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Department: Physics

Eisgruber

Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83

Provost and Laurance A. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs, Princeton University

Engaging my interests

Study physics or politics? When I arrived as a freshman, I was not sure of which direction to turn. I was glad to be at Princeton, where I knew that the University’s liberal arts curriculum would allow me to pursue all my interests no matter which field I chose as my major.

In my sophomore year, I took Walter Murphy’s famous course, “Constitutional Interpretation,” and I was hooked. I felt certain that I would eventually go to law school, and I took several courses in law, philosophy, and political theory. But I chose to major in physics because I wanted to understand the mysteries of quantum mechanics and general relativity. What exactly were black holes, for example? And how could light be both a wave and a particle, depending on how you measured it? More generally, how could the structure of the universe be so strange and wonderful, and what did that mean for our ordinary understandings of topics such as time and causation? My time at Princeton was my best chance to delve into those questions.

Majoring in physics was a great experience. The department was small, the students all knew one another, and the faculty knew the students. People were passionately engaged with their classes. When you sat down before a lecture, students around you wanted to talk physics. They wanted to talk about other subjects, too: most physics majors were intellectually curious people, with interests that ranged far beyond the sciences.

When I left Princeton, I did graduate work in political theory at Oxford University and then went to law school at the University of Chicago. When law school classmates learned that I had majored in physics, they often asked me whether I intended to specialize in patent law. I told them that, no, I was interested in constitutional law and civil liberties. Physics did not have much direct bearing on those topics. But I never regretted my decision to major in physics.

For one thing, the analytic skills and intellectual discipline that I learned while studying physics turned out to be fantastic preparation for legal studies. In fact, several leading law professors have science or math backgrounds. One time, a few years after I began teaching law at New York University’s law school, I sat down to lunch with two other con law professors who were my contemporaries. We were all a bit surprised to discover that two of us had majored in physics—and the third had majored in chemistry (at Princeton!).

Universal applications

The main reason why I’m glad to have majored in physics, though, is the one that led me into the department when I was at Princeton. Majoring in physics broadened my understanding of the human experience. I’ve spent the last 20 years immersing myself in constitutional law. I love that subject—but if I had spent my time at Princeton as a politics major, I would never have had the chance to comprehend the startling mathematical beauty of the physical universe or appreciate how scientific research gets done.

After I began teaching law, I never thought that my undergraduate work in physics would have any direct relevance to my professional career. Life takes unexpected turns, though. When I became Princeton’s provost and chief academic officer, I suddenly found that my undergraduate training helped me to understand what my colleagues in the sciences were doing. That’s testimony, perhaps, to the idea behind a liberal arts education: your college years are preparation for life, not just for a profession. And, in John Lennon’s wise words, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Now is the time to nurture your passions and broaden your horizons. Doing so will help prepare you for your profession, but, more importantly, it will also prepare you for adventures and challenges that you cannot yet imagine.

“Now is the time to nurture your passions and broaden your horizons. Doing so will help prepare you for your profession, but, more importantly, it will also prepare you for adventures and challenges that you cannot yet imagine.”