcast radio, cell phones, and television.

Many jobs in solid-state physics involve research on semiconductors and transistors and require using X-ray crystallography, neutron diffraction, and electron diffraction to study the structure of materials.

Nanotechnology positions are likely to overlap with careers in condensed matter physics. Nanotech controls matter on an atomic scale and deals with structures smaller than 10-7 meters. In 2000, scientists at IBM reported the micro-fabrication of an electronic chip for high-speed data storage. Another example of nanotechnology is using carbon nanotubes (a form of carbon) to make nanomotors. IBM scientists recently reported using a combination of atomic force microscopy (high-resolution scanning probe microscopy) and MRI to get images of viruses with a resolution of better than 10-8 meters.

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