One-armed versus two-armed physicists?

Draft of a note published in Physics Today 47, 8 (1994) 14-15.

In these last decades of the twentieth century, physics is at a cross-roads. One alternative, in its extreme form, is to define (or continue to define) physics as the most fundamental of all natural sciences, relative to which all other technical disciplines are a form of more specialized and/or practical problem-solving. In this view, the mandate of a "real physicist" is to find new knowledge, while it is the job of those in the more specialized disciplines (ranging from materials engineering through medicine) to put this new knowledge to use in context of the practical goals within the human community and the global economy. As Fishbane et al in their new text on introductory physics put it (Prentice-Hall, 1993, page 4), we might say that physics and engineering differ not in subject matter but in goals, with the former interested in gaining knowledge, and the latter interested in putting it to use.

My sense of the matter is that this is a time-honored paradigm which reserves an appropriate place for physics as a foundation discipline, BUT that this paradigm also lies at the heart of the limited choice that new physicists encounter when trying to find a place for themselves in the economy. Having worked with more than one globally competitive industry, I sense further that this alternative harms our collective problem-solving ability by leaving modern industry (except in the most fundamental physical science areas) without an established way to hire "guaranteed-useful" researchers with background in the basics of space, time and physical inference for their interdisciplinary problem-solving teams. Because this alternative focuses on the training of physicists toward solution of fundamental problems not of immediate practical use, I refer to this as the "one-armed physicist" approach.

Another alternative is to make the distinction between engineering and physics not on the basis of goals, but on the basis of methods. A physicist (or a scientist in general) then becomes a researcher equipped to apply basic insight in her or his field(s) of expertise to the solution of applied as well as fundamental problems, while an engineer is trained in the application of established methods (again to the solution of either applied or fundamental problems).

Such a re-definition has major consequences for institutions involved in the education of physicists, because to turn out bona fide "two-armed physicists" (i.e. those trained to use their basic insights in the solution of BOTH fundamental and applied problems) the institutions must provide their physics students with:

How many institutions actively provide and test for these things in the context of their advanced degree programs in physics? I submit that those which actively focus on "both arms" provide graduates who will be successful in a much wider range of places than do those institutions (many among the most respected) that do not. A "natural philosophy" emphasis in each department might then be established for those students who want to stick with the one-armed (fundamental goals ONLY) route.

P. Fraundorf
University of Missouri
5/93 Saint Louis

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