How a liberal-arts education has enhanced my physics research

I attended a liberal-arts college, and I reveled in the curriculum’s breadth. My coursework included art history, psychology, biology, economics, computer science, German literature, archaeology, and chemistry. My major sat halfway between the physics major and the create-your-own major; the requirements consisted mostly of physics but included math, philosophy, and history. By the end of college, I’d determined to dive into physics. So I undertook a physics research assistantship, enlisted in a Master’s program and then a PhD program, and became a theoretical physicist. I’m now building a physics research group that spans a government institute and the University of Maryland. One might think that I became a physicist despite my art history and archaeology. 

My liberal-arts education did mortify me a little as I pursued my Master’s degree. Most of my peers had focused on physics, mathematics, and computer science while I’d been reading Aristotle. They seemed to breeze through coursework that I clawed my way through. I still sigh wistfully over math courses, such as complex analysis, that I’ve never taken. Meanwhile, a debate about the liberal arts has been raging across the nation. Debt is weighing down recent graduates, and high-school students are loading up on STEMM courses. Colleges are cutting liberal-arts departments, and educational organizations are broadcasting the value of liberal-arts educations.

I’m not an expert in public policy or school systems; I’m a physicist. As a physicist, I’m grateful for my liberal-arts education. It’s enhanced my physics research in at least five ways.

(1) I learned to seek out, and take advantage of, context. Early in my first German-literature course, I’d just completed my first reading assignment. My professor told my class to fetch out our books and open them to the beginning. A few rustles later, we held our books open to page one of the main text. 

No, no, said my professor. Open your books to the beginning. Did anyone even look at the title page?

We hadn’t, we admitted. We’d missed a wealth of information, as the book contained a reproduction of an old title page. Publishers, fonts, and advertisement styles have varied across the centuries and the globe. They, together with printing and reprinting dates, tell stories about the book’s origin, popularity, role in society, and purposes. Furthermore, a frontispiece is worth a thousand words, all related before the main text begins. When my class turned to the main text, much later in the lecture, we saw it in a new light. Context deepens and broadens our understanding.

When I read a physics paper, I start at the beginning—the true beginning. I note the publication date, the authors, their institutions and countries, and the journal. X’s lab performed the experiment reported on? X was the world’s expert in Y back then but nursed a bias against Z, a bias later proved to be unjustified. So I should aim to learn from the paper about Y but should take statements about Z with a grain of salt. Seeking and processing context improves my use of physics papers, thanks to a German-literature course.

(2) I learned argumentation. Doing physics involves building, analyzing, criticizing, and repairing arguments. I argue that mathematical X models physical system Y accurately, that an experiment I’ve proposed is feasible with today’s technology, and that observation Z supports a conjecture of mine. Physicists also prove mathematical statements deductively. I received proof-writing lessons in a math course, halfway through college. One of the most competent teachers I’ve ever encountered taught the course. But I learned about classes of arguments and about properties of arguments in a philosophy course, Informal Logic. 

There, I learned to distinguish deduction from inference and an argument’s validity and soundness from an argument’s strength and cogency. I learned strategies for proving arguments and learned fallacies to criticize. I came to respect the difference between “any” and “every,” which I see interchanged in many physics papers. This philosophical framework helps me formulate, process, dissect, criticize, and correct physics arguments. 

For instance, I often parse long, dense, technical proofs of mathematical statements. First, I identify whether the proof strategy is reductio ad absurdum, proof by counterexample, or another strategy. Upon identifying the overarching structure, I can fill my understanding with details. Additionally, I check proofs by students, and I respond to criticisms of my papers by journal referees. I could say, upon reading an argument, “Something feels a bit off, and it’s sort of like the thing that felt a bit off in that paper I read last Tuesday.” But I’d rather group the argument I’m given together with arguments I know how to tackle. I’d rather be able to say, “They’re straw-manning my argument” or “That argument begs the question.” Doing so, I put my finger on the problem and take a step toward solving it.

(3) I learned to analyze materials to bits, then extract meaning from the analysis. English and German courses trained me to wring from literature every drop of meaning that I could discover. I used to write one to three pages about a few-line quotation. The analysis would proceed from diction and punctuation to literary devices; allusions; characters’ relationships with each other, themselves, and nature; and the quotation’s role in the monograph. Everything from minutia to grand themes required scrutiny, according to the dissection technique I trained in. Every pincer probe lifted another skein of skin or drew aside another tendon, offering deeper insights into the literary work. I learned to find the skeins to lift, lift them in the right direction, pinpoint the insights revealed, and integrate the insights into a coherent takeaway.

This training has helped me assess and interpret mathematics. Physicists pick a physical system to study, model the system with equations, and solve the equations. The next two steps are intertwined: evaluating whether one solved the equations correctly and translating the solution into the physical system’s behavior. These two steps necessitate a dissection of everything from minutia to grand themes: Why should this exponent be 4/5, rather than any other number? Should I have expected this energy to depend on that length in this way? Is the physical material aging quickly or resisting change? These questions’ answers inform more-important questions: Who cares? Do my observations shed light worth anyone’s time, or did I waste a week solving equations no one should care about?

To answer all these questions, I draw on my literary training: I dissect content, pinpoint insights, and extract meaning. Having performed this analysis in literature courses facilitates an arguably deeper analysis than my physics training did: In literature courses, I had to organize my thoughts and articulate them in essays. This process revealed holes in my argumentation, as well as connections that I’d overlooked. In contrast, a couple of lines in my physics homework earned full marks. The critical analysis of literature has deepened my assessment of solutions’ correctness, physical interpretation of mathematics, and extraction of meaning from solutions. 

(4) I learned what makes a physicist a physicist. In college, I had a friend who was studying applied mathematics and economics. Over dinner, he described a problem he’d encountered in his studies. I replied, almost without thinking, “From a physics perspective, I’d approach the problem like this.” I described my view, which my friend said he wouldn’t have thought of. I hadn’t thought of myself, and of the tools I was obtaining in the physics department, the way I did after our conversation. 

Physics involves a unique toolkit,1 set of goals, and philosophy. Physicists identify problems, model them, solve them, and analyze the results in certain ways. Students see examples of these techniques in lectures and practice these techniques for homework. But, as a student, I rarely heard articulations of the general principles that underlay the examples scattered across my courses like a handful of marbles across a kitchen floor. Example principles include, if you don’t understand an abstract idea, construct a simple example. Once you’ve finished a calculation, check whether your answer makes sense in the most extreme scenarios possible. After solving an equation, interpret the solution in terms of physical systems—of how particles and waves move and interact. 

I was learning these techniques, in college, without realizing that I was learning them. I became conscious of the techniques by comparing the approach natural to me with the approach taken in another discipline. Becoming conscious of my toolkit enabled me to wield it more effectively; one can best fry eggs when aware that one owns a spatula. The other disciplines at my liberal-arts college served as a foil for physics. Seeing other disciplines, I saw what makes physics physics—and improved my ability to apply my physics toolkit.

(5) I learned to draw connections between diverse ideas. Senior year of high school, my courses extended from physics to English literature. One might expect such a curriculum to feel higgledy-piggledy, but I found threads that ran through all my courses. For instance, I practiced public speaking in Reasoning, Research, and Rhetoric. Because I studied rhetoric, my philosophy teacher turned to me for input when introducing the triumvirate “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”2 The philosophy curriculum included the feminist essay “If Men Could Menstruate,” which complemented the feminist book Wide Sargasso Sea in my English-literature course. In English literature, I learned that Baldassare Castiglione codified how Renaissance noblemen should behave, in The Book of the Courtier. The author’s name was the answer to the first question on my AP Modern European History exam. My history course covered Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who invented calculus during the 17th century. I leveraged their discoveries in my calculus course, which I applied in my physics course. My physics teacher hoped that his students would solve the world’s energy problems—perhaps averting the global thermonuclear war that graced every debate in my rhetoric course (“If you don’t accept my team’s policy, then X will happen, leading to Y, leading to Z, which will cause a global thermonuclear war”). 

Threads linked everything across my liberal-arts education; every discipline featured an idea that paralleled an idea in another discipline. Finding those parallels grew into a game for me, a game that challenged my creativity. Cultivating that creativity paid off when I began doing physics research. Much of my research has resulted from finding, in one field, a concept that resembles a concept in another field. I smash the ideas together to gain insight into each discipline from the other discipline’s perspective. For example, during my PhD studies, I found a thread connecting the physics of DNA strands to the physics of black holes. That thread initiated a research program of mine that’s yielded nine papers, garnered 19 collaborators, and spawned two experiments. Studying diverse subjects trained me to draw creative connections, which underlie much physics research.

I haven’t detailed all the benefits that a liberal-arts education can accrue to a physics career. For instance, the liberal arts enhance one’s communication skills, key to collaborating on research and to conveying one’s research. Without conveying one’s research adroitly, one likely won’t impact a field much. Also, a liberal-arts education can help one connect with researchers from across the globe on a personal level.3 Personal connections enhance science, which scientists—humans—undertake.

As I began building my research group, I sought advice from an MIT professor who’d attended MIT as an undergraduate. He advised me to seek students who have unusual backgrounds, including liberal-arts educations. Don’t get me wrong; I respect and cherish the colleagues and friends of mine who attended MIT, Caltech, and other tech schools as undergraduates. Still, I wouldn’t trade my German literature and economics. The liberal arts have enriched my physics research no less than they’ve enriched the rest of my life.

1A toolkit that overlaps partially with other disciplines’ toolkits, as explained in (3).

2I didn’t help much. When asked to guess the last concept in the triumvirate, I tried “debate.”

3I once met a Ukrainian physicist who referred to Ilya Muromets in a conversation. Ilya Muromets is a bogatyr, a knight featured in Slavic epics set in the Middle Ages. I happened to have taken a Slavic-folklore course the previous year. So I responded with a reference to Muromets’s pals, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich. The physicist and I hit it off, and he taught me much about condensed matter over the following months.

This entry was posted in Real science, Reflections, The expert's corner by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I’m a theoretical physicist at the Joint Institute for Quantum Information and Computer Science in Maryland. My research group re-envisions 19th-century thermodynamics for the 21st century, using the mathematical toolkit of quantum information theory. We then apply quantum thermodynamics as a lens through which to view the rest of science. I call this research “quantum steampunk,” after the steampunk genre of art and literature that juxtaposes Victorian settings (à la thermodynamics) with futuristic technologies (à la quantum information). For more information, check out my upcoming book Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow. I earned my PhD at Caltech under John Preskill’s auspices; one of my life goals is to be the subject of one of his famous (if not Pullitzer-worthy) poems. Follow me on Twitter @nicoleyh11.

6 thoughts on “How a liberal-arts education has enhanced my physics research

  1. It took me nine years to finish my undergrad degree — the 60s y’know — oscillating between math and physics and cyclotronically beaming out in what we called a “radical-liberal arts college” with a sui generis bachelor’s I made up myself in “Mathematical & Philosophical Method”.  The University phasered the College out after a sequidecade … but then discovered 30 years later there was a crying need for something like it.  A bit of history repeated here.

  2. Double-plus Wow! I agree to my core with every word! I’m on the other side of the line here, a life-long avid science amateur with an arts background and education. Theatre arts in high school, film and television in college. Intended to be the next George Lucas. Life had other plans. My CS minor ended up becoming my career.

    But that arts background is my foundation, and exactly as you say, it’s one hell of a solid foundation when it comes to understanding life. (I especially liked your point #2. Exactly so.)

    In fact, FWIW, since the 1970s I’ve referred to many of our social ills, our anti-intellectualism and infantilism, as “The Death of the Liberal Arts Education” — and we’re all the poorer for it.

  3. My word – as a biologist with an undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college, I can totally relate to this! (The “feeling behind” suspicions in grad school, alongside students fresh out of engineering and molecular biology majors, totally hits home.) But I too wouldn’t change it for the world! All of these points on thinking deeply and analytically hold true. Plus, classic literature, playing music, history podcasts – all these other “liberal education” hobbies come up consistently for me as major coping mechanisms in the midst of grad school stresses from coursework and research.

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