Friday, August 24, 2007

Intimidation

A couple of months ago I agreed to give a lecture for the ISSYP, held at Perimeter this summer. Then pleasantly forgot about it. It was only Wednesday, one day before my scheduled talk that I found out what the abbreviation means - the 'International Summer School for Young Physicists'.

Luckily I realized nobody had asked me for a title of the talk, so picked the first thing that came into my mind. An extended version of 'The World's largest Microscope' followed by an introduction about 'Large Extra Dimensions' because I was reasonably sure nobody else from the PI researcher would talk about something too similar. On the schedule however the titles read like a riddle of the sort "Which item does not belong there? Monday: Quantum Mechanics, Tuesday: Dark Matter, Wednesday: Quantum Gravity, Thursday: Sabine Hossenfelder, Friday: General Relativity."

Upon further inquiry how young is young I was told 11th graders. That's when I got really scared. 11st grade, I thought. Gee. They will ask all kinds of questions I can't answer. Derivation of synchrotron radiation? What's a Fermi in seconds, and how does one explain an UV cutoff to somebody who doesn't know neither what a virtual particle is, nor what UV means?

But, brave me, I faced the challenge and turned up at 9 in the morning (I am particularly proud to report I hit the snooze button only 5 times). Just to find a completely empty room, because the bus was late due to heavy rain. So I grabbed a coffee and when I came back there were 50 kids staring at me, some of which looked about as tired as me. Upon my appearance, a couple of them took out digital cameras which they used whenever something sparked interest (me dropping the pointer?). I hope none of them belongs to generation blog.

Anyway, approaching a birthday in the thirty-somethings I am a bit nostalgic these days. Staring at the kids I saw myself staring back, and I recalled a similar lecture I visited at the Frankfurt University while I was in school. There they were, all the serious scientists with multiple academic titles, IQs several standard deviations off the average, authors of books and technical papers, used to speaking in front of hundreds of people. All these researchers that knew quantum mechanics, differential geometry, and how to properly pronounce Nambu-Jona-Lasinio*. What I didn't know then, most of them were postdocs - their supervisors probably being busy with more serious things than talking to kids.

And I? I was intimidated. Seriously. And some of the kids sitting in my lecture were too, that's what I saw in these faces (I shouldn't have worn black, should I?). They only cracked up when I made a joke about Lee's office (if you've seen his office you'll know what I mean). The most difficult question they asked was why the background of my slides was a map of Middle Earth (but that's another story).

So I was wondering how intimidating is holding a PhD? Part of the distance I felt when sitting in this lecture (a looooong time ago) is probably due to German culture. In case you don't know, German language has a hierarchy problem: there are two ways to address people. Either with the colloquial 'Du' or with the formal 'Sie' [2]. The former is reserved for people you know well, friends and family, and for non-adults (that technically being 18, but obviously there is a certain grey scale here). Being a professor at a university definitely qualifies for 'Sie'. Unless dropping the formalities was explicitly offered, it's appropriate to address him (or her) with 'Professor Soandso'. After moving to the USA, It took me quite some while to get used to addressing basically complete strangers (older than me!) by first name.

But besides this, even in the English speaking countries there remains the barrier between those looking down from their ivory tower, and those wishing to climb up the stairs. So I am left wondering who was more intimidated by whom?

Needless to say, over the years my intimidation gradually vanished. If you've seen a professor crawling on all fours under a desk trying to bark like a dog, it slightly alters your view of 'being several orders off the average' - just believe me.


Footnote 1: The proper pronunciation is An-Jay-Al.
Footnote 2: See e.g. this brief article about
'Friends and Acquaintances' which is imho pretty much to the point.

30 comments:

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

On the schedule however the titles read like a riddle of the sort "Which item does not belong there?

You for sure belong there ;-)

11th grade, that's about 16 years old teens?
Did they give you some immediate feedback? Or will they give later on some general feedback about the Summer School?

The idea in general sounds very interesting to me!

Best, stefan

Francis Caestecker said...

Haha. Pity I couldn't be there. I've never been to such a lecture in my life, but I'd really want to ;).

It's officially 1 month till my first day of school now. My first day of Physics and Astronomy. *excitement*

Anonymous said...

You seem to forget those who examined the stairs closely, exclaimed "What kind of fool would want to climb THOSE?" and now looks down on the "ivory tower", wondering why this anacronism is financed with his or her tax money.

Arun said...

Didn't see a link to your slides.

Bee said...

Hi Stefan,

Some of them looked much younger to me than 16, esp. some of the girls (there were a lot of girls among them). Well, I spent some time after the talk with them and they asked all kinds of questions, about the Hawking effect, and 'triply special relativity' (guess where they got that from), quantum mechanics, and the Planck scale. Besides this, I hope the feedback will be in 10 years one of the girls is knocking on my door with an MD in physics, looking for a PhD advisor...

Hi Francis: Have fun :-)

Hi Anonymous:

Well, I guess this kind of people rarely go to such events to begin with. But anyway, I have to say this is an attitude I luckily haven't met very often. At least not when it comes to science. Most people are aware scientific research, even fundamental and without immediate applicability, is good for something. And they are also aware that they might not be able to judge on the relevance of such research programs.

My sense is that today it's much harder for those working in the humanistic ivory tower to justify their existence. Even in the country of the 'Dichter and Denker'. (poets and thinkers).

Hi Arun:

Yes... I didn't link to the slides because I didn't think it would be interesting (most of it you find in the above mentioned posts). Also, it's unfortunately a powerpoint presentation with ~ 13 MB. You find it here.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

*lol* off topic, but I just read the Wikipedia entry about German culture that I linked to above. The section about 'Cuisine' is just hilarious:

German cuisine varies from region to region, but concentrates on meat (especially sausage) and varieties of sweet dessert and cakes (such as Black Forest gateau Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) and Stollen (a fruit cake). [...] Although sausage is the most famous food product from Germany, one could not gain much understanding of German cuisine by reducing it to sausage. In Germany it is mostly consumed as a snack (Bratwurst), at barbecues and it also appears in a few dishes.

Well, I'd have said sausage mostly appears on bread, and I've never seen anybody eating Stollen in a month different from December. I'd have said German cuisine can best be summarized as Iglo, Langneseand Dr. Oetker, influence by Maggi and Knorr ;-)

B.

island said...

Monday: Quantum Mechanics, Tuesday: Dark Matter, Wednesday: Quantum Gravity, Thursday: Sabine Hossenfelder, Friday: General Relativity.

Sabine Hossenfelder must be some strange new and exotic form of dark energy...

Neil' said...

Interesting that papers etc. don't traditionally show titles like "PhD" after author names. I suppose having one is assumed, but then it helps those who don't have one to get published and get replies. Well, it helped me. But if you are trying to get attention for ideas in general, corresponding and talking about yourself, that lack gets noticed and it's harder to be taken seriously.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Sabine,

A great post, and very funny - but ten years? I think you should be thinking six.

Bee said...

Hi Island:

Sure, dark energy is what keeps me up at night. Some people call it coffee.

Hi Neil:

I guess that is true. But it's for a good reason. A PhD is (ideally) a label that certifies you've gone through a specific eduction, so people can rely on you to have a certain level of knowledge. If you can't show up this label, you'll have to first convince them you have that knowledge nevertheless. If you think that's for you an annoying waste of time, then you might want to keep in mind that obtaining a PhD takes some while as well.

Hi CIP:

Ah, well. Modulo 2 Pi or so ;-)

Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

Bring in a pair of scissors, a roll of sticky tape, three meter or more lengths of adding machine tape with a line drawn down down their centers on both sides. Two with black lines, one with red lines. Solicit three volunteers. Lap joints for the taped ends as you make them before bored eyes.

#1 has no twists. It cuts down the center into two identical bands of half width. That volunteer becomes a stockbroker.

#2 has one half-twist, a Möbius band. It cuts down the center into one band of half-width. That volunteer becomes a scientist.

#3 has two half-twists and the red line. It cuts down the center into two identical bands of half width, but interlocked. That volunteer becomes a manager. "Managers cut through red tape lengthwise."

Begin your talk.

Arun said...

Which way lies Mordor?

Bee said...

Mordor is bottom right. Just above the words 'every day experience' on the first slide.

Frank said...

"Mordor is bottom right. Just above the words 'every day experience' on the first slide."

Mwahaha!

I remember being in one of these by some Maths professor, and I was the only one who dared ask a question and then i thought it was a stupid question and impertinent by me to ask it, and was mortally ashamed. (Actually I still am, it was a stupid question I really should have realized...)

My respect for professors went out the window in the first year when one of them answered the question "Prof, the Amplitude falls of with one over r right? but the area increase with r^2, so what about conservation of Energy?" without even a moments hesitation with "well this is not a physically realistic model" (instead of remarking that E = A^2).
The problem was, this was one of my best Profs, too...

fh

Bee said...

:-)

Well, I've asked my share of stupid questions, but the really stupid ones I think I better keep them to myself (lesson learned), the others you find occasionally appearing in comment sections...


The most stupid question I've ever heard was asked in the end of a two hour lecture about the cross-product: "Professor, what is x in the last equation A x B?". It's hard to beat that.

Best,

B.

Arun said...

If Mordor is restricted to the slide, then I suppose the Middle Earth backdrop was to remind everyone that what you were talking about is likely purely a work of the imagination?

Bee said...

Well, in one of our parallel universes, there might exist a place for Middle Earth as well. It's more that I like to see research in science as mapping an unknown territory. Discovering new places, giving them names, planing expeditions to examine potentially interesting regions. And many surprises along the way. The background is a relic from an earlier talk 'frontiers of our knowledge', indicating the places that we have well mapped, where our maps end, and the planned explorations of what is today still terra incocnita.

Anonymous said...

I'd be hard pressed to come up with any sort of applicability for, oh, let's say quantum gravity, just to pick something randomly... even in the far-from-immediate term. If anything, even fewer people are likely to get any benefit from money spent on quantum gravity than on humanistic subjects, which can at least be mildly entertaining even to a non-specialist.

It's far from clear to me what moral justification there is for making the public pay for somebody else's full time hobby. Indulging in it on one's own time, at one's own expense, is of course perfectly legitimate. As is the case of, oh, let's say an engineer who made a fortune in communications devices, just to pick something randomly... of such a person donating a heap of money to such hobby activities. Hey, it's his money.

But I guess you'd say that such a person would not be able to judge the relevance of such research programs. So better confiscate the money and let the keepers of the ivory tower put it to good use at the IAS or Harvard or maybe Stanford, right? After all, we all know that their approach to quantum gravity is the right one.

:P

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

Do you think that relevance of scientific insights is measured by potential applications that might come out of it? Is fabricating products that can be sold for profit the only viable justification for a person's work that you can imagine? What ever happened to the desire to understand the world? You should come to one of PI's public lectures and you'd see that the taxpayer DOES care about the beginning of the universe (the beginning of time?), quantum mechanics (free will?) or parallel worlds. Maybe the biggest problem is that scientists have neglected to communicate their work. It's interesting to see how much this is changing now.

I'm not really sure who you refer to with 'keepers of the ivory tower'. If somebody has made a lot of money, then I am pretty sure that somebody knows how to make best use of other people's knowledge - especially in these cases where that somebody is not himself the expert. Besides this I am generally suspicious about a lot of money in the hands of little people.

Best,

B.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Thinking over how you might have made everyday connections for your 11th graders with the concepts you're talking about, it occurred to me that for the last few decades everyone has lived in the vicinity of one or more directed particle beams; but with the rise of the LCD display, this is going to be less and less common in the future. How technology marches on!

Anonymous said...

> Do you think that relevance of
> scientific insights is measured by
> potential applications that might
> come out of it?

By itself, "relevance" says nothing; you need to specify "relevance" to what,or to whom. Different people with different interests will find different things relevant, and will spend their resources accordingly - if allowed to. I know of no better or fairer way to allocate resources than to leave it to those who earned them.

> Is fabricating products that can be
> sold for profit the only viable
> justification for a person's work
> that you can imagine?

No. I have probably spent more unpaid prime time than you on intellectual pursuits of no economic value. But that's just me. I don't presume to tell
others that they should pay for my hobbies.

> What ever happened to the desire to
> understand the world?

Mine is alive and well. When I look at socialized science, I can not honestly say the same.

> the taxpayer DOES care about the
> beginning of the universe

Some taxpayers surely do. And some care about starving children in Somalia, or animal rights, or the teaching of evolution in schools, or an almost endless list of other things, all individually too small to make any difference when it comes to voting in public elections - because let's face it, no national election will ever be about any of them. The allocation of public resources to such things therefore belongs in the general pork barrel spending category, with no guarantee whatsoever that the allocation even remotely reflects the taxpayer's priorities, even in some average sense.

The better way is of course to let the taxpayers fund such things directly. If you truly believe that they DO care, you should have no problem with this; you should welcome the flood of new money
which would be yanked from bureaucratic misallocation to all those other silly causes. Right? ;)

> I'm not really sure who you refer to
> with 'keepers of the ivory tower'.

You may have heard that there is an organization which forcibly extracts money from working citizens, takes its cut and forwards the rest to other organizations (they are really all part of one super-organization, but specialize in different aspects of the
chain) which in turn take their own cut and sprinkle what's left to even more, local organizations, which have evolved an elaborate hierarchical system, handed down generation by generation all the
way from the Middle Ages, to determine who gets to command how much of the spoils. And no, I am not talking of the Mob, that's just a failed contender.

> Besides this I am generally suspicious
> about a lot of money in the hands of
> little people.

Yes, heaven forbid that the little people be allowed to spend its money as it sees fit. ;)

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

I think we basically agree. You are asking the right questions: what is relevant, and who decides that. I don't claim I can tell you what's relevant to make a better future or what exactly that means. I just personally think that our society is presently overrating possession and underrating wisdom when it comes to the question what makes us happy. Other people might have other opinions (well, apparently they have).

Your suggestion however that money be directly invested by the taxpayer is bound to fail, as would direct democracy with a too large base. I would however strongly appreciate a clearer tax system. I.e. one in which it is clear what amount of money goes into where. And that distribution being subject of election (possibly indirectly via a party's program). I guess some people would be shocked to see how their money is spend.

Reg. the keepers, I was puzzled by your remark above. It seems you have excluded private institutions from the 'ivory tower'. The good thing about private institutes is that there is more freedom what to do and how to do it. But there is a reason why research and teaching positions in German universities traditionally are in public service - protected from mainstream desires, not required to work for profit. Private institutions can be islands if governmentally funded research goes wrong, but they shouldn't replace it.

Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

> I think we basically agree.

Ah, yuyitsu. Clever. :)

Alas, I'm afraid we don't really. When you say

> Your suggestion however that money be
> directly invested by the taxpayer is
> bound to fail

I think you realize that with current (or even 1970s) technology, tying a personal record to each voter, with preferences like "x% of my taxes to cause A", "y% of my taxes to cause B", would be trivial. Voters not interested in this level of detail could simply ignore it, with all values defaulting to the average choice. Technically, it would certainly work.

So what you really mean to say is that it would fail for YOU: despite your protestation that the voters do care, you realize that given a choice, they would not choose to support your pet cause. Instead of paying for people whose passion is theoretical physics to pursue their hobby full time, they might prefer to pay for people whose passion is knitting to pursue their hobby full time. Or maybe neither. Horrors.

You conclude that since they will not support you voluntarily, they must be forced to do so. This is where we part ways. To me, this stance is in no way better than saying "I really want a car, but I can't afford one and there is no way that anybody is going to just give one to me, so it is my right to go out and steal one". Wrong answer. The right answer is of course "I'll work my butt off so I can afford to buy one".

> It seems you have excluded private
> institutions from the 'ivory tower'.

Yes. "Private" is just another word (these days a pejorative, it seems) for "voluntary". What people do with their own money is none of my business (unless they cause harm to others, of course). If they choose to do something which I approve of, like funding a Perimeter Institute, so much the better.

> there is a reason why research and
> teaching positions in German
> universities traditionally
> are in public service - protected
> from mainstream desires, not required
> to work for profit.

I'm sorry, but how anybody can think that being dependent on and controlled by the state equals being "protected from mainstram desires" is beyond me.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Dear Anonymous,

I fear that it was your tragedy to be born 15,000 years too date - or maybe 1.5 million. The libertarian paradise disappeared when societies were invented

Anonymous said...

Hi Bee,

about the Sie/Du issue..

How does young germans start Sie'zing other youngsters?

I can imagine it must be somewhat frustrating.

While in Germany I have no probs with an immediate "Du" as long as the other party knows that I am a Scandinavian.

Best

Klaus

stefan said...

I know of no better or fairer way to allocate resources than to leave it to those who earned them.

Wow, I am really impressed by the utter intelligence and deep insights of our anonymous commenters.

I have probably spent more unpaid prime time than you on intellectual pursuits of no economic value.

I have serious doubts about that...

stefan

island said...

Maybe it's just me, but I'm hearing a familiar ring-tone.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

Well, if you prefer to disagree, we can disagree, no problem. I am presently sitting here and grinning: What you propose above about investing taxes is exactly what I have (furiously) argued for about 10 years ago. Now that technological progress allows it, why not let taxpayers "invest" they money on their own, just a "click" away? Wouldn't that be the solution to so many problems? Everybody knew where their money went, wouldn't that be 'real' democracy? My favourite argument (believe it or not) was that politics should try to use the same mechanisms that have worked so well for the industry (call that "direct consumer feedback").

So. Now I am telling you why it's bound to fail. Lack of knowledge and disinterest. What you'd end up with is a reflection of 'opinions' that you find on the web, with as much as 85% or so just leaving whatever the default is. What do you think why we have representative democracy? Because a constitution has to be protected against irrationality and internal conflicts where a later decision is in disagreement with a formerly formulated goal. You vote for aiming at some goal, and then you try to find a way how to reach it, but you don't ask that basic question over and over again.

E.g. at the very base of every society is (should be) social and medical help for those who can't afford it. Your taxes pay that. Now it turns out one day there was a gang of homeless drug addicts that have broken into numerous houses and killed innocent people. The story is hyped in the media, the scum of our society, payed by our taxes, hard working middle class victims, school children, interviews with crying friends etc, similar stories get pulled out of the dustbin all over the country, you picture it. Suddenly, support for social help plummets. It's a no-go. If you think about ecology it's even worse. The point is that people might rationally agree on 'we all should do this and that' if they are presented the facts. But if they sit at home looking at their income, they will most likely invest it more to their own immediate advantage.

And why so? Because they don't know wheather their neighbor is doing the same. All long term plans and strategic considerations that are not easily accessible to the taxpayer would be bound to fail. Ironically, I think it would be industry who would complain first, not knowing what their taxrate is means they can't calculate their finances for the next year.

So. I am sympathetic to the idea, believe me. But you need to take into account three things. First: it's too complicated. Second: Short time fluctuations (think about the stock market!) have to be a complete taboo. Third: Long term goals with no immediate advantage go off the window. That's not a society I would want to live in.

That's the reason why we have representative democracy - a constitution that we've agreed on (or so you'd think). Because we are aware that we don't know enough details to make every decision on our own, and that it's better if someone does so who can spend his whole day looking into the matter (that being the idea, not that it always works so well).


Hi Island:

Maybe - but I don't think so. I will have to write a post on 'anonymouses', it's getting annoying.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

Reg the ivory tower, I am referring to it as the imaginary gap between those holding a PhD working in research for non-profit institutions, and those who don't. Its the same whether it's a private institution or not. (Harhar, Wikipedia says 'disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life' -, now that would be nice. Someone around who'd want to move my household for me?)

I'm sorry, but how anybody can think that being dependent on and controlled by the state equals being "protected from mainstram desires" is beyond me.

You have completely failed to get the point. I haven't said this is an ideal scenario, I have said there is a reason for that. To begin with being in public service doesn't mean your research is 'controlled by the state' I have no idea why you think so. It's 'controlled' no more than presently by where government or other institutions invests money. You are 'protected' in the sense that you can't be fired if you fail to work on something that's currently fashionable. I have repeatedly written about the drawbacks of this, and am presently not in the mood to repeat myself.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Klaus:

It strongly depends on local habits. E.g. the University in Frankfurt has the nice feature that all students say 'Du' to each other. Not sure whether that is actually still the case, but it was so when I was there. And it's not the same for every University. The gap usually starts after leaving high school.

otoh, I have noticed that if I am visiting Germany it frequently happens to me that address people with 'Du' instead of 'Sie' where it would be appropriate, and it doesn't seem to make that much of a difference. Best,

B.