Saturday, October 23, 2010

Short-term thinking

Science, especially fundamental research, used to be a pastime of the rich. Within the last century its potential for innovation has been discovered. Today, fundamental research is widely recognized as an investment of our societies into the future. While this societal support and appreciation has opened the stage for everybody to participate, it came with a side-effect. Research is being more and more confined and run by the same rules that have been efficient for the producing and service-providing parts of our economies, the standards that are being used by corporations and companies, the framework that policy makers are used to think in. While this is not a complete disaster - after all science does still work remarkably well - the problem is that it is not an approach which works for all sorts of research.

I have discussed at this blog many times the differences and similarities between the "Marketplace of Ideas" and the free marketplace of products. The most relevant difference is the property the system should optimize. For our economies it is profit and - if you believe the standard theory - this results ideally in a most efficient use of resources. One can debate how well the details work, but by and large it has indeed worked remarkably well. In the academic system however, the property to optimize is "good research" - a vague notion with subjective value. Before nature's judgement on a research proposal is available, what does or doesn't constitute good research is fluid and determined by the scientific community, which is also the first consumer of that research. Problems occur when one tries to impose fixed criteria for the quality of research, some measure of success. It sets incentives that can only deviate the process of scientific discovery (or invention?) from the original goal.

That is, as I see it, the main problem: setting wrong incentives. Here, I want to focus on a particular example, that of accountability and advance planning. In many areas of science, projects can be planned ahead and laid out in advance in details that will please funding agencies. But everybody who works in fundamental research knows that attempting to do the same in this area too is a complete farce. You don't know where your research will take you. You might have an idea of where to start, but then you'll have to see what you find. Forced to come up with a 3-year, 5 point plan, I've found that some researchers apply for grants after a project has already been finished, just not been published, and then spend the grant on what is actually their next project. Of course that turns the whole system ad absurdum, and few can afford that luxury of delaying publication.

The side-effect of such 3-year pre-planned grants is that researchers adapt to the requirements and think in 3-years pre-plannable projects. Speaking about setting incentives. The rest is good old natural selection. The same is true for 2 or 3 year postdoc positions, that just this month thousands of promising young researchers are applying for. If you sow short-term commitment, you reap short-term thinking. And that's disastrous for fundamental research, because the questions we really need answers to will remain untouched, except for those courageous few scientists who willingly risk their future.

Let us look at where the trends are going: The number of researchers in the USA holding faculty positions 7 years after obtaining their degree has dropped from 90% in ’73 to 60% in 2006 (NSF statistics, see figure below). The share of full-time faculty declined from 88% in the early 1970s to 72% in 2006. Meanwhile, postdocs and others in full-time nonfaculty positions constitute an increasing percentage of those doing research at academic institutions, having grown from 13% in 1973 to 27% in 2006.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has compiled similar data showing the same trend, see the figure below depicting the share of tenured (black), tenure-track (grey), non-tenured (stripes) and part-time (dots) faculty for the years 1975, 1989, 1995 and 2007 [source] (click to enlarge).

In their summary of the situation, the AAUP speaks clear words "The past four decades have seen a failure of the social contract in faculty employment... Today the tenure system [in the USA] has all but collapsed... the majority of faculty work in subprofessional conditions, often without basic protections for academic freedom."

In their report, the AAUP is more concerned with the quality of teaching, but these numbers also mean that more and more research is done by people on temporary contracts, who at the time they start their job already have to think about applying for the next one. Been there, done that. And I am afraid, this shifting of weight towards short-term thinking will have disastrous consequences for the fundamental research that gets accomplished, if it doesn't already have them.

In the context of setting wrong incentives and short-term thinking another interesting piece of data is Pierre Azoulay et al's study
    Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences
    By Pierre Azoulay, Joshua S. Gra Zivin, Gustavo Manso
    (PDF here)

In their paper, the authors compared the success of researchers in the life sciences funded under two different programs, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which "tolerates early failure, rewards long-term success, and gives its appointees great freedom to experiment" and the National Institute of Health (NIH), with "short review cycles, pre-defined deliverables, and renewal policies unforgiving of failure." Of course the interpretation of the results depends on how appropriate you find the used measure for scientific success, the number of high-impact papers produced under the grant. Nevertheless, I find it tale-telling that, after a suitable adjustment of researcher's average qualification, the HHMI program funding 5 years with good chances of renewal produces a better high-impact output than the NIH 3 year grants.

And speaking of telling tales, let me quote for you from the introduction of Azoulay et al's paper which contains the following nice anecdote:
"In 1980, a scientist from the University of Utah, Mario Capecchi, applied for a grant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The application contained three projects. The NIH peer-reviewers liked the first two projects, which were building on Capecchi's past research effeorts, but they were unanimously negative in their appraisal of the third project, in which he proposed to develop gene targeting in mammalian cells. They deemed the probability that the newly introduced DNA would ever fi nd its matching sequence within the host genome vanishingly small, and the experiments not worthy of pursuit.

The NIH funded the grant despite this misgiving, but strongly recommended that Capecchi drop the third project. In his retelling of the story, the scientist writes that despite this unambiguous advice, he chose to put almost all his efforts into the third project: "It was a big gamble. Had I failed to obtain strong supporting data within the designated time frame, our NIH funding would have come to an abrupt end and we would not be talking about gene targeting today." Fortunately, within four years, Capecchi and his team obtained strong evidence for the feasibility of gene targeting in mammalian cells, and in 1984 the grant was renewed enthusiastically. Dispelling any doubt that he had misinterpreted the feedback from reviewers in 1980, the critique for the 1984 competitive renewal started, "We are glad that you didn't follow our advice."

The story does not stop there. In September 2007, Capecchi shared the Nobel prize for developing the techniques to make knockout mice with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans. Such mice have allowed scientists to learn the roles of thousands of mammalian genes and provided laboratory models of human afflictions in which to test potential therapies."


  1. projects can be planned ahead and laid out in advance in details that will please funding agencies. But everybody who works in fundamental research knows that attempting to do the same in this area too is a complete farce. "Autoritätsdusel ist der größte Feind der Wahrheit," Albert Einstein, 1901. Then... he denied quantum mechanics.

    Slop in the gears, screwing around, makes discovery work. It's not about "Aha!" but rather "that's odd..." Tightly managed research is doomed to fail. The difference between a precision-machined American M16 rifle and a loosely fit AK-47 (AK-101) is obvious (aside from idiot gas impingement vs. reliable gas piston, respectively): An AK-47 buried with a decomposing soldier for year still works. M16s dignify parades.

  2. Wow, interesting article Bee, thanks. Very depressing, but there are reasons for everything, and here are a few of my thoughts:

    - First a question: Is this trend the same in Europe over the same time period? How does the trend look in the 40 years previous in America, or don't you have the data?

    - America has always been a blue-collar country, with an asinine anti-intellectual bent. "Those who can't do, teach" is a horrible expression but was once quite common here.

    - The GI Bill afforded servicemen (and servicewomen) who served in WWII that which had only been attainable by the rich: a college education. Many took advantage. I would submit that this in turn led to the hiring of more college professors which in turn led to saturation after a few decades.

    - 1973 and 2006 were markedly different years in the USA. In 1973, Nixon was President and jetting off to Moscow and Beijing to take his mind and our minds (unsuccessfully) over Watergate. Bill Gates was just starting college. The Internet was roughly 20 years in the future, and "computers" were big machines sold by IBM to big companies, only. Computer Science wouldn't explode for another 4 years when Altair came out with its "kit computer" Imsai 8080 or whatever it was called. We had just completed the Apollo Space program the year before. Which the Republicans killed. Nixon had just taken us off the Gold Standard, the profound effects of THAT screwup were not yet evident, but the bankers were salivating. Life was good. The first of a series of recessions was a year in the future. The war in Vietnam was coming to a close.

    - Industry was top heavy, management-wise, but not to fear, downsizing was just around the corner. People cared more about quality than quantity. Everyone attended church or synagogue (there were no or few mosques, nor Hindu nor Buddhist temples), not for the religious aspect so much as for the sense of community. People gave a damn about each other for the most part. Houses were reasonably priced. Banks were regulated, but that would soon change. Unions were strong. We made our own goods.

    - The upshot is that when times get tough, everyone must share the pain, or so we are told. As the baby boom peaked (the peak birthyear 1957), we didn't need as many schools, and therefore professors. But those born in '57 (Peter Woit for example) were still in high school, and there is something called social inertia, so systems (like colleges) would remain in place relatively unscated for the next 10 years or so, before the dropoff. Reagan fired the Unionized striking air traffic controllers and business responded in kind about ten years later.

    I'm rather upset at that trend in the total number of full-time professors, but I'm equally upset that companies today offer either part-time jobs or salary freezes, and many US Professors have been operating under salary freezes for quite some time.

    Hey buddy, can you spare a dime? Will work for food.

  3. Hi Steven,

    No, I don't have numbers for Europe. I doubt there's any. Europe is to inhomogeneous to allow for such a statistics. You'd be comparing apples with orange juice. Germany eg until some years back didn't have such a thing as tenure track. Now a few places have it. I haven't been around for long enough to be able to tell myself how the trend is in Germany in particular. I know there's been a boom time for hiring profs some time in the 70s, must have been similar to the USA. Now those people are about to be retired. The Germans have recently invested lots of thought and money into their competitive edge on the scientific side. It seems like they've been successful working against the west-ward bound brain-drain, or maybe it's just that the conditions in the USA have gotten worse. Most likely a combination of both. Wait a decade and you'll see the results.

    In any case, I'm actually not too worried about the total number of profs. That's all a matter of balance. The question isn't whether it's too many or too few, but too many or too few for what? You could argue there's not enough profs to take care of all the students and postdocs. Or that there's too many students and postdocs if you see what I mean. You can say there's not enough profs to do all the research we want. Or that the profs you have are working on the wrong stuff. No, I'm worried much more by the composition of the scientific "workforce" for the reasons that I've outlined in the above post. I don't think it's beneficial change. Best,


  4. Q: What is the difference between a Ph.D. in mathematics and a large pizza?
    A: A large pizza can feed a family of four...

    LOL ... actually, that's not so funny is it, as you're about to become a family of four? Well, just be grateful they're born as infants, not teenagers. I have 3 teenagers at home currently, and it's incredible how much the boys eat, and the clothes the girls buy. Quite pricey.

    Back on Topic, Rutgers had a huge early retirement buyout of its professors this past year (I wonder if Dan Friedan bought in, I bet not), but of course they raised the tuition for students ... yet again. And I have a feeling it's not just Rutgers. More money, less services, and more work and same pay for those who remain. College is quite pricey too here, all around.

    Have a nice day. ;-)

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  6. Hi Bee, we replied at the same time.

    You wrote:

    I'm worried much more by the composition of the scientific "workforce" for the reasons that I've outlined in the above post. I don't think it's beneficial change.

    I also noted from Bee's Shared Items (besides the inny turned outie belly-button thing, thnx I'd forgotten) Time & time again it has been proved that the real scientific advances have been discovered through fundamental research.

    In an attempt to unify those two:

    Yes you're right, the changing composition of the American scientific workforce is not a beneficial change, and the reason I think is that what made America strong was our Marketing expertise in terms of sales. Beginning in the Nixon and Reagan eras however, the Accountants, the cost-cutters, took over. Profit maximization can be achieved in two ways: Increase sales, and/or Cut costs. The cost-cutters won, and continue to do so, here. A full-time professor, especially a tenured one, is quite pricey (think: the cost of benefits). A post-doc, or any part-timer, is not as pricey, in comparison.

    The second item, "that scientific advances have been discovered through fundamental research", is completely lost on government decision makers, as well as the Industry Lobbyists in America's legalized corruption system who instruct them how to vote. If the payoff isn't immediate (in the next quarter ideally or 3 years at most), then tough luck buddy. A shame.

    By consequence, pure research is on the downswing, here (Except the Life sciences, as you've noted, and I'll further note 60% of Science Blogs are Biology-based). For example, when it was part of AT&T, Bell Labs had an insane number of pure researchers doing wonderful things, as the 7 NPP's (so far) awarded to those who once worked at that incredible institution attests. But AT&T, the monopoly in communications that worked, made so much money it could afford the tremendous expense that was Bell Labs. Not so since the government-mandated Breakup of AT&T. Now everything has to be profit-related. The brain-drain from The Labs soon followed.

    To conclude on a positive note, one upswing in all this has been the rise of Institutes of Advanced Studies. It takes a Lazaridis to raise an intellectual village, so to speak. Not every rich person sucks. Go, go Branson!

    Help us IAS', you're our only hope.

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  8. Hi Bee,

    After reading your thought provoking post I have to say that the statistics don’t come as being much of a surprise. Also I have commented on all this before, as finding this simply as indicative of whenever the quantity of things becomes confused with the quality of them. Therefore I find no reason to being shocked when discovering that scientists and their work as being treated no different than anyone or anything else these days, with that as having all as being simply commodities, with no intrinsic value, rather only that being which is perceived at any one moment as them being worth.

    So then my current thoughts being, if we are to ever to have a paradox shift in such regard, it will need to include all that labour having utility and purpose, rather than some anointed few, which for one reason or other we should have considered as being excluded from the advantages and disadvantages of the epoch in which we currently find ourselves. That’s to say that a general recognition of the utility and value of quality needing to be realized as being a prime objective, rather than striving to have it accepted for one group at a time. And yes the latter approach may appear as being more consistent with evolution, yet if sudden and radical change in the past had not occurred, such as mass extinctions, it is likely that I wouldn’t be here to write this and you and others not here to read it.



  9. Hi Bee,

    Sorry yet in my above comment that should read “paradigm shift” rather then “paradox shift”. Now I’m trying to imagine how a paradox could shift.:-)



  10. Hi Steven,

    Your depressing joke about the mathematician is far off reality. What's difficult to combine with family life is not a PhD in maths or physics, but working in academia. If you want to have a family you're well advised to get a job elsewhere. And the salary is only half of the problem. (Also, the salary depends very much on the place and country. I might be one of the lucky few, but once I had my PhD I've never had anything to complain about it. Now the salary for PhD students is a completely different story...) The biggest problem is that you're at high risk not to get any decent - ie, renewable - contract till you're approaching 40, whilst all the time at risk of not finding another job in academia at all.

    Look at Stefan and me as example: After my PhD, I went on to do a postdoc. One, two, three. Now I'm an assistant prof, but not on tenure-track. After his PhD, Stefan started working for a scientific publisher. Two years later his contract became permanent. We've been married since 4 years, but never actually lived together because I've been moving from the USA to Canada and now to Sweden. Even after all these years, I still have to take into account that finally I'll end up working in a bank, as a teacher, or in a patent office. The problem is not that I expect a particularly high-paid job or some title. The problem is that in academia there is no middle-range of jobs-you-can-live-from with contracts that are renewable as long as you don't mess up (or your employer goes bankrupt). For family matters, that's an incredibly hostile environment, and the often necessary hanging-on till 40 is, I believe, for the obvious reason why so many women leave. Best,


  11. Hi Phil,

    I can't say I'm shocked either, it's more that I think it's depressing having to watch developments that are hindering progress in scientific research.

    I basically agree with your emphasis on quality rather than quantity. I think that the attempt to quantify output by some numbers and trying to optimize these numbers simply doesn't always work. The question is of course under which circumstances does or doesn't it work. That's not my area of research, but it's a question that can be scientifically addressed, and I believe if one did so you'd find that basic research by its nature is not going to flourish under such circumstances. Best,


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  13. Hi Bee,

    I think the largest problem rests with it being believed that the best work of a researcher happens when they are either still graduate students or fresh graduates, which may have had some validity in the past. What I don’t think has been taken into account being, that when the problems get harder more time is required, not just to solve them, yet more importantly to have them become understood. This is something that can’t be addressed by with a quantitative evaluation which promotes creating an environment where people are needlessly shifted around continuously, for short periods of time and under the gun all the while, especially in an age where electronic communication has being so vastly improved.

    In the end perhaps there is no ideal solution, yet as this data clearly demonstrates the current model simply doesn’t work, and badly so, which would indicate things needing a major change, rather than a tweak here and there. First I think institutions should not be allowed to offer initial contracts shorter than five years and then encourage, rather than discourage those they hire to stay beyond, by applying for an extension of no less than the same period, but only after being there for at least three years. On the other hand researchers should be able to opt out of their contracts any time after the first year, if a better opportunity presents itself or they wish to change their research or career direction entirely.

    The result would be to have the institutions forced into making a more comprehensive initial evaluation of who it is they hire and serve to encourage increasing their support for the ones they do. It would also not have the researcher thinking short term, relative to their research or respective of their options and lifelong plans. That is in this model the emphasis being placed more on quality, rather than quantity. Some might see this as to having the tail wagging the dog, yet I would ask who is the tail and who is the dog?



  14. Hi Phil,

    I definitely don't have the impression anybody (including the grad students themselves) believes that's when researchers do their best work. What sense would it make then to put them under supervision? The problem is instead that funding agencies/institutions do *not* give enough time, money, and freedom to young researchers, though with that I mean past PhD (your PhD thesis ought to show you're capable of independent research). I wouldn't say that the postdoc time is necessarily when researchers do their best work, for there's many sorts of good work, and many sorts of problems, for some of which experience is essential and that takes time. But if you tie researchers up during this early time, you're losing those who aren't willing to bend to the rules, and the rest you teach a lesson that's passed on to the next generation: Before you have tenure, you work on other people's ideas, or otherwise you're making your life very hard. Best,


  15. Hi Bee,

    Problems occur when one tries to impose fixed criteria for the quality of research, some measure of success.

    I think one cannot control basic research. One is not in control of how long it takes. Think about Einstein's theory of general relativity and think of the same theory and also quantum mechanics when you think of the impact a theory can have.

    Best, Kay

  16. Kay, if you have already discovered SR, you may get funding to do whatever you want. The problem are the people who haven't discovered SR.

    But then again, Einstein had to work as a patent clerk until 1910 or so, when Planck hired him as his assistant. Perhaps the best way to create new Einsteins is to make a five-year non-academic work experience a requirement for tenure.

  17. Hi Kay,

    The aim is not to control basic research. The aim is to create conditions that are supportive to its conduct. You are of course right that it can take a long, long time for benefits to show up, ie for any sort of "measure" to work. That's why it's problematic to use one to begin with. It's better to figure out what environment is beneficial for creative work. Or, to begin with, which isn't. That for example was exactly the point of Azoulay et al's study.



  18. Hi Thomas,

    Frankly, I'm quite wary of this and similar Einstein-arguments. For one, 100 years have passed by and science today is just not what it was then. Even patent offices are not what they were then. But maybe more importantly, Einstein was a very exceptional person. To conclude from the personal story of one exceptional individual that repeating some steps on his way will improve basic research in general seems to me quite far-fetched indeed. Best,


  19. Hi Thomas,

    I've worked about five years outside the university. For me it wasn't an advantage, since I had to do with completely different stuff. Okay, I had to solve problems which aren't so easy, but for myself I better missed that time.

    Best, Kay

  20. B, sure things have changed. There hasn't been much progress in particle theory since 1980, and in all of theoretical physics since 1990; not sure if there has really been any progress in in quantum gravity at any time. So it seems to me that the Einstein types have been exactly as unsuccessful as the academic types for the past generation. What conclusions should we draw from that?

    Btw, there is of course a simple, and inexpensive, way to increase the tenured fraction of the faculty: fire untenured faculty. The problem may be that it is too difficult for postdocs to get permanent jobs, or that it is too easy to become a postdoc.

  21. T.L. said: "So it seems to me that the Einstein types have been exactly as unsuccessful as the academic types for the past generation. What conclusions should we draw from that?"

    Maybe it says that we are long
    overdue for a major paradigm shift.

    The longer the moving "tectonic plate" of science is obstructed, the bigger the "earthquake" when the inevitable advance finally occurs.

  22. RLO, good point and good metaphor. I think the slowness in progress is because there are some catch points that need to be unlearned. There is much less difference between a highly focused technical education and indoctrination than most people realize. It just that most of the indoctrination is true and also useful. But some of it isn't. When enough people figure out what "facts" are untrue and no longer useful then the plates will move violently.

  23. Thanks for the positive response, Eric.

    I think theoretical physicists have to reassess those assumptions that are based purely on artificial models, or on towers of analytical reasoning that stray too far from empirical data.

    The vacuum energy density crisis tells us something is seriously wrong. So does the conflict between GR and QM. So does the fact that, if we are honest, we have no credible model for the formation of galaxies or globular clusters with their well-defined mass ranges and properties. So does the fact that that we have no idea what the dark matter and/or the dark energy are, and that's nearly "everything".

    Then there's one of my favorites: the fact that the Planck mass bears no relation to anything in nature and causes loads of theoretical problems.

    I could go on, and on, as you know, but I will leave it at that.

    Time to do more than just SAY we are willing to question old assumptions and to consider new ideas. Time to do it!

  24. Hi hitchiker,

    Ha, I hadn't know that quote. That's exactly the "Dünnbrettbohrer" (thin board driller) that we mentioned in this recent post. It's a very common German expression. I have no clue where it comes from originally. Best,


  25. Hi Thomas,

    Well, there's been a lot of progress in quantum gravity, but so far it's all, one could say, "internal" progress in the sense that it's a building of research programs that so far have no confirmed connection to reality. But if you think about string theory, lqg, causal sets, causal dynamical triangulation, a lot's been going on since 1990.

    In any case, you're right of course that to raise the fraction of tenured faculty, you can fire the non-tenured ones. Problem is that then you'd also have to get rid of half (or more) of the student body and I'm afraid that would be a very unpopular decision, not to mention one with disastrous consequences for the future. Best,


  26. Hi Bee,

    Yes I find that interesting as well and in particular from where the quote came. In the context written it sounds like it may have come from perhaps personal correspondence, which makes me want to search the book I have containing the letters which were exchanged between Born and Einstein over the years. Never the less, I would not find it surprising if Einstein himself to be the original inspiration or even the direct source and yet I’ll never know as the letters I have being translations.

    I would say however it would be easy for a Dünnbrettbohrer to be recognized by a dünnbrettklebemaschinen, which I find Einstein to have been as one of a few to have ever lived. I would also agree with Robert that these being the type of people we need more, as to have first indentified and then nurtured, if we are to hope to see those plates move which he mentioned anytime soon.

    Then again I have always found it interesting to consider if people such as him being as to be perhaps totally beyond metrics, especially if one considers that there are now five times the people on the planet and even a greater ratio of researchers then when he came into the world. One thing being certain it still comes down to things being more a matter of quality than quantity, which seems to defy being quantified, yet rather rests with things that are just beyond its reach; such as how does one have measured how much anyone cares or better still how can we have them to ever care to begin with.

    “The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care! This is an ability about which normal traditional scientific method has nothing to say. It's long pasttime to take a closer look at this qualitative preselection of facts which has seemed so scrupulously ignored by those who make so much of these facts after they are "observed." I think that it will be found that a formal acknowledgment of the role of Quality in the scientific process doesn't destroy the empirical vision at all. It expands it, strengthens it and brings it far closer to actual scientific practice.”

    -Robert M. Pirsig- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - page 253



  27. Dr H: "But if you think about string theory, lqg, causal sets, causal dynamical triangulation, a lot's been going on since 1990."

    With apologies for being a bit heavy-handed (although it may be quite necessary for the health of science), there has indeed been a lot of theoretical activity in the last 2 decades.

    But (1), have there been lots of really unique and impressive retrodictions? Not.

    And (2), have there been ANY definitive predictions that are not conveniently "hedged" in multifarious ways? Not.

    Lots of smoke (as comes from a car spinning its wheels), but no light of understanding.

    Again, sorry, but someone has to bring this message. Maybe I'm missing something, but sometimes "outsiders" see things more clearly than "insiders".

  28. Robert:

    I wrote explicitly there's so far no confirmed connection to experiment, and I think Thomas understood what I said without your echo, thanks. You're quite easily dismissing a lot of research as "no understanding." You realize that making a prediction is only worth something if there's a good theory underlying, do you? Examining the implications of an approach is thus an essential part of understanding, even prior to making contact to experiment. It is very inappropriate to call that "no progress." In any case, you should have noticed that I'm advocating looking for qg pheno exactly because there hasn't been paid enough attention to the connection to experiment. Best,


  29. Hi Bee,
    Although the comments have wondered far off topic from your original thread it seems important to get at the basis of this disagreement. You are talking about getting theory closer to experiment and coming up with new experiments to guide future theory. That is always the goal. The problem as I see it , and presumably Robert also, is that we already a wealth of cosmological evidence that still needs to be integrated into quantum gravity.

    I tend to see you as ignoring many fundamental insights that could be gained from these observations. Only a few years ago there were some posts by you aligning with the doctrinaire position from fifty years ago about the constant energy density of the quantum vacuum. My position has evolved also on this so I can't fault you for that. But don't you think something as simple and straight forward as aligning quantum gravity with the empirical evidence of the cosmological background radiation's current temperature should be goal number 1? From what I can see many of the esoteric things physicists are working on just ignore this empirical evidence staring us in the face.

    From my point of view it almost seems like many just don't like the direction this evidence takes physics. It's like that neo- conservative mantra that if you don't like the old facts then create some new ones that you do.

  30. Hi Eric,

    I have no clue what your issue is with the CMB temperature. There's of course the possibility that qg plays a role for dark energy and dark matter. I discussed that in my recent paper, see section about "postdictions." It is however typically unproblematic to "integrate" non-qg explanations for dark energy and/or dark matter into qg. Just add the respective particles etc. You might not like that, but it's certainly doable. Point is however, it's far from clear that qg is an explanation for the unexplained cosmological data, it's even further from clear one needs qg to explain it, and there's currently many proposals on the table (everybody has their own favorite explanation for dark energy), so I don't quite get your criticism. Best,


  31. Hi Bee,
    It's pretty obvious there is no meeting of minds here. MY mind obviously works much differently from yours. A question: do you believe the average energy density of the vacuum is unchanged from the big bang? That is, do you believe the Planck Length derived energy density is the same now as then?

    Another question: if that "average" energy density did change as the universe cooled how would that be exhibited?

    Finally, do you think superconductive effects can be correlated with asymptotic freedom confinement? And if they can be then what would the effects of that cooling temperature would there be?

    I hope at least some of these questions and their possible answers have occurred to you? If they haven't then you aren't doing your job.


  32. Bee,

    Briefly, I think we would agree on a lot of things in physics.

    The books written by Smolin and Woit have done an excellent job of identifying a serious problem associated with string theory and related speculations.

    I am just saying that the problem may be broader, i.e., that it goes well beyond string theory.

    I am also expressing my opinion, shared by people like Wilczek, Glashow and Anderson, that we might have to give up some "unquestionable" assumptions and consider some radical new ideas if we are ever to find our way out of the desert.

    I don't think my concerns are unreasonable or unjustified. Moreover, my goal is less negative than you might have inferred, based on past expressions of my frustration, which were a bit over-the-top.

  33. Hi Robert,

    Yes, I think our points of view are not so different after all. It's just that I keep reading your comments as addressed to me and a criticism of an opinion that I don't hold to begin with, so then I feel like I have to repeat what I've already said, which tends to put me in a bad mood. In any case, that we have to give up one or the other cherished assumption is pretty much on everybody's mind, but so far none of these attempts has lead anywhere. We even had a discussion on this at our workshop on Experimental Search for Quantum Gravity titled "What to sacrifice?" The problem is simply that it's very hard to throw out a very fundamental assumption and still reproduce the successes of all the models that have worked so tremendously well with that assumption. Best,


  34. Hi Eric,

    The first two questions have been discussed in hundreds of papers, both theoretical and experimental. The last I don't know what you mean with "correlated." I don't know what it matters what I believe or not and in any case, this is entirely off-topic and I'm not interested in pursuing this discussion. Best,


  35. Hi Bee,

    ”To conclude from the personal story of one exceptional individual that repeating some steps on his way will improve basic research in general seems to me quite far-fetched indeed.”

    I would certainly agree, that rather than suggest this be a way of nurturing promising people, it rather simply indicates how extraordinary they actually were. To think otherwise one could conclude that apprenticing as a book binder such as Michael Faraday did to begin or perhaps first becoming a dyer of cloth like Stephan Grey, would aid to becoming a renowned research scientist.

    The one thing I would agree being it could serve is to demonstrate what such people having in common, being their natural aptitude, incredible drive defiant of the odds and perhaps to some extent lacking the down side of a more formal indoctrination or being influenced by those that railed against the status quo, such as Einstein was in being inspired by Mach. However none of these are things that anyone has been able to come up with ways to have them measured effectively, let along ways how they might be instilled. Rather all this serves is to further reinforce that quality can’t be accessed or created by simply relying on metrics.

    So is it in the case in philosophy, particularly those of the religious persuasion, as for instance what be the ten commandment, other than a very imprecise and unreliable way to measure quality, while the golden rule only indicative of the path followed by many having it. In the end however they serve to be only crude ways to measure and indentify, while leaving one with little understanding as to either how quality exists at all, nor as to why, with the only certainty being that it does.



  36. Bee,

    Here is where we differ.

    You say: "The problem is simply that it's very hard to throw out a very fundamental assumption and still reproduce the successes of all the models that have worked so tremendously well with that assumption."

    I say: What models 'succeed tremendously well'???

    I would rate (scale of 1-10) the successes of theoretical efforts as follows:

    GR - 9
    EM - 9
    QM - 7
    QED - 5
    QCD - 2
    Standard cosmology - 5
    strings/M,l-scapes,anthr.reas. - 1
    Quantum Gravity - N/A (no data)

    Maybe its largely the "half full" or "half empty" subjectivity.

    We all want a unified physics that is not Ptolemaic, but we differ on what seems like Ptolemaic model-building and what seems like accurate modeling of nature.

    The answer to the dark matter enigma, and the results we will hopefully get from the LHC, may clarify these issues.

  37. GR: 10
    EM: 10
    QM: 10
    QED: 10
    QCD: 10

    Cosmology is part of GR. These are all extremely well established theories though all of them are known rspt expected to be applicable only in limited ranges (eg, you can drop EM if you have QED). You're mixing things up, Robert. All these theories work tremendously well. That some of them leave open question is a different matter. What I'm saying is that whatever new "paradigm" you suggest, first you need to reproduce all the achievements of the above mentioned theories. Then you can go on to address open questions. Best,


  38. Hi Bee,

    You wrote:
    Your depressing joke about the mathematician is far off reality.

    So, given in your opinion my depressing joke on this your depressing (but quite important) post, can we possibly conclude the two depressings cancel out and we get a "thumbs up" on our respective visions of Humanity's future?

    Hmm? No? Damn us, if not.


    I love my kids, and I will do everything within my power before my body feeds the worms to make them grow up in a better world than we live in now.

    POSitive stuff:

    The number of professors, full-time, part-time, grad-student level, or whatever, should NEVER exceed (or be less than) the number of students who wish to learn.

    I think Socrates knew that, 2300 years ago.


  39. In interpreting this data, maybe you should also remember that not everybody who gets a PhD in S&E (especially the Engineering part) actually wants an academic job, and this is much more true now that it was in the 1970's.

    In many areas of computer science, and I presume other engineering areas, you can go into a better job if you have a PhD than if you just got a Masters. Even if it is possible to work your way up to such good jobs with a Masters, it's probably more interesting (although less lucrative) to get a PhD and start after that.

  40. Let me add that my last comment only applies to the first graph. The second graph, showing the dramatic increase in part-time faculty, is very worrying.

  41. "All these theories work tremendously well. That some of them leave open question is a different matter."

    If everything works so "tremendously well", then how do you explain the following.

    1. Dark Matter - Unknown(24% of U)
    2. Dark Energy - Unknown(73% of U)
    3. Vacuum E Dens. - off by 10^120
    4. No credible galaxy form. models
    5. Fine Struc. Const. - Unexplained
    6. QM - Right answers but heuristic
    7. QED - " " " " "
    8. Cosmology - multiple mutually contradictory models.
    ... ... ...

    So its not a half full/half empty situation. You are saying we know just about everything (just a few "open questions"), and I am saying, as AE did, that "all our science, when measured against reality is primitive and childish, yet it is the most precious thing we have." We have very sophisticated abstract models but in my opinion we are still very far from a comprehensive understanding of nature.

  42. Robert:

    We're talking past each other. That the microscopic origin of dark matter and dark energy is presently unknown is an open question. That doesn't prohibit you from using both (by their equation of state) in GR and Cosmology. Not sure what's your issue with galaxy formation. For all I know it works reasonably well, except for the cusps which is generally believed to be a numerical problem. In any case, of course there's topics in GR that people are still working on, the point is, there is *no* data that's in disagreement with it. Similarly, that the value of one or the other constant is "unexplained" is an open question rather than an indication that the theory doesn't work. I have no clue what you mean with "right answers but heuristic." The theory makes the right predictions, period. That's all that matters. Again, if you don't like the foundations or feel like they're incomplete: that's not an indication that the theory doesn't work. Best,


  43. Bee,

    "Robert: We're talking past each other."

    Yes, that is true. We are now preaching to the "gallery".

    I think we have clearly stated our positions, our intrinsic philosophy of science, and our assessment of the current state of theoretical physics.

    There are many areas wherein I think we have achieved great things, and in these matters we would be in virtually full agreement.

    We strongly differ on the breadth and depth of what I see as problems that call for a radical new paradigm. Probably you are reluctant to jump out of the frying pan because of the high probability of ending up in the fire, so to speak.

    The answer to the dark matter problem will definitively tell us whose vision of nature and physics is more correct.

    It has been an increasing pleasure.


  44. Hi Robert,

    I find the current situation in physics to be like a Chef having the opposite problem regarding two of his favourite recipes, which have come to be appreciated by many; with GR being where the action of its two principle ingredients well understood and yet the nature of the ingredients themselves not. On the other hand with the standard model, you have a lot of ingredients which have resultantly come to be identified, as to become well known, and yet the nature of the deciding action behind them all not well understood.

    So for me what appears as needing to happen in the future, is to have discovered that which is missing as being able to fill the gaps in the understanding of each. The current attitude being whatever that something is it being principally related to only one of the recipes and yet I find this hard to understand when each having something important still being missing as to be explained.



  45. Hi Robert,

    I would just like to add below the arguments regarding the two recipes, as stated by ones being large if not principle contributors to each. That being these statements for me still leaves the question to be answered as being, is there actually a dichotomy to be recognized respective to each in their thinking or not?

    “One might still like to ask: “How does it work?. What is the machinery behind the law?” No one has found any machinery behind the law. No one can “explain” any more than we have just “explained” . No one will give you a deeper representation of the situation. We have no ideas about a more basic mechanism from which these results can be deduced.”

    -Richard Feynman, ”The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 3, page 1-10”

    “Some physicists, among them myself, cannot believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in time and space; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance. It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving: and also every man may draw from Lessing’s fine saying, that the search for truth is more precious than its possession.“

    -Albert Einstein“The Fundamentals of Theoretical Physics” in the journal [Science- May 24, 1940]



  46. Hi Phil,

    Re:the selection of Einsteins last quote.

    Einstein did learn from Grossman about a "new geometry" that helped to propel him forward in his efforts. A mathematical perspective.

    One would think, that having understood this, that propensities would also be established in "other ways" to help him look at nature and understand something that is complicated in the human mind, is really natural by expression in the animal world too.

    So Einstein did not have the vision to see beyond his own circumstance, yet, it has been proven that such mathematics are representative in nature and that we will understand nature better by understanding that mathematics?


  47. This comment has been removed by the author.

  48. Hi Plato,

    I find this not as relevant in being able to address the question regarding if there exists this dichotomy in thinking or not. As to the limits of Einstein’s vision, I would say he better than anyone at the time understood the nature and difficulties involved in the problem; a problem I might add that virtually none of his colleagues thought needing to be addressed as being important.

    None the less, I would agree that too often he is looked upon as being some rouge genius, and thus not needing to draw upon the thoughts of others to have his problems solved, which I would say being a myth needing to be dispelled respective of all so regarded. This has me mindful of something Lee Smolin had to say on such matters, not only in relation to Einstein himself, yet more so in respect as to how many are brought to feel as being inadequate to have believed that only beginning with certain assumptions what Einstein managed as to be an inevitable and logical conclusion. Here he also has it expressed what actually being what more be the truth in such respect.

    “ So we turned the pages with anticipation. But still he gets nowhere. What does a good physicist do then? He talks with his friends. All of a sudden a name is scrawled on the page: ‘Grossmann!!!’. It seems that his friend has told Einstein about something called curvature tensor. This is the mathematical structure that Einstein had been seeking, and now understood to be the key to relativity theory.”

    “Actually I was rather pleased to see that Einstein was not able to invent the curvature tensor on his own. Some of the books from which I learned relativity had seemed to imply that any competent student should be able to derive the curvature tensor given the principles that Einstein was working with. All the time I had my doubts, and it was reassuring to see the only person who ever actually faced the problem without being able to look up the answer had not been able to solve it. Einstein had to ask a friend who knew the right mathematics..............No one knew better than Einstein that it requires not only intelligence and hard work but equal helpings of insight, stubbornness, patience and character. This is why all scientists work in communities”.

    -Lee Smolin- Three Roads to Quantum Gravity [pages 147-148]



  49. Lee Smolin:No one knew better than Einstein that it requires not only intelligence and hard work but equal helpings of insight, stubbornness, patience and character.

    Yes on this point I would agree most certainly, and rest assure Lee's word should be taken more then my perspective as you point out by Lee's quote.

    Which means, that it did not make my point irrelevant, but more to the point about finding the "right mathematics" while assuming a position. It expanded Einstein's world.

    How could he know that the future would show possibles that would extend from spooky action at a distance(a problematic jumping off point) would morph into a entanglement of a kind that he would or could not of known? A game of chance?

    What truth distinction is necessary in deriving one's word over other another then. I think and most certainly, that one would take Lee's word under Social context and personally as a respected scientist.

    How can I argue with this summation? One most certainly pay their dues.

    While it is clear, nature has it's own distinctive pictures, the social context of communities and participation, has distinctive statement about itself that one would wonder about our own "biological interpretation" would help cover expressive aspects of the soul(what does this mean) in expression that would have never been clear about such expressions has not it ensued from the individual called Einstein? A scientist?

    In the dream of the child(compass) Einstein's course was mapped out. How so from such a "cloudy interpretation of the course of life" that he would take a path?

    Yet, no mathematics to describe it for him, but just a hunch/question of the child in mystery while looking at the needle pointing north? To learn that this field was inclusive of the theory.

    What was the truth then of this situation but to recognize that his future would cross path with an emergent process genetically induced from Einstein's lineage, or, from his social group?

    Other, Einsteins now.

    Who would emblazon the same truth? Some may call them self that, or refer too, and have they capsuled the life of a scientist by his definition( what is this?)?

    If one would have seen to the history then how was it possible for a Einstein to be here at this time "before" he was in that social setting?

    Maybe Lee, Bee, Robert, or maybe Phil, has that truth too. Some other prospective interested student?:)


  50. Foster fights to hold Seat

    Stahr wrote:
    "The article says that Mr. Foster, while at Fermilab, helped discover the top quark, then thought to be the heaviest known form of matter. Now that he has been an elected official, Mr. Foster must know that the heaviest element known to science is Governmentium.

    (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every action with which it comes into contact.

    A minute amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second to take from four days to four years to complete. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2-6 years; it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes.

    This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass. When catalyzed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons."


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