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The mother of all sciences

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By A career as a physicist has now become rewarding, says V. Kumara Swamy
  • Published 29.05.08

Just like it took an apple on the head for Newton to figure out gravity, it took a textbook for Abhay Karnataki to reach for the stars. As a child, Karnataki had always been curious about things around him and questions about their existence kept popping up in his head. A book he read in his teens changed his life. “I read a physics text book by David Halliday and Robert Resnick and quickly realised that physics is what brings me closer to my understanding of Nature,” he says. What followed was a single-minded determination to pursue the subject he loved. Today he is a senior research scholar at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore. “I pursued astrophysics as an application of physics to stars and space — an aspect of Nature that draws the attention of one and all,” he says.

“Physicists have always been at the forefront of technologies. Physics, as we see it, is more like a mother science which helped in evaluating many other fields of science and technology. Consequently, physicists always played a key role. It started with the basic understanding of phenomenon around us through Newtonian physics, classical physics and finally quantum mechanics. These studies in turn led to a better understanding of space physics, atomic physics, and semiconductor physics,” says R.P. Tandon, professor, department of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi.

“Recent technological developments and the emergence of material science, nanotechnology and various other sciences have opened up research avenues in the entire world and now within the country because of MNCs setting up base in India,” says Tandon.

The future looks exciting too with physics entering new areas of science. “The emphasis has shifted to interdisciplinary research — a physicist collaborating with a biologist to discover the physics of cells, or a biologist collaborating with a mathematician to discover new ways to solve mathematical problems using biological methods,” says Rajarshi Roychowdhury, aspiring biophysicist and second year student of the five-year integrated masters programme at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Calcutta.

Postgraduates in physics too are spoilt for choice. One can join reputed institutes like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) as junior research fellows or as research trainees and pursue one’s area of specialisation with a stipend that can be anywhere between Rs 10,000 and 15,000. Postdoctoral research associates earn even more.

Research institutes such as the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, the Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratories across the country, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Delhi, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, and various laboratories across the country regularly employ physicists.

Once absorbed in these organisations as scientists, a person can take home a salary of around Rs 16,000 with other amenities. The salaries are set to rise further once the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations are implemented. Someone like A.K. Bandyopadhyay, for instance — who is head, pressure and vacuum standards at NPL and has around two decades of experience — can command a salary of around Rs 50,000.

And if one plans on working in private research institutes, rest assured the pay is almost on a par with salaries in the information technology industry.

“Career progression is directly proportional to the investment of time and passion. It is a meritocratic system and talent is always nurtured,” says Archana Sharma, physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, Switzerland.

“Physics has to be a creative enterprise, to be pursued with passion. Once that is realised by our youth, it is bound to be an enjoyable profession,” says Sushanta Dattagupta, director, IISER, Calcutta.

To be creative and successful, a love of mathematics and good analytical ability are essential. “Mathematics is the language of physics. It’s absolutely necessary to possess good problem-solving skills,” says Karnataki.

“Being analytical is about understanding the fundamental principles of physics and thereby breaking problems (statements, ideas, theories, arguments) down into their components. This understanding leads to greeting problems as challenges and not as threats and of course tolerating uncertainty in results,” says Tandon.

There are plenty of avenues for physicists. “It is being increasingly realised worldwide that physics-trained students are readily geared to solving important problems of technology and industry, be it in the realm of finite element analysis in mechanical engineering or computational electromagnetics in radar technology and in the oil industry, or even DNA engineering in biotechnology,” says Dattagupta.

For those who want to teach and research at the same time, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta, central universities like Calcutta University and Delhi University are good options. Fees at almost all the top research institutes for pursuing integrated courses are comparable to those at central universities. More often than not, all students are eligible for scholarships.

“With the recent hike in scholarships for research scholars, I see research as a very valid and bright career option. It is stable, exciting, innovative and fulfilling. It is not so much important as to where you work but how you work and how much you work,” says Karnataki.

Students interested in research in physics should start by taking the national standard examination of physics (NSEP), conducted by the Indian Association of Physics Teachers all over India. Although the exam is not linked to any entrance or scholarship award, it offers an opportunity to measure a student’s standing at the national level. If you top the NSEP, you may not have to take entrance exams at top government organisations like the Department of Atomic Energy.

For graduates, another exam is the National Graduate Examination in Physics (NGEP). If you excel in this one, you are not only offered scholarships but also get to visit prestigious research organisations around the country. In fact, S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Calcutta, offers toppers of the NGEP direct admission to its integrated PhD programme after an interview.

For students inclined to research right from school, an institute like the IISER is perfect. Currently there are three IISERs — in Pune, Calcutta and Mohali.

Two more are set to come up in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. Here, science students go straight into a five-year integrated masters programme. Further details can be obtained from the website

“The most important thing to remember is never to be ashamed to ask questions, even questions you consider silly. The only question that is silly is the one that you did not ask,” says Sharma.