Phil Kesten, Physics Polymath
Phil Kesten is a professor of physics and the associate vice provost at SCU. In addition to his physics pursuits, he coached rowing as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, served as senior editor for a magazine called “Modern Dad,” and started an educational software business called Docutek.
In this conversation, we cover how he discovered his passion for physics, how his experience as a rowing coach led him to Santa Clara University, a very special mentor, funny stories from the classroom, his journey of starting and scaling an educational software business, what advice he has for student entrepreneurs, and much much more.
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: You studied physics in college at MIT, then in graduate school at the University of Michigan… Did physics always come easy to you?
Phil Kesten: Physics has never come easy to me; it still doesn’t come easy! Physics is the hardest thing I ever studied, but I think that’s a good thing. If it’s not challenging, I’m not sure that it’s something you would want to do. In the introduction to my first physics book that I used in college, it said: “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.” I think that’s true: When you struggle with something that’s hard and then you overcome it… then you’ve accomplished a lot.
GC: What were your career plans in college?
PK: As a senior in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do… none at all. I can remember lying in bed all night without sleeping, staring at the ceiling, looking at the heavens saying: “Tell me what to do! If you tell me to be a shoe salesman, I’ll do that!” All my buddies were applying to graduate school, so I did too. But I felt like I was done with school. I ended up taking a job in Texas working in the oil fields as a Schlumberger well logger, which was an interesting job and gave me a chance to experience the real world. But I discovered something about myself while I was down in Texas: I found myself just studying physics all the time. After a while I decided that I should go to graduate school.
GC: Were there any moments in your 20s that really impacted your life?
PK: Before grad school, I went back to MIT and spent a summer pretending to be a student. One of my former professors gave me a research assistant job. He could have given it to a grad student, which made me feel great. He influenced the way I thought of myself and the way I thought of doing science. He brought me to a higher level of enjoying experimental physics.
Just as an aside, that professor won the Nobel Prize last month… Rainer Weiss is his name, and he is one of the founding members of the experiment that discovered gravity waves. When I worked in his lab in the summer of 1979, Rai had two experiments in progress. I worked on one that measured cosmic ray background radiation. I can remember the two of us standing next to the other experiment. It was about four feet long and sat on the table. He explained to me that this was an experiment to try and measure gravity waves. It was cool, but not big enough to actually detect gravity waves. All these years later, he’s won the Nobel Prize using a device that is 1,000 times bigger.
GC: What would you tell a college student who wants to start their own business?
PK: Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Having a good idea doesn’t get you anything; you have to work hard to get something. I didn’t originally intend to start a business, but once I got started with Docutek, I was working at Santa Clara 50 hours a week, and working at home 40 hours a week on Docutek... I was working hard. If you have something that you’re passionate about, it takes a lot of work to make it real.
GC: What was one of the most interesting physics projects you have worked on?
PK: As a graduate student working on an experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, I came up with this idea to search for the delta++, a particle which had been theorized, but for which wasn’t a lot of good evidence. My advisor Don Meyer, an older physicist at the time, shook his head and said, “That’s going to be really hard to do.”
I said, “I know, but the thing is kind of cool! I could try all these different approaches…”
I think a lot of advisors might say to me, “Look, you have to get your degree and write your dissertation. You can’t be fooling around with this thing that isn’t going to work.”
But Don didn’t say that. He said, “Go for it. Give it a try.”
So, I busted my rump on this for four or five months and tried everything. I was excited to get up every morning, because every morning I could try something new. But nothing worked. Nothing worked. It was just emptiness. After four or five months, I realized that my advisor was right, that it was too hard, and I did something else. But I had a great time. It does tell you something: Not all science works. It’s not like a problem in a textbook with an answer in the back. Sometimes you work on something really interesting and you don’t get an answer. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing!