A physicist by any other trade

Physicists have a tendency to stick their noses in other peoples’ work. We’ve conquered Wall Street (and maybe ruined it), studied communication networks and neural networks, and in a surprising number of cases turned from the study of death to the study of life. Pretty much everyone in physics knows someone who left physics to work on something more interesting, or better-funded, or just straight-up more lucrative. Occasionally, they even remember their roots.

What about the reverse, though? Where are the stories of people in other fields taking up physics?

Aside from a few very early-career examples, that just doesn’t happen. You might say that’s just because physics is hard, but that would be discounting the challenges present in other fields. A better point is that physics is hard, and old.

 Physics is arguably the oldest science, with only a few fields like mathematics and astronomy having claim to an older pedigree. A freshman physics student spends their first semester studying ideas that would have been recognizable three hundred years ago.

Of course, the same (and more) could be said about philosophy. The difference is that in physics, we teach ideas from three hundred years ago because we need them to teach ideas from two hundred years ago. And the ideas from two hundred years ago are only there so we can fill them in with information from a hundred years ago. The purpose of an education in physics, in a sense, is to catch students up with the last three hundred years of work in as concise a manner as possible.

Naturally, this leads to a lot of shortcuts, and over the years an enormous amount of notational cruft has built up around the field, to the point where nothing can be understood without understanding the last three hundred years. In a field where just getting students used to the built-up lingo takes an entire undergraduate education, it’s borderline impossible to just pick it up in the middle and expect to make progress.

Of course, this only explains why people who were trained in other fields don’t take up physics mid-career. What about physicists who go over to other fields? Do they ever come back?

I can’t think of any examples, but I can’t think of a good reason either. Maybe it’s hard to get back in to physics after you’ve been gone for a while. Maybe other fields are just so fun, or physics so miserable, no-one ever wants to come back. We shall never know.

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2 thoughts on “A physicist by any other trade

  1. Daniel

    Great article.

    I am too trained as a physicist. Physics is very demanding. You need to work long and hard in order to learn its secrets. But when you do, it is very rewarding.

    This long, hard training is the most valuable thing you get out of it. You can not fake it. That is why we can contribute so much in so many other areas, sometimes getting more rewards than in physics. I think it says a lot about other fields, and lack of training thereof.

    Anyhow, I am sure everyone who left physics for other ventures misses physics and wishes one day to return but knows that perhaps he can contribute more in his new field than in physics.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I wouldn’t go quite that far. Other fields have very demanding training too. The sorts of statistics needed for dealing with human subjects, for example, require a lot of dedicated coursework to master. It’s just that our training is particularly irreproducible, because of the history built in to it.

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