The Physics of Adventure and Prosperity

The Physics of Adventure and Prosperity

If you’re looking for a way to sell your students on the value of physics and give real world context to your lessons, perhaps the most effective method for generating interest could be the tantalizing promise of an adventurous, prosperous and prestigious career.
It probably wouldn’t hurt to mention the median average pay for a physicist in 2016 was $114,870.

The possibilities for physicists and other STEM graduates has never looked brighter. According to U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, in 2015, STEM workers earned 29 percent more than their non-STEM peers in a job market that grew at a rate of 24.4 percent, compared to 6.4 percent for the non-STEM market. While not everyone can (or should) go into science, tech, engineering or math fields, those who do will likely experience higher salaries and better job security.

This is a list of some of the more interesting opportunities in non-traditional physics careers that you may want to share with your students.

Design Rollercoasters

Think you could design a better, faster rollercoaster with even bigger loops and hairier hairpin turns? Then make your own! That’s right, like most gravity defying amusement park rides, rollercoaster designers use the laws of physics to delightfully disorient hundreds of millions of adventure-seeking thrill riders every year in parks around the world.

Mechanical engineers use their knowledge of potential and kinetic energy, acceleration, friction, drag and gravity to hurl riders through a stomach-churning series of loops, twists and turns while keeping the whole experience from literally going off the rails.

And as technologies like magnetic levitation for high-speed frictionless rollercoasters, Hyperloop-style tunnels inspired by Elon Musk’s air tube technology, and improvements in animatronics, robotics and virtual reality come to fruition, the prospects for rollercoaster designers look to be as thrilling as the rides themselves.

With more than 400 million people visiting the top ten theme and adventure parks in 2016, the industry, and the demand for qualified engineers, is only expected to grow. Best of all, with an average median salary of $74,920, you’ll be able to treat yourself to
a grand tour of the world’s best rollercoasters.

Video Game Designer

To say the video industry has come a long way since the days of floppy discs and Pong would be quite an understatement. Today, the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry is growing even faster than expected in a market that’s projected to reach 90 billion dollars by the year 2020.

As video games become more sophisticated with life-like characters engaging in deathdefying adventures in three dimensional environments, computer scientists and software engineers depend more and more on the laws of physics to create realistic effects for the unreal. Immersing players in a convincing world of flying bullets, exploding tanks, elaborate fight scenes and invading aliens requires complex simulations and modeling of multiple of elements interacting in a multidimensional environment.

To accomplish this, computer programmers need an in-depth understanding of Newtonian physics to implement realistic avatar movements, explosions that react to specific surroundings and aliens that can seamlessly transition from climbing walls and ceilings to traveling through space and time, all while avoiding collisions between a dizzying number of characters, vehicles, animals, sets and accessories.

But what does it pay, you ask. According to Glassdoor, the average annual base pay for a gamer in San Francisco is more than $121,000. Even with the high cost of living in the Bay Area, that still buys a lot of game tokens.

Virtual Reality

Looking for a job with real impact? A Facebook Oculus job posting for an optical engineer invites physics graduates to “Join the adventure of a lifetime as we make science fiction real and change the world.” As gamers level up to virtual reality experiences and businesses discover more commercial uses for artificial worlds, the demand for qualified developers will continue to grow. According to, the average base pay for this type of world-changing adventure is $95,467.

Simulating realistic dynamics in an artificial environment requires developers to understand how matter and energy behave in the real world. The smallest of programming errors can not only ruin the immersive experience, but may even cause a disorienting sensory conflict resulting in a common form of motion sickness experienced by many VR users.

Beyond gaming and entertainment applications, virtual reality has the potential to revolutionize entire industries. From operating robots on Mars and performing remote surgeries to recreating crime scenes in court rooms and treating PTSD, the application possibilities are as endless as the opportunities for those who can master the laws of physics.


If you’re the type of person who enjoys extreme environments and wants to find out how the world’s glaciers are faring for yourself, or if you’re curious about the thickness of Saturn’s ice rings or how to predict an avalanche, then glaciology, or the science of ice, may be for you. Bonus points if you’re also into ice climbing, mountaineering and traveling to some of the world’s most remote and awe-inspiring locations.

Physics is an integral part of understanding the underlying behaviors of large masses like icebergs, glaciers and ice sheets through numerical models that can predict movement and the evolution of physical properties. Along with performing physically demanding fieldwork, glaciologists also spend a lot of time at the computer creating models, analyzing data and writing reports on their findings. Hired primarily by academic institutions or the government, an experienced glaciologist in Canada can expect to earn between $51,000 and $85,500 annually, which isn’t bad considering the job includes free travel to some of the world’s most environmentally exotic locations.

Professional Poker Player

Although your parents might not support this career choice, physicists do particularly well at playing poker.

According to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered, having a head for statistics and modeling can lead to big winnings. From modeling your opponents’ behaviors and the 133 million card combination possibilities in Texas Hold ‘Em to developing game theory on the art of the bluff, mathematicians and physicists have a distinct advantage in a game based largely on probabilities.

Although there is no salary and a high probability of also losing money though gambling, there have been some notable success stories. Perhaps one of the best known poker playing physicists is Michael Binger, who won $4.1 million at the 2006 World Series of Poker while earning a Ph.D in physics at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Other winners include Liv Boeree who won 1.25 million euros at the 2006 World Series of Poker and Marcel Vonk who won $570,960 at the 2010 World Series of Poker tournament.

Professional Sports

Of all of the career opportunities featured in this article, athletics is perhaps the most visible demonstration of Newton’s laws of physics. Whether it’s skating, swimming, football, baseball, basketball, pole vaulting, gymnastics or skiing and snowboarding, success belongs to those who are able to optimize their performance relative to the physical forces of nature, including energy, motion, resistance, gravity, velocity and friction. While a degree in physics won’t replace athletic ability and training, it could well make the difference in a game won by millimeters or nanoseconds.

Physicists can also excel in the world of sports by giving athletes a competitive edge with improved equipment designs. Whether it’s a better performing golf ball, a safer football helmet or a bicycle with a lower drag coefficient, physics plays a critical role in the advancement of athletics. Physicists also play a role in athletic training. A bicyclist who improves aerodynamics through an optimal tuck position will could pull ahead of a competitor of equal ability.

The pay range for physicists in the sports industry is as broad as the different career opportunities. Although the average annual pay for a player in the NBA is over $5 million, few will make it to that elite circle. The average salary for a sporting equipment design engineer is around $65,000.

If you want to be responsible for implementing these and more technologies in next generation, then consider a career in teaching. As the need for physicists and engineers grows, so does the demand for those qualified to teach. Without teachers, none of the current or future technological breakthroughs would be possible.

While only about 47 percent of high school physics classes are currently taught by someone with a degree in physics, the number of students enrolling in physics classes has more than doubled over the past two decades. If you’re looking for a rewarding career that will help shape the future, consider being a hero, also known as a teacher. According to, high school physics teachers earn between approximately $55,000 and $57,000 a year.