Like so many people, Patrick Harker, dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is searching for order in this new era of discontinuity. But Harker is looking for it in an unexpected place: physicist Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (Vintage Books, 2000). Harker reread the book after September 11 to revisit its main lessons.
A book on physics? Why not a book on history or warfare?
This book is not just about physics; it's about the triumph of human thought. Now, I'm not going to claim that I'm the average reader. [Laughing.] You have to sort of like math.
Why go back to this particular book after September 11?
Everyone is raising big questions to make sense of the times: What does it all mean, and where do we fit in? We're striving for models. For my own business problems, I find that it's useful to look outside of business and to try to grasp how other people are thinking about the world.
So what insights have you applied to business?
Consider string theory, which says that particles at the most microscopic level are actually tiny loops of vibrating string. It's all about vibration and the frequencies we create. We see that all the time in business — the harmonics of an organization. We tend to have this very mechanistic, Newtonian view of companies, but the reality is that leaders impose a kind of frequency on a company.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.