In her post below, JoAnne refers to “the real world” in the literally accurate sense — the physical reality that exists independently of our understanding, in contrast to the tentative frameworks put forward by theorists as hypothetical models of that reality. But there’s a more metaphorical sense in which physicists (and academics more broadly) use the phrase “the real world” — to refer to the socio-economic milieu peopled by those outside the academy. We say things like “she spent a couple of years in the real world before going to grad school,” or “most of the time I hang out with physicists, but I do have some friends in the real world.”
I figure we can’t be the only people who talk this way. Professional actors or musicians (I’m guessing, and would love to hear confirmation/refutation) might think of themselves as being distinct from “the real world,” as might people serving in the military, or working in politics. We have the idea that certain kinds of lifestyles are stereotypically “real,” while others are somehow in a separate zone. And it’s generally a point of pride to consider one’s self and colleagues as non-real — we are privileged enough to operate outside the petty concerns of conventional reality, concentrating our powers on esoteric specialties with petty concerns of our own.
So, is there a flipside to this, with a corresponding feeling of pride? That is, are there occupations or milieux that think of themselves as quintessentially “real,” and wouldn’t have it any other way? (Presumably ones where people don’t babble on about “milieux.”) My many non-physicists friends are generally happily cocooned in lifestyles that are just as non-real-world as mine, so I don’t have much data here.