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Thomas Kuhn published a landmark study on the progress and history of science about 50 years ago:


His finding was that science works by accretion of facts, except that over time, a number of facts that don't fit the established theory build up. Eventually, this reaches a crisis point where you realize that the current models are unable to explain reality, and then they get thrown out (a "paradigm shift") and everything needs to be figured out again from first principles. At this point, younger scientists have the advantage, because the "knowledge frontier" contracts back to nothing (almost...the new theory still has to account for old experimental results).

The last major paradigm shift in physics was a century ago, with the twin discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics. You could probably argue that we're due for another one soon - the weight of evidence that our understanding of the universe is flawed has been building up, with unexplained results around dark matter/dark energy/cosmology and the failure of superstring theory to make accurate testable predictions. It's pretty likely that within our lifetime physics may become a hot place for brilliant 20-somethings again.

But in the meantime, most of the action has been in computing. The field of practical applications of computer science has been undergoing a paradigm shift approximately every 10 years (wasn't yesterday's top Hacker News story about that?), hence why we see so many young tech billionaires.

Have there ever been 'physics billionaires'?

The Siemens brothers?

Bob Noyce. Thomas Edison. Elon Musk.

What physics has Elon Musk contributed?

Tesla's battery technology arguably represents a paradigm shift in how batteries work. At least, they reportedly re-envisioned it from first principles. Tesla has chosen to keep this technology proprietary and make lots of money off of it rather than publish it, but it's not unlikely that it represents some serious original research.

How much of that is done by Musk himself is debatable. One of my pet peeves about the Musk fan-club is that he tends to partner with some very brilliant engineers and then get all the credit for the work they do. However, people high up in his companies (more than one of them) have said that he involves himself very extensively in discovering the technology itself, and his bachelors and the first couple years of his Ph.D were both in physics, so it seems likely that he does at least know the science behind what his companies do.

That's engineering, not physics. There is a lot of chemistry research that goes into battery technology, but AFAIK Tesla's batteries use tried-and-proven lithium ion tech.

Also, he dropped out of his Ph.D. on the first week. So it appears that he didn't learn too much physics in academia. Rocketry and electric cars don't involve too much advanced physics and he has top notch experts working for him in all the relevant fields.

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