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.
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.