Monday, December 20, 2010

Physics and Diplomacy

Thanks to PhysicsToday Science and Media news for pointing out a terrific letter written by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the NY Times regarding the late Richard Holbrook. It is worth repeating here:

When I gave Ambassador Richard Holbrooke a personal tour of the newly opened Rose Center for Earth and Space and Hayden Planetarium in 2000, I could not help notice how fluent he was in the depth and breadth of his cosmic curiosity.

True science literacy is less about what you know and more about how your brain is wired for asking questions. Later in the tour he confessed that, as an undergraduate at Brown, he studied physics before switching to politics.

I could not resist asking him whether that exposure to physics made a difference in his career as a diplomat, especially in tense, war-torn areas of the world that are resistant to negotiated peace settlements.

He answered emphatically “yes,” citing the physics-inspired approach of sifting for the fundamental drivers of a cause or phenomenon — stripped of all ornament. To get there, one must assess how and when to ignore the surrounding details, which can give the illusion of importance, yet in the end, are often irrelevant distractions to solutions of otherwise intractable problems.

I've written about this many times already on the importance of physics education. When I came up with a series of experiments to revamp undergraduate physics laboratories, I had this very thing in mind. It isn't meant to just train people to become physicists. It is meant to train everyone on how to think analytically, and that figuring out the central principle, be it a physical phenomenon or a political issue, gives one a very systematic approach on how to think things through.

A very nice letter.


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