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Beyond physics: urban transport

Changing of gear Ben Cowie opened a cycling specialist shop and café – L ondon Bic yc l e Café – i n Ont ar i o, Canada, i n 2017

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What sparked your interest in physics? I was initially interested in medical physics as an undergraduate, as our campus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, had a nuclear reactor on site. I ended up studying isotope geochemistry of light stable elements, which isn’t too far from the medical-isotope field.

What did your degrees focus on, and did you ever consider a permanent academic career? Following an undergraduate degree in geophysi c s and ear t h s c i ence s , I went on t o r ecei ve my PhD in geochemistry – which focused on oilsands isotope biogeochemistry and isotope hydrogeology – from the University of Calgary, in 2013. I did pur sue an academic career f or a few years, as a postdoctoral fellow, and later a research assistant, at Harvard University, in ear t h h i s t o r y and s c i enc e . My r e s ear ch r anged from applied questions regarding pollution and hydrogeology, to working with NASA on planetary exploration missions, to basic questions such as “How do we make higher-precision measurements on dif f icult rare isotopes?”

How did you get interested in public transport and urban cycling? T h r o u g h o u t g r ad s c h o o l we a l l r o d e b i k e s an d took the bus because it was cheap, and we were all poor! By the time I had a little more money, t h o s e hab i t s had a l r e ad y s t u c k . I r e a lized it was mostly about my personal health and the pleasure that riding my bike to work every day brought me.

Even in the winters on the Canadian Prair i e , r i d i ng a b i k e b r oug h t me happ i n e s s . T ha t ’ s why I still do it today. And I realized that I want to give people the tools to get around the cit y comfortably by bike, and to share my knowledge of urban cycling. Having lived in Hamilton, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Boston and B e r l i n , I ' v e s e e n f i r s t - han d h ow b i c y c l e s t r an sf o r m e a c h an d e v e r y c i t y whe r e p r o t e c t e d b i k e inf rastructure has been installed.

I want to g ive people the tools to get around the city comfortably by bike, and to share my knowledge of urban cycling

What were some of the challenges in moving from physics to setting up a specialist shop? So many things. I knew very little about things l i k e r e a l e s t a t e , mar k e t i n g an d f i nan c e , wh i c h are all essential for good business. But I had great coaches and we recruited amazing staff. I thought that if I could learn and discover new things in science, running a business couldn’t be that hard, could it? It turns out that a bit of happy ignorance and hard work goes a long way.

What’s it like day-to-day, running the bike café? During our busy season it’s a little bit of everything. I’m pulling shots of espresso in the mornings, working on bikes and doing some sales in the afternoons, maybe squeezing in some time for marketing or social media in there somewhere. When you run a small business you’re all the jobs: chief of accounting, sales, service and sanitation.

How has your physics background been helpful in this work, if at all? The answer is always maths, and writing. I’m p r e t t y s u r e we ha v e a mo r e s o p h i s t i c a t e d b u s iness model than businesses larger than us, and writing proposals to business financing e n t i t i e s i s way e a s i e r t han w r i t i n g g r an t s t o t h e National Science Foundation. Having a quantitative background helps make your business case much st ronger than those without.

Any advice for today’s students? F o l l ow y o u r h e a r t . My b u s i n e s s i s mo r e ab o u t having an opportunity to live in the same city a s my p a r t n e r an d b e c l o s e t o my f am i l y, t han anything else. As much as I love what I do for work, it doesn’t feel as important as other things in my life. Science always feels more important than it probably is, and developing your life outside your job is essential, too. ● Ben Cowie can be contacted via e-mail at

Physics World  Careers 2020

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