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Phil Bredesen

Democrat Phil Bredesen has served as Governor of Tennessee since 2002

Phil Bredesen

Why did you decide to study physics?
I had always been interested in science, but two events probably decided things for me. The first was the launch in 1957 of Sputnik, which happened when I was 13. I remember the event with the same clarity as the assassination of US President John F Kennedy or the 9/11 attacks; I was building a model airplane and listening to the radio when I heard the announcement. It was like a sign. In the years that followed, there was tremendous encouragement of young people who had an interest in the sciences to pursue their curiosity. The second event was that I had the chance to attend a physics programme at Cornell University on a National Science Foundation scholarship during the summer following my high-school graduation. This was my first exposure to a real university and other students with similar interests – I went to a small rural school, with just 39 people in my year group – and it was a transformational experience. My project for the summer was the Cavendish experiment on gravity, and the long days in the physics building watching the reflected spot of light moving across the metre sticks on the wall and the beautiful damped oscillation graphs that resulted sealed the deal. As I remember, I got the value of G pretty close after I figured out that you have to take the attraction of both stationary weights into account.

What did you do after graduating?
By the time I finished at Harvard University in 1967, I was sure that I did not want to pursue a graduate degree, and I found that the skills I had acquired on the side such as programming computers in FORTRAN (and later other languages) were something that companies wanted. In the early 1970s I went to work for a company in Boston that was starting to use the new mini-computers (Digital Equipment PDP-11s) in medical care. My first shot at a general management job came when I moved to London to run the company's European division. One day, I happened to ferry one of the founders of the Kaiser healthcare organization, Sidney Garfield, from central London to Heathrow airport. He told me about Kaiser's Health Management Organization (HMO) idea and I was fascinated. When my new wife Andrea and I moved back from London to the US, it was to Nashville, Tennessee (for her job, not mine). I had always been interested in entrepreneurship and tried to interest some of the Nashville healthcare companies in managed care, but with no success. So I took a job with a hospital management company, and after about three years left to start my own HMO company.

How did you become involved in politics?
I had never been interested in politics in high school, but I was interested in history. It was hard to be at Harvard in the 1960s and avoid politics, however. John F Kennedy was president when I started, and I got imbued with the idea that elected office is an honourable thing that ought to be an option for anyone and not just those who chose it as a career – the "citizen legislator" idea. I ran for the Massachusetts State Senate in 1970, and lost badly in what was possibly the most quixotic and poorly run campaign in the state's history. I then got on with life, started building a career, married Andrea, came to Nashville and started my healthcare company. When I sold it in 1986, I was 43 and determined not to reprise the history of others I had known who had achieved some financial success and then spent the rest of their lives defined by it. I was determined to run for office, so I failed once, failed again, and in 1991 was elected Mayor of Nashville. Then, in 2002, I was elected Governor of Tennessee. I have never regretted it.

How has your background in science helped you?
There are many ways, but let me mention three. First, there is a clarity of thought and a challenging of assumptions that science requires that I have always found valuable. In any field, when someone tells you something and your response is "Let's see, do I believe that?" and you try to find other ways of arriving at the same place, that is a good way to be thinking about things. Second, scientific problems require multi-step solutions, but most political activity is single step – what's the issue, what's the response and on to the next issue. Thinking about these things in multiple steps has helped me in everything I have done. Third, there is an ethic in physics of simplicity, of looking for the underlying reality, of considering the symmetries. That same impulse has helped me all through life.

Do you have any advice for today's students?
Science is great training for almost anything you might want to do. If you can think with the clarity that science requires, if you can distil the essence, see the underlying structure that science requires, and especially if you can combine that with the ability to speak (or preferably write) your thoughts in clear English, you can succeed in whatever you choose to do.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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