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Jeff Bezos: Billionaire, Philanthropist, (Former) Aspiring Physicist

Today, Forbes' unveiled its annual ranking of the richest people in the world. All of the usual contenders made an appearance, and telecom billionaire Carlos Slim took the top spot yet again.

While computer scientists dominate many of the upper ranks, one entrepreneur stood out to me: 19th ranked founder Jeff Bezos. Although Bezos made his money as a computer scientist and businessman, he dreamed of becoming a physicist as a child, eventually enrolling as a physics student at Princeton. His story reveals the powerful impressions a great physics teacher can make and where an initial interest in physics can take you.

Jeff Bezos. Image Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Over 10 years ago, the Academy of Achievement conducted a lengthy interview with Bezos about his childhood, his interest in physics, and the growth of into an internet powerhouse. Bezos, like many accomplished physicists, enjoyed tinkering as a child. He would dissect alarm clocks, booby-trap his house, and read voraciously, according to the interview.

These childhood fascinations eventually converged into his teenage dream: becoming a physicist. According to Bezo, his high school math, chemistry and physics teachers all inspired him with their engaging styles:

"The great teachers somehow convey in their very attitude and their words and their actions and everything they do that this is an important thing you're learning,"

-Jeff Bezos during an interview with the Academy of Achievement.

Great physics teachers can be hard to find, unfortunately. Often, teachers with a passionate interest in their subject will transfer that passion to their students. Most high school physics teachers don't have a degree in physics or physics education, however.

Here's but a few of the troubling facts facing today's physics educators (compiled by Cornell University):

  • 1/3 of high school physics teachers have taken fewer than 3 college classes in physics.
  • 90 percent of middle school students are taught physics by an instructor without a physics (or closely related) major.
  • Only 1/3 of high school students even take physics.

We don't need more physics-minded teachers solely to produce a world full of Phd physicists. Rather, we primarily need great teachers to inspire students to apply their physics knowledge and interest in a myriad of other ways. Great physics teachers can ingrain solid analytical skills applicable to computer science, business, writing, or even politics (e.g. Angela Merkel).

Bezos eventually abandoned his physicist aspirations after a particularly tough quantum mechanics course. According to his interview, he saw how other students' minds seemed to match perfectly with the subject matter while he struggled with many of the abstractions of high-level physics.

Nonetheless, Bezos represents how far an interest in physics can take you. His physics background, albeit short-lived, likely helped him during the formation of his business. Inspiring physics teachers can help shape future leaders — whether they're eventually ranked on the Forbes Billionaire List or not.


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