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Once a physicist: Jimmy Bartolotta

Jimmy Bartolotta is a basketball player who studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has played professionally in Italy and Iceland

Jimmy Bartolotta
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

What sparked your interest in physics?
My father is an aerospace engineer, so I grew up in a household that definitely appreciated science, but my first true introduction to physics was in my last year of high school. My physics teacher, Mr Haas, is one of my favourite teachers because of his personality and passion for physics. There was something about the purity and unified nature of the science that won me over.

How did you discover basketball?
I grew up playing all types of sports with the other neighbourhood boys in my hometown of Littleton, Colorado. I didn't start playing organized sports until later, when the father of one of my friends thought I might be able to help out his basketball team. I started playing and fell in love with it. I met my two best friends through basketball and it has been a big part of my life since I was 11 years old.

Why did you decide to go to MIT?
Since I had a fairly successful high-school basketball career, I received some scholarship offers from universities that were more prominent in terms of athletics. But I knew that I wanted to study at an elite university and I was impressed with the basketball coaching staff at MIT. In the end, the deciding factor was the opportunity to play immediately (rather than sitting on the bench for a couple of years) while also attending a university that, in my opinion, is one of the best in the world.

Did you always plan to study physics?
I showed up at MIT with the expectation that I would earn a business degree and head to Wall Street. But at MIT all students are required to take classes in several different subjects, including physics, chemistry, biology, science/technology, social sciences and mathematics. I loved my introductory required classes in physics (mechanics and electricity/magnetism), so after I discovered that I was on pace to fulfill all of my requirements for graduation in three years, I decided to add physics as a second degree subject.

How did you balance different interests?
My economics, management and physics classes were all very different and were composed of very different students. A lot of my physics classes challenged intuition: it is not easy to understand quantum mechanics and relativity if you have not studied them before. On the other hand, a lot of management and economics classes focus on areas that make sense, but have very small peculiarities that explain certain phenomena, like supply and demand. Balancing my interests in those fields of study was mostly about scheduling classes that fit together – if two of my physics classes assigned weekly problem sets, for example, I would try to schedule them alongside a business class that was more essay-based.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Basketball is a way of earning a living for me, but I truly love it for the experiences and friendships. Basketball introduced me to my two best friends from school, my three closest friends at MIT and two of my best friends since graduating (one is from Turkey). As far as an actual event, the best moments of my career were when we won our first ever conference title at MIT and when I won some special awards during my final year there. I always dreamed of making my parents proud and I think those awards, which represented so much hard work in the classroom and on the court, accomplished that.

How (if at all) has your physics background helped you?
I haven't had much of an opportunity to use my physics background since graduating in 2009. I try to keep up to date with physics research and discoveries, so my background has helped me to understand current research on particle accelerators, for example. But other than impressing my teammates with concepts such as superconductivity or Schršdinger's equation, I haven't used physics all that much...yet.

What do you plan to do next?
I plan to continue playing basketball for a while longer. I figure I'll spend the rest of my career in Italy and Spain, where I would like to start a web design company that I can run from my location overseas. After I retire from basketball, I'd like to get involved in a small company, possibly in technology. I think more education and an advanced degree is probably in my future as well.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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