Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Trouble With Physics: Aftermath

One year ago Lee Smolin’s book “The Trouble with Physics” was published in the USA. One year I followed with astonishment the discussions, the accusations and the insults. One year later the excited state of the community has conveniently settled down, back into the ground state.

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.

Questions

Last week my friend Stefan Hofmann cleared out his office and returned the key card [1]. 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’ [2].

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.
Philosophy,
Is the talk on a cereal box,
Religion,
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.

Circles

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 [3]. 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.

Coincidence?

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.

Progress

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?

Curiosity

“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 [4] 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.


[1] 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'.
[2] Not a joke.
[3] Some relics. Thanks to Larry and Stefan.
[4] 'Elsewhere' can also be spelled 'Waterloo'.



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120 comments:

Aaron Bergman said...

I hope to talk about various other stuff later (in particularl, the difference between philosophy and physics is that in physics the philosophy leads to a caclulation), but I wanted to briefly comment on this sentence:

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?

I'm somewhat astounded at this statement because it seems to me that it completely misses the main reason people leave the field: The job market stinks. I'm not saying that people don't get disenchanted with various other aspects of the rat-race, but to not even mention the state of the job market?

QUASAR9 said...

lol Bee,
strings, m-theory, membranes and landscapes are philosophy. Mathematical philosophy if you like but philosophy all the same.

The 'Higgs' Fields, The LHC, how mass (matter(?)) acquires gravity, and quantum gravity are physics

Supercomputer will simulate colliding blackholes
Supercomputer at RIT Takes on Black Holes and General Relativity and this

are all about Maths and computer simulations. The risk is always (I was going to say in the words of Lubos) "garbage in garbage out"

John said...

I like this post. While superficially it's about "the trouble with physics", the part I really enjoyed was your quest for the freedom to think about what you're interested in. It's fun to hear stories like that. So, here's mine.

Right after I'd gotten my Ph.D. in math I was very depressed. I'd done my thesis on the problem of making quantum field theory mathematically rigorous. I had really wanted to work on quantum gravity, but I didn't know any approach to quantum gravity that I liked - this was right when loop quantum gravity was getting started, and I hadn't heard about it yet. The physicists I knew were all excited about strings wiggling around in Minkowski spacetime. And, much to my naive surprise, my math professors weren't terribly interested in quantum gravity. So, I did what I could... but I wasn't happy about it.

I didn't know if I wanted to continue doing math and physics. So, I flirted with the idea of going into philosophy.

Gian-Carlo Rota - a math professor at my school, from whom I'd taken courses on Husserl and Heidegger - vehemently argued that this was a bad idea. He said that like him, I should first get tenure in math and then work on philosophy.

That advice annoyed me a lot. It seemed conservative and timid. But somehow I accidentally followed it, and I've always been very happy that I did.

I blundered along, decided quantum field theory was too hard to make rigorous, and switched to classical field theory - that is, nonlinear partial differential equations. I was lucky enough to get tenure in the math department at UC Riverside, based on this work.

With tenure, I sort of relaxed. In fact, UCR was such a mellow environment that I relaxed even before getting tenure - perhaps dumb, but I could tell they liked me. My field was officially "analysis", but I started talking with a condensed matter physicist about anyons and the braid group. Later I was able to work with physicists on quantum gravity, talk with philosophers, and ultimately quit working on quantum gravity when I wanted to, all without serious negative effects on my career.

At this point, I can do whatever I want as long as I keep publishing theorems and teaching kids calculus. Luckily, I don't mind doing those things.

Eric Gisse said...

...the hell?! Maple has a tensor package?!

...learn something new every day...

That certainly explains why grtensorii hasn't been updated in 7 years.

island said...

Excellent article, Bee.

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.

I've noticed that this point is getting made more often as time passes without a sucessful theory. I firmly believe that this is indicitive of the true problem, and will be made with exponentially increasing frequency and earnest, until somebody actually listens.

You said many things that *should*, by rights, carry hands-down, influential weight with physicists... Alas... whatever happened to the natural method?

(Ryan) said...

This post was excellent.

Anonymous said...

It's good to emphasise that dismissal of Lee's work , and work of others, by simply glossing over it and/or
throw it in a bin'garbage' is not conductive to science.
A.

Bee said...

Hi Aaron:

it completely misses the main reason people leave the field: The job market stinks. I'm not saying that people don't get disenchanted with various other aspects of the rat-race, but to not even mention the state of the job market?

Yes, the chronically short job market is of course the dominant factor for people eventually drawing the line. That is a topic I have addressed repeatedly (see sidebar) and if the job market in Germany had been better I probably hadn't left. But this issue was not the main content of my above post, and I didn't want to address to many different things.

You are of course right that the tightness on the job market has direct consequences on people's decisions to stay or leave a field or sub-field, most notably it significantly increases the need for competition, which can - besides the scientific competition - have a lot of side-effects. However, this additional pressure does makes the situation only more apparent, it is not the cause of the problem. It is however the reason why small problems can grow large fast, because people are more constrained with their decisions. Idealists might say a researcher should base his decisions only on his scientific judgement, but this is de facto just not the case.

However, I might sound somewhat cynical but if I look at the arxiv I sometimes wonder whether we really need all these people (that includes me). Either way the actual problem is that there are much more beginners than permanent positions where they can finally settle down.

Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Bee said:However, I might sound somewhat cynical but if I look at the arxiv I sometimes wonder whether we really need all these people (that includes me).

Why are you writing then your 'crap' if you believe so?

I believe it's disgusting to write on a supposedly scientific blog things that advocate burning books.

best,
A.

Bee said...

Dear Quasar,

... and then there are the cases where garbage turns out to be ingenious if put to proper use, like bubblewrap (which was meant to be used as a washable wallpaper) or the post-it glue (which as a real 'glue' is complete, well, garbage.)

Dear John,

Thanks for sharing, this is an interesting story! I kind of got the impression that some people made up their mind on the issue by going to lunch with 4 of their colleagues, and reaffirmed their believe that there is no problem at all, and no reason for concern whatsoever. This is a fairly effective way to confirm a majority opinion, and it's sad if it is used to discard a lot of well made points that address potential dangers for enduring progress in the scientific community.

Dear A.,

If everything that was on the arxiv had the quality to be printed as a book that would be great.

-B.

aaron bergman said...

But the job market is in a sense the whole point. It'd be great if everyone could sit down and think deep thoughts and never have to worry about getting a job, but the world just can't work that way. There are more undergrads than grad students, more grad students than postdocs and more postdocs than tenured position. At each point along the way, choices have to be made. It sucks, but that's the way it is.

I do think the current system disincentives longer, more ambitious research projects, and that that is not a good thing. But, one still has to face the problem of scarce positions. If not judging someone by whether or not they have produced tangible results, then what do you suggest?

I'm sorry that the reality of the physics world doesn't accord to lots of people sitting around thinking deep thoughts (frankly, I doubt it ever did.) For myself, I don't know what a deep thought is. I do know that people do spend time thinking about the structure of spacetime and all that. But, if your thoughts don't lead to some new way of calculating something, you're not doing physics. Maybe Einstein thought deep thoughts to come up with the theory of relativity, but his papers had formulae in them that you can use to calculate things. He checked his theory of general relativity by computing the perihelion shift of Mercury. That's what separates us from the philosophers, and I think it's a good thing. Otherwise, deep thoughts become rather hard to distinguish from the shallow ramblings that we all occasionally encounter in our inboxes.

Anonymous said...

Bee said:
Dear A.,

If everything that was on the arxiv had the quality to be printed as a book that would be great.

I'm not you dear.

I see you evolved concept of burning books: don't allow them to be printed in the first place.

For my part, I hope if one day you write a book, it GETS published if you send it to publisher.

best,
A.

Bee said...

Dearest A.,
I recommend you print this page and burn it. If you have anything sensible to say, then we can have a discussion. If not, go play in somebody else's comment section.
-B.

island said...

like bubblewrap (which was meant to be used as a washable wallpaper)

Say WHAT!?

Bee said...

Hi Aaron:

I'm sorry that the reality of the physics world doesn't accord to lots of people sitting around thinking deep thoughts

And this is not remotely what I wrote above. I neither said there should be 'lots' of people, just that one should not leave out an approach because pursuing different ways to address a problem are generally preferable over discarding some. Nor did I say one should 'sit around and think deep thoughts', instead I said the environment should be open-minded and include the investigation of fundamental issues - even if the relevance of such doing might not be as immediately apparent to the DOE as a proposal for detecting WMD's from neutrino flux (just to give a random example). I couldn't agree more that the goal to have in mind is eventually having an improved knowledge and understanding of nature with quantitative predictions. But as you say, the current system disfavours long term projects, which is not a good development.

If not judging someone by whether or not they have produced tangible results, then what do you suggest?

What I have been trying to say in my previous posts on Science and Democracy is that it's not up to me to make such a suggestion. The question whether presently applied criteria are optimal for the selection of the best researchers is an issue that should be addressed by the scientific community, but this requires first that people realize the present situation hinders progress, is not optimal and needs an improvement.

The question your comment then raises is actually threefold, what are good criteria, who decides what a good criterion is, and is requiring what you call 'tangible results' sufficient.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Island,

see Bubbles of Nothing and the Company History of Sealed Air. Best,

B.

Moshe said...

The thing I personally find frustrating in Lee's book, and to a certain extent in your discussions, is that there are so many of the conclusions that are completely uncontroversial. It would have been so much more productive to lay those out calmly instead of engaging in a defamation campaign against a large group of people who are by and large on your side. (yeah, for example, many of us are pissed off by distortion and mis-characterization of our activities, but I don't know anybody who is too worried about their grants. Most of us are every bit committed and idealistic as you are, nobody goes into theoretical physics without this kind of passion.)

For example, I think lots of people, privately and publicly, call for more long term positions for young people. Such ongoing discussions result in actions (so longer term position now exist in the IAS, Stanford, Rutgers, Berkeley, etc.). Why not join forces in such efforts, instead of declaring that we all are "fashion-driven", as opposed to the unnamed pure hearted heroes, and then finding vague and unconvincing rationalizations why that has to be the case, etc. etc.

As for the role of philosophy, this is a large and interesting topic. I myself entered the field convinced that philosophical considerations are a great tool in attacking the really fundamental questions. However, this viewpoint has been somewhat modified after witnessing how progress is made. For example I'd argue that AdS/CFT fundamentaly changes the way we think about space and time (and people who are truly concerned about these issue should pay attention!). This was not achieved just by thinking deep thoughts and immersing oneself in the philosophical tradition. Rather this was done by meticulous study of absorption cross sections and such quantities, but always keeping your eyes on the prize (and it does take someone like Juan to put things together). I'd say that being too concerned with the mechanical or the philosophical would both be mistakes. But of course this is not really a controversial point either.

island said...

I'm guessing that the bubbles were, eh... "una-void-able"... heh... ;)

They made a fortune by being idiots... lol

Aaron Bergman said...

Nor did I say one should 'sit around and think deep thoughts', instead I said the environment should be open-minded and include the investigation of fundamental issues - even if the relevance of such doing might not be as immediately apparent to the DOE as a proposal for detecting WMD's from neutrino flux (just to give a random example).

I'm sorry, but that's a total straw man. Whatever direction in quantum gravity you choose to work on, none of it has any application to anything useful. We're all working as best we can on trying to understand fundamnetal questions, not build a better mousetrap. As Moshe says, you don't go into this field without more than a bit of idealism and stubborness.

And, at least for myself, after leaving graduate school, no one has ever forced me to work on anything. People have made suggestions, to be sure. People have offered advice on what directions would best lead to getting a job. Everything I have ever worked on, however, has been because I wanted to work on it. And I'm just a postdoc. As JB mentions above, once you get tenure, you can have all sorts of fun. That is, after all, why tenure exists.

I think you mistake the reason why people discourage the investigation of "fundamental issues". It's not because it's inherently disreputable or meretricious; it's because it's hard. And people who do think about such things often end up far out in philosophical left field without ever (and I keep coming back to this) calculating anything. But no one's stopping you from doing it either at a two year position or a five year one. It's just more than likely to be a dead end. And no one wants to see people go down a dead end.

island said...

I think you mistake the reason why people discourage the investigation of "fundamental issues". It's not because it's inherently disreputable or meretricious; it's because it's hard. And people who do think about such things often end up far out in philosophical left field without ever (and I keep coming back to this) calculating anything.

"Often" ain't always, and there is only one correct answer, so DIScouragement IS NOT what is being callded for after as many years as Einstein allegedly "wasted"... and no Higgs in sight... and WMAP anomlaies slapping you in the face... and... and... and...

Uncle Al said...

"My shoes are too tight, but it doesn't matter, because I have forgotten how to dance." Londo Mollari.

PASSION! May you never be cursed by your own choices. Shoot to kill (experiment). Wounding (theory) only makes them angry.

lieven said...

Bee,
nice post! anyone who brings in Edie Brickell and 'circle'(of friends) is a soul-mate...
keep up the good work. atb :: lieven.

Moshe said...

To Aaron, I am not sure I'd say that studying foundational issues is "discouraged". I see many of the issues discussed in our community as foundational, perhaps Lee's and Bee's complaints have to do more with the *style* these issues are dealt with, but I refuse to concede this playing ground to the "alternatives".

Certainly myself and many of my friends are motivated by precisely the foundational issues Lee discusses so eloquently. We probably do differ on our judgment on how progress is likely to be achieved, and that is intimately related to how we judge the amount of progress made using different styles, but there is nothing is wrong with that.

Aaron Bergman said...

When I wrote that, I had something more like the interpretation of QM in mind. But more generally, I'd say that spending the majority of one's time on "fundamental issues" ungrounded in a concrete question is discouraged. The trick, as always, is coming up with a good concrete question that lets you understand better than answer to the fundamental questions

Moshe said...

yeah, I know we mean the same thing, I just find it kind of funny that any one of us is perceived to be lacking on the foundational-philosophical front. I can tell you that is not what my material-science friends think...

Bee said...

Hi Aaron,

I am not even sure what we are disagreeing on here, maybe you could clarify. Are you saying my concerns are unnecessary, and I am creating a 'straw man' because you have never been forced to work on anything? Well, I doubt that anybody is forced to become a postdoc or forced to work on something specific. If you have never been in a situation where there was a tension between your actual scientific interest, and the career wise sensible choice, I am very happy to hear.

However, as I have tried to communicate I think this tension is present for more people than is beneficial to our community. This impression is based on personal experience (if you follow this blog, you'll know), stories of friends, and friends of friends.

I am not specifically talking about quantum gravity. In fact, most of my friends are in nuclear physics. The thing to do at the Institute where I was was horizontal flow and particle ratios, and the 'philosophical' question that there was no funding for were extra dimensions. It seems you have a misunderstanding of what I mean with fundamental questions. In fact, I'd put almost everything in quantum gravity into this area. That includes string theory. (I am adding this even though I have explicitly pointed out above that this is not the issue I am talking about.)

As JB mentions above, once you get tenure, you can have all sorts of fun.

Sure. In principle you're free. But getting grants is crucial, so many people will make efforts to get them. How free is free if the fate of their group, and their reputation among the colleagues depends on that. I know personally several tenured people who have said on more than one occasion that they are directing their research into areas that are presently of large interest, not because it is their own interest, but because it will make their life and that of their postdocs easier. What I am very very concerned about is the fact that these people comply the pressure they experience without openly objecting it.

Requirements to get grants DO influence research directions, and we have to ask ourselves whether those requirements are optimal. Look, I have discussed all this in great length previously, see e.g. here.

I am willing to consider that maybe you are right, and I am wrong, and there is no reason for concern, and everything is fine - though I don't believe this is the case. That's why I have suggested previously the first thing to do would be to clarify how the situation actually is.

Moshe writes above "Why not join forces in such efforts and yes, that is indeed what I would like to see. It is good if some places make efforts into the right direction, but I think it would be beneficial if the discussion of the issue was on a more general level. I can't spend an arbitrary amount of time on this, but it is very important to me, and I think the very least I can presently do is writing about it. Thanks,

B.

Bee said...

Ah, sorry. It seems our comments have crossed. I have no idea why you two think I am saying you are 'lacking on the foundational-philosophical front'. What I was trying to express with my writing above is that I miss an embedding of theoretical physics in the philosophical and historical context, what I instead see is a pressure to produce results fast and on fashionable topics. What I see is a pressure on postdocs to be willing to work on topics where the money is instead of being able to chose as freely as possible - which I think is a central ingredient to scientific research that is not payed sufficient attention to. Again, if you have not made this experience, others definitely have. Maybe you could try to consider that the situation is not overall seen optimal, and that there is scope for improvement even though you might not agree with me on the urgency of this? Best,

B.

Moshe said...

B., we are in different communities so our experience may well differ. I never found any pressure to go "where the money is", not as a student, not as a postdoc, not as faculty. What you do get is a pressure to produce results quickly to establish a reputation. It is up to you where and how you think progress can be made, if you choose subjects that are too hard you will not make progress. If the subject is too easy you won't get too much credit. Your taste in choosing problems is a big part of the reputation you acquire.

At any given time the number of subjects ready for rapid yet non-trivial progress is limited, so yes, you do find many people working on similar topics. By and large people will be judged on the progress they made, all the better if it is in a topic which was never the "topic of the month".

The system is certainly not perfect, but it is very important to identify what the problem is (and what it isn't) before suggesting solutions. Lots of people agree that the current incentive system suppresses long term projects. Solutions are not that easy to come by, just ask Lee.

Bee said...

@ Moshe, you say "The thing I personally find frustrating in Lee's book, and to a certain extent in your discussions, is that there are so many of the conclusions that are completely uncontroversial."

Well, but this is what I am trying to say: there are many points that are in my opinion uncontroversial but that nothing is done about, because people shrug shoulders and don't care about actively improving the situation what I think is badly necessary. What is frustrating to me is throwing out the baby with the bath water, and carelessly dismissing everything that Lee's been saying. How come people are so eager to disagree on single sentences but unable or unwilling to think about the main message of the book?
Best,

B.

Bee said...

The system is certainly not perfect, but it is very important to identify what the problem is (and what it isn't) before suggesting solutions. Lots of people agree that the current incentive system suppresses long term projects. Solutions are not that easy to come by, just ask Lee.

I don't have to ask Lee to know that. I agree on what you've said. It's what a scientific approach would ask for. Find out what the problem is (if there is one). Find out how it can be solved. Solve it. But that can't be done without people realizing that it can be done, and there is a large scope for improvement. Thus the reason of my writing. Best,

B.

QUASAR9 said...

lol Bee, from washable wallpaper to bubble wrap, not so much a quantum leap as lateral thinking

"What I was trying to express with my writing above is that I miss an embedding of theoretical physics in the philosophical and historical context, what I instead see is a pressure to produce results fast and on fashionable topics."

The thing is Bee, theoretical and mathematical physics is embedded in the philosophical & historical context: 1)the universe is expanding; 2)the universe is expanding and eternal (never ending?); 3)the universe is a multiverse or landscape; 4)the universe is the daughter of a previous universe

and these are just some of the options from a big bang origin. Then you have the more exotic colliding membranes, some of which are still spontaneously creating big bangs from here to infinity.

I wonder if we can use the bubble wrap instead of eggtrays for the landscape - a lot easier to fold and roll into a ball or any shape

SEALED AIR CORPORATION SEARCHES FOR AMERICA'S NEXT YOUNG INVENTOR

"Requirements to get grants DO influence research directions, and we have to ask ourselves whether those requirements are optimal."
"If you have never been in a situation where there was a tension between your actual scientific interest, and the career wise sensible choice, I am very happy to hear. However, as I have tried to communicate I think this tension is present for more people than is beneficial to our community."

Bee, there are many people in relationships they are not happy with, there are many people in careers they don't like ... even in research: medical research etc

But if you are talking personally about having doubts, whether you've made the right career choice, or whether you should dedicate your time to something else - that is a crisis or doubt that affects most people at some stage in their life if not evey day.

Imagine a football player in a team at the bottom of the league he still has to go out and give it his best, even when there's a good chance his team will loose again.

"The thing to do at the Institute where I was was horizontal flow and particle ratios, and the 'philosophical' question that there was no funding for were extra dimensions."
If your crisis is that you would like to do more on xtra dimensions and m-theory ... I'm sure you are a good enough physicist to figure out a way to do it. After all LR succintly explains how though we cannot see what goes on in these other dimensions we should be able to predict or attempt to predict the outcome.
Cirque du Soleil

Bee said...

there are many people in relationships they are not happy with, there are many people in careers they don't like

Pointing out that things are bad elsewhere as well, doesn't make it better. This is the field where I work in, and this is what I care about. I am sorry if others have problems as well. Best, B.

Frank said...

"Sprich Faust wie hältst du es mit Smollin's Buch?"

The good thing is that places for people into sitting down and thinking about what's the right thing to do rather then rushing forward and showing of their skills at what seems doable exist. There seem to be more and more of them actually. Still no idea whether I'll be good enough to get one, but that's life.

Would I wish there were more? Sure. I also wish the argument that the market dynamics of academia by necessity lead to the current situation, as if the fact that we have a market wasn't up to our collective choice in a democratic system, would die a quick but painful death.

However, it is in the spirit of the times.

Aaron: "For myself, I don't know what a deep thought is."

You say that as if it was something to be proud of...

- fh

Frank said...

Also, bee, great post, I enjoyed it.

Bee said...

Hi Frank, glad you liked it :-)

Ist es nicht Staub, was diese hohe Wand
Aus hundert Fächern mit verenget?
Der Trödel, der mit tausendfachem Tand
In dieser Mottenwelt mich dränget?
Hier soll ich finden, was mir fehlt?
Soll ich vielleicht in tausend Büchern lesen,
Dass überall die Menschen sich gequät,
Dass hie und da ein Glücklicher gewesen?-
Was grinsest du mir, hohler Schädel, her?
Als dass dein Hirn, wie meines, einst verwirret
Den leichten Tag gesucht und in der Dämmrung schwer,
Mit Luft nach Wahrheit, jämmerlich geirret.
Ihr Instrumente freilich spottet mein,
Mit Rad und Kämmen, Walz und Bügel:
Ich stand am Tor, ihr solltet Schlüssel sein;
Zwar euer Bart ist kraus, doch hebt ihr nicht die Riegel.
Geheimnisvoll am lichten Tag
Lässt sich Natur des Schleiers nicht berauben,
Und was sie deinem Geist nicht offenbaren mag,
Das zwingst du ihr nicht ab mit Hebeln und mit Schrauben.

~ JW Goethe, Faust, Projekt Gutenberg

Is it not dust that narrows in this lofty wall
Made up of shelves a hundred, is it not all
The lumber, thousandfold light frippery,
That in this world of moths oppresses me?
Here shall I find what is my need?
Shall I perchance in a thousand volumes read
That men have tortured themselves everywhere,
And that a happy man was here and there?-
Why grinnest thou at me, thou hollow skull?
Save that thy brain, confused like mine, once sought bright day
And in the sombre twilight dull,
With lust for truth, went wretchedly astray?
Ye instruments, ye surely jeer at me,
With handle, wheel and cogs and cylinder.
I stood beside the gate, ye were to be the key.
True, intricate your ward, but no bolts do ye stir.

English Translation

;-)

B.

QUASAR9 said...

Bee, I simply meant that it is not uncommon or rare. I didn't mean that makes it ok. I'm all for improving things on earth, though not sure I could improve on the universe as is - could you? - lol!

Arun said...

How come people are so eager to disagree on single sentences but unable or unwilling to think about the main message of the book?
Generates more publications, oops, comments.

stefan said...

I have to admit, I haven't read "The Trouble with Physics" yet, even though it's been out now since a year now...

What puzzles me a bit, there is no German translation yet, and none even announced by any of the ususal suspects among the German science trade stuff publishers. I am quite sure the book was prominently on display at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, so that's somehow strange.

Is it so strongly coupled to the specific situation in America that a translation will not be understood in Germany without further explanations?

Best, Stefan

Bee said...

Quasar: I improve the universe if I can make you laugh. A small change of order epsilon can make a big difference at later times. :-)

-B.

Bee said...

Dear Stefan,

What puzzles me a bit, there is no German translation yet, and none even announced by any of the usual suspects among the German science trade stuff publishers. [...] Is it so strongly coupled to the specific situation in America that a translation will not be understood in Germany without further explanations?

I think there's supposed to be a German translation, but not sure about the status of that. There are certainly some aspects that are specific to the USA (think tenure), but the big picture is the same. Also, as I've said repeatedly (and I know you can relate to this) German universities suffer more from being too conservative. Best,

B.

QUASAR9 said...

Touche, lol. Thanks Bee!
All the best

Stefan, dare I say some among english speakers still think english is the universal language
And I daresay a lot more germans can read and write English, than viceversa - but you'd think it would or should have been translated

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

thank you for that update... Maybe there will more news next month at the Book Fair...


Dear Quasar,

well, of course, there are many more English speaking readers than German speaking, and most German speaking people interested in the topic probably understand enough English to read the original version. Over the last years, German popular science magazines have started to include English books in their "new books" sections.

However, the market is quite big, there are about 100 million German speaking potential buyers (I guess the French speaking market - as least for Europe - is smaller). Lee's "The Life of the Cosmos" has been translated, Lisa Randalls Book was translated, the Brian Greene titles all have been translated, and I would have thought that a publisher could earn some money with a German translation.

Best, Stefan

Aaron Bergman said...

Aaron: "For myself, I don't know what a deep thought is."

You say that as if it was something to be proud of...


I say it from experience. I like to think I have a good feeling for what a deep result is, but a deep thought? Deepness is what you do with it.

Aaron Bergman said...

The problem I have, Bee, is that I get the feeling from your posts is that there is some nameless oppressor forcing us to do things we don't want to do. But that's not true. There's plenty of funding out there determined by the judgment of one's peers. The oppression is what we put on ourselves. No one is forcing you or anyone to work on something -- they're just saying that you will be judged by the results. There's a risk, and you can choose to accept it or not. That tension is always there, but that's true in every walk of life.

But we can still try to make things better, and, as Moshe says, people do. I mean, telling people to follow their dreams is romantic, but wouldn't it be better to talk about actual, concrete solutions?

What is frustrating to me is throwing out the baby with the bath water, and carelessly dismissing everything that Lee's been saying

I think that this is unfair, but why don't we just leave Lee out of this?

dark-matter said...

a) The job market is bad because fundamental physics has failed. To improve the situation is not complicated - discover something that works.

b) Lee's book pointed out the situation as existed. He didn't create that situation.

c) Lee said when you're part of the situation, you're part of the problem. Those who created the situation responded there's no problem. Lee, the messenger, is the problem. Basically, how dare you rock the establishment.

e) So for those who currently live in the situation and say there's no problem - great. You probably have tenure and don't care much about discovery that works. The most important thing is the establishment. For others, what are you going to do aside from complaining, rationalizing or otherwise analyzing it to the nth degree.

Bee said...

Hi Aaron:

The problem I have, Bee, is that I get the feeling from your posts is that there is some nameless oppressor forcing us to do things we don't want to do. But that's not true.

Well, it might help if you'd read what I wrote instead of trying to 'feel' it. What I have said repeatedly is: It is about time people realize there is nobody forcing us to do things we don't want to do. If they had consciously realized this, then how come I have heard and witnessed a lot of times people (tenured, postdocs and grad studs) justifying and excusing to work on topics, or to work in a certain way, for no other reason than that such doing is beneficial for their career, their reputation, or their chances to get grants. While they are pointing out the situation sucks, but that's just how it is.

Since you are apparently unwilling to read what I have written previously, let me copy some parts from my (repeatedly mentioned) previous post Science and Democracy III

Repeatedly, I have met colleagues who agree that the situation sucks, but they shrug shoulders and say, that’s just the marketplace. Where does it come from, this believe that passivity is a guarantee for progress?

"amused: Mar 17th, 2007 at 1:17 am
Of course, that’s hardly a new point in these discussions, and the standard response is to shrug ones shoulders and say “oh well, that’s just market forces”. Which is true, but it’s also relevant to ask whether it is in the best interests of physics. Hopefully it’s not too controversial to suggest that the interests of physics in the long term are best served by ensuring as much as possible that jobs go to the “best” people, regardless of their preferred research topics."

We are scientists. We should be able to analyze the present situation, and to draw consequences. Science is not coming to an end if we fail to meet the challenges that the increasing complexity of our field has brought. But we run in danger to reproduce the failures of the economic marketplace: bubbles of nothing, that are a waste of time, money and energy.

If left without attention, the naïve believe that the marketplace will make things right ‘somehow’ can seriously hinder progress. Nature might have supported an approach that failed too early – because it wasn’t advertised well enough, or because the capital investment was simply insufficient to allow it to compete.


If you read your comments here, you will find that it is quite ironic. I point out to John above that many people seem to have made up their mind on whether or not they and their close peer group 'feels' there is a problem, upon which you argue I am 'building up a straw man' because 'no one has ever forced [you] to work on anything.' You have so far not given a single reason why mine or Lee's conclusions that the presently applied system to support researchers is not working optimally and hinders progress, are faulty.

First you argue, I 'completely [miss] the main reason people leave the field: The job market stinks.' because I have not also discussed the overall financial situation (for the reason that blog readers have a notoriously short attention span and I tried to keep it short as I mentioned above), later you change your mind into 'There's plenty of funding out there'.

You further think that it is 'unfair' of me to say people have 'carelessly dismissed' everything Lee wrote, and you try to undermine my credibility by saying 'why don't we just leave Lee out of this?'. Whilst you are the one who disagrees with me on points Lee has raised, not me. To begin with, you will for certain not find that I have ever used the words 'deep thoughts' because - Frank will have a laugh - I don't know what's meant with that (You do that whilst I am mentioning 'How come people are so eager to disagree on single sentences but unable or unwilling to think about the main message'). I obviously used the term 'what Lee's been saying' as an abbreviation for the points he raised in his book (which happens to be subject of this post), a use of words that you were either unable or unwilling to make sense of.

I mean, telling people to follow their dreams is romantic, but wouldn't it be better to talk about actual, concrete solutions?

Yes, Aaron, this is exactly what I am asking for. What I have suggested previously the first thing to do would be to clarify how the situation actually is. That is to say I would think a scientific and reasonable approach would be to first find out what the problem is (if there is one). Find out how it can be solved. Solve it. But that can't be done without people realizing that it can be done, and there is a large scope for improvement. Thus the reason of my writing.

Your attempt to discard my arguments as 'romantic' because I ask people to follow their dreams is very disappointing. If you consider the absence of 'concrete solutions' as romantic, you are being much more romantic than me. If instead your commentary indicates that you are trying to find a reason not taking me seriously because I like Irene Cara's song and I gather strength from music I like, then this is very sad indeed.

I want to add that the 'cause' of the problem is a completely different question and it seems to be that it is Lee's analysis of this cause, based on sociological arguments, that has annoyed people. I have written in the (repeatedly mentioned) post Science and Democracy III that I see the situation from a slightly different perspective. Roughly speaking I think it is a development in our society in general that reflects in our community in a very unhealthy way. These are developments that were possible to ignore as long as the community was sufficiently small and well connected. But since the field is constantly growing, we too become subject to problems that can occur in such a community. These are just points one can not ignore without endangering progress . Please note, I am not a sociologist, and I am not claiming my interpretation is correct. I am just saying it concerns me and we have to pay attention to it - this is what also Lee has been pointing out.

Before you try to pick out a sentence of this comment and try to twist and turn it into something that confirms your believes, I kindly ask you to step back, get out of defense mode and at least consider the possibility that we might indeed have a common goal - though it might seem boring to you.

Best,

B.

hypnose said...

Bee, do you think being a "quant" is a good job at all? I mean, who likes working 100+ hours PER WEEK? Some people happen to think it is a high paying job. The starting gross salary is about 120K in new york city (%40 of it is tax) and the rents start from 3K per month for one bedroom apartments. Not to mention that 60% of the incoming analysts and associates are fired after the first 2 years. If you think that there is no job security and permanent positions i nacademia, I wonder what you would think in goldman or merrill.

Aaron bergman said...

Well, my comment didn't seem to come through, so here's a quick reconstruction.

You seem to have interpreted almost everything in a way completely different than I intended. Rather than going through it all, I'll try starting anew.

I don't want to talk about Lee or his book. I don't want to talk about how life sucks. I don't want to talk about whether it is better to follow your dreams and give up your career or the other way around.

What I want to talk about is the things that can be done to make things better. I've thought about it a bit, and I have no great ideas. I want to know what you think.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Fields in which there are no objective measures of quality suffer from various pathologies; e.g., the social sciences dept. of one Ivy League Univ. I'm told suffers from the cult of the personality.

Science supposedly has Nature as the arbiter; but particle physics has reached a point where people legitimately work on some theory that works in some possible world that is not **our** world.

For all those that protest that they are making dents in our ignorance, think about it - if the correct theory is found and it is not yours, mostly all your work will be rapidly forgotten.

You know, after Newton's gravity, what was there to further theorize about gravity for a few centuries? One who tried would have been wasting his or her time. Even Einstein wouldn't have been Einstein, if born 100 years earlier. Progress for a long while was in developing methods to extract information fro the theory rather than developing new theories. Perhaps that is an area for more lasting contributions.

In other areas of science, theories have been put on the shelf for the time being simply because the empirical means to progress with the theory were not there; not because the theory itself was ill-founded. I don't see why particle physics should be immune from that.

If we think like that, where will progress come from? I think the lessons of the history of science are very clear - grapple with problems that have an empirical bearing.

Mathematical consistency can lead one to a theory - did it not with Einstein, gravity and special relativity? Or the earlier unification by Maxwell? Well, those were still within experimental reach.

Dr Who said...

I wonder if Bee has read what Paul Steinhardt had to say at www.edge.com?

STEINHARDT: So that in fact the reason why unified theory from that point of view would be beyond our reach is because, if you didn't have deep philosophical principles to guide you, you just would never find your way. I thought that was an interesting quote because it reflects some of my concerns about where both cosmology and fundamental physics are going—that maybe they've lost their way. Of course it's unfashionable to appeal to philosophical viewpoints. But maybe that would be a healthy thing.

It's a very interesting discussion -- Brian Greene has some very nice things to say too. It seems that Greene even has a philosopher in his "arrow of time" research group!

Dr Who said...

Aaron: I think you are missing one of Bee's points. I was very struck some time back by your own description of how a typical physics research group got together over coffee for the purpose of laughing at all the stupid papers that had come out on each morning's arXiv. Well, one concrete thing everyone can do is to get up and suggest that it is a mistake to assume that all papers that diverge from the approved approach, or which don't emanate from Princeton or Stanford, must automatically be dismissed as garbage. This is something that we can all do on an individual basis: resist the culture in which certain Great Ones lay down the principles as to what is respectable and what is not, and try to insist that work be judged on its merits, not on the precise relationship of the author with the Great Ones. I'm not proposing that we accept crackpottery, I'm suggesting that we resist the "everyone knows" culture. "Everyone knows" that ekpyrosis is crap and eternal inflation is right. "Everyone knows" that X is to be sneered at because he disagreed with Y, or because he works in Ruritania, etc. Let's all make sure that any statement we make can be backed up by a scientific argument. We can all do this if we have the guts.

Aaron bergman said...

I was very struck some time back by your own description of how a typical physics research group got together over coffee for the purpose of laughing at all the stupid papers that had come out on each morning's arXiv. Well, one concrete thing everyone can do is to get up and suggest that it is a mistake to assume that all papers that diverge from the approved approach, or which don't emanate from Princeton or Stanford, must automatically be dismissed as garbage.

Umm, yeah. That's what I was describing. (Yeesh.) Seriously, where did you get that from?

Here's what happens. Over lunch or coffee, people discuss what they saw on the arXiv that day. Most people don't have time to have read the papers, so one tries to figure out what's in the paper by the abstract. Because we're a disagreeable bunch (or is it just me?), it's common to also try to poke holes in the "reconstructed" argument. No one's mocking papers because they're not part of the string mainstream.

You know, I was in the same grad school class as Justin, and I don't think ekpyrosis is crap. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I really don't see a pervasive "everyone knows" culture. I see people arguing about things all the time. I've had many conversations talking about flaws in inflation, eternal or not, just to pick an example. There are plenty of people out there still looking to poke holes in KKLT. I've spent entirely too much time arguing about the use of entropy in cosmology.

Although it's a horrible thing to divide people into two groups, it often seems like there are the believers and the skeptics. To caricature things, the believers take an idea and run with it with only a bare acknowledgment of problems and caveats. To the skeptic, this is horribly annoying because, dammit, those details are important. (Guess what I am.) A healthy field has both, I think. But it does help to find one's niche so one doesn't completely annoy one's colleagues in either direction.

Just as a side note, I find it somewhat amusing that you conflate papers from Stanford and Princeton given that (to again horribly generalize) they represent rather different ends of the spectrum. It's even a common joke to talk about west coast and east coast styles of string theory, akin to the old rap wars.

Aaron bergman said...

Let me say a little more. I don't want to imply that everyone in string theory is an open minded idealist that gives every alternate idea the time that it may or may not deserve. It's a big field with a lot of people. Different people react differently to different things and reactions to any given idea will generally run the full spectrum. I don't think string theory is any different from anything else in that sense.

amused said...

Moshe wrote: "It is up to you where and how you think progress can be made [...] By and large people will be judged on the progress they made, all the better if it is in a topic which was never the "topic of the month"."

That's a way too rosy picture of the situation. Jeff Harvey summed up the real situation here:

"entrenched groups whether in string theory, lattice gauge theory, brane-worlds, perturbative QCD or what have you have a tendency to hire people who work in the same area. I think not so much because they are trying to keep the upper hand, but because they want people they can talk to and collaborate with."

I want to point out that it's not just the "seer" types who lose out in this situation, but also the "craftsmen" types (I consider myself one) working on topics for which there are few, if any, "entrenched groups". The standard response to complaints about this is "Well, it's just market forces". I'ld like to mention some things from my own experience that indicate that the situation isn't that simple, and make a few suggestions.

If all was good and well with the world then there would be a correlation between how well someone does in open competition for prestigeous postdoc fellowships and how well they do in applications for regular postdocs in research groups. If the latter generate zero interest, it must be because either (i) the market has decided that the person's research topic is not interesting (so there are hardly any groups working on it that the person can apply to) or (ii) the person's work just isn't good enough, so groups working on that topic aren't interested in hiring him/her. But in that case the person's attempts to win postdoc fellowships in open competition should fail as well, for exactly the same reasons: The committee evaluating them will reflect the view of the market and decide that either the person's topic isn't interesting or his work isn't good enough.

How can it be then that on the one hand my applications for regular postdocs in particle theory groups always generated effectively zero interest, while on the other hand my two attempts to win fellowships in open competition both succeeded (in both cases received well above the required number of points to make the cut)? In a genuine free market that should never happen! I conclude that the free market ain't really that free...

Suggestions: (1) First of all, people should at least acknowledge that all is not well with the "free market" (as Bee has repeatedly been calling for). Without that I don't see how this discussion can ever get anywhere.

(2) There needs to be a debate about whether it it good that peoples career chances depend on how well their research fits with the "entrenched groups" that Jeff Harvey refers to. Back in the old days, e.g. during the time that the Standard Model was being developed when the way forward was clear, this was probably not such a terrible thing. But times have changed...

(3) In the same comment linked to above, Jeff Harvey writes:

"we are lacking in good (semi-) objective measures of what work should be supported, in main part because of the absence of data."

I think this is a serious problem that should be addressed. The most frustrating thing for me in academia has been trying to figure out how the hell I'm supposed to make myself competitive against others working on more fashionable topics (one topic in particular which I'm studiously trying to avoid mentioning here). How many papers do I need to publish in PRL, or what the hell else can I do?? And before someone writes in to point it out: yes, I am well aware that there are other much more deserving people out there who are having a hard time. Not much comfort in that realization though. But it would be nice if there was a level playing field with objective rules of the game that are clear to all. In regard to this I think we can learn something from the maths community, which has been getting by fine in a data-free environment for quite a while...I've written about that at length elsewhere though, and can't bear to start repeating it now...

Plato said...

Bee,

Is this "another kind of language" below? Not German, I am sure:)

One year later the excited state of the community has conveniently settled down, back into the ground state.

Yes but Bee to all the dislikes of "harmonic oscillations" the possibility "within that time" are extremely important. They allow the "creative abilities" to come into the picture. While, yes of course, discussions settled in the "ground state" you are talking about.

Gravity, can be like that in the landscape?:)

An "open heart" can allow diverse applications between involution and evolution. The "Seal of Solomon" can incorporate and hold imagery of what is contain in the individual's physiological makeup. An octave can allow can "greater scale" to be embedded within it?

But this explanation could be GIGO as well?:)

Bee said...

Hi Hypnose:

do you think being a "quant" is a good job at all?

I think whether a job is 'good' or not depends on personal preferences. It certainly wouldn't be a 'good' job for me. I have mentioned this above because I know several people who apparently prefer this job over being a postdoc in theoretical physics.

Not to mention that 60% of the incoming analysts and associates are fired after the first 2 years.

You wouldn't believe how much I'd appreciate if there was a 40% chance I could just stay in my present job, and wouldn't be out on the market again in two years. See, the friends I have, I can understand their decision to leave the academic world very well. Some time in their early to mid thirties, people have been job-hopping for more than a decade, possibly moved around the globe, worked day and night, and still have to face the possibility that they won't get a permanent position despite all the efforts. If you add to that the way science is done is not what they think it should be, if you add being unhappy, the feeling to waste time with nonsensical political games, or even the pressure to work on topics they aren't really interested in - then why stay?

That's why I added the last sentence above. If they have to give up their dreams one way or the other, then why stay in the academic world?

The ones that stay are either those who have no problem with the situation to begin with, or the ones that manage to tell themselves there is nothing wrong or doable about it. Thus the problem to convince people something has to be done about it.

Hi Dr. Who,

I wonder if Bee has read what Paul Steinhardt had to say at www.edge.com?

No, I saw it mentioned on NEW, but haven't had the time to read it. It surely sounds interesting, I will have a look at it.

Hi Arun,

but particle physics has reached a point where people legitimately work on some theory that works in some possible world that is not **our** world.

You will like the next post. It is about exactly this point.

Best,

B.

Plato said...

Lee Smolin:

Perturbative finiteness is a major element of the claim of string theory as a potential theory of nature. If it is not true then the case for string theory being a theory of nature would not be very strong.

Jacques Distler :

This is false. The proof of finiteness, to all orders, is in quite solid shape. Explicit formulæ are currently known only up to 3-loop order, and the methods used to write down those formulæ clearly don’t generalize beyond 3 loops.

What’s certainly not clear (since you asked a very technical question, you will forgive me if my response is rather technical) is that, beyond 3 loops, the superstring measure over supermoduli space can be “pushed forward” to a measure over the moduli space of ordinary Riemann surfaces. It was a nontrivial (and, to many of us, somewhat surprising) result of d’Hoker and Phong that this does hold true at genus-2 and -3.


So some good things did come out of it, and it converted Peter Woit to a degree, and maybe others?

Storm in the teacup was a result of what was being pushed, and now, we understand that the mathematics is a underlying feature of the theory.

"E8" describing the interior of the blackhole? Imagine?:)

Bee said...

Hi Aaron,

You seem to have interpreted almost everything in a way completely different than I intended. Rather than going through it all, I'll try starting anew.

I don't want to talk about Lee or his book. I don't want to talk about how life sucks. I don't want to talk about whether it is better to follow your dreams and give up your career or the other way around.

What I want to talk about is the things that can be done to make things better. I've thought about it a bit, and I have no great ideas. I want to know what you think.


I am sorry if I misunderstood you. Okay, yes, let's try again. I was admittedly hoping somebody would make a suggestion how to move on (people are usually more convinced of their own suggestions). I have no 'great' ideas either, but a couple of points one could use as a start. However, please note it's not really thought through, so I am more than happy about feedback etc.

- Without a couple of people that are genuinely willing to do something nothing works. That is to say, first thing is to find a group (say 5-10 people) who are interested enough to invest a bit of time on doing something. That doesn't have to be very much time, but without any commitment it for certain won't get us anywhere. One can leave such a group of people open to others, but it needs a core one can work with.

- With these people, work on a list of steps to be done that can be put forward to others as a suggestion. It should contain a brief explanation what's the reason for this doing, and a concrete though not to detailed description of what one is hoping to achieve.

- Roughly speaking what I'd think is first on that list is what I have mentioned previously. Make some kind of a survey getting data about how the situation actually is. If it turns out there's no reason to do anything, I'd be willing to drop the issue (since I don't think the problem is going to vanish anyhow this is to say in such a case one has to wait until things get worse). How to do the survey: It's mostly an administrational and organizational problem, and one needs a couple of people to carry it out professionally. I would think if we were to write a proposal for taking such a survey and file it in somewhere, chances were fairly high we'd get a grant. It's a topic every funding agency should be interested in. A point to consider about the survey is where it is taken, since there will be national differences. For obvious reasons I would be more interested in the situation in the EU. But since most of the discussion has been about the USA (not even Canada), that seems to be the case at hand? (That means however regarding funding etc my hands are pretty much tied since I'm neither a citizen nor working in the USA).

I could add more details on that point, including possible questions, and on what to do after that but will leave that out for now.

For all such efforts, the Web2.0 could actually be quite helpful, which would be interesting on its own.

Let me know what you think. I would really like to see something coming out of this.

Best,

B.

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Bee, from your last comment (and debate on previous posts) I gather you feel there is a 'problem' with physics, and more important a problem with funding.

In the uk one problem has been highlighted as - the difficulty in getting students interested in the sciences - since most students are looking at the possible financial rewards of investing several years into further education, graduate studies (with mounting debt). But I presume you are talking of the next stage - post grad and post doc

The problem with funding will always be that money goes to cinderella projects no matter where you are - or as in Europe large international collaborations, intergovernmental projects, LHC, fusion reactors, ... oh airbus & eurofighter (since we still don't have any mega billion ESA projects)

Of course there are those who are simply better at getting funding, whether because of personal or professional kudos (whether in physics, medicine, manufacturing, advertising or even film making).

If what you are saying is that there is a field of physics that is not getting enough attention or funding - then that is what you need to promote. Not complain that there isn't enough funding, but make the case for WHY you should get more funding. And gather those people around you who agree.

And of course because we live in the real world you still have to market your 'ideas' or 'beliefs'

So, what exactly would you like to see more of, where would you like to see the monet go and what would you use more funding for. Be Bold.

Plato said...

Stability and Warmth is good in any person's life?:)

hypnose said...

Bee, I know the difficulties of being a postdoc since I am one. The matter of the fact is that not all grad students can (and should) be professors. Being a professor is a very difficult job if you are running a research group of half a dozen people or more and it requires skills that are not taught in grad school. It is essentially several jobs rolled into one(teacher, researcher, CFO). When you accept this reality (and I do not think anyone in this forum disputes this), you come to the conclusion that there must be an elimination procedure. Many grad students and postdocs will be eliminated somehow. You can dispute the ways it is done right now but you should also propose another way to do it then (more mercifully perhaps). Unless you are going to break down the entire pyramid scheme in academia, I cannot see how you are going to find a job for everyone... That is the core problem here and nobody is suggesting a viable solution here as far as I see other than ranting and raving

Bee said...

Hi Hypnose:

The matter of the fact is that not all grad students can (and should) be professors. Being a professor is a very difficult job if you are running a research group of half a dozen people or more and it requires skills that are not taught in grad school. It is essentially several jobs rolled into one(teacher, researcher, CFO). When you accept this reality (and I do not think anyone in this forum disputes this), you come to the conclusion that there must be an elimination procedure.

You are addressing two different issues here. The one is whether the presently available positions are adequate. I myself think it is not so great that a large fraction of these jobs comes with teaching duties. A fact is that many scientists just are not qualified and/or have no fun being a good teacher. Also, there is little education in this direction during their career, and even if there was, they would probably not be terribly interested. That is to say, I am all in favor of more research-only positions. There are of course also those people who have a natural or learned skill for teaching, and are dedicated to this work. However, I am afraid that the effort they invest is in many cases not really appreciated by their colleagues (hasn't written a paper in 2 years? teaching? but still.).

The other question is the necessity for a selection process. I agree with you that there is no way around it, and I am certainly not advocating to lower the standards. It is really annoying to me that again and again, I am accused of wanting to hire people who just do crap or sit around and do nothing at all. Here again, I have the impression that this misinterpretation of my motivation is being made to create a controversy, polarize opinions, and avoid any constructive discussion. What I am saying instead is that I think the presently applied selection criteria include several skills that have little or nothing to do with the actual scientific promise of a person. And the criteria to judge on proposals (think about the difficultly to make long term plans) are not optimal either. In both cases, most of the people that I have talked to broadly agree on this. The question is then, if there is such a common sensus that these criteria are not as beneficial for progress as they could be, why isn't anything done about it?

Best,

B.

Thomas Larsson said...

If it is a comfort for anybody, finding a research job in theoretical physics wasn't that easy 15 years ago neither. Of the 20-30 people who were grad students or postdocs in theoretical physics at KTH slightly before and quite a bit after me (i.e. who entered grad school between ca 1978 and 1991), I know of two people who became professors, and another two who ended up in pure teaching positions in academia. This being Stockholm (gee, I'm as close to a Nobel prize as Stefan Hofmann) most grad students ended up working for the Ericsson phone company.

However, in the generation before me, born around 1950, quite a lot of people seemed to find academic jobs. One reason may be that the 1968 revolutionaries did everything to avoid the evil private sector, but a more likely reason is that higher education underwent a rapid expansion in 1970s.

Moshe said...

Amused, years ago I enjoyed our exchange about lattice fermions, we should do that again sometime. So let me take the time and briefly respond...

I am not trying to paint a rosy picture, I do think some aspects of the situation can be improved. I am just pointing out that one needs to identify what the real issues are. As I said one of my frustrations with Lee's book is that it funnels a real conversation that should happen to unproductive channels. Definitely the "us versus them" approach will get no results, is wrong on the facts, as well as causing unrelated damage (and not just to string theory).

With respect, I think you are also mis-identifying the problem. Grant money to hire postdocs is given under the purview of
"training", it is not an award to recognize achievement. Those "entrenched" groups have applied to grants to train postdocs in specific areas of physics, they are simply conforming to the terms of the grant by doing so, not because they are narrow minded or otherwise hateful people.

So, perhaps one solution is more money not tied up to specific group or field. This is not unheard of, in Canada we have NSERC postdocs which can be taken anywhere, lots of those things in Europe as well. I'd love to see some data on how much money is available in this for of support, maybe that needs improving.

In any event my comments had to do mostly with faculty positions. This is the ultimate open competition, hiring committees generally are unlikely to have any experts in relevant fields. It is also very diverse- for every place that does things wrong, chances are you'd find another place that does them right. Finally, the research is only one component of what people are looking for, teaching ability is equally important typically.
I am not sure how that process can be improved, precisely because it is so diverse.

And BTW, good luck!

hypnose said...

Hi Bee, what do you think the irrelevant criteria used in hiring decisions are? Can you be more specific? Also, if you are not interested in teaching at all, it is not a good idea to apply to faculty positions. Your intentions will be apparent to senior people and you will be expected to teach. This is even more so in liberal arts colleges.

You are also wrong in thinking that a good researcher cannot be a good teacher vice versa. I know several such people. My advisor was an exceptional teacher and he still publishes a dozen papers a year in his mid fifties.

Bee said...

Hi Hypnose,

Could you do me a favor and just read what I wrote before you accuse me of saying things I never said? I am really tired of repeating myself. You say

"You are also wrong in thinking that a good researcher cannot be a good teacher vice versa. I know several such people."

What I wrote was not that good researchers can not be good teachers, but that some of them just are not, there is no reason to expect this, and it's to the disadvantage of everybody if they have to teach despite their unwillingness to do so. As I wrote above

A fact is that many scientists just are not qualified and/or have no fun being a good teacher. [...] There are of course also those people who have a natural or learned skill for teaching, and are dedicated to this work. However, I am afraid that the effort they invest is in many cases not really appreciated by their colleagues [...]

Further you say "what do you think the irrelevant criteria used in hiring decisions are" what I have clarified in the (repeatedly mentioned) previous post Science and Democracy III where I have tried to argue that the problem arises from a gap between primary goals - good research, but what does that mean - and secondary criteria - skills that are selected on the job market which should ideally result in good research. Occasionally one should reassure whether both still fit together. Let me copy a paragraph from the previous writing

The best known example might be the citation index and number of publications. These criteria are of course correlated with the originality and quality of the research, but whenever possible, one should ask for primary goals to be met. (I am not telling you this because it is something new, or because I think people in hiring committees are stupid, but to make the matter less abstract.) Other secondary criteria that have grown important over the last decades are e.g. previous employment at well-known institutions, or classifiable work on mainstream topics.

The latter point is supposed to say, if your work does not fall into any presently pursued research direction, you will have a hard time being hired, that goes for postdocs as well as for faculty though I think (hope?) it's less serious for the latter. I like what Moshe said above perhaps one solution is more money not tied up to specific group or field. but that then still requires the courage and willingness of an institution to hire a person working on an area possibly very different from their own field of expertise. That is to say, it requires an awareness of what is beneficial for science to work optimally on the long run. Or, to come back to what I said previously in the (repeatedly mentioned) previous post that people ask themselves how science works best, and whether the presently applied secondary criteria are optimal. And yes, this requires that one actually thinks about the topic.

Thanks,

B.

amused said...

Hi Moshe,
I remember our exchange and wish there was some news to tell you about that topic, but unfortunately not much has happened since then. Although if you haven't seen it already I recommend you take a look at arXiv:0706.1043 which is quite interesting imo. These days I work on other things, in an attempt to be more "employable".

"With respect, I think you are also mis-identifying the problem. Grant money to hire postdocs is given under the purview of "training", it is not an award to recognize achievement. Those "entrenched" groups have applied to grants to train postdocs in specific areas of physics, they are simply conforming to the terms of the grant by doing so, not because they are narrow minded or otherwise hateful people."

Well, I never suspected them of being downright hateful ;) I'm aware that in some cases the postdoc funding is tied to specific projects (typically when the grant is given to an individual faculty member), but I also had the impression that in other cases (group grants) there is a fair bit of freedom in the allowable research topics of the postdocs they hire, and that, in practice, particle theory groups typically have a lot of freedom to hire whoever they want working in particle theory. Is that really wrong? Also, in discussions of postdoc hiring I more often hear things phrased along the lines "is this someone whose work deserves our support?" rather than "is this someone we can give good training to?"

In any case, it doesn't change the fact that people whose research doesn't fit comfortably with the entrenched groups are going to have a harder time, and the question is whether this is ok, and if not, what can be done about it? Personally I think it would great if a lot of the money that is currently given to groups to hire postdocs is taken away and used to fund postdocs directly through open competition, along the lines of the already existing schemes you mentioned.

Regarding faculty hirings, with respect, your description of it as "the ultimate open competition" strikes me as rosy beyond belief!
My understanding of "open competition" implies something free
of politics, and where the strength of the candidate's connections to senior influential people is not a crucial factor...I suspect you might have a different definition... But to try to be constructive, I would like to suggest providing funding through open competition for junior faculty positions as well as postdocs. It would be interesting to see how the outcomes of this correlate with the outcomes of the present system.

"And BTW, good luck!"

Thanks. Actually my situation is semi-ok for the time being.

amused said...

hypnose wrote: "what do you think the irrelevant criteria used in hiring decisions are?"

Perhaps hypnose can tell us what he/she thinks the *relevant* criteria for hiring decisions are. Some people think number of citations is very important; others think that number of senior professors at illustrious institutions who think you're a good guy is what counts most. My personal opinion (not 100% objective) is that number of single-author publications in Physical Review Letters should count more than anything else ;) And then there's Jeff Harvey, who thinks we are simply lacking relevant criteria...
How about you, hypnose?

Aaron Bergman said...

Hi Bee,

I just wanted to say that I'm not ignoring what you said; it's just that today has been a very busy day and I haven't had a chance to collect my thoughts on the subject yet.

Bee said...

Hi Aaron:

No problem. I can relate to that. Take your time, this comment section will remain open.

Same goes from me to everybody else: I am not ignoring you, I am just presently kinda stressed out.

Best,

B.

Moshe said...

Thanks amused, I will take a look at that reference. Also glad to hear about the semi-OKness...

As for all those other things, I suspect we do not differ that much on the facts, but maybe different experiences color things differently. I will be interested in suggestions in how faculty hiring can be done better, But the set of issues at that level is completely different from postdocs, and strikes me as much more difficult to influence.

Bee said...

Hi Moshe,

Just a quick comment about 'influence'. In my experience most scientists are very intelligent and reasonable people. A well made (scientific) argument that lists long term pros and cons for various strategies can make a difference, simply because it can cause people to think about what is beneficial for science on the long run, and whether they are unwillingly hindering progress. I don't think that what is not optimal about the present situation developed on purpose, and nobody really wants it - it is mostly a lack of awareness for the issue. You wrote above "As I said one of my frustrations with Lee's book is that it funnels a real conversation that should happen to unproductive channels." - it is frustrating indeed, though one can ask who has done the 'funneling' in this case. However, I hope it is possible on the long run to turn this discussion into something productive. E.g. this comment section is actually going very nicely and is really interesting. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

can U translate the box "dein leben dreht sich nur im kreis,..."

pls?

G.

Bee said...

"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."

Roughly: "your life is running in circles, full of wasted time, you are always postponing your dreams. you want to live, sometime, but if not today, then when? some time, your dreams will fade away."

The original text rhymes in a subtle way, the box above contains a link to a video.

The title of the song 'Kein Zurück' means 'No return'. I.e. it is about the arrow of time ;-)

hypnose said...

Amused,
As a highly cynical person, I happen to think that the present system is picking up the best people somehow no matter how darwinian it may look. I am interested in learning what you propose as an alternative to the present system.

The number of faculty slots is usually related to the hotness(which translates into the availability of the funding) of the field and theoretical particle physics is utterly dead as it lacks any major breakthrough in the past few decades. That is the reason of the scarcity of the positions in this field. Nobody wants to hire people in a field where there is no funding.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

Thank you for this post.

What strikes me about all that matter is the following fact: I have a completely different history, a completely different reality, and completely different constraints as compared to Smolin, to you, or to an American postdoc, or whatever. Yet, it is remarkable how many of the points raised by Lee Smolin hit me with a vivid sense of *truth* which in some sense I have lived myself. I have a personal certainty that several of his points have a core that is invariant under many conditions and backgrounds. And I really sympathize with your evaluation of his book.

I had been through the process of gradually facing the fact of how science is really practiced these days, the issue of finding a job, etc. I'm lucky to find myself now in a relatively stable condition, working with physics (not exactly with what I wanted to do, but I've been in a much worse situation in the past few years, so now it's like paradise. Don't know whether it will last, though).

It's difficult. There aren't clear solutions in the horizon.

I have never lost passion for physics, although there were difficult times that made me very pessimistic. I don't know what is ahead of me, so I try to live the present moment and keep going. So I guess the bottom line is: each of us should do what feels like is right to do, what his/her energy allows to do. I hope personal or collective actions, being small or big ones, lead to an improvement in the system at some point. It is in deep need. How it is going to be made, or whether it will really be made, is unknown.

Best,
Christine

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Both Aaron and Bee seem to have confessed to not having "deep ideas." Fair enough, I suppose, since deep ideas are rarer than 5 caret diamonds. Surely, though, they each can recognize some of the deep ideas they have been exposed to. The fundamental theorem of calculus is deep, and Newton's Second Law is deep, and the idea of the wave function is deep. Natural selection is deep.
Whether relevant to physics or not, the idea that the various string theories are different domains of the same underlying theory is deep.

I suppose some - not me - might consider the anthropic principle deep.

In any case, I'm pretty sure that Bee and Aaron have had these deep thoughts, even if they weren't original to them - so it seems to me silly to imply, as Aaron seems to, that they don't recognize the nature of the beast.

I, on the other hand, have had a number of deep ideas. Unfortunately enough, they were all wrong.

amused said...

Hypnose,
It could be that the present system is optimal enough, in the sense that there isn't any possible improvement of it that would significantly impact on the future history of particle physics. It could also be that only the best 5% of the current people with faculty positions have any realistic chance to impact the future history, in which case we might as well get rid of the other 95%. But since we don't know this for sure, the safe option which society seems to have followed is to err on the side of too many particle physicists rather than too few. (Some people might say society hasn't erred enough on that side.) In any case, surely it is worthwhile to try to optimize the situation we find ourselves in, especially when there are things that are clearly less than optimal at present.

There is also another aspect to this: Since having a tenured job in physics is such a privillege, and since so many people are investing so much of their lives in trying to reach this, surely there is a moral obligation to make the selection criteria as fair, objective and transparent as possible.

As for what I would suggest to improve the present system, there are basically two things:
(1) Create more opportunities for people to get postdoc and junior faculty jobs through open competitions where the candidates are assessed by broad committees whose members don't have anything personal at stake in whether
one particular candidate succeeds or not.
(2) Build up a journal hierarchy similar to what the
maths community has, with one or more top quality journal at the top whose standards are zealously maintained. The point of this is that then anyone has the chance to prove themselves meritous by publishing papers in the top journals, regardless of their research topic, background or connections.
In the maths community, publishing papers in top journals is the key to making a career, whereas in particle physics it seems that it is much more about what clique you belong to and the influence of the people who support you. The maths system seems much fairer to me; it is more likely to select the "best" people.

amaragraps said...

Discussed before (for example on cosmicvariance), but one way to inject a _little_ more stability to the postdoc lives are five-year proposal durations. NASA is discussing this now (finally). I don't think the ten-year 'tenure' idea is a bad concept either.

paul valletta said...

I am in the same predicament as Stefan here, I have not read the Smolin book. Reading through the comment here, I try to absorb a feeling of whats going on. Coming across a comment of a group of researchers who try to judge a papers content based on the abstract, is nothing more than "judging a book by its cover" !..this is not really a good thing, so thats all I can basically say. But I can imagine a situation where a researcher has reached a position of powership?..one who gets to "nod'wink" on the furthering of ones career. I can imagine the situation of those who "judge books by their covers"?..a Professor is waiting for a post-doc applyee meeting, in walks a woman waring a Tee-shirt with the statement "BEEN THERE, SEEN IT, DONE IT, BOUGHT THE TEESHIRT!"..what do think the Prof reaction would be ?.. it could be that the applicant has a prior notion of his judging "books by their covers", or it could be quite the opposite ?

Great topic Bee, pv.

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Thanks Bee and all for the insights.

First, the problems you talk about are not unique to physics. For instance, most programmers agrees that C++ or Java are pretty lame programming languages, yet everybody working on a different breed of language, myself included, is considered nuts, including in academia. Worse yet, good solution to frequent problems are known, but widely ignored, something which is less glaring in physics (but I don't think you are immune, see below).

Second, one thing that could be improved is tools helping us find what to read, and that means a better way to assess quality. Peer review or arXiv endorsement only gives a binary result, and as such, are very crude ways to evaluate quality. Sure, there are other ways to rate papers, such as citations or coffee-machine laughing sessions. But I wish there were comments and cross-references on arXiv, I wish I could say "I trust this person's judgment, so I want to see articles that she liked", I wish there was an easy way to find which articles introducing this or that concept folks found easy to read, and so on. The emergence of blogs may be another indirect manifestation of this same desire.

Not being able to easily get a big picture, one is left with specialization as the primary option to select what to read. So Bee is right that we are free to choose, but most will naturally choose specialization because it's an obvious solution to a problem every scientist faces.

My own personal experience sadly confirms Sokal's finding, that nobody has time to read articles, even those close to one's research. It is sufficient that the other guy used words you never though searching for, and your paths will not cross. It's not just about climbing hills or crossing valleys. Who spends time drawing the maps? It seems like everybody has their little own personal map, how inefficient is that?

Finally, these are all important questions to address. I believe that survival of the species depends on physics. For instance, can science shield us from the various forms of mass extinction we can think of? Can we ever explore other stars to find new resources? Can we get better and cheaper energy sources? Physics is our best hope for some of these problems. So physicists have to get their act together or we'll all die ;-)

Anonymous said...

In response to Amused's comments about the postdoctoral market, in mathematics, I know there exist NSF postdocs which are not tied to any particular institution. As best I can tell (from a cursory googling), the NSF doesn't offer anything similar in physics. Anyone know why?

aaron bergman said...

Oops -- that last anonymous was me.

Bee said...

@CIP:

Both Aaron and Bee seem to have confessed to not having "deep ideas."

In contrast to what you've claimed we said, as far as I can see, both Aaron and I said we don't know what is meant with a 'deep thought'. I really don't want to speak for Aaron, but let me tell you my problem with the term. If you have read my above post, you will know that I come from the maths side, and that I don't like to spend time arguing about words, that are (in contrast to mathematical objects) hard or impossible to define. I simply don't know what you mean with a 'deep thought', and I have the impression different people mean very different things with that, which (if they don't notice) leads to more confusion and annoyances (e.g. like the one you are causing).

If that's too abstract for you, let me give you a (not very 'deep') example. If I meet a stranger on the street and he tells me he just returned from a 'great vacation' I have no idea what he means with that. I know what I would consider a 'great' vacation, but I am reasonably sure that would be a horror for many other people. I have a sense of what I would consider a 'deep' thought, but that might be completely different from what you have in mind. This however, is a discussion that is completely off topic, and to avoid it, I haven't used the word to begin with.

I've definitely said and written silly things, and I make a lot of mistakes. However, you might not believe it, but I actually invest a minimum amount of care into what I write, and I usually try to avoid using words that have a fuzzy or unclear meaning and can be misunderstood. Occasionally, it would also help, if people read what I wrote, instead of having fun accusing me to be superficial.

Thanks,

B.

Moshe said...

I think the problem with "deep thought" and the reason people use it usually as a joke, is that a thought is too brief and insignificant to be deep. Using this term relies on the myth that progress is made by leaps and sudden eureka moments (aka deep thoughts) by the great heroes, rather than by many small steps (forward, backwards and sideways) by a whole community.

Bee said...

Hi Christophe:

But I wish there were comments and cross-references on arXiv, I wish I could say "I trust this person's judgment, so I want to see articles that she liked", I wish there was an easy way to find which articles introducing this or that concept folks found easy to read, and so on.

Thanks for your thoughts on the issue. You might find it interesting to hear that I have discussed that previously here, let me just copy what I wrote there

"I would find it enormously helpful if the arxiv would allow reviews on the papers, maybe similar to those at amazon. You might argue that a good physicist should be able to judge on the quality on a paper by himself. Though that is in principle true, it is absolutely inapplicable if you are new in a field and try to get into it. Some kind of quality index, or references to basic papers on the field will help newcomers to get to the central questions much faster - and with less wasted toner. In addition, the possibility of having reviews on the arxiv would make it unnecessary to have follow up papers titled 'A note on gr-qc/...' and 'A remark on a note on ...' etc."

and here

"Regarding the peer review, I do think that online reviews can considerably improve the situation. Right now we have a tremendous amount of publications available, and it would be good to have a qualified rating on these. E.g. I have suggested before that the arxiv allows reviews and comments on the papers. This would also be useful to clear up the arxiv from papers like 'A comment on the paper ....' followed by 'A reply to a comment on ... ' and 'A comment to a reply to a comment on...', which seems to happen more often lately. For the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, doing this via trackbacks to discussions on blogs is not a good idea."

for exactly the reason you mention, namely that it's become almost impossible to find good introductionary texts if one just searches for a keyword. See also the post on the Arxiv Poll in June, to which I submitted an extensive amount of comments that included these points (it took an awfully long time to fill out the survey). I have also discussed previously the general problem of too much unordered information, that imho poses an existing danger to progress (unordered information is essentially useless information). E.g. the search function of this blog is a disaster, not even I am able to find the posts I am looking for.

That is to say, thanks for letting me know your opinion on the issue, I think we basically agree. In the spirit of making the discussion of these topics somehow constructive, I would appreciate if the separate issues (like e.g. the arXiv) were discussed on the post about this points (even if it is an older one - I get all comments by email, so I won't miss them, and I frequently pick up interesting visitor's comments for newer posts, as you might have noticed).

I'm not entirely sure but I think you haven't been around this blog for too long, so I am just letting you now and give you some links to earlier posts (the most relevant ones you also find in the sidebar).

It is very interesting to hear about your experiences on the subject as a programmer. You write "good solution to frequent problems are known, but widely ignored," - what do you think is the reason for this?

Best,

B.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

If a company has 100 million lines of C++ code, they are going to think long and hard before porting it to the new super-duper language.

Bee said...

Hi Moshe:

I think the problem with "deep thought" and the reason people use it usually as a joke, is that a thought is too brief and insignificant to be deep.

Well, it might indeed be that some people use it as a joke, but this is exactly why I was saying words might have different meanings for different people. I am reasonably sure if Lee talks about "people who think deeply and carefully" it is not mean as a joke, and it is very sad if others make fun of it, because in their own peer group 'thinking deeply' means falling asleep during a seminar. It is sad because people who do so apparently were either not willing or not able to find out what the content of the statement was - which should have been pretty obvious if one reads the book.

Anyway, leaving aside the shallowness of deep words, what I have talked about instead above was thinking about foundational questions. And I hope it is pretty clear what I mean with that? Namely, investigating and questioning the foundations/axiomatic of a theory (do I have to clarify what I mean with theory?) rather than working within its framework. What falls into this range is e.g. basically everything about QG, physics beyond the SM, foundations of QM, etc etc. What does not fall into this range is e.g. simulation of heavy ion collisions or working out the details of phenomenology of a made proposal (like mentioned in the recent post), or introducing ever more fanciful models with more parameters to get a better chisquare fit.

In order to avoid misunderstanding (if possible), please note I am not saying the one way is is more important than the other (starting with the foundations via working out details and collecting pieces of knowledge that could make a breakthrough). I also think both ways are interconnected since it happens often that an investigation of the theory results in insights about its axiomatic or interpretation. E.g. it might turn out a theory is not consistent, and understanding how so can in turn be useful to improve it.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

If a company has 100 million lines of C++ code, they are going to think long and hard before porting it to the new super-duper language.

That I see, but I understood Christophe as saying the problem exists also in the academic world?

Christophe: "[...] yet everybody working on a different breed of language, myself included, is considered nuts, including in academia. Worse yet, good solution to frequent problems are known, but widely ignored [...]"

?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Christine:

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I just want to add something to your last sentence "or whether [an improvement in the system] will really be made, is unknown." Well, everything about the future is unknown, but science helps us to have more or less accurate expectations. I think an improvement will be made, will HAVE to be made sooner or later. Just that I'd rather see it sooner than later. The present situation seems to me like a giant waste of time, effort and talent, and it is unnecessarily so. That doesn't stop progress, but it hinders it. The worse the situation gets, the more people will realize something has to be done. I am hoping that it is possible to convince sufficiently many people some slight changes now would be better than ignoring the problems pointed out until they can no longer be ignored. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Hypnose:

As a highly cynical person, I happen to think that the present system is picking up the best people somehow no matter how darwinian it may look. I am interested in learning what you propose as an alternative to the present system.

As I have argued in the (repeatedly mentioned) previous post Science and Democracy III the Darwinian notion of who 'fits' best depends on the environment. That is to say the crucial question is what you mean with 'picking up the best people' -the 'best' in which regard? The system prefers those who fit 'best' to the currently applied criteria. Thus my point about asking whether these criteria are still actually those that would be most beneficial for progress in science. Best,

B.

ChickenBreeder said...

amaragraps said...
"but one way to inject a _little_ more stability to the postdoc lives are five-year proposal durations. NASA is discussing this now (finally)."

In principle, I support the idea of 5-yr proposals not just for postdoc, but for everyone. In practice, there are various problems.

The total amount of $$ requested by a proposal increases when one extends its duration from 3 to 5 or 10 yrs. Every proposal will be a million-dollar project. The review process will be much tighter because of that. The ratio of rejection will be higher -- NSF and NASA are not going to fund every million-dollar proposal from posdocs. Because of the large amount of money to be committed, NSF/NASA and the reviewers will want extra insurance, which means attachment of big-name professors to the proposal. The end result is the same. A few big guys get the control of the money.

As far as stability goes, increasing the acceptance rate of 3-yr proposals from 20% to 30% is perhaps more beneficial than allowing 5-yr proposals (but with likely a lower acceptance rate). But none of these will solve the fundamental problem in science.

The root of the problem in science community today is over-population due to the abnormal exponential growth in the 1950-1975 "golden age" of government-funded science. Anything that grows exponentially cannot sustain itself forever and must collapse at some point. That's what's happening now. Whether NSF allows 3-yr or 5-yr duration of a proposal has little to do with it. Things get worse every year because the Ph.D. system in America's research univesities has the pathetic structure that demands exponential growth; A hot shot professor gets all the money and must produce tons of students. If you don't, then you are not a hot shot professor and you get no money. (There is an analogy to the "original sin" of human beings -- we are the descendants of the greediest and the most cowardly and carry the genes of such -- but let's not digress.) The flaw of the system was hidden during the golden age when funds overflowed, but is in plain view now when funding no longer grows exponentially to keep up with the demand. That's why everybody suffers.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

In at least one sense, engineering is much more difficult than science (and I'd call creation of a new language engineering rather than science).

Few of us are destined to become creators. Most must be content to be modifiers of the past. To become creators, we must create twice: the first time to design our creation and the second time to build a bridge from that creation to our heritage. It is this second creation that is so hard to achieve and that prevents us from becoming creators in the first place. - (P.M. Heinckiens in Building Scalable Database Applications).

Scientists do not have the burden of the second creation.

Moshe said...

Bee, one can read Lee's book carefully and still disagree. I don't even buy into the separation of research into foundational and non foundational. This can be done only after the fact. Maldacena's duality and Wilson's RNG, to name just two examples, are as foundational as anything in physics. They were both derived by many small steps, involving meticulous calculations, certainly did not look foundational at the time. Nevertheless, that style of research does not make the results any less foundational in a real sense of the word.

Anyhow, at this point face to face conversation is the only way to stay productive, maybe one of these days. In the meantime have a nice weekend!

Bee said...

Hi Moshe:

one can read Lee's book carefully and still disagree

I agree :-) I just meant to say it's exhausting if people disagree without having read it carefully because it doesn't lead nowhere.

I don't even buy into the separation of research into foundational and non foundational.

Well, as I've said both influence each other.

Yeah, hope to see you again some time. You too have a nice weekend

-B.

cecil kirksey said...

Hi Bee:
I have read your blog for some time and really enjoy it because of the personal feedback about being a research physicist. This thread is very interesting and I will have furher comments later.

But first I would like to understand the role of a being tenured professor. If your are hired as a tenured professor do you sign a contract stipulating that you teach certain classes, publish x number of papers and/or obtain a certain amount of grant money to support grad students? Just curious about the conditions imposed on a tenured professor. Is the professor's salary dependent on grants or is it just used to supplement the salary?

Now prior to obtaining tenure how much of the above is viewed as being necessary? I hear publish or perish all the time. But why are grants stressed? Do the universities depend on grants to really fund the university?

Bee said...

Hi Cecil:

But first I would like to understand the role of a being tenured professor. If your are hired as a tenured professor do you sign a contract stipulating that you teach certain classes, publish x number of papers and/or obtain a certain amount of grant money to support grad students? Just curious about the conditions imposed on a tenured professor. Is the professor's salary dependent on grants or is it just used to supplement the salary?

Good question, and one that I am afraid I can't satisfactory answer (being not tenured myself, and not working on a University in the US). Maybe somebody else can add some details? These factors depend very much on the country as well as on the negotiations with the place. Teaching duties come with the contract, publishing x numbers of papers each year certainly not, neither is there an obligation to obtain grants. Also, the prof's own salary usually does not directly depend on the grants. However, a substantial amount of a department's financial resources (that includes travel money, hiring postdocs, etc) depends on the grants they are able to get. Publishing papers is not only an advantage for obtaining grants, but also good for the reputation of the institute itself.

Now the obvious thing to happen is that a department will try to hire somebody who has good chances of getting a grant, somebody who has connections to other institutions that might improve the status of the own place, somebody who is known to publish frequently, or the best thing to happen: somebody who is f-a-m-o-u-s. (Look, I am not saying there is no correlation of this to being a good scientist, for clarification please see here for the difference between primary goals and secondary criteria.) They will be very hesitant to hire a person who's working on something that is unlikely to cause much enthusiasm in the community on the short run, someone who is working on a field that doesn't fall into an already existing research area, or somebody who just prefers to stay out of networking and politics (and does that say something about that person's scientific skills?). So this is a positive feedback circle, you select people that fulfill the applied criteria who will (hopefully) make important contributions to their field, which means it becomes even more important (relative to other fields). And they will usually think it's a good system because it works for them, so the next round of hiring decisions will go exactly the same way.

This pressure is much more obvious if people have evaluations and their future employment depends on how the performance is perceived. That is why in Germany Professors are just permanent, simply can't be fired whatsoever and can basically do what they want. This has obvious drawbacks though, so there is presently effort of introducing a tenure system also in Germany.

Hope that helps.

Everybody else: please correct me if I'm wrong.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

ah, should add: positions can be bound to a certain field to begin with. that is to say, a department/institution might not actually have very much freedom with their decision. I don't know how this works in the US, but in Germany this is the dreaded 'Schwerpunktplan' - basically the complete opposite of diversity. If place X does A, then place X has good chances of getting grants for more people doing A, but doing B is not supported. There is of course a reason for that as well (excellence clusters!), just saying it can have side-effects that one should be aware of.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

You wrote:

I just want to add something to your last sentence "or whether [an improvement in the system] will really be made, is unknown." Well, everything about the future is unknown (...)

Yes, of course. Perhaps I should have added "unknown to me" in the sense that, contrary to what you wrote, namely, [that]

"I think an improvement will be made, will HAVE to be made sooner or later",

I do not presently share such concrete expectations...

I'm following the discussions here and find them very interesting. What will happen in 5, 10, 20 years from now? In any case, if you have any specific idea in mind, for instance, concerning the activities of your institute, I just want to let you know that I'm ready to help, despite my somewhat apparent skepticism/pessimism. Perhaps it's just my reflection of getting old... But you are young, full of energy and disposition to change, and these are the essential elements to start.

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine:

Thanks for your support. I will keep you updated. My optimism is based on my belief that the scientific community is receptive to rational argumentation considerably more than our society as a whole. If I subtract the background noise that comes from outside the community I have the impression (and this comment section confirms it) that a constructive dialogue is possible and can be fruitful. Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

Chickenbreeder: Million? You must have higher overhead than what I'm used to seeing, or extra equipment and or subcontract work. If I extrapolate a typical one researcher 3 year proposal to 5 years, then the total amount is between 300K and 400K. Maybe it sounds like a lot, but it is for five years of, say a 60K salary, and then including all overhead, equipment, meetings, institution benefits, etc.

Aaron bergman said...

Hi Bee,

(I'm finally responding to old posts....)

I'm not sure how much use yet another survey would be. For one, there are already a number of surveys out there, and for another, I'm not sure what information would really be added. I think most people know that being a postdoc is a rather stress-inducing experience.

As for solutions, I do find the idea of NSF-like theory postdocs potentially interesting. Maybe one could even make them five year postdocs to try to kill two birds with one stone. Allocation amongst subfields could be a trouble, but the mathematicians seem to manage.

I think the idea of divorcing teaching from research is a nonstarter. Obviously, there are exceptional situations such as the various institutes out there, but to do anything broadly would be a tremendous expenditure of money, and I can't see where that money would come from.

Bee said...

Hi Aaron:


there are already a number of surveys out there,

Yes, I know of two, both of which examined postdoc life, not specifically in sciences, and don't really address any of the points I would find important. Would you be so kind to point me towards the ones you have in mind?

I think the idea of divorcing teaching from research is a nonstarter.

I never said that and I most definitly don't think it's a good idea either. However, I'm presently not in the mood to go into this topic, so I'll leave it for some other time. Best,

B.

ChickenBreeder said...

amaragraps:

I might have exaggerated a bit. After reading your post I re-estimated and it's more like a half million for 5 yrs. But my point remains the same. As long as the total amount of available fund remains the same (and as long as it does not keep up with population growth in science), adjusting the minor detail of funding structure such as extending the duration of a proposal will not save anyone's life.

Just to draw a quick comparison to the "real world". An average couple produces just about 2-3 kids during their lifetime and Earth is already getting over-crowded. In academia, a successful professor in a research university produces a dozen PhD students during his or her career. For a hot shot professor, the number could reach 20 or 30. How can NSF or any funding agency possibly keep up with this growth?

Anonymous said...

I havent read the comments section much (its lengthy), so forgive me if I repeat something.

However i'm not really sure its that good of an idea to split that much funding to foundational questions (since its in competition with calculational pragmatic day to day researchers).

In my experience, when people (students or tenured faculty) start going down that road their productivity drops to zero (as expected), but worse they end up in a worse position to make an actual fundamental contribution, than the calculational plodders who are more up to date with potentially important insights.

Einstein's a great and tragic example of this. His quest for GR worked (and hes more or less one of the few unique examples of this), but then we basically lost the greatest mind of the twentieth century when he stubbornly kept plowing away at unified field theory long before it was even possible to make a realistic dent in it.

He of course couldn't know that at the time, but he should have learned the great lesson of futility, and given up after a few years when it became painfully obvious that it was leading no where physically plausible.
~Haelfix

Aaron bergman said...

I think I remember one from the APS and one from phds.org, maybe? They all blend together after a while.

dark-matter said...

Not sure my very late addition to this thread will mean anything but here it goes:

I am a retired prof of physics who have also spent 15 years in the private sector as researcher and product developer. I was also trained and experienced in running organizations as an executive. So I have a somewhat broader view. I am convinced that a solution to the postdoc career situation can be found by combining academic and industry.

First let me state my understanding of the current postdoc problem (since my own postdoc days were decades ago!) - postdoc positions are temporary and and very hard to become faculty due to variety of barriers. Teaching is also not so attractive to many postdocs.

I believe trying to change the faculty system, despite its many shortcomings, is not the best way to address the issue. A more effective approach is to expand the roles of postdoc. Only by expanding that role, funded by the private sector, can one build the 'business case' to create permanent positions for postdocs.

Proposal: Under the direction of an academic or research institution (such as PI), postdocs who wishes to pursue 5-10 years contractual *permanent* non-faculty positions will enter a career path where he/she will do academic research part time and contract out to industry in a senior technical role the remaining time. Today's networked technologies make working in such a split role even in diverse geography quite feasible.

Such postdocs will learn and experience much from industry, which might help prepare for a path into faculty if desired. But such candidates must be prepared to be flexible and willing to learn things utterly not related to, or even 'below' the level of his/her PhD field. In exchange, there's a long-term contract and associated fringe benefits on the table.

Industry will also find much to gain from such arrangements, proven by many similar programs at the undergraduate level. But here, industry gets the brain power and expertise of a postdoc for a lower cost that otherwise is simply not possible. Industry who signs up will fund the institution, who owns and manages the program. Note that it is possible for the postdoc to be engaged to more than one company in the private sector during the contractual period.

Postdocs who wish to pursue pure academic research can remains in current path. Why would institutions buy into this? A great source of revenue (they are in effect running a human resource agency), ability to hire many more postdocs and find the jewels in them, enhanced reputation.

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Bee wrote:

In the spirit of making the discussion of these topics somehow constructive, I would appreciate if the separate issues (like e.g. the arXiv) were discussed on the post about this points

Thanks for the links. I will try to read the articles and maybe post something there. Glad to hear we agree on some aspects of arXiv.

I am sorry you felt that my comments did not belong here. This was not intentional on my part. I thought they were relevant to identifying what the trouble with physics is, and I was not aware that you had dealt with them earlier. Even so, I still believe that the lack of appropriate "thought navigation" tools is relevant to the main problem being discussed here (much like "the job market stinks" and many other explanations).

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Bee wrote It is very interesting to hear about your experiences on the subject as a programmer. You write "good solution to frequent problems are known, but widely ignored," - what do you think is the reason for this?

I can think of two distinct cases, depending on whether the solution is known to someone somewhere but not to a particular individual, or whether the solution is actually known to the individual but consciously ignored.

In the first case, it's a training, education, communication issue. In programming, not enough C++ programmers know about Lisp or Prolog, which have very different ways to attack the problems, and may have solved problems that are still difficult in C++, like memory management. In physics, scale relativity and its use of fractals is a good example of an interesting approach not known to the majority AFAICT. It's difficult to reconcile folks who speak different languages, and people who are fluent on both side or have credibility on both sides are exceedingly rare.

Aron summed up the second case pretty well: If a company has 100 million lines of C++ code, they are going to think long and hard before porting it to the new super-duper language. Similarly, a research team with 100 millions of hours spent on string theory will be going to think long and hard before switching to the new super-duper theory. Here, the existence of a solution is known, but there are many other factors at play. A good example in physics is that most advocates of dark matter know that there are things like MOND, but they rarely take a MOND-ish view on the problem to see what the other side would teach them.

amused said...

Having thought about it a bit more I'ld like to go back and give another answer to what Hypnose wrote, since I suspect his view is shared by many.

"I happen to think that the present system is picking up the best people somehow no matter how darwinian it may look."

It's worth bearing in mind that the system has evolved over time, and there is no reason to think that it has reached its optimal state at present. The system was quite different 200 years ago, and 100 years ago; was it picking up the best people at those times? If not, why assume that it is optimized for picking up the best folks now? Are we at a very special point in the evolution of the system? I doubt it. It is to be expected that the system will continue to evolve, and who knows, maybe these discussions will play some small part in this.

I suspect that many people out there think that the "best" people somehow always get recognized one way or another, even if they have to work in a patent office for a while. But that's a fallacy, and to illustrate it here's a story I heard about how Rutherford was almost lost to physics due to random fluctuations in the system.

Rutherford was from an average farming family in New Zealand and wouldn't normally have had the chance to go to uni in those days, except that he won a scholarship. However, after finishing undergrad his only chance to continue was to win a postgrad scholarship to the UK. There was only one of these available each year in NZ at the time and Rutherford's application didn't make it - he came 2nd in the competition. So he returned home and was set for a life of working on the family farm (which he quite liked, apparently). However, there was a rule at that time that the scholarship recipient had to be single...and turns out the guy who had won it was engaged to be married. He had to choose between between love and ambition, and chose the former... The story goes that the telegram about this development reached Rutherford while he was out working the farm, and on reading it he exclaimed "That's the last field I'll ever plow!" The rest is history.

Well, that was over 100 years ago and a lot has changed since then. But I suspect people in those days were just as confident that their system was picking up the best people as some people are today... And 100 years from now people might look back to our era and make a similar observation.
I'm not trying to claim there is some "easy fix" to improve the present system but just want to point out that people shouldn't be complacent about its state and assume that it is close enough to being optimal.

Bee said...

I suspect that many people out there think that the "best" people somehow always get recognized one way or another, even if they have to work in a patent office for a while. But that's a fallacy,

Indeed, it's a very nice example for a confirmation bias. The good people who didn't get recognized, well, they never got recognized, so how do you justify the word 'always'? That is to say instead of pointing out the system has in the past recognized all the people that are now mentioned in our textbooks, how many could there have been that were not recognized, not supported, and who eventually could not contribute to science. And, as you also said, science is part of our society and this context influences of course the research atmosphere. In other sectors, large efforts are made to adapt to the challenges our rapidly changing world poses - how ironic it's the scientific community lagging behind with recognizing and addressing these issues. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Aaron bergman said...
I think I remember one from the APS and one from phds.org, maybe? They all blend together after a while.


Okay, just to wrap up the status of this exchange. I point out that neither you nor anybody else has come up with any argument why the conclusion the scientific community is a) in trouble (Lee) or b) running into trouble (me) is wrong. I explain you why your argumentation is weak, if existent.

You reply by saying I interpreted almost everything in a way completely different than [you] intended and say "What I want to talk about is the things that can be done to make things better. I've thought about it a bit, and I have no great ideas. I want to know what you think." which I then happily interpret as your actual intention.

I apologize for the misunderstanding, and provide you with a concrete suggestion. Your reaction on this is to state you're not sure of how much use it would be (thereby however commenting only on one of several points). The reason you give is because somebody sometime might have done something like this. Upon my question for a reference you are so kind to add you think you "remember one from the APS and one from phds.org, maybe? They all blend together after a while."

Look, I am not the most organized with my references as well, so I grant you that you are just messy. But can't you at least see that this is no way to lead a constructive discussion? Gee, consider somebody discusses a physics question this way: "I think some years ago somebody said something about the topic, but sorry can't recall exactly who or what they said. They all blend together after a while."

I mean, if you are not interested in the issue from a scientific point of view, then why don't you just say so, and stop pretending to care for anything else than your hurt pride because somebody used the word 'group-think' (I've clarified my opinion on this here, I'm not going to repeat it.)

Best,

B.

amused said...

While I'm at it, here are some quotes from an article I came across by Kenneth Wilson discussing the history of his research, especially w.r.t. lattice gauge theory (hep-lat/0412043). His seems quite an interesting case to consider in the context of this discussion.

"The history of my role in the origins of the lattice gauge theory was a short one, confined to a single year. But one cannot understand how I came to play the role that I did until one understands my earlier history as a physicist over a far longer period of time: from 1958 to 1971. Remarkably, I wandered off the beaten track of physics for much of this very long period, yet at the end of it, I was able to produce results that would surely have taken considerably longer to be generated by someone else in my absence. It is also a very haphazard history; it has no organized plan to it, although in retrospect I can make it sound more logical than it actually was. The outcomes of this history could not have been anticipated in advance."

Hmmm, is it still permissible these days to wander off the beaten path for a very long period, following a haphazard trajectory whose outcomes can't be anticipated in advance? What would the funding agency think of that!?
(On the other hand, it could be argued that that's exactly what string theorists have been doing for the last 30 years.)

"By 1963, I concluded that the most interesting and useful mathematical problem for me to work on was the question of high-energy, large-momentum transfer behavior in quantum field theory, which linked up to issues of renormalizability and the renormalization group ideas of Gell-Mann and Low. With this decision, I became largely isolated from the mainstream of high-energy physics of the time, working instead largely in a world of my own."

Working in world of his own?...tsk tsk.

Yes, I know that for every genuine Wilson there are at least 100 wannabes, and no, I'm not suggesting the taxpayer should support them all. But maybe it's worth considering making opportunities available for people who want to go in more singular directions provided they first can "earn it" somehow by demonstrating their calibre on mainstream things.

Aaron Bergman said...

(trying the comment again)

You see, here I was thinking I was making a constructive suggestion for improving the situation (which you seem to have ignored.) Apparently, no. The fact that I think a survey wouldn't tell us anything we didn't already know and can't remember the surveys I've answered in the past seems to mean that I just have wounded pride about Lee's book.

OK, then.

Have fun.

Bee said...

You suggestion being? To mention you like what was said before: As for solutions, I do find the idea of NSF-like theory postdocs potentially interesting. Maybe one could even make them five year postdocs to try to kill two birds with one stone.

Don't misunderstand me, I totally like this suggestion, but exactly which problem do you think it addresses, does that solve all the mentioned problems, and how do you want to realize it?

Thomas Larsson said...

There is one obvious drawback with 10-year postdoc positions: being kicked out of academia at 38 is considerably worse than being kicked out at 32. Already a four-year postdoc, at least in something as useless as theoretical physics, is probably a negative merit for most non-academic jobs.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bee,

There is a fantastic book called "Disciplined Minds", by Jeff Schmidt on stress, pressure facing graduate students (and faculty), and the general conformity that it induces. I would highly recommend you have a look at it. Would love to hear your comments on it.

Nice post and discussion here.

Philip Meguire said...

In academic life, there is a hard unspoken law: we all have justify our jobs in one of three ways: student numbers, grant money, or fame. To go for fame is a gamble with a low probability of success.

Contemporary theoretical physics is too difficult to attract significant numbers of students. To justify one's university employment by teaching numbers, one has to develop at least one applied specialty. How many readers of this blog could teach, or would care to earn a living teaching, any of electronics, optics, nanotechnology, condensed matter, or observational astronomy? There's only so many students who will turn up for a course on quantum field theory. My suggestion is that physics departments should attract more BA students. This BA would offer a liberal science education consistent with a wide range of careers, but not an adequate preparation for grad school in physics. That would require, as now, a BSc.

That leaves grants. But the grant screening process tends to result in conservative and conformist outcomes. To me, the "sociological" parts of the books by Smolin and Woit very much point the finger of blame in that direction. Granting agencies only want to fund "normal science" (and more and more, science with likely spillovers for teachnology).

True, the grant grubbing is less intense in math, and almost nonexistent in philosophy. But the price one pays in those departments is having no one to talk to about one's work.

If you want to think and write without having to live in a cabin in the woods (a la Grothendieck), you have to be willing to teach something undergraduates sign up for. That's why I chose economics.

Bee said...

Contemporary theoretical physics is too difficult to attract significant numbers of students.

Incorrect. Contemporary theoretical physics has an overproduction of PhDs which is one of the main causes for all our problems.

"Difficult" btw is a personal judgement.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Philip & Bee;

Philip said: Contemporary theoretical physics is too difficult to attract significant numbers of students.

Bee replies: Contemporary theoretical physics has an overproduction of PhDs which is one of the main causes for all our problems.

I see this as an interesting dichotomy, where Philip as being an economist and Bee as a scientist both agree on being the problem resultant of supply and demand, yet from different perspectives. I would say each of you has missed the mark, for what I see as the problem is science for what it truly is and can bring to all of us is generally not well understood by the public at large.

Although I would otherwise not like to draw parallels between science and religion, I would contend for science, as like religion, if one increases the followers there will be no lack of opportunity for the teachers. Of course the sticking point is that for most religion only requires faith; while in science one is required to apply thoughtful reason tempered by reality. Perhaps the ultimate solution rests more with biology, rather than with either theoretical physics or economics. However, it’s hard to imagine that we would ever be so bold.

Best,

Phil