Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Science and Democracy II

Concerning the nature of men, my friends know me as a very optimistic and patient person. So, here is the continuation of my earlier post on

You also find an interesting, and remarkably reasonable, discussion at CV on Sean's post about Peter Woit's book and Lee Smolin's (upcoming) book



  1. Disclaimer
  2. Why now?
  3. My Concerns
  4. What now?


1. Disclaimer

I have to admit that I am not entirely happy about the way I was dragged into the discussion by Lubos, who concluded, based on a comment I made on his blog, that what I suggested would make any country 'scientifically inferior' and 'much like the Nazi Germany'.

Though the question of democracy in science is a topic I have annoyed my friends and colleagues with since at least my MS, I can't give you a working proposal. What I try to advocate is simply that we need a reasonable discussion how science in the 21st century works best. It is probably because of the books by Peter Woit (Subtitle: The failure of String Theory...) and Lee Smolin (Subtitle: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science,...) that the present discussion returns again and again (and again) towards the string theory community, and the group theory of string theorists.

Therefore, I want to start by saying that the reason for me being concerned about democracy in science was and is not the string theory community.

Instead, the reason for me becoming concerned was that I (and many in my generation) felt that research funding in Germany was severely dominated by nuclear physics and (considerably older) nuclear physicists. Generally, it was easy to continue ongoing projects, almost irrespective of outcome and prospect, whereas new research projects were very hard to establish.
    Side remark:
    I should add that the situation has improved since, even though there is lots left to do. I would attribute that to the sad fact that many of those young researchers who wanted to something new (e.g. physics beyond the standard model) went to the US. This problem was realized - maybe too late.
    However, taking the US as fashion guide is not a solution, neither in theoretical physics, nor in any other field. After some years in the US, I have the impression that the problem here is extreme in other ways. Where Europe tends to be too conservative, in the US hot topics keep coming and going, and the challenge of the game is to get on and off board fast enough.

The reason for me still being concerned also is not string theory, but the general question of whether our community has appropriately adjusted to the demands of the modern world.

So, this post is not about string theory.

In a comment over at Cosmic Variance, Eugene Stefanovich expressed this more clearly than I could ever have done:

Eugene Stefanovich on Jun 20th, 2006 at 1:13 pm
"Dear string theorists,

[...]
Please understand that these are not deeds of some evil antistringy types like Woit or Smolin. In the absence of deliverables, sooner or later the field would come to the same point even if Peter and Lee didn't write their books and blogs.[...] they are just messengers of the inevitable change. Please appreciate the fact that the message was delivered early and you have some time to make a graceful exit out of this situation. Don't shoot the messengers."



2. Why now?

As I pointed out in my earlier post, I think the present perception of the so-called-crisis in theoretical physics is not surprising. It is due to the changes that research has undergone during the last decades:
  • The increasing amount of people working together in larger groups
  • The large output of publications (papers as well as books, including popular science books)
  • The long time the education takes until you can contribute to the front of research
  • Or maybe just the fact that it takes only seconds to send an email - or to write a silly comment on a blog.

Then there are also the changes in the society that we are a part of, it's demands on scientists, and it's notion of progress. Money, power and being famous have replaced ancient values like wisdom and tranquility. These changes have not been accompanied by appropriate changes in the administration of our communities research.

But whether we like it or not, these changes have taken place.



3. My concerns

A phrase that has been used by Sean as well as by Lubos is the 'free market' of ideas which compete among each other until it is clear which one is the fittest and which survives.

But where do the ideas come from, and how is the 'freedom' of their competition guaranteed?

Always being the optimist, I actually agree that some self-regulating mechanism will eventually set in, and the so-called-crisis will be replaced by a so-called-revolution. It might however take quite some detours before this self-regulation sets in. Waiting for a market to collapse costs time, is a waste of effort, and money. Not to mention, that it is frustrating. It could very well be that the present discussion about string theory is such a case of delayed collapse, making it a prime example to analyze the failure of the present regulating process (or its absence).

    Side remark:
    To my eyes, the focus on string theory is a dominating topic mostly in the US-part of the community. I can't avoid having the impression that the quarrel strings/loops could well be translated into US/Canada. When I made my MS in Germany (in 2000), string theory was not at all a dominating topic in any regard, and it still isn't. I recall it was considered to be 'breadless' (brotlos) and detached from reality. A lecture on string theory held at my university was mostly attended by mathematicians. Around the same time, the maths department had seminars on Quantum Gravity about the Ashtekar formalism. This also was very suspicious for the physicists, simply because the mathematicians liked it (physicists and mathematicians hardly spoke to each other, as far as I know, they still don't).

    Meanwhile, I was sitting among nuclear physicists with the reality constraint to do 'butter-and-bread' physics, and sneaked out to the maths seminars every now and then, before we set up our group on LXDs. At latest by the time the RS model came up (98) it seemed pretty clear that the string-community was going to be deflated. It is surprising for me that it took from 98 until now to happen.

    I found another comment from someone who apparently shared this impression:

    EU on Jun 19th, 2006 at 3:35 pm
    "here in Europe the topic "failure of string theory?" is informally discussed since 8 years at least. Discussing this topic turned out to be much less dangerous than what I was alerted. Although a few string theorists prefer avoiding discussing this issue, most string theorists agree with the main points. The ones that successfully moved towards less stringy physics didn't kill their academic career."

In the comments to my previous post, I have been taught that Capitalism is an example how the free market works. However, the economical system needs a political counterbalance to guarantee the freedom, and the fairness of competition.

"What drives real progress of the society - and what was necessary for you to write your communist utopias today - has always been the free market of ideas and products. Exactly the things that you want to attack, deny, and abandon.

Best wishes

Lubos"

The reason why most political utopias fail is that they require an idealized, utopian type of humans, or maybe just inhuman humans.

The ideal scientist is a seeker for truth, driven by his love for science, and not by the distribution of research grants. Ideally, he or she follows the passion to understand nature, ideas that are compelling, beautiful, or otherwise just fascinating.

Most of those who have worked in theoretical physics know that in practice researchers are not entirely logical in their believes and convictions. At least I am sometimes quite irrational and stubborn. Sooner or later however, evidence or mathematical proof should sort out the crap. This process has worked for centuries, and it did so fairly well. In a certain sense this is natural selection -- no matter if achieved with or without method.

But the availability and quality of positions does without doubt influence people who work, or want to work, in theoretical physics.

a) The Hierarchy Problem:

For example let us have a look at an average non-ideal postdoctoral researcher in the 21st century. Being in an early stage of his education (meaning, less than 10 years after his MS), and due to the complexity of modern research, he is unlikely to have an overview on the whole field of theoretical physics. He might have his own ideas for research projects, but he needs a job. So, he looks for a field that seems interesting to him, and hopefully also has available positions. Let's assume he is lucky and gets a position.

If his supervisor tells him he wants him to investigate the stability of higher dimensional bumpy thingees in 7 dimension, will he say: "Uhm, well, we don't even know there are extra dimensions, how they are stabilized, or whether there are black holes in these extra dimensions. And, actually, I am not so into thingees. I'd rather think about why we live in 3+1 dimension?"

If his supervisor tells him to run code alpha-beta-pi with the k-factor set to 2.8, to leave out the results that don't fit the data and just keep those which do, because publications are needed for the grant a whole group is paid of. Will he say "I'd rather spend the next 10 years trying to find an analytical approach to non-perturbative QCD. I will probably fail, but thanks for paying me meanwhile."

He probably wouldn't.

He will of course have in mind to work for his employer for some time, but eventually to come back to his own ideas. After some years. Or after the next position. Or after that. Or after his first evaluation. Or after that.

I know many physicists, very many, who think so.

I know many physicists, who tell me they would rather work on something else than they do. Some have their own ideas, unfinished drafts in a drawer, some would prefer other fields which lack funding. Most feel the constant pressure to produce output in a fashionable field.

    For fairness I should add that almost all of them are under the age of 40. Those I know older than that seem to be constantly busy with lectures, administration, giving interviews, or writing books. (Forgot to mention, some of them have a life as well).

    Okay, I crudely exaggerate: please don't send me your list of exceptions, I am aware they exist. I hope you get the point.

This is what concerns me most: the large detour. The economical pressure on young researchers and the resulting conformity. The waste of time. The waste of ideas. Even though I don't like to hear it, it's a fact that the human brain has it's best time in the early to mid twenties. Why do we waste these best years?

Lee Smolin on Jun 22nd, 2006 at 1:59 pm
"[...]
Few think about these questions long and hard enough to get anywhere before the next “hot topic” takes everyone’s attention away.


This was a very productive style of research when high energy theory was driven by many new experimental results but it has clearly failed over the last 30 years to go beyond the standard model. [..]"


However, I also want to point out that guidance by a supervisor is one of the best ways to learn science. Some months ago, Petr Haijeck wrote to me in an email (and I hope he excuses that I cite it here):

"Of course, one could object that young people wishing to learn a craft are to serve for the first time their masters similarly as Tizian had to ground colours for Bellini. There is also something true in that. I think that there should be some equilibrium, but I do not know, how this could be achieved."

Neither do I. But I do think that the situation as it is now is not optimal. And that it can be improved.

b) The Backlash Problem

There is no point in switching from one extreme to the other, and repeating the same mistakes again and again. This is exactly what is likely to happen if we don't figure out what goes wrong, and how to avoid it in the future. I can already notice that there is a sometimes quite violent demand for instant falsifiability of theories, for closeness to experiment, etc.

I don't think pushing this too extreme is a good solution either. Phenomenological models might be more applied, but in some regards it's questionable what is there to learn from them. Just tuning some extra parameters to describe a data set is not what I think 'understanding' means.

Peter Woit on Jun 21st, 2006 at 1:47 pm
Steuard, [...]
I strongly disagree with your idea that the answer to overhyping string theory is to overhype other ideas. The respect that the public has for science is based on the fact that scientists have been able to sort out what is true about the world and what isn’t. If we decide that upholding standard scientific norms about this is less important than generating enthusiasm for what we do, we will ultimately destroy our credibility and turn science into science fiction, a subject which lots of people are enthusiastic about, but is very different indeed.


c) The Selection Problem:

Besides the above hierarchy and backlash problem, there are the apparent weaknesses in the selection process. Hiring decisions are currently in a non-negligible manner based on criteria like

  • Top-ranking university were the PhD was obtained
  • Renowned supervisors and letters from them
  • Numbers of publications in high-impact journals
  • Famous co-authors on these publications (which basically guarantees a high cite-index)
  • Or in generally: relations to influential people.

Taken together, this means also that the land of origin is an important factor. It also implies that it is complicated, if not impossible, to change the field after the PhD, because you will know nobody in the new field, have no connections, no letters, no publications anybody will know of. You are nobody, you have to start all over. This makes interdisciplinary work almost impossible, amplifies the specialization and incest in sub-fields.

A part of this problem is the quality of peer reviewed papers, i.e. the question in how far the publication list, or cite-index, actually is a measure for scientific excellence. However, though this is an important issue, taken alone, it won't solve the problem.





4. What now?

It is pretty obvious, isn't it? After all, we are scientists and know how to analyze problems. Here are my propositions:



  1. Formulate goals of research in theoretical physics.

    These are not static goals, but are necessarily influenced by sociological questions like Where do we come from?, What are we made of? etc. Questions that in one way or the other were the reasons why we studied physics in the first place, and we should not loose them out of sight.

  2. Formulate ways to best reach above goals by supporting researchers.

    • a) How:

      This means not only positions, but also the quality of available positions (e.g. contract length), technical support and equipment of institutions, libraries etc. One major point that is often neglected are grants for international cooperation (for the US-citizens, with 'international' I mean 'worldwide'). It has become hard, if not impossible, to do good research without inviting seminar speakers, travelling to conferences/workshops, working visits in maybe far away places. The importance of which is often underestimated.


    • b) Who:

      Investigate whether the currently applied criteria to select researchers are successful. Lee Smolin has more to say about this, so I will just give you a link to his Physics Today Article and ask you to think about it, if you haven't yet done so. If you have problems thinking on your own, read Lubos or Peter's comments, to jump start your brain.

  3. On a regularly base, evaluate current research fields as to their progress regarding the goals from point 1.

    I do not think evaluation merely by experts on a sub-field is a good way to objectively judge on progress in a wider sense as given by point 1., under consideration of points 2a) and 2b). As I mentioned earlier, I would find it a good idea to have an advisory committee to provide an annual report, and to make recommendations.

In my experience, most scientists are reasonable people, and act to their best believes to ensure progress in research. However, currently it is poorly understood how science works best in the 21st century, and I think it is necessary to formulate some guidelines. Not as laws, but as recommendations.




Thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute to the discussion, on this or other blogs.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Im a big believer in just leaving science alone and letting things fall as they may.

Sure not all of us can work on the really cool topics we might be inclined too, but then theres something to be said to make young minds work on projects that they can actually contribute in. Eg stay away from solving the measurement problem in QM and related subjects that no one has made any progress in during the last oh 30 years.

We are, after all, being payed to do work that has absolutely no chance of being of any economic importance whatsoever so at least the nice taxpayers/funders/whatever get to see some return for their considerable investment in us. Yes that usually means, jumping into a hot and active field that has some potential for open and tractable problems.

Contrast that with theoretical nuclear physics (I did this when I was an undergrad), which is completely barren for all but a few experimentalists and phenomenologists working on rather tedious and intractable numerical parameter searching in contrived semi empirical models.

I suppose im lucky, I happened to pick astrophysics at a time when the field was exploding (and in need of phenomenologists trained in high energy physics) and frankly its a pretty interesting and rapidly evolving field.

Now some may say, this prohibits a new Einstein from having a chance to make a big breakthrough somewhere. Well, the converse is, it also guarentees that the remaining 50,000 of us actually make some dent at progress

Rae Ann said...

If the non string theory physicists want to really court the public they need to produce a show like "The Elegant Universe." All of the laypeople I know who got interested in it were first introduced to it from the PBS series.

And congrats on your marriage! May your journeys together always be happy.

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Bee, didn't expect to find you blogging on serious stuff so soon. I thought you'd be blogging on the romance of honey mooning ... what?

Anyway, very interesting read, yes I do tend to read things verbatim, or when I just gloss over or speed read, go back to the finer points.

But I'll try and keep this comment short:

"What drives real progress of the society - and what was necessary for you to write your communist utopias today - has always been the free market of ideas and products. Exactly the things that you want to attack, deny, and abandon."
Best wishes
Lubos"

Lubos would not make a winning tennis player, he plays too defensively, and defend the status quo.

The reason we have what we have is:
(1) Vested interests, irrelevant of under what political flag
(2) necessity, the mother of invention
(3) individual initiative, even against all (insurmountable) odds

So a 99.97 per cent accurate factual denial of Lubos' perception of a free market of ideas or products:
(1) We have the industries fostered by governments & politics
(2) We have the institutions fostered by power and wealth
(3) We have the research fostered by industries and institutions

By enlarge, not a bad idea, since it is in their self-interest to choose the best to be successful or enduring and to stay on top.

(4) we have individuals under the illusion of freedom scrambling for crumbs from the above tables, or begging for handouts. Just a little extreme to emphasise the point.
---------
"The reason why most political utopias fail is that they require an idealized, utopian type of humans, or maybe just inhuman humans."
Bee

Yep, if researchers, doctors, surgeons, consultants, biochemists, pharmacists were working to 'really' cure dis-ease and the maladies that ail mankind, we would be immortal by now. But we all know the really is which research leads to the better paid job, which research offers fast track promotion, which research is available, which field of medicine or surgery, has the highest social kudos or standing, which pharmaceutical company offers the best pay, car allowance, relocation allowance, private health insurance and pension scheme.

Sorry was the word 'patient' supposed to be there somewhere? But again this is a gross generalisation and exageration necessary to illustrate my point. Thankfully there are genuine caring even altruistic people who do things with a sense of purpose over and above career, material rewards, and ego or social kudos, otherwise society would always revert to its most base competitive streak or survival of the fittest doctrine.

Good job the Universe is kinder to the human race, than the real agressive and competitive humans are to each other and other humans. History is there for the learning, that might is not right, but rather Right is Might.

So since I promised to keep it short, and not to let rip into the medical sciences and medical research, let us celebrate that soccer has become 'civilised' and one can be tribal and support one's colours (or flag) without any loss of respect for competitors on the field or any of the animal desires to destroy others.

Good luck to Germany in the World Cup, and to England, and Brasil, and Italy, and ... well Spain and France are still playing 2nd half.

All the best Bee, - Q.

QUASAR9 said...

Well sorry to see Spain drop out. Bit france just slipped another 2 goals in: France 3 - Spain 1.

PS - nothing to do with the price of milk, but did anyone actually notice the skin 'colour' of the players in the French winning team?

Excellent game, excellent goals! Q

Anonymous said...

With respect to "free markets", the really hardcore libertarians seem to really like books such as:

- "Human Action"
by Ludwig von Mises

- "Road To Serfdom"
by Friedrich von Hayek

Garrett said...

Hmm, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned:

http://fqxi.org/

It seems to me they've put in place exactly the system you're describing, only with private funding. (Which is good to see, as a capitalist.) It looks like these guys got together and decided to make Lee Smolin's suggestions happen. Instead of waiting a few decades for the DOE and NSF to come 'round.

:)

What do you think about this?

stefan said...

the reason for me becoming concerned was that I (and many in my generation) felt that research funding in Germany was severely dominated by nuclear physics and (considerably older) nuclear physicists.

This was probably a consequence of the special German-style "hierarchy problem" created by the strong position of an "ordentlicher Professor" (later "C4 professor", a full professor) who could decide on which topics a large group, including other professors and PostDocs ("Assistenten"), was working on.

If these professors got their jobs as quite young men in 1960s, when nuclear physics (for example, the same holds also for some branches of condensed matter physics) was expanding rapidly, they could, in the German hierarchical system, create large networks of people working in the same field and establish an enduring influence on how funding was distributed. This may explain the lasting weight of older nuclear physicists, who got their jobs in the 60s or were students coming from large groups established in the 60s.

This situation is changing, since nowadays, the old-fashioned strong position of the "ordentliche Professor" and its dominating role does not exist anymore.

Best, Stefan

Eugene Stefanovich said...

Sabine,

Sooner or later however, evidence or mathematical proof should sort out the crap.

I am afraid it will be later rather than sooner. First, the inner guts of theories are not easily accessible by experiment. This is true even for such well-accepted theory as Maxwell's electrodynamics. Has anybody measured the Lienard-Wiechert retarded potentials?

Second, usually physical theories are not formulated in the rigorous axiom/theorem framework. So, to prove something wrong is not easy as well. In order to prove something you need a clearly defined set of axioms. We don't have them. What we have looks like a bunch of folklore tales.

Bee said...

Hi anonymous,

I can relate to what you say, that's why I persistently call it the-so-called-crisis. However, I doubt that in any case a majority of 'young minds' would attempt to solve the measurement problem. Most, as I myself, will choose projects that they can actually contribute in.

But right now the situation is almost that working on such problems effectively kills your chances to have an academic career at all, whereas following the 'hot and active fields' is the way to make yourself interesting. The coming and going of high-interest fields is natural and I don't think it's a problem in itself. The problem is the extinction of the rest. This is unnecessary and can be avoided without endangering the '50,000 of us' that 'actually make some dent at progress'. Best, B.

Bee said...

Hi garrett,

Hmm, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned:

http://fqxi.org/

It seems to me they've put in place exactly the system you're describing, only with private funding. (Which is good to see, as a capitalist.) It looks like these guys got together and decided to make Lee Smolin's suggestions happen. Instead of waiting a few decades for the DOE and NSF to come 'round.

:)

What do you think about this?


I know this foundation... someone sent me the link exactly one day after the deadline. That's great. I also think PI is doing pretty well. (And then I have the plans for my own institute ;-).

But it's unlikely that the problem can be solved by completely by retreating to private institutions - unless you want to privatize science. The good thing is that success of such attempts will be very convincing to the NSF, DOE, DFG, ETC. Best, B.

Bee said...

stefan said... This situation is changing, since nowadays, the old-fashioned strong position of the "ordentliche Professor" and its dominating role does not exist anymore.


and because the old guys retire.

Hi Quasar,

thanks for your comment. I agree. I will also try to keep it short

quasar9 said...

History is there for the learning [...]


and we can learn quite a lot from the recent, and not so recent, history of theoretical physics. Best, B.

considerably older said...

Very entertaining Mrs. Hossenfelder but totally irelevant. Reading several of your published articles which are very interesting and of mostly high quality it seems you should be capable of serious research. Take from me the well ment advise not to insult a whole generation of physicists and their quality management. Yours sincerely, an old guy.

Bee said...

Dear considerably older guy,

Thanks so much for your advice, I appreciate your concern regarding my research. I have ignored similar advises repeatedly and I still have a position, so don't worry too much.

the well ment advise not to insult a whole generation of physicists and their quality management.

The current quality management is an insult for my whole generation. Most postdoctorands are perfectly able to decide on their research projects, and to carry responsibility for themselves. After ten or more years of education, it gets quite tiresome to always postpone the own interests.

Best, B.

Thomas D said...

It should be obvious that there is no theoretical physics analog of capitalism or the free market.

In capitalism there is profit which can be measured objectively, and the one who can make profit wins, the one who cannot must get out of the game.

In theoretical physics there is no profit, there is only government funding or private charity, which is the reality of places like PI and the mysterious unpronounceable one. Or being a part-time researcher and spending most time doing something else (like teaching!!).

Since there is no objective measure of success in theoretical physics, there can never be a free market. Simple.

The fact that something is subjective, of course, doesn't make it arbitrary.

Personally, I am suspicious of privately funded theoretical physics, because the result of being insulated from a public or professional forum where you are held accountable is likely to be some level of crankery.

That is not to say that the usual taxpayer-funded systems have a *good* system of accountability, but in a democratic country they are likely to be *better* than private individuals or foundations.

Now, this unpronounceable one seems to have set up a reasonably professional system, and it all depends on the ability of the Scientific Panel to tell sense from nonsense. Some of them may be more qualified than others. It doesn't completely fill me with confidence that a significant number of them have already written papers together.

amused said...

Hi B,

"I would find it a good idea to have an advisory committee to provide an annual report, and to make recommendations."

Recommendations to who? Funding bodies? Or recommendations to individual researchers on which topics are worth working on? I'ld better hope there is some eloquent and influential representative for my preferred topic on this committee, so that we might get a piece of the pie...

Sorry, but I'm totally and utterly against this. (Not that anyone needs to care, it's just my opinion.) Lubos for once is 100% right: "management" of research directions
by committees would be a disaster. In fact I'ld even be willing to give up my favorite pastime of string bashing if I thought it could contribute in some tiny way to this development. The current situation is much preferable, warts (string dominance) and all.

Having an advisory committee make recommendations on which research directions are more deserving of attention/support is tantamount to prejudging which directions are going to be the most fruitful. Instead of this, why can't we just let people work on whatever they like and judge them solely on the significance of the progress they make? The problem at the moment is that (at least in hep) there is no effective way to make such judgements. I made a suggestion for what to do about this in the previous comment thread, so won't repeat it here, except to mention that the same issue arises in mathematics and the maths community has long had an effective solution for it.

As for the problem of young researchers not being able to follow their interests (due to the necessity of working on a topic where there are jobs available, and then having to work on what their boss tells them), the solution imo is to attach postdoc funding to individual researchers rather than research groups, via schemes like the EU's Marie Curie fellowships. It would be good if all postdoc jobs - and also junior faculty jobs - were awarded on the basis of success in an open competition like that one.

"Formulate goals of research in theoretical physics. These are not static goals, but are necessarily influenced by sociological questions like Where do we come from?, What are we made of? etc."

Oh boy, the condensed matter folks are going to love that... To avoid making them even more annoyed with hep than they are already, and start pushing for hep folks to be relocated to philosophy or theology departments, can I suggest instead "Understanding nature in all its different regimes", or something like that.
But actually I'ld prefer to avoid this altogether. We all have our own motivations and ideas about what is important in theoretical physics research, and I doubt people would enjoy having some consensus view pulled down over their heads.

Best,
amused

Bee said...

rae ann said... If the non string theory physicists want to really court the public they need to produce a show like "The Elegant Universe." All of the laypeople I know who got interested in it were first introduced to it from the PBS series.


Dear Rae Ann,

I hope this was meant to be a joke.

a) I do not want to court the public. I am talking about a problem in the community - and the damage that is caused by public accusations instead of constructive criticism and efforts to improve the situation.

b) I am very suspicious about the influence of the media, esp. in the US. It is definitely not an objective way to judge on quality of research by it's entertainment value. We would end up picking the field with the most charismatic leaders, those with the prettiest nose, or with the wittiest explanations.

Best regards,

B.

Bee said...

amused said...

Recommendations to who? Funding bodies? Or recommendations to individual researchers on which topics are worth working on? I'ld better hope there is some eloquent and influential representative for my preferred topic on this committee, so that we might get a piece of the pie...


Dear amused,

If the committee lives up to a respectable reputation, recommendations hopefully are interesting for both, funding agencies, as well as for individual researchers.

How such a committee would be put together is a point I have not addressed above. Any suggestions?

I have the impression you did not really read the points 1)-3) above, esp. if you look at 2b). I don't want to censor research, I am worried about the selection that we currently have.


Sorry, but I'm totally and utterly against this. [...]
Having an advisory committee make recommendations on which research directions are more deserving of attention/support is tantamount to prejudging which directions are going to be the most fruitful. Instead of this, why can't we just let people work on whatever they like and judge them solely on the significance of the progress they make?


Good idea, but this is not how it is right now. I don't want a committee to make future predictions but to judge on the current situation, to point out potentially worrisome developments, and - most importantly - to think about ways to improve it. If you read carefully what I wrote, you will find that I am concerned with the way science is done, not so much with what science does. (Though I of course have an opinion about it...)

The problem at the moment is that (at least in hep) there is no effective way to make such judgements. I made a suggestion for what to do about this in the previous comment thread, so won't repeat it here, except to mention that the same issue arises in mathematics and the maths community has long had an effective solution for it.


Yes, your comments in the old thread make very good points. Improving the peer review system to ensure publications are a sensible way to judge on the quality of research is an important step. However, I don't think improving the peer review system alone will solve all the problems mentioned above. Esp. it wont solve the problem that fields fall apart into ever more specialized sub-fields.

I like the comparison with Marie Curie, which is one of the better examples. Except for the huge bureaucratic barriers. I myself have profited from similar sources.

Oh boy, the condensed matter folks are going to love that...

What's the problem with 'What are we made of?' Anyway, the condensed matter folks have the argument that they are important for application, technical progress, etc. Meaning: the hard pro's. I am not worried about them. Give me better ways to formulate goals then.

[...] and start pushing for hep folks to be relocated to philosophy or theology departments, can I suggest instead "Understanding nature in all its different regimes", or something like that.
But actually I'ld prefer to avoid this altogether. We all have our own motivations and ideas about what is important in theoretical physics research, and I doubt people would enjoy having some consensus view pulled down over their heads.


Above you said you want to judge people solely on the significance of the progress they make. How do you decide what progress is? I find it a good idea at least to pin down some general goals that we all would like to be solved (point 3.).

How can you stand living in a country that has a democracy (or at least pretends to have?) with that attitude? I like to argue and I definitly don't want all of us to have the same opinion! In the contrary, I want to preserve diversity.

You might have to get accustomed to be part of a minority though.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Since there is no objective measure of success in theoretical physics, there can never be a free market. Simple.

To give an analogy from politics: is there an objective measure for prosperity (Wohlstand)? Most likely not. But even though there is no way to objectively and ultimately define it, you can try to formulate goals that a majority does attribute to it. As I wrote, these goals are not static, and will probably always remain subject of discussion, but they provide useful guidelines.

If there was no way to tell whether we make progress or not, then where does all that talking about crisis come from?

Most of us do have questions that we would like to have answered, but we don't notice any progress towards a better understanding of nature.

Personally, I am suspicious of privately funded theoretical physics, because the result of being insulated from a public or professional forum where you are held accountable is likely to be some level of crankery.

Well, I wouldn't have put it this way, but I agree that private funding has it's own problems.

and it all depends on the ability of the Scientific Panel to tell sense from nonsense. Some of them may be more qualified than others. It doesn't completely fill me with confidence that a significant number of them have already written papers together.

They do the best they can. The less people there are and the more difficult it is to get things started, the less objective their judgement will be. But to a significant amount it's not about telling sense from nonsense, but about picking the right people.
It's often not only the single person, but the composition of people that makes for an inspiring research environment. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

String theory is not the only non-testable theory being sold to the public. Another one is Quantum Computing, which is inherently analog computing and, therefore, not resistant to errors, which are inevitable in any physical system.

Nevertheless, the federal agencies are pumping millions of dollars down the drain on this, because people at a few influential schools want their funding to continue. Would it matter if nothing came out of once the researchers have moved on?

Rae Ann said...

Hi Bee,

Yes, it was meant as a joke. Sorry I didn't specify that. I hope I didn't upset you. However, in the US the public does have some input into how their tax dollars are spent on research among other things, and they are democratically allowed to voice unhappiness about who, what, where, how, when, etc. Not all of the public is so dumb as to be mesmerized only by pretty pictures and pretty faces, though it appears that even some physicists are susceptible to that. ;-) I'm mostly neutral but can have a weird sense of humor. Thanks for your reply!

Bee said...

Yes, it was meant as a joke. Sorry I didn't specify that. I hope I didn't upset you.

No, just wanted to make sure. There are enough people in the world who would have meant that comment deadly serious...

However, in the US the public does have some input into how their tax dollars are spent on research among other things, and they are democratically allowed to voice unhappiness about who, what, where, how, when, etc. Not all of the public is so dumb as to be mesmerized only by pretty pictures and pretty faces, though it appears that even some physicists are susceptible to that. ;-)

The smaller the knowledge the higher the vulnerability to the influence of the media. I would never equal lack of knowledge with dumbness. I DO think the taxpayer has a voice in how physicists spend money. But before we throw up our hands and ask the public to decide on whether Brian Green writes better than Lee Smolin, we should try to find a solution that is more likely to be successful.

Best,

B.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Bee - Your points are both thoughtful and relevant to the current situation, but don't ignore two points: 1) Decisions on expenditures are ultimately made by those who control the purse strings. With governments funding most basic research, that means that they are political decisions, which means they have to be sold to some public. Rae Ann's suggestion, joke or not, is on target. 2) Planning decisions are essentially predictions, which are notoriously difficult, especially about the future, as Bohr might have said.

Scientists have a key role to play in this planning, but they don't get to make the decisions! Politicians, or in some cases, private entities, do. The role scientists have is to try to figure out the key problems and the currently promising approaches and present these to the decision makers.

The enemies of science know that the best way to weaken scientific influence is to make scientists appear divided and unsure. They have been very successful in undermining evolutionary biology and climate science with these tactics.

Honesty and reason are science's key virtues. Those who resort to tactics antithetical to these such as intimidation, threats, insults and ridicule strike at the heart of the scientific ethos.

John Sidles said...

No one is commenting on the fact that US physics enrollment went flat in 1965, and has stayed flat for forty years.

Now similar flattening has begun in the biosciences, and there is no obvious mechanism to arrest it.

I have my own opinions, but IMHO every young person should ask-and-answer for themselves: why did this flattening occur? Is there any way to forestall it? Or, will this flattening persist for, let us say, another 40 years?

Don't look to authorized publications, e.g., Physics Today, for answers! The 75th Anniversary Issue simply remarks, blandly and without further comment, that western society reached its carrying capacity for physicists in 1965.

How many young physicists are satisfied with this explanation?

Bee said...

Hi John,

thanks for your comment.

every young person should ask-and-answer for themselves: why did this flattening occur? Is there any way to forestall it? Or, will this flattening persist for, let us say, another 40 years?

The problem you mention is imo closely connected to the fact that

a) In the last 40 years research in theoretical physics has gotten more and more abstract, specialized, is in large parts understandable only for few experts, and has been poorly communicated to the public. This also reflects in the community itself, where people fail to understand the work of the person next door.

b) Wisdom and knowledge (i. e. basic research) without foreseeable applications is hard to justify in a society where progress is measured in technological achievements and income.

Both of which I think have gotten better during the last years. In particular, more effort in a) tends to improve problem b).

The 75th Anniversary Issue simply remarks, blandly and without further comment, that western society reached its carrying capacity for physicists in 1965.

Even if that was true, it does not change the fact that the theoretical physicists today aren't working as effectively as possible.

However, I don't think it is true. I think that in the above quoted conclusion the desire of men to understand nature, even in the spoiled western societies, has not appropriately been taken into account.

Besides this one should not forget that the biggest bunch of funding goes into experiments. I could understand governmental hesitation to spend these high amounts, if the money was needed otherwise more urgently. What I can not understand is the enourmous amount of money that instead goes into construction of things with the only purpose to blow them up. And theoretical physicists - seriously - are cheap.

How many young physicists are satisfied with this explanation?

How many young physicist are willing to argue against it?

Best, B.

Anonymous said...

The problem in science is really lack of diversity. People caricature capitalism and evolution as being survival of the fittest or winner takes all. In this view darwianian systems consist of a competition in which there is a single winner that takes all the spoils. However this is really a very misleading way of looking at darwinian systems. The real truth is that there isn't one fittest organism (or a single monopoly as marxists would have as believe) that survives, instead there is a tremendous diversity of different organisms that survive. This is because there are many different niches to be filled and no one organism is equally good at filling all of them. So there is specialization which also happens in capitalism.

However in physics and science this is not the case. There is only one correct theory. One true account. Everything else is wrong and is therefore discounted. There is not intellectual diversity instead there is exclusiveness. The real problem is not that Germans are too conservative or that American's are too radical. The problems is that there is not diversity in science. There is not acceptance of diversity, of a multiplicity of different theories or ideas all coexisting; each having there own weaknesses and there own advantages.

We need a more post modern science.