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Once a physicist: Olaf Olafsson

Olaf Olafsson is the executive vice-president for international and corporate strategy at Time Warner. His fourth novel, Restoration, was published in February

Olaf Olafsson

Why did you decide to study physics?
When I was growing up in Iceland, I read a lot of literature, so when I was offered an international scholarship to Brandeis University in the US, I didn't think that continuing to do literature would be a good use of the opportunity. I had always been intrigued by physics, and the programme at Brandeis was really strong, so I decided I would use my years there to study something I knew nothing about. Then, when I was a junior, I started working with Karl Canter and Steve Berko in their positron physics lab, and that was terrifically exciting and enlightening.

Did you consider going into research?
No, and I remember having this discussion with Berko. I had taken graduate courses and done quite a bit of research, but I had other interests too – I was writing my first book at the time – so I told him I was not going to pursue a life in physics or complete my PhD. He thought I was making a mistake, so he introduced me to a former student, Michael Schulhof, who had finished his PhD before going into business. Schulhof was then the head of Sony in the US, and the way he tells the story, it was clear he was not going to convince me to finish the PhD, so he offered me a job.

How did you get from there to your current role at Time Warner?
I was at Sony for 10 years, beginning in the mid-1980s, and my first job was to help introduce CD-ROMs in the US. Then Sony acquired CBS Records and Columbia Pictures (now Sony Music and Sony Pictures), so it became a media company as well as a technology company. I became part of the media half, and I launched Sony's PlayStation in the US and Europe. Then, when I joined Time Warner in the late 1990s, my role was to help navigate a traditional media company through a world that was becoming increasingly technology-dependent, thanks to the introduction of all kinds of digital technologies.

How has your physics background helped?
It always helps when the people involved in a technological product have some affinity for it and understand the science of what is going on. But I think the more important aspect is actually the problem-solving. In physics, you try to make sense of things with the tools at your disposal, and that exercise of looking at a problem, figuring out how you break it down and which tools you apply – all that is very helpful in a job like mine.

What got you interested in writing novels?
I grew up in a very literary household. My father was a writer, and it soon became clear that literature was something that resonated with me. I started scribbling when I was a teenager and publishing in Icelandic literary magazines, and I kept writing and reading extensively through my high-school years. So I knew from an early age that this is something I would be doing for as long as I was able to.

Your latest book, Restoration, is a work of historical fiction set in Italy during the Second World War. What inspired you to write about that period and location?
My first real trip abroad came when I went to Florence for six weeks as part of a European cultural-exchange programme. I think I was 14 at the time, and it made a tremendous impact on me. Then, more recently, I was messing around researching life in Tuscany during the war when I came across a diary by an Englishwoman, Iris Origo, who lived in Italy then. That inspired me, and so did the research I did on what happened to works of art during the war, particularly when the Germans decided they wanted to "collect" some of that art for themselves. It's funny how these things come together, and often when you look back, it is hard to explain exactly what inspired you. But I think those were the main things.

How do you balance writing with your full-time job at Time Warner?
I have been doing this for my entire career, so for me it is a natural thing. It comes down to time management more than anything else, and if there's one thing I'm decent at, it's organization. I find that a schedule and routine are very important, so every morning I get up, have a cup of coffee and write for a couple of hours. Then I am done with that, I put on my suit and I go to the office. Some people find this strange, but for me it is as natural as it can be.

Any advice for today's physics students?
Find what really interests you, and whatever that is, do it as well as you can. Also, don't put blinders on. I've never done any career planning, I've never asked, "Where do I want to be five years from now?" because I think the world changes rapidly. You need a general sense of where you want to go and what motivates you, but the interesting thing about life is that it serves up all kinds of things without you having in any way anticipated them. Once you know what's important to you, and what drives you, then you can react to those things almost without thinking. But it all comes down to finding your thing and trying to do it as well as you can.

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of Physics World

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