Invasion of the Physicists | Math ∞ Weblog

Wired lately revealed an article with the sensational title “Transfer Over, Coders — Physicists Will Quickly Rule Silicon Valley” primarily involved with physicists or former physicists working in deep studying (neural networks), machine studying, and knowledge science. The article implies that this exodus of physicists to the Silicon Valley and laptop business is a outstanding new phenomenon.

This exodus of physicists will not be new. It has been true at the least because the first huge physics employment bubble crashed within the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. The post-Sputnik increase in physics levels and grad college students produced an enormous surplus of physicists by the late 1960’s.

The article mentions Dennis Ritchie, creator of the extensively used C programming language and co-creator of the Unix working system, who had a joint diploma in utilized arithmetic and physics from Harvard College. Dennis Ritchie began at Bell Labs in 1967, simply because the post-Sputnik physics bubble was beginning to crash. Again within the 60’s, 70’s, early 80’s a good variety of physicists decamped for Bell Labs, principally to work on laptop and telecommunications associated actions.

Dennis Ritchie in 2011

Dennis Ritchie in 2011 (from Wikipedia)

A excessive profile instance is Emanuel Derman, creator of My Life as a Quant (2004) and later books, who labored at Bell Labs from 1980 to 1985 earlier than shifting on to Wall Avenue. He mentions fairly a lot of different physicists at Bell Labs on the identical time.

Most physicists find yourself in some kind of software program growth. The excessive profile “quant” jobs are literally relatively uncommon and arduous to get. The Wall Avenue companies are usually going after very robust physicists, particularly theoretical physicists like Derman.

Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft and Mental Ventures fame (or infamy) has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton. Didn’t go to Wall Avenue. 🙂

The Massive Hadron Collider

The Massive Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the place the Higgs Boson was found, produced an enormous surplus of experimental particle physics (excessive power physics) Ph.D.’s with no jobs within the area. Experimental particle physics entails massive quantities of software program growth for knowledge acquisition, instrument monitoring and management, and knowledge evaluation, principally in C and C++, though there may be nonetheless some “legacy” FORTRAN software program. The heyday of FORTRAN in physics was a very long time in the past.

Though there have been makes an attempt to make use of neural networks and different machine studying strategies in particle physics, the workhorse of knowledge evaluation within the area is Ronald Fisher’s most chance estimation and classification — primarily estimation of parameters such because the mass and width of the Higgs Boson. The invention of the Higgs was a most chance evaluation.

Though it’s undoubtedly attainable to map most chance onto neural networks, in observe they’re completely different. Neural networks are an try and simulate the low degree construction of the neurons within the mind and remedy issues by brute pressure becoming of knowledge to fashions with big numbers of adjustable parameters. In distinction, most chance entails makes an attempt to grasp the phenomenon underneath research and mannequin it as a small variety of capabilities akin to increased degree ideas such because the Higgs Boson. A neural web might precisely match the Higgs Boson peak but by no means produce or verify a bodily mannequin of what causes the height.

American Institute of Physics (AIP) Employment Research

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) publishes a lot of reviews on physics employment, which if learn fastidiously, present that only a few Ph.D.’s in Physics keep within the area.

Physics Doctorates
Preliminary Employment
Information from the diploma recipient follow-up surveys for the courses of 2013 and 2014

The referenced AIP report begins with the phrase:

Positions accepted by PhD diploma recipients following receipt of their levels fall into three classes: postdoctoral fellowships, doubtlessly everlasting positions and different non permanent positions.

The determine on web page two of the AIP report particularly lists a “non-public sector” block underneath “doubtlessly everlasting”. Desk 1 on web page 3 lists 70 % of probably everlasting positions as “non-public sector.”

Using the phrase “doubtlessly everlasting positions” within the AIP report for business positions, particularly within the laptop business, is very deceptive.

Academia, together with some authorities labs and institutes, has tenured positions and different positions with ensures of job safety till retirement. “Probably everlasting positions” is an correct description of “tenure observe analysis jobs.”

The overwhelming majority of business workers are “at will” and may be laid off at any time for any purpose or no purpose. Senior executives usually have employment contracts that take them out of the “at will” class however these not often present long run “everlasting” standing. Certainly, they’ll often be fired by the Board of Administrators.

The pc business is notoriously unstable with jobs usually fairly brief time period in observe, with layoffs widespread. As well as, there may be appreciable anecdotal and statistical proof that laptop careers are sometimes short-lived with many laptop professionals leaving the sector of their thirties — and later.

The first viewers for a report on outcomes for Ph.D.’s in Physics one yr after commencement, getting their Ph.D. diploma, is college students (and fogeys of scholars) evaluating whether or not to pursue a Ph.D.. Clearly, they need to examine long term outcomes, however younger folks usually don’t, focusing the subsequent step of their life/profession. Probably everlasting place appears like a normal model of “tenure observe analysis job.”

College students with little or no work expertise usually wouldn’t have an correct impression of salaries, working situations, profession prospects and different facets of the work world (or academia), particularly within the non-public sector laptop business the place most Ph.D’s in Physics presently find yourself.

Information protection of laptop corporations like Google emphasizes many far out research-like initiatives such because the Google self-driving automobile, the AlphaGo deep studying undertaking, and so forth. These sound like tutorial analysis, so why wouldn’t these corporations have comparable positions to tenure observe analysis jobs? Certainly, in very uncommon circumstances, they might have such positions.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of business jobs are at will full time jobs and not using a specified finish date. Particularly within the laptop business, they’re fairly insecure and sometimes short-lived, very completely different from what doubtlessly everlasting place implies. They aren’t analogous to tenure observe jobs.


Physicists have been migrating from Physics to the Silicon Valley and laptop business in massive numbers for over forty years, because the post-Sputnik physics employment bubble burst within the late 1960’s.

Anybody contemplating pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics ought to think about that they’re prone to find yourself as some kind of software program engineer after a number of years of minimal pay as a graduate scholar. A Ph.D. in Physics in the USA usually takes at the least 5 years. Six or seven years, even longer, will not be unusual in particle physics and another sub-fields of Physics.

Because the Wired article notes briefly, discoveries such because the Higgs Boson symbolize anticipated discoveries with little sensible or revolutionary scientific affect. They aren’t corresponding to sudden discoveries just like the neutron (1932) and nuclear fission within the 1930’s and 1940’s that drove the large growth of physics within the 1940’s and 1950’s, doubtlessly offering jobs in physics for Ph.D.’s.

As I mentioned briefly in my earlier publish Ought to You Get Began in Information Science? this torrent of physicists, many extremely certified in statistics and knowledge evaluation in addition to laptop programming, implies that the competitors for the comparatively small variety of knowledge science positions is and sure will stay fierce.


The image of laptop pioneer Dennis Ritchie is from Wikipedia. It’s a image of him in 2011. It’s licensed underneath the Inventive Commons License 2.0 (license right here)

© 2017 John F. McGowan

Concerning the Creator

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves issues utilizing arithmetic and mathematical software program, together with creating gesture recognition for contact units, video compression and speech recognition applied sciences. He has in depth expertise creating software program in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visible Primary and lots of different programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs creating laptop imaginative and prescient algorithms and software program for cell units. He has labored as a contractor at NASA Ames Analysis Heart concerned within the analysis and growth of picture and video processing algorithms and know-how. He has revealed articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the invention of methane on Mars), and low cost entry to house. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Know-how (Caltech). He may be reached at [email protected].