Physicists, Engineers, and Politics

There is a substantial difference between both the disciplines as well as in the personalities of a physicist, and an engineer.

By Basab Dasgupta

Mr. Saugata Roy of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) happens to be a good friend of mine. We attended the physics honors class together at the Presidency College in Kolkata, followed by an MSc course at Calcutta University. He is now the party’s renowned member and has been a Lok Sabha MP for three terms in a row, having served as the union minister of urban development for three years. He is loyal to Mamata Banerjee, the founder of TMC – a liberal party by all accounts.

His elder brother Tathagata Roy, a graduate of the Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, is an ardent member of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a firm believer in Hindutva and other principles of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a frequent critic of TMC. He served as Governor of Meghalaya and Tripura.

I often wondered what prompted the two brothers raised in the same household and graduating from the same high school (Saint Lawrence) to go on different political paths. My conclusion is that it has something to do with their college education and subsequent profession based on that.

Saugata was a physics professor at Ashutosh College. Tathagata worked with the Indian Railways as general manager of RITES, chief engineer design of Metro Railways, Calcutta, and later taught construction engineering at the Jadavpur University.

Most people put physicists and engineers in the same category, probably because there are many common subjects in the curricula of the two programs. It is logical for them to conclude that they are of a similar mindset and interested in engaging in similar activities.

The fact is that there is a substantial difference between both the disciplines in the two areas as well as in the personalities of people who practice these. Physicists want to solve mysteries of the world – from the origin of the universe to interactions between sub-nuclear particles. The laws of physics are like verses of the Bible to them. Their entire outlook about the universe is based on these laws and they tend to brush aside any phenomena that cannot be explained by them as “paranormal” or “anomaly” of some kind.

Engineers, on the other hand, are more of a free spirit, willing to try all kinds of things just out of curiosity to see what their efforts lead to. They have a basic mindset that “seeing is believing”, whether the observations are consistent with the laws of physics or not. They are more open to accepting experimental results that they can directly see than theoretical predictions or abstract ideas.

Even experimental physicists are different from engineers because they are restricted by some basic guidelines. Their experiments are set out in a specific way to verify certain theoretical predictions of physics and must be performed under controlled conditions. There is not much room for trying dramatically different approaches or encouragement for being creative. In fact, most inventions and discoveries by physicists happened by accident.

On the other hand, things that are practical and useful for our comfort and/or convenience have been invented by engineers in a creative spirit of building something related to our daily life and without much thought about the laws of physics. When a physicist solves a physics problem there is only one solution! An engineer, on the other hand, can come up with multiple designs in order to satisfy a given set of goals, and the “best” design is typically chosen based on cost and/or time of completion.

These distinctions can lead to a fundamental difference in political outlooks between physicists and engineers. Physicists are into finding answers to mysteries of the universe. They must be open-minded and inclusive and hence liberal. They cannot hold a bias or judgment on any topic unless there is a solid logical justification. They do not see problems in accepting different lifestyles, different races, different social strata, etc. In fact, they search for scientific explanations in making decisions about all social and political phenomena – be it the acceptance of the gay lifestyle or the validity of climate change or wealth redistribution.

Physicists are inherently into equality. From their study of physical phenomena, they know that all systems tend to reach a state of equilibrium whether it is to achieve balance in mechanical conditions, stable thermal state, or uniformity in relative concentration. The liberal concepts of utopia and socialism fit perfectly with those notions.

Since the door to physics is just a few steps away from that of philosophy, physicists are inherently philosophical about everything. They feel that somehow it is the government’s obligation to fund their activities – a sense of entitlement if you will – because they are the ones who would ultimately provide all the answers. They do not worry much about how the state of the economy is related to manufacturing output (or any other tangible parameter for that matter). They tend to be non-believers in God because His existence has not been proved by the laws of physics. Physicists are motivated by their intellectual satisfaction and not so much by money.

Engineers, on the other hand, love to work with their hands. They build real things and can understand the joy that comes with this creation. They value hard work and their minds are always active with thoughts of new items – new products, new ways of doing things, new materials, new machines. They find a connection with God through this spirit of innovation and creativity.

They are driven by money, whether it is patent royalty or profit from business expansion created by their new inventions. They are aware of the laws of physics but do not feel restricted by these. As one of my engineer friends once commented, “I was able to do it because no one told me that it cannot be done”. Engineers see that their inventions ultimately build factories and create jobs, which keep the economy going.

Engineers tend to view society as a structure much like a building they designed and not as an ethnically diverse chaotic mass of people. The structure should have a plan, pillars to support it and be functional for all its residents in a systematic way. They appreciate the need for a budget to finance all desired goals of the building.

The driving force for physicists is typically their intellectual ego – desire to see their papers published in famous journals, being invited to present a talk at a conference, or being offered a political position whereby they can influence policymaking on technical issues, etc. Engineers, on the other hand, see the huge financial impact of their work through patent and royalty incomes. Although most financial benefits are enjoyed by the companies they work for, their work is rewarded by bonuses, stock options, and occasionally cash rewards.

It would be logical to conclude that physicists tend to be liberals and engineers be conservatives in their political persuasions. It is not quite a clear black and white separation. Engineers who become faculty members in academia are probably a bit like physicists and physicists who work in industries probably become like engineers in their thinking and political views.

This correlation seems to be universal. The US presidents typically come from academic disciplines of law, economics, social and political sciences, and occasionally from the field of medicine. However, let us note that Democrat Jimmy Carter was a nuclear physicist and Republican Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer from Stanford.


Image courtesy of (Image Courtesy: Physics World)

Share this post