I was drawn to study physics because I wanted to understand the universe. Not that I really thought I'd completely understand the whole universe, but having been inspired by the popular writing of Einstein, Feynman, Sagan, and others, to me physics offered a path toward
I had no idea what was meant by a career in physics, nor what a formal physics education entailed. My father was trained as an electrical engineer and worked as a computer programmer for the local telephone company. I had never met a scientist, save perhaps on class field trips. One day in early high school I asked a college-bound senior what major he was to pursue, and he replied, "physics." "What are you going to do when you graduate?" I queried. He raised his fist in a mock gesture of triumph and said, "I'm gonna be a physicist." In my mind higher education appeared only to produce doctors, lawyers, engineers (they invent things), accountants, and the like. I suppose that I thought one became a scientist largely by accident--that having locked oneself away to read and think for a few years, and perhaps peer through a microscope, one might emerge with a miraculous discovery to assume the title "Scientist." Writing books and appearing on public television would follow. After all, Einstein was a patent clerk.
My college-bound friend cleared that up for me with just a few words. I decided to study physics, and then of course I would be a physicist. I selected a tiny physics department at a small engineering school not far from my home. I had been convinced that institutions whose names displayed the syllable "tech" must be superior to those liberal-artsy places. I did not know the difference between a college and a university. Until the end of my freshman year I knew nothing of graduate school, nor that a Ph.D. is required for a career in physics. Our department included four or five grad students total, and research was quite limited. Having poked through the Physical Review I resolved to become a high-energy theorist, though I was altogether unfamiliar with the high-energy community. I do not think that my department even offered an introductory high-energy course. One kindly solid-state professor, whom I had asked to write a recommendation letter, took me aside to convince me not to go into high-energy. Ninety percent of those who try it, he said, leave physics altogether. This worried me somewhat, but I was still blissfully unaware of what it meant to be "in" physics, let alone to leave it. I asked him whether I could change my mind down the road, if it were possible for a high-energy physicist to convert to a solid-state physicist, and he said that it was possible but not likely. I didn't give it much thought, having complete confidence that I would persevere.
Again, I took up physics because I wanted to understand the universe. By the end of my first year of graduate school I had learned that the universe is a really hard problem. To be a decent theorist one must be completely dedicated, and all other aspects of one's life become subordinate. Having many competing interests, I decided that I could be content to let others hash out the great cosmological questions. I would consume the fruits of their labor after the dust had settled. Being newly married, my practical side began to think about my future as a physicist. There were hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track job, and the postdoc route seemed like a complete sham. After fishing around the department for research opportunities, I joined a solid-state laboratory whose work centered on far-infrared thin-film spectroscopy. Several aspects of this work appealed to me. First, the lab was small and I would have nearly total control over my work. This was in marked contrast to what I had seen of high-energy science, where hundreds of researchers often work together on giant projects, caught up in cutthroat competition. Second, I have always been a hands-on tinkerer--I have enjoyed mechanical automotive work since I was a teenager--and the benchtop science of the far-infrared lab complemented this aspect of my personality. A theory job means hiding in an office and banging one's head on the wall, all day, every day. Laboratory science offers the opportunity to build things.
Through the course of my research I taught myself C++ programming for the PC, in order to control the instrument and perform signal processing on the data, and I found that I enjoyed writing code. Whereas physics jobs were scarce, programming work was plentiful, and so I found myself in a personal dilemma. Most programming jobs seemed downright, god-awful boring. While the physical theorist hides in an office pondering problems of great significance, the typical programmer is stuck in a Dilbertian cubicle grinding out meaningless drivel. On the one hand I didn't want to face the prospect of having to leave physics; on the other, it seemed that I already had. When as a child I dreamt of being a scientist, the Far-Infrared Polarization Double-Modulation Spectroscopy of Poly(Ethylene Oxide):Sodium Iodide Films never entered my mind. Everyday science performed by typical scientists, I had discovered, delves mostly into obscurity and minutiae, not into the lofty subjects I had imagined. After 5 years of graduate school, my personal financial situation forced me to seek employment outside the university. My adviser was skeptical that I would ever finish, and urged me to stay on full time. I retained my academic status, though not as a full-time student.
My first attempts to find a programming job focussed on the instrumentation industry of Silicon Valley. Being neither a computer science graduate nor an electrical engineer, I was unable to convince any potential employer in this sector that I had the ability and experience to join their team. I found that my graduate research experience in optics actually weighed against me when applying for software positions related to optical instrumentation ("we're afraid you'll get bored"). I eventually took a job writing business applications, workflow software used mostly by big banks for processing checks, and learned about the everyday world of software engineering. After 8 months, the 170-mile-per-day commute became unbearable and I took a database job close to home. I was laid off 3 months later, which was a blessing. The severance check allowed me to return to school full time for a semester, and I wrote the first third of my dissertation. As my money ran out I found a job near school, developing real-time control software for telerobotic manipulator systems. The work was very interesting and convinced me that a career in programming could offer more than a cubicle--in fact, it often required a hardhat or radiation badge. I stayed with this job for 2 years, during which I finished my dissertation.
No longer bound geographically, I was free to align my career more closely with personal goals. I joined the San Francisco office of MathEngine, a software development company headquartered in London, primarily because of the domain of the work. The advent of affordable graphics acceleration hardware has brought forth a new medium, interactive 3D, to the consumer. Games represent the most significant interactive 3D applications currently available to the consumer; in the commercial sector, the new technology promises to change the way products are designed and manufactured. But interactive 3D is still in its infancy and will require much effort before it will present the depth and richness of film, the accessibility of television, or the authoring ease of the written word. The behavior technology under development at MathEngine and other commercial and academic groups is essential to transform this new medium into a legitimate, recognized means of creative expression. Real-time dynamics simulation, authoring tools, behavior controllers, the human-machine interface, sound, and broadband networks all must come together to enable artistic creation and distribution of interactive 3D content. The development of this new medium may impact society as deeply as the invention of film, the musical instrument, or the printing press. It will of course never replace any of these, but if civilization survives another thousand years, interactive 3D will have left its mark.
MICHAEL SKOLONES is a former physicist trying to turn 3D interactive technology into a legitimate means of creative expression.