Physics Is a Small World

Earlier this week, Vilhelm Bohr gave a talk at Perimeter about the life of his grandfather, the famous physicist Niels Bohr. The video of the talk doesn’t appear to be up on the Perimeter site yet, but it should be soon.

Until then, here is a picture of some eyebrows.

This was especially special for me, because my family has a longstanding connection to the Bohrs. My great grandfather worked at the Niels Bohr Institute in the mid-1930’s, and his children became good friends with Bohr’s grandchildren, often visiting each other even after my family relocated to the US.

These kinds of connections are more common in physics than you might think. Time and again I’m surprised by how closely linked people are in this field. There’s a guy here at Perimeter who went to school with Jaroslav Trnka, and a bunch of Israelis at nearby institutions all know each other from college. In my case, I went to high school with an unusually large number of mathematicians.

While it’s fun to see familiar faces, there’s a dark side to the connected nature of physics. So much of what it takes to succeed in academia involves knowing unwritten rules, as well as a wealth of other information that just isn’t widely known. Many people don’t even know it’s possible to have a career in physics, and I’ve met many who didn’t know that science grad schools pay your tuition. Academic families, and academic communities, have an enormous leg up on this kind of knowledge, so it’s not surprising that so many physicists come from so few sources.

Artificially limiting the pool of people who become physicists is bound to hurt us in the long run. Great insights often come from outsiders, like Hooke in the 17th century and Noether in the early 20th. If we can expand the reach of physics, make the unwritten rules written and the secret tricks revealed, if we work to make physics available to anyone who might be suited for it, then we can make sure that physics doesn’t end up a hereditary institution, with all the problems that entails.

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7 thoughts on “Physics Is a Small World

  1. 物理控老张 (@ikarienator)

    I’m a pretty good software engineer in my late 20s with high school level physics knowledge plus I watched a lot of youtube videos from Susskind. It might sound funny but I really got into the idea that I want to be a physicist for my life. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and this one really inspired me. Do you think it’s too late for me to be a physicist? And it is too late to make contributions as an “outsider”?

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I don’t think it’s too late, but it’s tough!

      I do think that you shouldn’t hope to make contributions “as an outsider”, if you want to make meaningful contributions in physics you need a very deep background, which you can pretty much only get through grad school.

      That said, I know lots of people who started grad school older than you are now and have done well with it, including a few in their early 30’s. Having a software background will definitely help, both in applying and in research when you get there. So if you really feel like physics is what you want to do in life, try applying to grad schools and see where you can get with it.

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      1. 物理控老张 (@ikarienator)

        Thanks for your reply!

        Ah, so when you say Hook and Noether are outsiders, you didn’t mean that they are not connected to academic families, you meant that they were not physicists. Now I understand it. I’ve been pretty much sure that I would go a grad school, but I don’t even have a bachelor degree in maths or physics. I’m not sure if they would enroll anyone with my background. Perhaps I have to start as an undergrad?

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        1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

          Oh, I misunderstood you. I was referring to Hooke and Noether as outsiders just in that they were not people who were commonly accepted in academia at the time: in Hooke’s time pretty much all scientists were landed gentry while Hooke had to work for a living, while Noether was a woman in an era when it was pretty much impossible for women to get faculty positions.

          When responding to you, I thought that by “outsiders” you meant people who weren’t part of academia at all, which is a different thing entirely. Hooke and Noether did get involved with the academic communities of their day, they weren’t just working alone, which is the important part of what I was trying to get across in my response to you.

          If you feel like you can go back and get a bachelor’s degree in physics it would definitely help, it’s admittedly hard to convince a grad school to accept you without that. I guess I was assuming that since you already had an engineering degree going back to undergrad would be unappealing, but if it’s something you can do it’s probably a good idea, yeah.

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  2. ohwilleke

    If we are going to talk about academic outsiders who played an important role in physics, we would be remiss to omit Oliver Heaviside, who is responsible for much of the modern notation of electromagnetism.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Interesting! I hadn’t heard Heaviside’s story before. It seems a bit like the narratives around Faraday and Tesla, but with the rare addition of making really valuable theoretical progress, rather than just practical/experimental contributions.

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