I can hear a great *sigh* because I bring up the topic again. But now that hormone levels had time dropping to normal, I see a somewhat better chance to communicate why I find the book important.
Last week my friend Stefan Hofmann cleared out his office and returned the key card . He is leaving the postdoc-life, and starts his new position in Stockholm with a ‘Prof.’ in front of his name. As Justin Khoury said so aptly in the good byes, Stefan will be closer to the Nobel Prize than all of us here at PI. Stefan is one of the very few that I know from college who is still in academia. Each year when I return to Germany, more and more of my friends with a PhD in physics have left the academic world. An astonishing amount of them turns into ‘quants’ .
When I was an undergrad, Stefan, I, and some other few of us students would frequently sit in our much too small kitchen, scratching our heads over textbooks and ask all these question we wouldn't dare to ask our profs. Okay, so now we have a measurement prescription, but what actually is a measurement? And what is a particle? Why is there a ‘now’? Are singularities real? And whose turn is it to wipe the floor?
Stefan was the first to tell me what I would hear a many more times: It's okay to ask these questions. But try to keep them to yourself, don't spend too much time on it, it won't get you anywhere. Our conclusion was it's not how science works these days. We're not living in the 19th century. Grow up, stop dreaming, finish that homework, wipe that floor.
|Faced with this depressingly realist view, I had a brief flirt with the department of philosophy. Without going into the details, it was a very temporary liaison. The philosophers had the greatest parties on campus (they really had STYLE!). But up to today I find it hard to argue with things that end on - ism, and since I keep forgetting names and mingle up foreign words, I'm philosophically seen a complete loser.|
"I'm not aware of too many things,
I know what I know,
If you know what I mean.
Is the talk on a cereal box,
Is a smile on a dog."
Besides this, I didn't want to export my questions outside of physics. I wanted them to be part of physics.
I then found that mathematicians were the better philosophers. And since it was ironically not the institute of theoretical physics (ITP) that offered a seminar on quantum gravity, but the mathematical physicists, I almost got stuck with them - hadn't it been that the maths department was chronically broke, whereas the ITP knew how to get grants, and offered me a job.
Well, this planet must be full of people who work for the money, so I just chose the way that got me closest to my interests. I am really grateful for the opportunity and for the support that I received at the ITP, though it meant for me I was the odd one out (and the only women for quite some while). However, I managed to ask the right questions, produced satisfactory annual reports, and a decent thesis.
"dein leben dreht sich nur im kreis, so voll von weggeworfener zeit, und deine träume schiebst du endlos vor dir her. du willst noch leben irgendwann, doch wenn nicht heute, wann denn dann, denn irgendwann ist auch ein traum zu lange her." ~Wolfsheim, Kein Zurück
|Yes, I know how to calculate Feynman diagrams, but actually Feyncalc helps a lot. And yes, I know how to calculate all the components of the Riemann tensor, but actually the tensor package helps a lot. And yes, I know how to write a c++ code, but I didn't want to make a living running simulations of heavy ion collisions. So I moved to the USA, looking for a place where I would fit in better.|
About ten years after we sat in that kitchen, I got to read Lee’s book:
“When I entered graduate school at Harvard in 1976, I was a naïve student from a small college. I was in awe of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger […]. I now found myself at the center of particle physics, surrounded by the leaders in the field […]. In lectures, I never heard them talk about the nature of space and time or issues in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Neither did I meet many students with these interests.
This lead me to a personal crisis […] I was confident that I could do the work. But I also had a very particular idea of what a great theoretical physicist should be. The great theoretical physicists I was rubbing shoulders with at Harvard were rather different from that. The atmosphere was not philosophical, it was harsh and aggressive, dominated by people who were brash, cocky, confident, and in some cases insulting to people who disagreed with them.
During this time, I made friends with a young philosopher of science named Amelia Rechel-Cohn. Through her, I came to know people who, like me, were interested in the deep philosophical and foundational issues in physics. But this only made matters worse. They were nicer than the theoretical physicists, but they seemed happy just to analyze precise logical issues in the foundations of special relativity or ordinary quantum mechanics. I had little patience for such talk; I wanted to invent theories […]” (p. 289/290)
I was born in 1976. I have never been at Harvard, I grew up in a different country, and I belong to a different generation. But it seems the prevailing atmosphere I encountered twenty years later in theoretical physics wasn't all that different. And it still isn't all that different today.
Philosophy used to be part of the natural sciences – for a long time . For long centuries during which our understanding of the world we live in has progressed tremendously. There is no doubt that times change, but not all changes are a priori good if left without further consideration. Here, change has resulted in a gap between the natural sciences where questioning the basis of our theories, and an embedding into the historical and sociological context used to be. Even though many new specifically designed interdisciplinary fields have been established, investigating the foundations of our current theories has basically been erased out of curricula and textbooks. Those who scratch their heads are the ones that are just too stupid to understand – and many questions fell into the domain of pop science. Thus the eye rolling among my colleagues whenever someone brings up one of these topics (the free will in quantum mechanics, anybody?) .
Admittedly, if I talk to Lee his *oohm* philosophical tendencies are somewhat more pronounced than mine (mildly speaking), so similarities end here. Look, I am a phenomenologist, and I like my theories neat and compact, and without any Isms. I am not saying you should be interested in Lee’s questions, or in my question what actually is a particle (a vector in a Fock space? - come on). I on my behalf don't see why I should be interested in the projective superspace and hyperkähler sigma models on cotangent bundles of hermitian symmetric spaces, just to give a random example. But hey, you know, it’s live and let live.
No, I am definitely not claiming the world needs more Lee Smolins. That’s not the point. The point is its not a good idea to neglect an approach to understand nature, especially one that has proved to be so important during the history of science:
“Science does need different styles, in order to address different kinds of problems. [The] competitive, fashion-driven style worked when it was fueled by experimental discoveries but failed when there was nothing driving fashion but the view and tastes of a few prominent individuals.
When I started my studies of physics, in the mid 1970s, […] there were not many places for people who wanted to develop their own solutions to the deep foundational issues about space, time, and the quantum, but there were enough to support the few who had good ideas. Since then, while the need for [their] style has grown, their place in the academy has shrunk […].” (p. 263)
Searching for our place, Stefan and I both decided not to stay with the nuclear physics folks and left Germany. Five years, several jobs, and many moves later, our paths would cross again - at Perimeter Institute. And at least two of the guys I knew from the maths department in Frankfurt have shown up here as well, both working today on quantum foundations.
I've been here for a year now. There are many things I could criticize about this institute, but this is neither the time nor the place to do so. One of the things that makes PI exceptional is that it provides a refuge for those who don't easily fit into the present academic system. The questions that I as a student was scratching my head over, I found them here, where they are a part of the environment and complete the picture. From all the places where I've been PI comes closest to what I naïvely thought theoretical physics would be.
Note how carefully I have avoided any mention of string theory. If you've followed my earlier posts, you will know why. I don't think string theory is the problem. I found it very unfortunate that a big part of ‘The Trouble With Physics’ is dedicated to the string community. It’s unfortunate because a single case study isn't a very good (scientific?) style to justify a fairly general conclusion about the way science should be done, and I wish that investigation had been broader. It was imho plain obvious it would push many people into the defensive, hindering a constructive discourse. And can I blame them for being afraid of losing grants? But more importantly, I also don’t think such a fairly harsh criticism on the community should have been raised in the public domain before all other means had been exhausted. I guess if I was a string theorist, I'd have been pissed off as well.
But what's done is done. Should I ever write a book, it certainly won't have a subtitle. Now you can dislike the book cover, Lee Smolin’s photo, or his papers. You can dislike the template of this blog, me, or my papers. I don't care. If you're a scientist, you should be able to step beyond that, and ask yourself honestly: might it be that Lee had something to say in his book that is worth thinking about?
One doesn't write threehundred-seventy-something pages like a comment on a blog, and he has spend a considerable amount of time on his arguments. You can't wipe that off the table by saying ‘it's because he wants their money’. You can't argue against that by saying CNS goes ‘glub glub glub to the bottom of the sea’, his papers are ‘word-ideas’, or the guy is a crackpot to begin with.
None of that changes the fact that he is right. The research environment on universities has changed during the last decades. The prevailing atmosphere does support a specific way of doing research, and dismisses others. It selects some qualities, and discourages those who don’t fit in. Shouldn't we ask ourselves whether the balance is good as it is? Does the procedure work optimal? Is it good that many promising young people leave the field, and become ‘quants’ because they dislike the environment, the networking, the lacking independence of junior researchers? Is it good to scare away those who are not sufficiently eager to work on the topic of the month?
And can the ones that stay constitute a well functioning body of the scientific community?
“Science was not invented. It evolved over time […] Science […] is the way it is because of the way nature is – and because of the way we are.” (p. 298)
It's in our nature to ask. Curiosity and the desire to understand is the driving force of our civilizations. If foundational questions in physics have no place in today's research institutions, they won't vanish. They will just move elsewhere  to the disadvantage of all of us. (By the way, the foundational guys, they are quite entertaining to have around. It's kind of funny how every one of them thinks everybody else is really weird.)
Anyway. Look, if you're happy where you are, if you've made your life and feel comfortable within the academic world as it is today, I am very glad to hear. But does that mean everybody else has to fit into your scheme as well?
If you're not happy, well, do something about it. The environment you work in is subject to change, and you don't have to shrug shoulders and accept it. You think I'm nuts because you have to write a proposal that you'll have to live from? Let me assure that a) I am nuts indeed and writing this should be proof enough, nevertheless b) I know that tension and can relate to your problem. But why not send in that idea you've been wanting to work on since you were a graduate student? You have a responsibility for your group? Well, talk to them. You might be surprised. Keep in mind you have a responsibility for contributing to our understanding of nature as well, that's what you're being payed for. Concerned about your reputation? Come on, you only have that one life. As long as you don't start writing a blog, you should be fine.
If you're a student: Don't give up on your dreams, and don't stop asking.
"Take your passion. And make it happen"
See also: My last year's review with an (incomplete) list of further reviews, and our posts on Science and Democracy part I, II and III.
 At least that's what he was supposed to do. When I saw my friend from Frankfurt Bronx last time Friday evening, his office still looked like Bei de Hembels unnerm Sofa. For more info see the 'Hessian-English Dictionary'.
 Not a joke.
 Some relics. Thanks to Larry and Stefan.
 'Elsewhere' can also be spelled 'Waterloo'.
TAGS: PHYSICS, BOOKS, TROUBLE