Physics – The Swiss Army Knife of the Sciences

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Physics – The Swiss Army Knife of the Sciences


Steve Mackwell, Deputy Executive Officer, American Institute of Physics

Steve Mackwell among the planetary globes in the library at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.Being a physics undergraduate is very different now than it was for me; the revolution in communication and connectedness has opened so many opportunities to engage globally and make the world a better place. I grew up in New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s and did my undergraduate work at the University of Canterbury in physics and mathematics. There were probably a dozen of us in my year in the physics department, mostly men but several women.

It was an exciting time in physics. We had several outstanding scientists at Canterbury who were at the cutting edge of their fields, doing seminal research on black holes and in quantum mechanics and electromagnetism. Despite being a small department, we had visits from many luminaries, including Murray Gell-Mann, Edward Teller, Paul Dirac, and Dick Feynman. It was hard not to be inspired.

Most of my fellow undergraduate students went on to graduate degrees, some staying at Canterbury, others in the United States or Europe. For my part, I was particularly fascinated by astrophysical research and decided to complete a master’s degree, performing spectroscopic observations of main sequence stars. This involved long cold nights in an observatory dome sitting atop a mountain near Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.

Stepping out of the dome as the sun rose over the high mountain peaks was unbelievably spectacular. Of course, working at a small observatory was more than just observing; we had plenty of opportunities to exercise the skills we learned in our physics classes, repairing mechanical and electronic systems and performing routine activities such as operating the local weather station.

Despite my fascination with astrophysical research, I became increasingly interested in what was happening in geophysics. It was at the peak of the plate tectonic revolution, and our understanding of our planet was being turned on its head. While we didn’t have any geophysical research at Canterbury and I had never taken classes in geology, I decided to pursue a PhD in that field. Thus began my physics world tour, as I moved to the Australian National University to complete my PhD in experimental geophysics. Through the course of that research, I found myself continuously referring back to the training I received and skills I learned as an undergraduate in physics.

Physics is like that. I think of physics as the Swiss army knife of the sciences. You can take what you learn in undergraduate classes and labs and apply it in all aspects of your life and career. I took those skills and used them first in astrophysics, then geophysics, materials science, mineral physics, and planetary sciences.

I have been exceedingly lucky to have had a career in physics, as a student, postdoc, professor, institute director, and now as the deputy executive officer at AIP. I have met amazing people of all ages and demographics and have worked in institutes and programs around the world. Of my various roles and despite my love of research, teaching and spreading the joy of the sciences to the younger generation has been the most fulfilling.

As members of SPS chapters in the United States and around the world, you are on a path to make fundamental contributions not only as researchers but also as mentors and teachers. In this way, you can bring inspiration to those who will form the scientific and technical workforce of tomorrow. And through your connections to your classmates and the broader SPS community, you’ll build relationships and extend your physics family across the globe.

Communication, engagement, and outreach are such key parts of what we do as scientists, as physicists. The training you are receiving through your undergraduate degree will forever make you a physicist. Through SPS and your departments, there are opportunities to lead in areas such as education and public engagement, in building an environment where diversity, equity, and inclusion are the norm and people of all genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds feel a sense of belonging.1 SPS, through its chapters and your personal involvement, provides you with the skills to achieve much more than just a degree.

As I have met with SPS students and faculty around the country, I am impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment to make the world a better place. Working together as members of the global SPS community, we can make it so that it’s not just luck that gets everyone through.

Astronomical dome on Mt. John at dawn against the backdrop of the Southern Alps, New Zealand. Photos courtesy of Steve Mackwell.



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