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Re: knowledge +- $$$

At 09:34 PM 6/11/01 -0500, Kevin McKone wrote:
Why should a student spend 40+ hours/week studying math and physics for 4
or more years? A typical student could study 5-10 hours/week in business
or some such for 4 years and start at twice the salary of a physics major,
that's assuming the physics major can get a job with a 4-year degree.

Physics and engineering careers are not the glorified fields they were in
the 50's, 60's and 70's. Computer science and business are, this is where
the action and money is. Yes, it would be nice if students came to school
for the sake of knowledge, but they don't

Society has dictated that education is the way to $$$, not knowledge.

This raises some important issues, indeed some profound issues.

I think the usual argument is somewhat overstated. We shouldn't over-react
by over-stating an opposing argument, but we should strive for a balanced view.

1) We should keep in mind that throughout most of history (basically
excluding the last 50 years) typical physicists were not paid to do physics
research. Typically they were paid to teach, and they did a little
research on the side. Or they inherited some money and did research as a

World War II changed that. What had hitherto been a hobby (microwaves)
turned out to be useful in the Battle of Britain and elsewhere. Another
hobby (radioactivity) turned out to have applications.

As the proverb says, generals are always preparing to re-fight the last
war. So for years governments poured money into establishments like RSRE
and LANL. Apparently they thought this would help them re-fight WWII. But
now that funding is petering out.

In any case: If physicists want to pursue their interests without regard
for the applications, they can expect it to be funded like any other hobby
-- not very well! There will be occasional deviations from this rule, but
we (and our students) shouldn't count on it.

2) Money should not be the predominant consideration. Most of the people
on this list live in an incredibly wealthy society. Once you have enough
money to live a comfortable life, you can spend whatever's left over on
your hobbies. Or, equivalently (!) you can choose a lower-paying job that
is aligned with your hobbyist interests. It's a choice you can make.

3) Money, however, does tell us something. Being highly paid is an
indication -- a rough indication -- that somebody thinks you are working on
an important problem.

There are lots of problems out there that are highly interesting but not
very important. I call these "chess puzzles". Chess is a fascinating
game, but even if you win, it's still only a game. Physics generates lots
of puzzles that fall into this category: the problem is fascinating, but
even if you solve it, the world is not perceptibly better off.

-- Being smart does not automatically entitle you to a high-paying job.
-- Being smart and highly educated does not automatically entitle
you to a high-paying job.
-- Being smart and highly educated and working on an interesting problem
does not automatically entitle you to a high-paying job.

I like to draw a Venn diagram:

| Interesting |
| |
| +++++++|++++++++++++++++
| + | Useful +
| + | +
| + | +
| + | +
| + | +
| + | +
| +++++++|++++++++++++++++
| |

In one area we have the set of all puzzles that are really interesting to
you. In the other area we have the set of puzzles where people actually
care about the answer. The big trick is to find something in the
intersection and work on that.

Money is not the whole answer, but love of knowledge (without regard to the
value of the knowledge) is not the whole answer either.