Another physicist who transformed a field: W. Edwards Deming

November 29, 2016 by Joshua
in Education

As a physicist who left and is looking to transform a field (teaching social and emotional skills, which I generally call leadership), I like noticing other physicists who left and ended up transforming fields.

The first one to come to mind for me are Erwin Schrödinger, of Schrödinger’s Cat fame, who came up with one of the first equations at the root of quantum physics. Later in life he wrote a book called What Is Life? based on a series of lectures he gave, in which he predicted many of the properties of DNA. People already knew about DNA, but not its structure.

His book influenced both Francis Crick and James Watson to study DNA. They eventually both won the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s double helix structure.

The next to come to mind is Francis Crick, who got a degree in physics before co-discovering the double helix.

Those are the two big ones. I’m sure I’m forgetting others.

I recently read a bunch on W. Edwards Deming.

w. edwards deming

He got a PhD in mathematical physics, then went on to revolutionize management. He developed useful techniques in statistical sampling before and during World War II, but his big contributions came after WWII, in Japan. According to Wikipedia:

Many in Japan credit Deming as one of the inspirations for what has become known as the Japanese post-war economic miracle of 1950 to 1960, when Japan rose from the ashes of war to start Japan on the road to becoming the second largest economy in the world through processes partially influenced by the ideas Deming taught:

  1. Better design of products to improve service
  2. Higher level of uniform product quality
  3. Improvement of product testing in the workplace and in research centers
  4. Greater sales through side [global] markets

If you wonder how Toyota became the largest car company in the world starting from making puny cars, Deming contributed as much as anyone. Again from Wikipedia:

Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s reputation for innovative, high-quality products, and for its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact on Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being honored in Japan in 1951 with the establishment of the Deming Prize, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death in 1993. President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1987. The following year, the National Academy of Sciences gave Deming the Distinguished Career in Science award.

He won tons of awards. He taught at Columbia Business School and I remember my statistics professor talking about him.

One of his main focuses is on looking at systems, not just elements or outcomes. That perspective is incredibly important. But if you listen closely, I believe he is always looking at people and how to improve people’s lives. Here is one of many videos on him:

I also like what I believe was his sharp wit, even near the end:

When asked, toward the end of his life, how he would wish to be remembered in the U.S., he replied, “I probably won’t even be remembered.” After a pause, he added, “Well, maybe … as someone who spent his life trying to keep America from committing suicide.”

Anyway, he’s another inspiration in whose footsteps I hope to follow in transforming a field. We’ll see what happens starting from when my book comes out in February.

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