Sunday, May 4, 2014

Innovation and the Value of a Physics Degree

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solarcity, studied physics and economics at the University of Pennsylvania.  Toward the end of this  TED interview, he is asked how he has been able to innovate so successfully.  In his reply he says

I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics, that sort of first principles reasoning. What I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning through analogy, which essentially means kind of copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that, otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But, when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really sort of figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like Quantum Mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. I think that’s an important thing to do. 
I'd say that's a pretty solid endorsement of the value of a physics education.  If you want to read more from Elon Musk on this subject, see this interview done by the American Physical Society.

Of course this is the experience of just one individual and he's clearly an outlier.  Maybe the value he finds in his physics training is not representative.  So here are some more individuals, all UC Davis alumni, commenting on the value of their training in physics.
Steven Guggenheimer (BS 1987), Chief Evangelist at Microsoft writes, "I realized that the analytical abilities, honed on physics problems at UCD, were exactly what I needed to attack the broad range of business case studies that were part of the graduate curriculum. Across Spectra-Physics, Graduate School and Microsoft, the one common element in all work is problem solving, the most applicable background for problem solving is Physics."
Nelson Pass (BS 1973) founder of Pass Laboratories writes, "Physics was the place to be, and likely still is – the fractal zone between the applied science of something like Engineering and the total abstraction of Mathematics.  I look around at successful people in all sorts of fields and I see that a remarkable number of them have degrees in Physics."

Nancy Roberts (BS 1990), a Materials Engineer with Lockheed Martin Space Systems writes, "The most advantageous take-away was the tenacity, drive, and work ethic to achieve as penetrating an understanding as possible of any material/process/system. "
I believe they are all speaking in different ways to the kind of thinking that they learned as physics students.  This is true of Nancy Roberts as well even though she is explicitly emphasizing "tenacity, drive and work ethic."  She is emphasizing these things because they are often what is necessary to achieve true understanding of a system.  I suspect as a physics student she gained a sense of what it means to truly understand something, and that it is worth fighting to achieve that understanding.  No one said it's easy!  In fact, the first response Elon Musk gave to the interviewer's question was, "I work a lot."  

After hearing from tens of our alumni over the years, I can synthesize some themes that have emerged repeatedly regarding the value of a physics degree.  
1) In many circles, a physics degree leads to instant respect for the intelligence of the degree-holder.
2) Pursuing a physics degree is good practice for tackling a variety of problems – even ones that have nothing to do with physics. 
3) Training in physics helps one to have a systems-level view of an organization, market, or complex product, which allows one to see connections that others miss. 
4) Physicists can find solutions to complex problems, even outside their area of expertise.
As a physics professor I find it immensely gratifying that our students find broad value in their education beyond the more obvious intellectual pleasures of studying, e.g., relativity and quantum mechanics, and pursuing their (perhaps) narrowly-focused research projects. 

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