Why Major in Physics?

An essay by Patrick Madigan, Bates physics alum

I wanted to let you know how physics has helped me throughout my career. I’ve written below what is basically an historical account of what I’ve done since graduating and the items that I needed to become proficient in to be successful.  In all of these subjects, I relied on the basics that I learned in physics to help me quickly understand and apply the knowledge to solve the problem.  I hope this helps people who are considering majoring in physics.

I liked math in High School and took calculus as a senior but it was only when I took physics  that math had real value to me.  In physics class we put mathematics to work actually solving problems and with calculus the problems were much more real.  I never understood math for math’s sake.  I took a PG year at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey where I took the BC version of AP Calculus and AP Physics.  I really enjoyed AP Physics at Lawrenceville because with calculus the problems became more interesting and the more difficult. I interviewed with George Ruff when I visited Bates and had a good feeling about the program.  My family wanted me to major in Geo-physics since the family knew someone that had a very prestigious job with Exxon.  I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with a degree in physics but I didn’t have much interest in Geology.

My first job after graduation was at Hamilton Standard, a division of United Technologies which makes electronic engine and flight controls for military and commercial aircraft.  I was hired to perform EMI (Electromagnetic Interference), Lightning and Nuclear Hardness testing at the system, subsystem and in some cases the electronic component level.  I was chosen for the job because with my degree I understood the electromagnetic spectrum, how waves interact with different size apertures based on wavelength, how impedance is affected by frequency, and other general rules of E&M. We designed electronic engine controls which could withstand the plane being struck by lightning through a balance of countermeasures of shielding and peak voltage clamping at the inputs.  A lightning strike is comprised of high and low frequency components that require very different solutions, something that Electrical Engineers didn’t have much appreciation for.  The nuclear hardness testing consisted of bombarding electronic components with Gamma radiation or neutrons from the Sandia Pulse Reactor (SPUR) to determine survivability during a nuclear strike.  The bulk of this work was done for the Stealth Bomber and similar aircraft.

After four years I left Hamilton and started a company that manufactures plastic packaging.  In the early years the company primarily made aluminum molds so I learned how to design (CAD, Solid Modeling) and machine aluminum (CAM, CNC Machines).  Along the way my background in mechanics and E&M helped me quickly understand electronic data communications, how cutting tool geometries work, radial cutting speeds, chip loads etc.  The plastic forming process consists of heating sheet plastic material to the edge of liquid state, forming the material over the aluminum molds which are water cooled to remove the heat and therefore set the material in the formed shape.  This required installing large compressed air systems and chilled water systems.  Background knowledge in thermodynamics helped me better understand what was happening during the forming process because I understood heat flow, heat density, heat capacities of different materials etc.  When purchasing some of the larger systems I was able to push for more efficient designs and create systems that had two uses.  For example our compressed air system rejected enough thermal energy to heat the factory in the cooler months.

Along with installing manufacturing infrastructure I needed a system to keep track of manufactured items.  For example, the system needed to keep track of an order for 10,000 items manufactured over several days by two people, each on a different shift, with a specific amount of material.  How much total time did this take?  How much Material?  How much scrap was there?  Did the job run at the estimated level?  What was in inventory?   What was on order?  I found out years later that this is called an ERP system but 25 years ago I built an industry specific one out of need.  My physics background allowed me to take a systematic approach to solve complex business issues.

A great book I read along the way was The Goal. It was written by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, a physicist and philosopher, and looks at business as a constraint problem making business seem more scientific (http://www.goldratt.com).  The approach is similar to the Lean Manufacturing principles made famous by the Toyota Production System (TPS).  Both of these approaches treat business as a system that first needs to be modeled and then can be improved by adjusting the model.  I think anyone who majors in physics would be extremely comfortable with this approach.  More and more businesses have realized that they need to approach their particular market this way if they are ever going to make progress in becoming “best in class”.

Finally, there are a lot of people in business that struggle with numbers.  Certainly any physics graduate can easily handle the kind of numbers and structures found on a Profit and Loss Statement.  With so much specialization these days, a typical physics student is the opposite with a background in how many things work.