Thinking back to last entry, I think the way the physicist thinks makes him (and I’m sorry but ‘him’ is still about 90% correct) quite versatile in terms of problems he can address. I’ve been exchanging emails recently with an economist, with a view to having him speak at cafe scientifique. What has economics got to do with science, and physics in particular?
The large merchant banks and financial institutions fall over themselves to recruit physicists. (Well, probably they’re not recruiting anyone now, but when they did, physicists were certainly a target.) One of my fellow students (a New Zealander, incidently) in Bristol, UK, where I did my PhD, was snapped up by a large London financial institution.
Why? It’s because the physicist knows how to deal with complex systems, such as financial markets. In this kind of system there are random factors, but also more predictable driving forces. These two together make what’s called a stochastic system, and physics has developed ways of describing how this works.
Of course we cannot predict random things, but we can say things about what they will do to a system, and build up predictions of what a system could do. In economic circles, I suspect this is mostly targeted at managing risk, rather than making lots of money quickly.
I deal with stochastic systems in my research work on the electrical currents in the brain. That’s biology, you say. Well, it could be, but what I focus on is the physics – some of the electrical effects are very predictable. some are not, so we have a stochastic system. The physics I use to study this can equally be applied to other areas of science, such as studying the turbulent flow of fluids or movement of scree down a slope. The point I’m making is that in physics, the same kind of understanding can be applied to many, many situations, including many that are not at all obvious.