Sunday, July 13, 2008

We have only ourselves to judge on each other

Last week, I was talking to a string theorist. We were talking about black holes at the LHC, but I am admittedly presently somewhat tired of the topic. So, since I will be on the market again this fall, I asked how the job situation presently looks like for string theorists. Not good, he said. Having gotten used to the always optimistic US spirit, this came as a surprise to me. People are losing interest, he said, there hasn't been enough progress. He is now looking into loop quantum gravity & Co.

Gee, I thought. Peter is right. There is change knocking on the front door. Should we let it in?

I am watching these developments with interest, but also with some concern. As a continuation of my earlier post on the Marketplace of Ideas, I want to elaborate somewhat on what the differences are between scientific research and the market in economy.


The Economic System

With regard to our economy, the free market has proved to be an enormously
useful tool, as long as its freedom is guaranteed by appropriate institutions. It works so efficiently because the mechanism that optimizes distribution of goods and money is strikingly simple. It is the individual who chooses where to invest and whether an investment is worth the money or not, which then provides feedback to those producing a good or offering a service. One has in this case a large group of potential buyers that judge on offers by accepting them or not accepting them. This leads the goods to obtain some value, a price that develops out of the interplay of supply and demand.

Buyers don't always act rational and/or are not well informed, so there is some error to this process. People eg might not want to spend arbitrarily much time comparing offers, or they are influenced by fashion trends. Decision science is a fairly recent interdisciplinary field that investigates how people make decisions under which circumstances. Still, it remains the fact that the marketplace works quite well. (Though some of it quirks are less than pleasant - eg a large part of the sudden increase in oil price is due to speculation). However, one important factor influencing people's decisions are advertisements which can substantially skew situations (and are thus subject to regulations).

If we are selling products on the marketplace we have sellers, we have buyers, and as long as the system is set up properly this should lead to an optimal investment of time, money and resources - and eventually free capital for further progress. One could say that a product will tend towards some natural value that optimally balances supply and demand.

This procedure of operation for profit has been so efficient and globally lead to so much progress that it is of little surprise some countries preach it like a religion - an 'invisible hand' guiding us towards wealth and happiness. Ideally, the mechanism of the free market converts our individual 'micro-interests' in 'macro-interests' that are to the benefit of everybody. (A lot can be said about the circumstances under which this works or doesn't work, but this is not the aim of this post.)


The Academic System

Systems with individuals who pursue interests, and develop strategies that lead to specific dynamics and trends can be found in many situations. The blogosphere is an example. Here we have the bloggers who are trying to increase the number of visitors, comments, and in-links. One of the results are multiple echos of topics that attract interest. Strategies that are useful are being fast, being brief, and being provocative. I leave it to you to decide whether the outcome is desirable.

The academic system is also constituted of individuals who pursue their own interests, and the result should be that the single researcher's strategies ideally lead to progress. As in all other cases this requires however that the system is set up appropriately and the developing individual strategies indeed lead to a desired trend.

For this, one has to be aware of several crucial differences between the academic system and the marketplace of goods:


  • First, I dare to say that within academia the relevant factor that scientists aim for is not money but attention, primarily - though not entirely - attention of peers. Those who want to become rich wouldn't stay within academia to begin with. It is however the case today that financial support is closely linked to attention.


  • Second, the most important assumption behind there being something like a 'Marketplace of Ideas' is that an idea has a natural value that can be identified in some simple way. It is here where the analogy fails dramatically. If a company produces a candy bar people will like it or don't like it, you will find out very fast. In scientific research, the value of an idea (or a research program) is eventually whether it leads to progress. Progress might not necessarily be an application but simply growth of knowledge and understanding. Developing and judging on the value of an idea is a complicated and time-consuming process, and the judgement itself is in fact one of the main tasks of scientists. It can however take decades until a research program is fully developed and until it is possible to figure out whether an idea is of high value. In academia, people still discuss today things that have been written hundreds of years ago.

    The timescale it takes to figure out the value of an idea can depend very much on the field and also on the project. Theoretical physics specifically is a field that is very abstract and working out an idea takes at least 5-10 years. It can take decades for it to be tested.


  • Third, between proposing an idea and there being an external indicator as to its value, there is no way to judge on the promise of a research direction other than peer review. And this is the most important difference between our economy and scientific research: Judging on the value of a research program requires an education in the field and expert's knowledge. Scientists are thus buyers and sellers likewise. They provide supply and cause demand. Until an idea is developed sufficiently and can be experimentally tested, we have only ourselves to judge on each other.



The Fall of the Ivory Tower

Especially because of the third point above, the academic system is extremely fragile and prone to be substantially distorted when under external pressure that influences researchers interests. It is for this reason that traditionally the ivory tower was meant to protect scientists. The ivory tower is now a word used quite cynically to describe the detached academic who doesn't know what people do in real life. But the intention of this detachment was to make scientists independent of financial, political, and social influence. This independence is crucial, and it is not easy to obtain. Rational and objective judgement is essential to science and is simple neither on the personal nor on the community level. The only way that researchers micro-interests can be as objective and well-informed as possible, and that these interests can lead to a desired outcome is to ensure researchers are able to follow their judgement on ideas, unaffected by what fashion, funding and the media says.

This however is presently not the case. There are most prominently three important factors that influence researchers

  • Financial pressure: Nothing works without money and typically researchers are funded to work on certain projects, either through grants or because they are hired into specific groups. Projects are funded if they are considered interesting, often based on previous success. Tenure depends on grants obtained. The possibility to hire people depends on grants. The reputation of the place depends on the people and thus on the grants. Now we have a situation where people go where money goes, and money goes where people go, and interest goes where money and people goes - attracting more money and people. A perfect setting to produce bubbles of nothing, based on people telling each other and funding agencies how great their research program is (also called: positive feedback). Money is an extraordinarily powerful tool to direct interests and one has to be extremely careful with using it.


  • Peer pressure: Scientists strive for attention and appreciation of peers, which opens the doors to social problems that one has to be aware of and that potentially need to be counteracted by providing incentives, or ensuring appropriate management. Especially in cases when sub-fields specialize there is the trend to misjudge shortcomings of the own research fields, and to neglect criticism by out-group members (this is a well documented phenomenon in sociology). Also, scientists might hesitate to work on topics that potentially could damage their reputation, might prefer topics their peers consider interesting thereby creating fashion trends, and there is the risk that a lot of time is invested in improving social connections which goes on the expenses of time invested in research itself.


  • Public attention: Scientists are part of the society they live in and are influenced by what is discussed in the public. It is also not surprising that researchers like to work on topics that cause attention and are appreciated by the public, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, this delegates quite some influence to the mass media and journalists. In a recent post I mentioned survey results according to which 46% of all scientists consider media contacts to be beneficial to their career. It is a small step from this for researchers to decide working on topics that are of interest for the media is beneficial for their career.
The above mentioned points lead scientists to develop strategies that improve the possibility of surviving within the academic system. The results of such strategies are especially pronounced if competitive pressure is high and the selection works very fast, which in turn creates a system populated by scientists that did well under the present circumstances and thus see no reason to change it. In areas where paying attention to such matters simply is not necessary because sufficient positions exists, these influences might be small or negligible.

Unfortunately, especially theoretical physics presently suffers from a large competitive pressure that leads people to pay attention to these factors. I am very afraid this significantly affects our ability to judge on each other because we are investing too much time in worrying for our career, and because following our own interests might be in conflict with what is strategically a wise decision. Time pressure and lacking future options produce a tendency to dismiss or just ignore new approaches. This is not a problem that originates in funding agencies who in my impression seem to be well aware of the need of 'transformative research' - it is a problem that originates among the researchers who are afraid of wasting time or money in approaches that will not produce presentable outcome for several years. The 5-10 years in which a research program needs unsolicited support to be fully developed is often not available.


Some suggestions

Some suggestions follow directly from the above:

  • Don't tie researchers to topics, but let them chose freely. Scientists should be hired and promoted based only on their ability and creativity, period. No other factors should play any role, and then let them do what they want. This holds true also for younger researchers. Cooperation with senior researchers happens naturally because it is beneficial for both sides, but should not be enforced.


  • Support researchers for an appropriate time period. In research the weight shifts strongly towards short term positions. From 1973 to 2005 the share of postdoc positions in academic research in the USA grew from 13% to 27% (numbers: NSF). People who are on short term contracts and under pressure to produce outcome (papers/patents) will hesitate to start projects that do not fit within that timeframe. This totally stalls any progress on topics that take longer to be worked out. Have some faith. If a researcher has done well, just fund him and let him do what he wants. In some fields of science (like theoretical physics), writing a proposal that plans ahead several years and then needing to stick to it is in many cases a procedure that is nonsensical and constrains scientists freedom.


  • Don't fall for shortcuts. Under time pressure, people tend to look for easy criteria to judge on other people or their projects. Such might be the citation index, the number of papers, prominent coauthors or grants obtained. In all instances scientists should judge on other's work by themselves. This requires that scientists have enough time for this judgement. Time is essential, but too short in today's research atmosphere. For a thought on how to cut back on researcher's duties, see previous post on Research and Teaching.


  • Counteract specialization: In the present system it is almost impossible for a researcher to change fields without risking severe drawbacks for his/her career. One of the reason is that researchers are hired into specific tasks, and for these nobody would be hired who hasn't previously worked on the field. Another problem is that grants typically require having former publications in a field to document expertise. It has been realized already decades ago that progress very often comes from interdisciplinary exchange. It is quite ironic that lots of funding goes into such new inter-disciplines while the possibility for researchers to just change between fields (or even sub-fields!) is hindered. Solution again: Have faith in people who have proved to do good research and just let them follow their interest.


  • Reward internal communication and criticism: Science lives from criticism and dialogue. Unfortunately, presently there are about no incentives for researchers to invest time into obtaining and communicating an overview on their or other's research fields. It is basically a waste of time since the thing to do to obtain a position is to make oneselves an expert in some niche where one is the only person. Give credits to people and/or institutions who fulfil this task and create an atmosphere in which the relevance of criticism is acknowledged and its importance appreciated.


  • Don't reward advertisement: Advertisement of the own product, in this case an idea or research program, is a tactic widely used to sell goods. The aim is simply to influence buyers. Such a procedure is completely inappropriate for scientific ideas that have to be critically assessed, in papers as well as in proposals. Nobody should be punished for openly presenting and discussing drawbacks of the own research program, eg because he or she might appear not enthusiastic or optimistic enough. Neither talks nor papers should overhype promises or forget to mention problems, because these are 'well known'. The latter also causes a significant problem when it comes to communication with science journalists.




No Panaceas

I recently had an interesting exchange with Garrett Lisi, who said:
    "It's just that the [academic] system seems locked in a poor state right now, so it seems easy to think of steps to make it better."

I am afraid that the more people realize the present system doesn't work well, the more likely they will think it's easy to improve it and fall for panaceas - cheap solutions offering miracle cures. However, putting emphasis on other easy criteria than the previously used ones is not going to solve the problem, it just moves the problem elsewhere. There are no panaceas.

Consider we'd put an emphasis on the 'independent' researcher who works on an 'alternative' approach, who has plenty of single-authored papers and doesn't like mainstream topics. Consider we'd set up the system to preferably reward this type of person. What would we create then if we leave the selective pressure behind the system? People who strive to fulfill these new criteria. To me it seems pretty obvious that this only cures the symptoms, not the disease: One can also have too many 'independent' people, too much emphasis on 'alternative', and cooperation is as far as I am concerned a beneficial trait. The same is the case for over-emphasizing predictions or phenomenology. Just look at the arxiv and see what the outcome is. Money goes into phenomenology. People go where money goes. More money goes where people go. Interest goes where people and money goes. In two decades from now, somebody will come and say: Hey, there is trouble in physics. They are working on all of these cheap little pheno-models, how is ever something supposed to come out of this?

Therefore, the suggestions I had above are aimed at ensuring the system can self-optimize its outcome, by lowering disturbing influence that deviates researcher's work from their actual interest.

On the long run, the only way I see to ensure progress is to scientifically investigate the situation and incorporate asap offered solutions.


Bottomline

If change knocks on the front door, ask what it wants.


Post-Scriptum

Re-reading what I wrote, I was just reminded of a paragraph from Lee's 1st book
“All there is of Nature is what is around us. All there is of Being is relations among real, sensible things. All we have of natural law is a world that has made itself. All we may expect of human law is what we can negotiate among ourselves, and what we take as our responsibility. All we may gain of knowledge must be drawn from what we can see with our own eyes and what others tell us they have seen with their eyes. All we may expect of justice is compassion. All we may look up to as judges are each other. All that is possible of utopia is what we make with our own hands. Pray let it be enough.”

~Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos (Epilogue)



Meta

My FQXi proposal to investigate some of the aspects I discussed here was declined, main reason that it seems to "overlap with studies of the sociology of science, which is a well-developed field, but one in which the principal investigator appears to have no direct professional experience or training". That is entirely correct. I am just a physicist who has had too much time thinking how the academic system sucks, wondering why nobody in it seems to listen to what the sociologists say, and why said sociologists don't come up with practical advices (interdisciplinary research, anybody?). To those of you waiting, this also means there will be no financial support for grad students to participate in our upcoming conference. I am genuinely sorry about this.


This post is part IV of our series on Science and Democracy. See also: Part I, Part II, Part III.


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65 comments:

Christine said...

My FQXi proposal to investigate some of the aspects I discussed here was declined

Hi Bee,

I am sorry to hear about this.

Best wishes,
Christine

Christine said...

Have faith in people who have proved to do good research and just let them follow their interest

This is important. Due to various pressures, I have been forced to change fields in the past years. Although the reasons were not to follow my own interests, but on the contrary, to be able to find a job, I have gone through research in astrophysics, computing and now condensed matter physics, having publications in all these fields. (My first publication in condensed matter has just been accepted by Phys Rev B...). So I think it is important to realize that situations like this -- changing fields and yet being able to do research and publish -- is something that depends on the effort of the researcher and it is entirely possible to be accomplished. The system, however, tends to see the changing of fields as something negative. I do not see as problematic at all since any serious researcher who have proven to do good research before is able to work with competence on any related fields given enough time and energy. Also, interdisciplinary experience should be seen positively.

Christine said...

One more small comment. I think the "trouble with physics" issue should be rephrased as the "trouble with fundamental, high energy theoretical physics" issue. Other areas of physics appear to be doing fine, although under a system that, for the reasons that you point out and that we have already discussed before, is not adequate or optimum. I believe these other areas (condensed matter is a perfect example) will be doing fine, despite of the system, for a long time, before the "trouble" appears, if appears at all.

So the bottom line is that the system is particularly terrible to creative, independent, young people trying new ideas -- a profile that would be specially beneficial to fundamental, theoretical high energy physics, but which the system tends to eliminate.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Well, the 'trouble with physics' wasn't my title. I agree that the trouble isn't distributed equally over all of physics, since the situation is different from field to field. There are certain factors under which the shortcomings of the present system are especially severe, that is

a) a high level of abstraction that drives specialization
b) a potentially long time during which peer review is the only judgement available
c) high selective pressure
d) a tendency to jump on fashionable topics

Fundamental, high-energy physics unfortunately seems to combine all these factors (why d) isn't clear to me but just seems to be the case). The problem however is potentially present also in other areas, just that it might not show up (yet) so prominently. I was recently reading an essay from somebody working in biology who mentioned essentially exactly the same problems I have discussed here.

I agree with what you said above. With a solid education a researcher should be able to change fields, work him/herself into the new topic and continue to do good research. Requiring prior work in a field totally blocks this option. Worse than that, it also opens the door to over-specializing basic education. But it takes some time to do so, and it is a time of low productivity, so this isn't rewarded in the present system.

And congrats on the paper!! :-)

Best,

B.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

Yes, I agree with you, and you have summarized the main idea very well.

Since you are analysing the situation so well (being inside the problem) and for some time now, including the establishment of your institute, I really hope it is the beginning of a change for the better. I hope to see it happen.

Thanks,
Christine

William said...

Bee, do you find the problems described to be fairly the same in German, American and Canadian academic systems?

Do you think insights for changes which might improve the US/CA/EU academic research systems could be gained by considering the dynamics of Russian, Chinese, Indian or other such academic research systems?

nige said...

My FQXi proposal to investigate some of the aspects I discussed here was declined, main reason that it seems to "overlap with studies of the sociology of science, which is a well-developed field, but one in which the principle investigator appears to have no direct professional experience or training".

The person who wrote that rejection evidently is confused between "principle" and "principal". A principle is an idea or method, whereas a principal is a leader. Therefore, they meant to write "principal investigator". Whoever rejected your research proposal seems a little confused.

I noticed from her blog that Marni Sheppeard in New Zealand, who has a PhD in maths, submitted a FQXi proposal for research into quantum gravity using category theory, and has also received a rejection.

Because this was an alternative idea to mainstream string and LQG, she had problems getting any research grant and has been working in a restaurant to make ends meet she getting her PhD from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand last year! See http://kea-monad.blogspot.com/2008/07/fqxi-proposal.html

Given the circumstances of these rejections from FQXi, while their aim stated at http://www.fqxi.org/ is to help fund research that is

"unlikely to be supported by conventional funding sources",

it will be interesting to see what they do support this time. They have a list of previous research awardees on their site, http://www.fqxi.org/large-grants/awardees and the first few on the list (the largest grants) are all pretty mainstream things, not especially innovative. E.g., the top grant went to someone extrapolating the future history of the universe again. Another went to someone interested in the relationship of entanglement and Bohm's hidden variables. This has all been investigated before, it's not radically new.

I'm not skeptical enough to believe that now string theory has met a seeming dead end with the landscape problem, string theory may now be qualified since it is increasingly "unlikely to be supported by conventional funding sources". But the panel and membership are as mainstream as you can get, so it's definitely not as radical as it claims to be.

It's a group of top physicists deciding who to give grants to. There's nothing new about this, and it's unethical to claim that it is funding useful ideas that can't get funding elsewhere. That just wastes the time of those submitting proposals for the kind of research which they claim to be funding (which sounds exciting).

If re-doing the extrapolation of the universe into the future using existing laws is unable to get funding from other places, it's not because it's too radical to get such funding, it's because it's not really innovative.

A committee of top mainstream physicists will find it hard going to agree to adequately fund really risky proposals from innovative physicists who can't get funding elsewhere. They will have to avoid arguments by sticking to safe choices that aren't too risky, i.e. mainstream stuff that nobody else wants to fund because it's already been done before in almost the same way. So at the end of the day, committees of experts are not really supporting innovation.

cecil kirksey said...

Hi Bee:

I have really enjoyed your blog. I wish you the best of luck this fall in securing a new position. I have a couple of comments however. Regarding a researcher doing what he/she wants to do and getting paid doing it. The old saying goes: "Boy I have the best of both worlds...I am doing exactly what I want to do and am getting paid nicely to do it!" is appropriate.

As a theoritical physicist I would think that you could work on any thing that you wanted. But getting paid nicely for doing it maybe another thing. I would think that researchers like you could take a job as a teacher and do research on the side. Then if the research gains merit you should be rewarded.

As a retired engineer I used to apply for internal and external R&D funds to do things that I personally wanted to do and thought would benefit the organization but the funders thought that their funds could be put to better use.

Researchers in private industry get hired for their potential and rewarded for results. I doubt seriously that any new hire industrial researher would be allowed to work on anything that he/she wanted to.

But again I wish you the best of luck and I hope you continue blogging.

Andrew Thomas said...

Nige said: "Given the circumstances of these rejections from FQXi, while their aim stated is to help fund research that is unlikely to be supported by conventional funding sources, it will be interesting to see what they do support this time. They have a list of previous research awardees on their site and the first few on the list (the largest grants) are all pretty mainstream things, not especially innovative."

I tried to get a relatively small amount out of FQXi just to fund the books budget for my website, but I didn't get it (though they weren't unsympathetic). I'm hoping to get a few quid out of them for a blog entry I have submitted (they said they might help). I do think they should be more daring - they don't seem to be fulfilling their remit in that respect.

I see John Templeton has just died (the sole financial contributor). I suspect money is tight. They definitely should have been more daring. I only wanted 500 pounds.

Bee said...

Hi Cecil,

Thanks for the kind words. However, I think that your impression of being a theoretical physicist in academia is overly romantic. I am presently extraordinarily lucky to indeed have a job where I can do what I want. The only problem I have is one of time-constraint, in that I have to show some outcome when I am looking for a new job (so I am dutifully producing papers every once in a while).

This however isn't the typical situation. Typically, a postdoc is hired into a group, and is working with a supervisor on a specific topic. If you want to pursue your own interests, you will have to work overtime, drop your aspirations, or annoy your supervisor which means you'll spoil your letters and career options. "As a theoritical physicist I would think that you could work on any thing that you wanted." - is what it should be, but this is not reality and exactly the reason why many of my friends have left the academic world. They have realized at some point that chances they will be able to work on what they wanted to, what was the reason for them to enter the field, are minuscule. The people who stay are those who are willing to work on what is offered on the market. This isn't the way to make progress.

I would think that researchers like you could take a job as a teacher and do research on the side. Then if the research gains merit you should be rewarded.

If I had wanted to become a teacher, I had become a teacher. I don't do things half-heartedly. If I had to take a job other than research, that's what I would do. I also have a couple of friends who might have thought the same thing, starting a job outside academia and doing 'research on the side'. Experience tells you can forget that. Once you're out, you're out. I know nobody who left and came back. Though rumors say it is possible. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Andrew,

My application wasn't much money either, it was $30,000 - half of which was travel support for the conference. I mentioned this to a friend recently who said I should have applied for 3 Mio then they might have considered it important enough to be funded ;-)

Yes, I heard that Templeton senior died, but I think the business has been run by his son for a while anyhow. So I can't imagine it will make much of a difference? Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Nige,

Sorry, the typo was mine. The report just said 'PI', I've fixed that.

Hi William,

As far as I can tell, USA and Canada is fairly similar as far as the academic system is concerned. Germany is somewhat different. One of the reasons for this post is that the Germans are presently apparently 'improving' their system by copying from North America. They consequently copy also what I consider mistakes, like making grants obtained (eingebrachte Drittmittelgelder) a requirement for tenure. One of the big differences is that Germany is much more conservative and fashion trends are less pronounced. The problem there is more a very high inertia. It is very difficult to get something new started, the Americans are far more openminded and flexible (one of the reasons I believe for young people to leave Germany). In addition to this the Germans apparently like the idea of 'clustering' people who work on the same stuff. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

Einstein said:

"Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom"

but nevertheless someone has to write your paycheck and he needs a good reason to do that.

The problem i think lies in the fact that the performance of a theoretical physicist cannot be measured easily. If you exclude teaching, you don't produce something that is directly connected to the economical system (i.e. to the market), your work does not require society's acceptance and additionally does not produce any immediate profit or palpable results. Despite that though, you are still part of the system and this system does not give people a break so easily. Regardless the nature of your work you still have to be competitive and your performance must be measured with some "objective criteria". You don't sell anything and your work in most of the cases cannot be experimentally confirmed, so with what criteria someone might judge your work? The acceptance of your ideas by the scientific community, the number of papers or the number of citations is not everything i guess but it is the easy way out.

For us engineers in the private sector for example, things are much more simple. If you produce a successful competitive product and your company makes a good profit out of it, everything is fine. If not, no matter how good and innovative your work is or how hard you've been working, well you will probably be heading straight to the unemployment office. The free market is the ultimate trier. Good old Capitalism in its pure form.

On the other hand the good thing about theoretical physics is that funding is not mandatory to do research. Einstein was a pattern clerk and he was doing physics in his spare time.

Regards

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

The problem i think lies in the fact that the performance of a theoretical physicist cannot be measured easily. If you exclude teaching, you don't produce something that is directly connected to the economical system (i.e. to the market), your work does not require society's acceptance and additionally does not produce any immediate profit or palpable results. Despite that though, you are still part of the system and this system does not give people a break so easily.

Yes, this is exactly what I meant to say. There is no direct way to measure a scientist's performance in profit in any reasonable way. So people employ various kinds of maps that are all inadequate. Scientific research can't be run like a business, the attempt is completely misguided. That's why I say, we have only ourselves to judge on each other. Every other attempt to 'direct' research is a deviation from what is the only tool to provide feedback that can guide us towards progress. Operation for profit isn't a procedure that will work - nevertheless it is becoming increasingly more important which I regard a huge mistake. Best,

B.

Garrett said...

Hi Sabine, excellent post.

I imagine the economics of theoretical physics research must be completely baffling to economists. An economist looking at the existing system would see that public and private grant agencies have a "demand" for theoretical physics, and pay physicists to supply this product. But that is completely wrong!

It is actually idealism that drives the system. True, there are practical implications from research, but that's not the point. In Feynman's words, "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." The role of grant agencies is not that of consumers, but philanthropists who like the sex so much that they're willing to financially encourage it. And physics researchers, as you've pointed out, don't do it for the money, but for the love of it.

If anything, it is very unusual that "theoretical physicist" exists at all as a career. It speaks well of our society that science is publicly and privately funded to the degree that some physicists can actually make a decent living at it. But making this living is very hard; much harder than it would be for the same brilliant people to make money in the private sector. And the brutal competition makes life very difficult for everyone.

The time and attention of intelligent people is an extremely valuable commodity--perhaps the most valuable. If a competent theoretical researcher, internally motivated to work on ideas, wishes to spend time pursuing this work... this commodity should not be wasted just because they don't wish to jump through bureaucratic and political hoops to get an academic position and large grants. So how can the system better accommodate competent and dedicated idealists who wish to spend their valuable time working on science?

One way, I think, would be to have smaller but more freely available support. I don't speak for FQXi, but they do seem to have been founded with this spirit; although these recent anecdotal reports indicate they also might be tending towards larger but more conservative grants. I do know of another grant giving organization, SubMeta, which gives smaller grants for unusual projects--you might want to check them out. (I'd be quite happy to introduce you and recommend your Sci21 conference for funding.)

Another idea I've been playing with is the creation of a Science Hostel. This would basically be a more casual kind of research institute, where theorists could live and work for short or long amounts of time, in a beautiful location, while having their modest living costs covered. The time that they're dedicating to science, after all, is very valuable--so this "gift" of their time should be accommodated and legitimized. I imagine it would be kind of like a monastery for brilliant people, only with sex.

Uncle Al said...

Reasearch is a luxury arising from uncertaintly and surplus. Immortality has no impetus to improve. Nobody votes for an empty stomach.

Government minimizes surplus by grinding up the productive to feed the Officially Sad, less user fees. Professional management minimizes risk, thereby assassinating the future. First World civilization died when Bush the Lesser continued reading a goat book to preschoolers on 11 September 2001.

If you wish to survive you must beat the drum not pull at the oars. The future bears an unacceptable DCF/ROI and an eternal need for armed response in counterpoint.

Doug said...

Hi Bee and Stefan,

Many physicists and mathematicians are going into finance and economics.

Kirill Ilinsky has about 9 of 26 such papers published on the ArXiv in the statistical mechanics subsection of condensed matter physics, the rest in HEP.

Jiri Hoogland has about 7 of 18 such papers in condensed matter physics, the rest in HEP.

Such papers are difficult to find on the ArXiv since only Computer Science has a section devoted to finance.

Riemannzeta said...

Bee,

There's enough here that it's going to take me a long time to digest.

But can I make a minor correction to your discussion of the economic system? You've characterized it correctly, but you're leaving out something, which isn't a big deal because so has everybody doing economics up to now.

That thing is periodicity. When we talk about the behavior of large groups, it is surprisingly accurate to describe that behavior as "rational," i.e., tending to maximize each individual's personal self-interests. What economists have ignored up to now is that self-interest is not a time-invariant function. We could try to model each individuals self-interest in time and then aggregate. That's what "behavioral economists" are doing. But I think the easier thing is to assume strict rationality and then look at how the aggregate functions of supply and demand vary in time. And it turns out that most activities associated with production and consumption, when aggregated over large groups and long time periods, are approximately poissonian. These poisson distributions in turn, when integrated into cumulative distribution functions, are supply and demand curves.

I'll have to think about the rest of your post slowly.

But the periodicity hypothesis is important because nobody within our economy is measuring periodicity right now, and the liquidity crises that keep recurring are at root caused by this blindness to periodicity.

On my view, this is where physicists are needed most -- not in studying price dynamics, which are too rich a phenomenon. But in introducing dynamic analysis in at the level of human activities.

Bee said...

Hi Garrett,

It is actually idealism that drives the system.

Well, I would say it should be idealism that drives the system. I am not sure that is still the case. How else can it be that 'well-meaning' colleagues tell me I'm too idealistic and will ruin my career. How can it be that people realize it's not how it's supposed to be, but then shrug shoulders and say 'That's just the system' and keep on playing the game? It indicates to me exactly the mentioned mismatch between macro-interests (idealism) and micro-interests (me-ism). It's a mismatch that shouldn't be there, but that's not going to vanish by itself. Certainly not if people keep on shrugging shoulders.

The role of grant agencies is not that of consumers, but philanthropists who like the sex so much that they're willing to financially encourage it. And physics researchers, as you've pointed out, don't do it for the money, but for the love of it.

I think that describes it fairly well. Given the economic system we live in it is not surprising people try to optimize investments in science in a capitalist spirit but it quite obviously can't work when it comes to basic research where the value one is striving for is simply understanding. Such monetary means of directing investment of time and effort always imply that one can map whatever factor leads to progress onto money, which is a one-dimensional measure. Factors that drive basic research just can't be mapped to money and profit, that's the problem. For one because they are not one-dimensional, but also because they are just independent variables from money to begin with. Try to find a monetary measure for understanding or the appreciation of your colleagues. Whenever one tries to direct science with money it comes down to measuring these factors, no matter how you turn it, and all and everything will depend on that measure. That, in essence, is what we are discussing here. The inappropriateness of applied measures for actual or expected success in basic research.

There's people who like to talk about risk management in science, but even there the idea is that an idea will 'pay off' later, so one should invests smartly in start-up companies. This always sounds to me like the only goal of research is eventually producing some application. Something that will 'pay off'. But in basic research understanding itself is the value that is produced, and it is measured in first line by the community itself. I therefore think all of this hedgefond thinking is totally inappropriate. Looking forward to that panel discussion ;-)

Btw, regarding the hostel, it just crossed my mind, maybe you'd want to write a guest post on it? Would be interesting to discuss the idea I'd think. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

In as the nature of your topic deals with a world I have never been a part of there is little that I actually can say about it that could be considered drawn from experience. The only thing I could say is that I believe what Garrett had to offer and that for certain that research of the nature he and yourself undertake is almost never done where making money is the primary motivation. So besides what’s required in terms of natural and obtained ability this desire is resultant of a inate curiosity and of wanting to reveal nature’s secrets as to understand the world and as such this serves to be the primary driving force. I also liked his analogy with sex, yet as he alluded to in the end it is more like religion only in this case the religion of verifiable knowledge.

The only thing different with this religion is that it has many priests yet few congregations or followers. This is partly because the degree of difficulty involved for many in understanding much of it, yet also because many of the let's call them churches of science never attempt to garner a following yet simply benefactors. The benefactors in turn often don’t realize just how much that their daily lives are all affected, mostly in the positive, by this religion that they are not even followers.

So therefore, I believe the basic change that has to be realized is that the churches of science must come to understand they need more followers and not just simply benefactors. As one knows that with more followers comes more resource and the understanding for the need of it. I’m convinced that only with this will the researchers of the future have the freedoms of time/direction and the quantity of resource you acknowledge is so desperately required in these and coming times. Therefore, outreach efforts like PI’s and blogs like your own must increase in numbers to carry the word that would garner these much needed followers.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Riemannzeta,

Yeah... the section about the economic system was originally at least three times as long. Self-interest is not only not time-invariant it is also not independent of location - the values of the society one lives in or grew up in matter a lot. Traveling back and forth between Germany and the USA eg I find it striking how different the attitudes are towards social contracts contra individualism. And that is in neither case I dare to say an opinion actually based on facts of the kind this works better than that. It's just a matter of how much people believe they are responsible for their own misery, and if their life sucks its their own fault. This seems to be closely tied to the idea of 'You can do it if you only try hard enough'. However, people's attitudes to their system matters a big deal so I don't think one can decide on whether a solution is good or bad while leaving aside the current values a society holds - and these might greatly differ from one nation to the next. So again I have to conclude, there are no panaceas... Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

to cecil kirksey

Being a teacher isn't exactly a rosy career choice either, whether it is teaching physics at the high school or community college level. The hardest part of the job was having to deal with unmotivated students and persistent bad behavior. Most of the students didn't really want to be there in the first place, but have to take physics for other reasons unrelated to intellectual curiosity.

Riemannzeta said...

Bee,

You say...

I don't think one can decide on whether a solution is good or bad while leaving aside the current values a society holds

...nonetheless I will say I am 100% each and all of your suggestions. To the extent that they don't reflect the current values of society, we've changed them a little bit.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

I was wondering. Perhaps this is something that you have already addressed in your blog -- or maybe this is something that you wouldn't like to comment publically (if that is the case, do ignore my question).

It seems to me that you have a deep interest and knowledge of many sub-areas of physics, like astrophysics and cosmology, condensed matter and so on. As fas as I can infer from my distant position, it appears that these fields have more opportunitites than high energy theoretical physics, so I wonder whether you have considered changing to some of these fields. Yes, there is the problem that your CV does not show specialization in these areas, but would it be really *that* hard to find a position considering that you are an experienced researcher with the knowledge of many techniques that are common to these fields? Have you considered trying this?

Maybe it would be *less* difficult to find a position as a researcher in some of these fields at this point of your career and gradually you would be able to dedicate some of your time to your own interests.

The sad truth that you know so well is that it is very difficult to be paid to do *exactly* what you want to do. This is more difficult than changing fields, I would guess, that's my point. This is just a pragmatic view.

You can follow your interests at a later point of your career once you have established yourself in some permanent position. This is actually Baez's advice. And this is something that I'm now trying to do, although it is impossible to use 100% of my time for my personal "luxury". I have adminstrative duties and other research responsibilities completely outside my specific interests. I would say I have some 30% of my time available for my interests. But I think it is better than what would result if I had to teach (I do advice a PhD student, but it does not take much of my time).

I don't know how things are outside my country, but being at a military institute has some drawbacks and advantages (permanent positiion is obviously the main one); for the past few years I have been slowly able to create a thick skin for the drawbacks and move on. That's life, it's not perfect and you have to adjust one way or another.

I'm sure you have thought about this before, but I felt it would be nice to bring up the idea for discussion.

Best,
Christine

Riemannzeta said...

I'm with christine, switch to finance -- in fact, any physicist who wants a break from what they're doing intellectually should take a look at finance and accounting.

The reason you should look is BECAUSE it's so boring and nobody else is looking. The field is a disaster from a theoretical point of view.

amaragraps said...

Cecil: I would think that researchers like you could take a job as a teacher and do research on the side. Then if the research gains merit you should be rewarded.

Having any fulltime job (and teaching is already more than fulltime...) and then 'doing research on the side' means that your work weeks are 70+ hours/week. When does one have time to build the rest of one's life (or to sleep?). Please ask people who have done that (you can talk to me privately), and they'll be happy (or sad) to describe it to you.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Bee,

Your comments are interesting as always, but that old reality, the economy, is not about to give the Academy a pass. If somebody is going to pay you or anyone to do research, they are going to have to take that money out of their own pocket, or someone else's. The people giving up the money want to have a say - the say - in how it's spent, and how can you blame them. Once upon a time, the only people who could do research were those who were rich or were sponsored by someone rich.

Suppose that everyone who lived in a CERN member/contributor country got a little notice at the start of each year, asking whether they wanted to pay the $10 per family per year that it would cost, with the proviso that it would only be funded if a majority agreed. Do you think people would pay?

Giotis said...

Hello,

"You can follow your interests at a later point of your career"

I don't agree with the above. This "later" will never come. Everyday routine will consume you eventually. Someone should always try to pursue his own interests and dreams and pay the price if he has to. This is what life is all about. The saddest thing that could happen to somebody is to wake up in his 50's and realize that he wasted his youth and his energy in vain without giving his dreams a chance, living a life he didn't actually want to live.

Like Franky says: Do it your way.

Regards

Bee said...

Hi Riemannzeta,

Yes, as I noticed previously, we seem to agree on many points. It is exactly how you say, our society changes. Whether we like that or not, change does take place, and we need to adapt our institutions to keep up with that change. We're living in a time-dependent background and continue to do things 'as we've always done them' isn't an option - yet one that many people like to cling to. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi CapitalistImperialistPig,

“Do you think people would pay? “

That was exactly my point to Bee as to why science needs to take on more of almost the status of a religion in our modern society. Actually when you come to think of it, that is when you truly come to understand that their just wouldn’t be the six billion plus of us on the planet without it. I know some, perhaps many, would say we would be better off not having it and yet if they think seriously about it would they rather choose to exist like all the other species on the planet where everyday mere survival occupies most of their brief time of existence.

No I’m afraid we are stuck with the reality that science and its working hand technology is the sole reason humanity has such a distinct advantage when it comes to the quantity and quality of life we enjoy. What today simply appears for many like some group of strange people asking how many angels can sit on the head of a pin could lead to tomorrow’s equivalent of the discovery of fire. The strange thing is what science will bring us is at the same time not the primary reason researchers such as Bee and Garrett do it, rather it’s the mere thought of expanding a little more our understanding as to what is reality and how it all works. So then with all this in mind, what kind of occupation category would you place them in and subsequently what degree of importance would you rationally give it all?

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi CIP, Hi Phil,


If somebody is going to pay you or anyone to do research, they are going to have to take that money out of their own pocket, or someone else's. The people giving up the money want to have a say - the say - in how it's spent, and how can you blame them.

This is a different points you are bringing up. This post is about the internal organization of the scientific community, you are talking about its embedding into the society. Sure you can say we want more effort in cancer research and we consider this more important than building another particle collider or something of that sort. That is a decision on the level of the society, and certainly one that influences what education people chose, but that's not what I am talking about.

What I say is given you have put aside money for this research how do you use it wisely? Such, that your investment works towards scientific breakthroughs? It is here where I say it is essential that scientists can follow their intuitions without distorting influence.

One other thing to notice in regard to taxes is that it seems more weight is shifting towards privately funded research, for better or for worse. I will probably have a post on that at some point. It is an interesting development as that people who have made a lot of money typically are not complete fools with investing it. Look at PI as an example. From the six points I mentioned under 'suggestions' PI has four inscribed into its mission statements. (If you ask me, the postdoc contracts are too short, but it's kind of obvious I'd say that, and the advertisement problem is one of values in the community that can't be fixed locally.)

As I said, these points do not address the question of getting science closer to the public, but also in this regard there are several private institutions that are investing money remarkably well. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Bee:

Yes, there is a creeping rot in academia, and it has been getting gradually worse for at least fifty to a hundred years. Here's what J.J. Thomson (who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for discovering the electron) had to say about it:

If you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do no come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible result being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate a different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want one kind of research, but, if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is to pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

I did consider changing into Cosmology, I still do. I think I indeed applied for one or the other position at some point. I recently developed some interest in complex systems (one probably notices it from my postings) so possibly I'd try to get a job into this direction.

However, you say

You can follow your interests at a later point of your career once you have established yourself in some permanent position.

Yes, that's what people keep telling me and my ignorance of that advice and attached offers has brought me more comments of the kind that I'm ruining my career. I am completely with what Giotis above said. There is no 'later'. I've been telling myself there would be a 'later' since I went to the university. I think, once somebody is at the stage of a postdoc they have the sufficient education to work on their own research program. That doesn't mean they have to, but they should have the possibility. I find it depressing, but the creativity of the human brain reportedly declines from the mid twenties on, so I've well passed my best years. I think it is a complete waste of human ingenuity to have people wait for a 'later', and when that later comes they will be too inflexible to do something groundbreakingly new. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Riemannzeta,

Kind of funny your comment since indeed I was looking yesterday into economics. However, it isn't a field I can picture myself working in, it clashes with my political orientation. I'd rather go into politics. This field too is 'a disaster from a theoretical point of view'. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“ I'd rather go into politics.”

Please don’t or you will loose yourself for sure! Have you considered being patent clerk:-) Anyway why all the pessimism in your personal outlook for obtaining a new position doing just what you want?

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

You might find it funny, but meanwhile I have several friends who made a PhD in physics and now work in patent offices. They tell me it's quite an interesting job actually. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Well it kept Albert content for a while :-) Actually did you know he held a few patents himself, one being for a refrigerator?

Best,

Phil

Christine said...

I think it is a complete waste of human ingenuity to have people wait for a 'later'

Hi Bee and others who comment on the "later" issue.

I think I was misunderstood. I am not saying that you should "leave" it for later, or "wait" for later. You have to "construct *now* your strategies towards your dream", and since it is obvious that your dream cannot be achieved instantaneously, at the present moment (mainly because of how the system works), your only answer is to *make it come* at *some point in the future* ("later") **if** you work towards that aim. And a way to build that strategy is trying to get a permanent position, even in a different field if necessary, so that you will be paid for doing what you want to do along with some things that you do not want to do exactly, but this is better than nothing, or better than giving up everything, right?

I have come through all this. I had a dream of following my own scientific interests since I was 11 years old. I have insisted on this my whole life, then only to realise that there was no way other than to follow a painful strategy. The fruits of this are only coming now, when I am 41 years old -- too old to make a groundbreaking contribution, right? This phantom followed me every year -- you're getting too old and doing nothing that you want to do. I am sure I was wrong in several things I did in my life, now that I am at the advantage perspective point to see them, but actually I never had any guarantee of anything anyway. It is a lonely journey.

I do not mean that something like that will happen to you, but I am only making the point that time passes really quickly and if you do not prepare yourself, you will be trapped in your dream, instead of diligently building the scenary to make it happen at least at some point of your life.

Persistence is of great value, but nothing is rigid in life, and sometimes we have to temporarily give up to follow another route that nevertheless will give more fruits at some point ("later").

I am sorry for this very sad comment. I know it is sad because I have heard it so many times to finally have to curve myself to it at some point, and it hurts. And I am still trying to adjust my route and everyday I ask myself what I am doing. But at least I have other things, my job and my 30% research time to follow my interests.

I am old, but not dead (yet), right?... :)

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

thanks a lot for this great overview of many of your thoughts; I've learned more than just the word "panacea"...

But which brings me to a problem: What actually could be done to improve the situation that is not again something like setting up new "secondary criteria", or "easy solutions"? What good incentives could be given to steer change in a useful direction?

Cheers, Stefan

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Bee - What I say is given you have put aside money for this research how do you use it wisely?

Unfortunately (or not), there is very little money set aside for research for scientists to decide how to use wisely. Those with money or the power to tax nearly always attach strings, sometimes bizarre strings (like research to find God in the Universe). Thus, enormous sums ($100 billion plus)of money are flushed down the toilet for idiotic boondogles like the International Space Station while deserving quantum gravity theorists labor in penury.

That fact is why advertising is actually crucial. At the minimum, you need to be able to convince those higher in the funding food chain that your idea is worth while.

Most scientists eventually become involved in that food chain in more than one way. We still need to scramble to find money for our own research, but we are also evaluating proposals, hiring post docs, etc.

If I want to do some research, fund some research, or hire somebody, I have to convince higher powers that doing so will bring some benefit to our organization.

My research is mainly applied, not theoretical, but I suspect that a not entirely different logic holds almost everywhere.

Bee said...

Hi CIP,

Unfortunately (or not), there is very little money set aside for research for scientists to decide how to use wisely.

Indeed, and that's exactly what I'm saying is unfortunate.

That fact is why advertising is actually crucial.

No, you are still confusing two different points. I am talking about the internal organization of science. There, advertisement is completely inappropriate, hinders openness of criticism and negatively affects the efficiency of peer review. Science lives from accuracy, drawbacks have to be addressed not hidden. You instead are talking about advertisement to the public, like popular science and so on. I have no problem with that in principle, as long as it doesn't affect the internal procedures - something one has to take care of, see the three points I mentioned that potentially skew scientist's objective judgement.

Best,

B.

Christine said...

I am talking about the internal organization of science.

But Bee, I think CIP is also talking about the same issue, in the sense of how things are in reality, how the system works, unfortunately. He is talking about advertisement *within* the system. OTOH, you are talking about how it should be ideallistically -- free of advertisements --, which of course is how things should be in science. But they are not. In order to survive, researches must be good sellers.

Bee said...

Hi Christine, CIP,

I see very well that the way the system is presently set up internal advertisement is important and that's why people do it: it is a strategy that helps them to survive. But that is exactly what I say the problem is. This strategy is not beneficial for progress. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Yes, Bee, we are talking about the same problem.

The question is whether one is willing to play the game or fight against the system... This is the old story of humanity... :) There is of course attitudes in between...

I think you are doing a very nice job in pointing out the problems and trying to find solutions here in your blog. But it is a long way to see actual changes as you know so well. I hope you find your way through all the mess that is the life of a honest scientist in the 21st century.

Arun said...

http://www.sawf.org/Newedit/edit02192001/musicarts.asp
Chandrasekhar:

"In 1817, at the age of forty-seven, when the long period of meditation, during which Beethoven composed very little, was coming to an end, he said to Cipriani Potter with transparent sincerity, "Now, I know how to compose." I do not believe that there has been any scientist, past forty, who could have said, "Now, I know how to do research." And this to my mind is the center and the core of the difference: the apparent inability of a scientist to continually grow and mature."

Anonymous said...

arun:

Actually, you couldn't be more wrong. At the age of 40, most scientists have not even begun to do their best work!

Christine:

I'm sure you will be heartened by the following excerpts from an old paper by C. W. Adams.

A list was made of 4204 scientists whose ages at the time of their chief work could be determined plausibly from information close at hand. These ages will here be called primes. ... The median prime of the whole list is 43. That is to say, half the primes are 43 or less, half 43 or more. Primes under 30 number nine percent of the whole.

The ... median of the primes falling in the 17th century is 42, in the 18th is 42, in the 19th is 42, and in the 20th is 49. This last result is however fallacious, since the exclusion of living scientists selectively excludes earlier primes.

The median primes ... by subject are: mathematics 37, bacteriology 38, chemistry 38, physiology 40, physics 40, engineering 43, pathology 44, astronomy 45, surgery 45, psychology 45, geology 46, botany 46, zoology 46, anthropology 47.

Progress in the subjects earlier in the order is mainly by deduction and intuition, in the later by induction and assemblage of facts. The former powers may be at their full efficiency at any age after 18, and may become blunted by learning: the latter powers require labour, time, and opportunity.

Source:

Adams, C W, 1946: The Age at Which Scientists Do Their Best Work. Isis, 36(3/4):166-169.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous,

That's interesting. Looking around for a bit I found later publications seem confirm what you quote, though with a slightly younger age. See e.g.

http://tinyurl.com/57738k

("Genius and Eminence" Robert S. Albert, 1992). It leaves me to wonder though how well a year of publication reflects the time of having had an idea, esp. in fields like physics the period between both can be rather long.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

I admittedly totally don't understand the quote. From the necessity of constant learning in doing research it seems to me the conclusion should have been exactly the opposite: "the apparent ability of a scientist to continually grow and mature"? Best,

B.

Arun said...

Anonymous,

That quote is from the Ryerson lecture by S. Chandrasekhar. S.C.'s scientific model was Lord Raleigh who was scientifically productive throughout his long career. This idea that only the young can produce great science is one that bothered S. Chandrasekhar and he kept trying to explain why it was (only) apparently true.


Hi Bee,

Unfortunately Chandrasekhar is no longer with us to clarify.

Arun said...

Chandrasekhar (elsewhere):

"When you discuss the works of a great artist or writer, the assumption always is that there is a growth from the early period to the middle period to the mature work and the end. The artist's ability is refined. Clearly he's able to tackle difficult problems. It obviously required an enormous effort, an enormous emotional control to be able to write a play like King Lear. Look at the contrast between that and an earlier play, Romeo and Juliet.

"Now why is a scientist unable to refine his mind? Einstein was one of the great scientific minds. He discovered special relativity and a number of things in 1905. He worked terribly hard and did the general theory of relativity in 1916, and then he did some fairly important work until the early 1920s. From that point on he detached himself from the progress of science, became a critic of quantum theory and effectively did not add to science or to his own enlargement. There is nothing in Einstein's work after the age of 40 which shows that he attained a greater intellectual perception than what he had before. Why?

"For lack of a better word, there seems to be a certain arrogance towards nature which people develop. These people have had great insights and made profound discoveries. They imagine afterwards that the fact that they succeeded so triumphantly in one area means they have a special way of looking at science which must therefore be right. But science doesn't permit that. Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend the most powerful minds.

"Take Eddington. He was a great man. He said that there must be a law of nature to prevent a star from becoming a black hole. Why should he say that? Just because he thought it was bad? Why does he assume that he has a way of deciding what the laws of nature should be?

"Similarly this oft-quoted statement of Einstein disapproving of the quantum theor: 'God does not play dice'. How does he know?

...
"You know when Rayleigh was 67, his son asked him what he thought about the famous remark by Thomas Huxley - that a man of 60 in science does more harm than good. Rayleigh thought about it a great deal and said, "Well, I don't see why that should be so, provided you do what you understand and do not contradict young people.'

I don't think Einstein could have said that, or Dirac, or Heisenberg. Eddington wouldn't have said that. There is a certain modesty in that remark.

Now on the other hand you could say, as Churchill said when somebody told him that Clement Atlee was a very modest man. 'He has much to be modest about.'

The really great discoveries have been made by people who have had the arrogance to make judgments about nature. Certainly Rayleigh did not add any really great fundamental insights like Einstein or Maxwell. But his influence on science was enormous because he added to the great body of knowledge, constantly inventing many things that were not spectacular, but were always important. I think one could say that a certain modesty toward understanding nature is a precondition to the continued pursuit of science."

X said...

Hi Christine,

“The fruits of this are only coming now, when I am 41 years old -- too old to make a groundbreaking contribution, right?”

Wrong. No doubt. Better late than never. The same true for Bee also.

“If you do not prepare yourself, you will be trapped in your dream, instead of diligently building the scenary to make it happen at least at some point of your life.”

What needed is knowledge of the Bayes classifier design:

“At last, the classifier is tested in the field. If the classifier does not perform as was expected, the data base used for designing the classifier is different from the test data in the field. Therefore, we must expand the data base and design a new classifier.”

“I am sorry for this very sad comment… I am old, but not dead (yet), right?”

My comment is eventually summary of what father of Ehud Goldwasser said today.

Regards, Dany.

P.S. Hi Arun,

“There is nothing in Einstein's work after the age of 40 which shows that he attained a greater intellectual perception than what he had before. Why?”

Since you have no idea what you are talking about. A.Einstein is the Founder Theory of Measurements, the most important chapter in QT and physics in general.

"Similarly this oft-quoted statement of Einstein disapproving of the quantum theor: 'God does not play dice'. How does he know?”

Since 'God does not play dice'.

bellamy said...

Age isn't necessarily a determiner, but often it is. Lee's comments are human, and oldly so. There is actually a system that obviates human dysfunction - but emotional conditions stand in the way. And will for some time.

X said...

Hi bellamy,

“Lee's comments are human, and oldly so.”

I don’t know who Lee is but Dr. C.C.Dantas reminds me Rosalind Franklin.

Regards, Dany.

Plato said...

I though you might like this Quote below Bee and Stefan.

I suppose you are two fathoms deep in mathematics,
and if you are, then God help you, for so am I,
only with this difference,
I stick fast in the mud at the bottom and there I shall remain.
-Charles Darwin


Some may use the fishbowl to represent humanities thinking, and "fall short of it's analogies and use" like Sean does. But some do indeed think beyond the mathematical limitations imposed by our abstractness. I explained it in your fishbowl analogie Bee.

So by providing new evidence in terms of setting the stage for "new particles" would be a interesting thing indeed. There is a comparison for this, I relate in Mendeleev's work.

Knocking on what door?:)You would lie to think Peter's right but he's not.

Anyway, Smolin's work in terms of "the biology" as to an evolutionary course is one that is demonstrable to me about the direction his research status is leading others to consider.

Maybe research on this basis would be acceptable to FXQi?:)

Plato said...

Oops! "Lie" should be "like."

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Thanks for the further quote. I think I misunderstood the first one. I think Chandreasekhar has a point there. Science and art is different. It is different in that creativity in art is the aim whereas in science it's the means. In science you're not actually striving to create something, but to discover something (or at least that used to be the case before scientific research turned into science fiction). I would guess that most scientists try to find a world view for themselves, it is possibly in that closer to religion that to art. And if you have spent decades to carefully put together pieces that help you to understand the world, you cling to it, that's nothing special to science. I know very few people outside academia who kept the ability to change their mind about how to interpret the world by the time they've passed the mid twenties. Among scientists I'd say it happens around the time they get tenure (if they get tenure). There are few exceptions who I know who have kept their mental flexibility after that. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Dany wrote:

I don’t know who Lee is but Dr. C.C.Dantas reminds me Rosalind Franklin.

Well, I'm very honored to read this, thank you, although I feel lost in the comparison.

Concerning "Lee", I suppose it is reference to "Lee Smolin", and his quotation given by Bee in the post.

Christine said...

Concerning the age issue. There are many internal and external factors, as well as historical factors (formative factors) that come into play for doing high-quality, relevant research. Age is only one of these factors.

As you get old, positive and negative points come into play, but their relative weights vary from person to person. The positive ones are maturity, amount of accumulated knowledge and more experience (specially in dealing with failure as part of the process of getting wiser). Also, the way one sees life and how research is part of his/her life is an important factor that has a meaning that follows oneself year after year without much change, when suddenly gets another distinct flavor at some point. This change can be used positively, but if one does not take appropriate internal action, it can be destructive.

Apart from the latter, the negative side of age may appear as some feeling of "getting slower" to learn or solve a problem as compared to the way one used to learn/solve things faster in the past. But getting slower also has a positive side, since one may be getting slower, but richer in the process. That is, the chances of missing important points may be higher when you are "faster" and lower when you are "slower".

Capacity of deep thinking, continuous investiment in self-development, ability to get interest in different fields and working the brain towards increasing one's particular gifts for creative processes, as well as passion for research, and energy and time for working on it are the points that really matter. Age may cause a disturbance on these factors, in a sense that at some point you can no longer control it. But even at this stage, you can be happy and keep something fruitfull to one self until death comes. See the oldest blogger lady that Bee mentions at another post.

X said...

Hi Christine,

All that is not “our department”. The only thing I know is that the distance from the failure to the solution is very short. I have nothing to add. But read A.Voznesensky,“Плач по двум нерожденным поэмам”. He knows better.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

I've just deleted your initial insult and the following exchange between you and Phil. If you want to avoid that I just delete completely what could have contained some interesting points, I recommend you disentangle inappropriate comments about other people's mental capabilities from the actual content.

Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Arun,

“Rayleigh thought about it a great deal and said, "Well, I don't see why that should be so, provided you do what you understand and do not contradict young people.'
I don't think Einstein could have said that, or Dirac, or Heisenberg. Eddington wouldn't have said that.”

P.S. I remember “TO FULFILL A VISION”, Jerusalem Einstein Centennial Symposium on Gauge Theories and Unification of Physical Forces held at The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem, March 20-23, 1979.
At the row above me sat S.Weinberg and Co. P.A.M. Dirac delivered the lecture. Weinberg and surrounded him osrics laugh loudly and made the noise. It was impossible to listen anything P.A.M. Dirac said. Never mind. One may read the proceedings later. You may verify by your own that the content of what S.Weinberg did during his entire life is even not close to the level of Dirac’s lecture.

“The really great discoveries have been made by people who have had the arrogance to make judgments about nature.”

Albert Einstein:

“I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.”

“Der Herr Gott würfelt nicht!
(God casts the die, not the dice)”

Niels Bohr:

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

“Einstein, stop telling God what to do with his dice!”

“From what we can see with our own eyes and what others tell us they have seen with their eyes”, who is modest here and who is arrogant?

Amen.

Regards, Dany.

P.S. Hi Bee,

“When it was opened, that cat was alive and well and got re-entangled with her happy owner in Bavaria.”

“If you want to avoid that I just delete completely what could have contained some interesting points, I recommend you disentangle inappropriate comments.”

We didn’t discuss the entanglement yet!

Bee said...

Hi Dany,
Thanks.
-B.

Dan said...

Another set of constraints on the freedom of the academic marketplace of ideas. See: Evans, James A. 2008. “Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship.” Science 321:5887(395 – 399). 18 July. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150473 http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/sci;321/5887/395

Evans finds “Using a database of 34 million articles, their citations (1945 to 2005), and online availability (1998 to 2005),” that “as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles.”

That’s ironic by itself, but seems downright tragic in view of the increasing portion of academic library budgets that universities spend on expanding electronic subscription based new materials and archival back files online. With regular inflation, often enforced by multi-year contracts for large sets of titles, we’re locked into maintaining these sets with little room for modifying holdings as funding holds steady or is cut. Disciplines that rely more heavily on monographs suffer, but we also find ourselves less able to modify journal holdings based on academic programs, local demand and our own understanding of what titles are most important each year.

Bee said...

Hi Dan,

Yes, I read that article. I am somehow skeptic however about the conclusions they draw. A change in citation behavior might just be due to technical developements, and not necessarily have some deeper meaning about the organization of science itself. Best,

B.

Russell said...

In the history of theatre, government money has generally been pernicious. The Moscow Art Theatre was a place the well-funded government theatre could pick up talent from, but that talent then did nothing significant. The government's money merely diverted talent to staid, safe, useless projects. That was my experience of theatre in Canada as well, actually.

There used to be much more geographical diversity in academia, for obvious reasons. Maybe we need to recreate that diversity, by avoiding singular funding and review institutions and panels like the plague... maybe allot funding to go with every PhD - that follows that individual - so that like minds can set up shop together?