Tuesday, October 21, 2014

We talk too much.

Image Source: Loom Love.

If I had one word to explain human culture at the dawn of the 21st century it would be “viral”. Everybody, it seems, is either afraid of or trying to make something go viral. And as mother of two toddlers in Kindergarten, I am of course well qualified to comment on the issue of spreading diseases, like pinkeye, lice, goat memes, black hole firewalls, and other social infections.

Today’s disease is called rainbow loom. It spreads via wrist bands that you are supposed to crochet together from rubber rings. Our daughters are too young to crochet, but that doesn’t prevent them from dragging around piles of tiny rubber bands which they put on their fingers, toes, clothes, toys, bed posts, door knobs and pretty much everything else. I spend a significant amount of my waking hours picking up these rubber bands. The other day I found some in the cereal box. Sooner or later, we’ll accidentally eat one.

But most of the infections the kids bring home are words and ideas. As of recently, they call me “little fart” or “old witch” and, leaving aside the possibility that this is my husband’s vocabulary when I am away, they probably trade these expressions at Kindergarten. I’ll give you two witches for one fart, deal? Lara, amusingly enough, sometimes confuses the words “ass” and “men” – “Arch” and “Mench” in German with her toddler’s lisp. You’re not supposed to laugh, you’re supposed to correct them. It’s “Arsch,” Lara, “SCH, not CH, Arsch.”

Man, as Aristotle put it, is a zoon politicon, she lives in communities, she is social, she shares, she spreads ideas and viruses. He does too. I pass through Frankfurt international airport on the average once per week. Research shows that the more often you are exposed to a topic the more important do you think it is, regardless of what the source is. It’s the repeated exposure that does it. Once you have a word in your head marked as relevant, your brain keeps pushing it around and hands it back to you to look for further information. Have I said Ebola yet?

Yes, words and ideas, news and memes, go viral, spread, mutate and affect the way we think. And the more connected we are, the more we share, the more we become alike. We see the same things and talk about the same things. Because if you don’t talk about what everybody else talks about would you even listen to yourself?

Not so surprisingly then, it has become fashionable to declare the end of individualism also in science, pointing towards larger and larger collaborations, and increasing co-author networks, the need to share, and the success of sharing. According to this NYT headline, the “ERA OF BIG SCIENCE DIMINISHES ROLE OF LONELY GENIUS”. We can read there
“Born out of the complexity of modern technology, the era of the vast, big-budget research team came into its own with its scientific achievements of 1984.”
Yes, that’s right, this headline dates back 30 years.

There lonely genius of course has always been a myth. Science is and has always been a community enterprise. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Most of them are dead, ok, but we’re still standing, standing on these dead people’s shoulders and we’re still talking and talking and talking. We’re all talking way too much. It’s hard not to have this impression after attending 5 conferences more or less in a row.

Collaboration is very en vogue today, or “trending” as we now say. Nature recently had an article about the measurement of the gravitational constant, G. Not a topic I care deeply about, but the article has an interesting quote:
“Until now, scientists measuring G have competed; everyone necessarily believes in their own value, says Stephan Schlamminger, an experimental physicist at NIST. “A lot of these people have pretty big egos, so it may be difficult,” he says. “I think when people agree which experiment to do, everyone wants their idea put forward. But in the end it will be a compromise, and we are all adults so we can probably agree.” 
Working together could even be a stress reliever, says Jens Gundlach, an experimental physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Getting a result that differs from the literature is very uncomfortable, he says. “You think day and night, ‘Did I do everything right?’”
And here I was thinking that worrying day and night about whether you did everything right is the essence of science. But apparently that’s too much stress. It’s clearly better we all work together to make this stressful thinking somebody else’s problem. Can you have a look at my notes and find that missing sign?

The Chinese, as you have almost certainly read, are about to overtake the world, and in that effort they now reform their science research system. Nature magazine informs us that the idea of this reform is “to encourage scientists to collaborate on fewer, large problems, rather than to churn out marginal advances in disparate projects that can be used to seek multiple grants. “Teamwork is the key word,” says Mu-Ming Poo, director of the CAS Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai.” Essentially, it seems, they’re giving out salary increases for scientists to think the same as their colleagues.

I’m a miserable cook. My mode of operation is taking whatever is in the fridge, throwing it into a pan with loads of butter, making sure it’s really dead, and then pouring salt over it. (So you don’t notice the rubber bands.) Yes, I’m a miserable cook. But I know one thing about cooking: if you cook it for too long or stir too much, all you get is mush. It’s the same with ideas. We’re better off with various individual approaches than one collaborative one. Too much systemic risk in putting all your eggs in the same journal.

The kids, they also bring home sand-bathed gummy bears that I am supposed to wash, their friend’s socks, and stacks of millimeter paper glued together because GLUE! Apparently some store donated cubic meters of this paper to the Kindergarten because nobody buys it anymore. I recall having to draw my error bars on this paper, always trying not to use an eraser because the grid would rub away with the pencil. Those were the days.

We speak about ideas going viral, but we never speak about what happens after this. We get immune. The first time I heard about the Stückelberg mechanism I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Now it’s on the daily increasing list of oh-yeah-this-thing. I’ve always liked the myth of the lonely genius. I have a new office mate. She is very quiet.


Giotis said...

Well what about Perelman? He is the very defintion of lonely genious and he doesn't talk either.

And what about the internet revolution? You can practically work alone on most of the theoretical questions. You have all the information you need for doing so.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


I think I wrote about this previously. It is an astonishingly persistent illusion that you can find all you need to know on the internet. You cannot in fact find a lot of stuff that is neatly explained in some textbooks, unless you are lucky and that very textbook is online already (and freely so). The problem is greatly aggravated by the nuisance that one can't google for an equation and if you don't have a keyword, you don't get anywhere.

Most of the exchange that I have with my colleages are of the type "have you ever seen something like this" upon which I get, if lucky, a list of keywords and names. From thereon, the internet can help me.

Sure, one can work alone. Alone isn't the same as lonely. I can be alone at home weeks and months and still be very much in touch with what the rest of the community is doing. Probably even more so.

About Perelman, I don't know enough about his working procedures to be qualified to comment on this. Best,


Giotis said...

You mean you still need to talk to people to explain certain things to you or exchange views on certain topics.

Ok, but remember that we are talking about geniuses here with mental capabilities well above the average; so the assumption is that this need is not that big for such persons.

Textbooks you can order via amazon:-)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I was addressing your remark that the resources one finds on the internet makes it unnecessary to be in contact with humans. I don't know of any genius who has succeeded in solitude. You succeed in science only if you communicate your ideas. You don't actually have to talk to other people about what you do, but communicate you must.

In any case, the point of my blogpost was not to claim that one cannot succeed in solitude, but rather the opposite, that one shouldn't talk too much if one wants to succeed.



Uncle Al said...

"We must all pull together" murders thought. Committee IQs add like parallel resistor ohms. Formally discuss results not creation. Creation lives in hot showers, BS sessions, boredom, TRIZ and its 40 principles. Don't let your mind know what your brain is doing. Herd animals wear uniforms.

A vertical cylindrical fluidized bed required maximum particle collision. I said "ball mill the mix before lofting." They said, "avoid adding unit processes." Bound by their own chains.

Bee, would you like some recipes? The Maillard reaction rocks. No salt. A pinch of sodium bicarbonate buffers pH during initial pyrolysis of hydrolyzed starch plus protein lysine residues. Cup of red wine to deglaze...beef stew for dinner.

Giotis said...

I agree Sabine but putting geniuses aside what I’m missing is why today in relation to the past someone is forced practically to work within groups.

1) Is it because the problems have become much more complicated and diverse?

2) Is it because the solutions to today’s theoretical problems cannot be developed by a single person?

3) Is it because the corpus of existing knowledge has become so big that it is impossible for someone to master it without the help of a group of colleagues

4) Is it because the solutions to the problems are distributed in a large number of highly technical areas for which you need to have specific expertise to make any real progress?

5) Is it because the structure of Academia today forces you to work this way?

On the other hand today one would expect that with the advent of the Internet someone would rely less and less on the information conveyed by his colleagues within a group.

BTW have you observed that the ground breaking papers are usually single authored?

Have you observed that the papers of truly monumental figures like Ed Witten are usually single authored?

L. Edgar Otto said...

a very readable story that so many average prols could agree with or editors would pay for because shared general human interest sells.

This is what I imagined, I a little tired lately with other things would be the next installment of an ongoing story, but before writing it I knew it would not come out right so set it aside for now. It may be of limited interest to a specialized audience and if going viral would be that frustration of trying to sing in an open field to the wind.

Well, there is the quiet girl who asked me to accompany her on the bus lately - she talks up a storm to me and it was good for my cooking experiments because they sent her to work without much to eat- even taking the burger king coupons I gave her that the group home administrators can make money. She lost weight in the last three years. Others have noticed this as non doctors up her drugs while saying it had been worked out- she has rights, the working tax payers expect more for their money.

It is not clear to me at all that we can find everything on the internet, at best it is a dynamic ongoing research project. I recall early on saying "Just what would we need a computer for?" But I did spend a lot of money in one on one talks long distance to others.

It is said that lost in the desert without water people will invariably and independent leave a message- but it is usally written in their blood...

L. Edgar Otto said...

Now Goethe said that "He who has much within needs very little from without."

Nietzsche observed in the passion of the creative act that love was the danger to the loneliest one - love if it only lives" If there is in any sense the Creator, or we who strive to create as some ultimate image, then God is the loneliest one of all which the scriptures say the purpose for our creation.

Evolution seems to me to be there with the purpose of bringing to the world a few precious years of childhood if they and the future is lucky - then is it up to adults if we hang around awhile to fill in some colors for our paint by number dreams pretending we still matter in an indifferent universe that risks our thousand acorns for every great oak tree as evolution hedges bets on the high and low ends of some autistic spectrum.

Although this as with other hopeful monster media that fail in promises made too soon until the next upgrade your thoughts read clear without a firewall or horizons breaching privacy - but what a choice owed to Darwin those not yet creative like mothers directly understand before the wisdom.

Now my theme, the Purple Foxglove, recalls a cliche really - I had to give my little brother ten exact drops of digitalis for the hole in his heart a day- so my interest in science that we solve this for other children to come. But it is more than this old spark as such work is forgotten and names on gravestones just etched monuments. It is the heroic attempt that we could go back facing priorities and effort to change things as if thru time as a possibility but soberly it cannot be changed, that is we always seem to come close but fail, just failed stars. Still, a lot got changed for lesser things.

One thing I feel sure about is that at the time we do not know what will become of our creative efforts nor how in time they are a breakthrough - let us hope that our true "geniuses" will recognize true genius and for that we do need at least a dialog with others and quietly undisturbed at times, time to contemplate the memes.

I wrote an equation in the sand once on the beach at Norwich on a cold and shore far from things living and felt sorrow it would be washed away in the tide and no one see it... but then I stood proud for as one of a lonely species I knew at least I had seen it.

Thank you.

Uncle Al said...


Doormat for the socially realistic.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Team players and independent mavericks tend to view the history of science and the role of team play vs independent discovery quite differently.

If one knows enough of the biographical background, then one knows that people like Kepler, Galileo, Faraday, Einstein, and Mandelbrot were not physically "alone", but they (and many others) felt that they were breaking new ground without much help, and often with much interference, from others.

Einstein was the archetypal genius of our era. He repeatedly noted his deep sense of loneliness, even when he was a prominent member of academia. He repeatedly said he never really felt part of any group of humans, even his family. He was considered peculiarly aloof by those who knew him well.

One can say that the lone genius concept is a myth. Then there is the well-documented history of science that tells a different story. Team players seem to be uncomfortable with this information and try to pass off a sanitized science history that puts them on the highest pedestal. Not surprising is it?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


I don't know. My guess is it's a network thing. You need the community to pass you on to your next job, otherwise you're out. It's a selection bias. There are of course problems that are better solved in groups. Maybe these are becoming more, or maybe these are becoming less, I don't know. That might be part of it. But mostly I think it's the believe that collaboration is always a good thing. Which it isn't. If I was a billionaire I wouldn't hand out prices to people who have done their best work already. I'd pay people to sit on an island for 5 years and forbid them to publish any paper or go to any conference during that time. Best,


Phillip Helbig said...

prices ---> prizes

Zephir said...

/* We talk too much */

It's a nice attitude, indeed - but aren't just you the regular winner of FOXI essays and traveler around conferences? What about the Dunning-Krueger effect actually is?

Zephir said...

/* There lonely genius of course has always been a myth */

Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him."

Zephir said...

Whole this post lacks its own introspection. The title says: "We talk too much", bellow we can read: "lone genius is indeed a myth" and at the end "we should enforce the collaborative approach". During this we can read many personal notes, like the "Our daughters are in rainbow looms" or "I’m a miserable cook".

Maybe it was just an intention, but you seems to be defocused from your own topic.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Zephir: Your "summary" of this article makes me think that you can't read. It is amazing how you manage to "quote" sentences I never wrote, misunderstand others as the opposite of what they mean, and altogether don't manage draw the simplest connections. This probably explains why you never seem to understand anything I explain to you. If you don't like my writing, I will certainly not miss your enlightening comments.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip: Ack!

Phillip Helbig said...

Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him."

Yes, perhaps. But the converse is not necessarily true, i.e. someone who perceives himself surrounded by confederated dunces is not necessarily a true genius.

(Murray Gell-Mann once said "If I can see farther than others, it is because I am surrounded by dwarfs.")

There is a wonderful book, truly wonderful, which, among other things, illustrates that the converse is not true: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

A more enlightened reading of Swift's perceptive quip would include the following.

The confederacy of dunces ignores quacks because they pose no significant threat to the status quo of the dunces.

The confederacy feels the need to discredit the true genius because he/she does pose a serious threat to their status quo.

Swift was right. Mr. bean-counter is twisting things to fit his "politics". M G-M's statement is grotesque in several ways.

Have a nice day!

Zephir said...

/* ..if you don't like my writing.. */
It has nothing to do with personal attitude... I personally enjoy the search for inconsistencies in stance of mainstream physicists.;-)

So do you call for more cooperative approach with wider communication - or do you (...scientists?) talk too much? What's your actual stance in this matter?

Zephir said...

Your attitude is actually quite typical for contemporary physicists, who are combining the mutually inconsistent theories (QM + GR), which are leading to opposite predictions, because they're based on dual observational perspectives.

They're not able to realize it, so they combine various landscapes of solutions and they subsequently call for less twaddling and better cooperation. This is my personal memo of your post.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Zephir: The point of my writing is to make the reader think. In your case that's a lost cause. If you want to know my personal opinion, maybe at least read the title, yes?

Zephir said...

/* point of my writing is to make the reader think */

So I did it and I just found your writing inconsistent. If you don't want to answer me or even read me here, it just means, you're not actually interested about what I'm thinking about your post. Why do you care whether the people think about it, if such a point cannot be proven in observational way?

The problem of scientific community is, it's already too large for being interested about particular research of individuals. The capacity of human interest about work of others is limited physically. For to improve this situation, many of you should find another job.

I'm proposing the common solution of contemporary physics - not the occupational or insignificance feeling problem of it. Every just a bit smarter proposal has the inherent problem, it enables to do the research more effectively - which will lead to lost of jobs, insignificance feeling of others, breaking of machines, suicides etc..

Why do you think, the cold fusion gets dismissed without attempts for replication so obstinately? Did I already linked the Bob Willson's memo in this connection?

Zephir said...

I do realize, that your feeling of lack of communication (or even interest about work of others) in your community is the particular problem of general physics (gr-qc) theorists. The solid phase physicists still don't suffer this problem (so much), because their field is already fragmented into smaller topics, where everyone can know the research of others and this knowledge would be even beneficial for him. No one of superconductor physics expects, someone from metamaterial research would be seriously interested about his work - so that everyone can remain happy.

Unfortunately, the Universe doesn't look like the polka dots at the quantum gravity scales - it has an unparticle geometry there and it naturally leads into fragmentation of theories and research interests. The landscape problem is lurking everywhere there.

JimV said...

I just wrote a long comment then realized I was talking too much. So I deleted it and will just say, thanks for another interesting and well-written post.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


"it just means, you're not actually interested about what I'm thinking about your post"

As my mother likes to say, even a blind chicken sometimes finds a grain.

Plato Hagel said...

Bee:Today’s disease is called rainbow loom. It spreads via wrist bands that you are supposed to crochet together from rubber rings

I have twin grand daughters age 7, and their sister 8 and I was quite surprised that this Rainbow loom had as many bands as it did. Of course my older granddaughter did the traditional bracelet for me, but surprised me with the architecture of making animals too. Yes, they all like this little tool.

While I can cook too, my wife has taken care of me these many years, there are little tidbits I always like to share with her regarding the density of foods. The speed with which they can be cooked. I have to be very careful here, least I go hungry:)


Plato Hagel said...

While Goitis pointed to Perelman, it is important that one see's the summation of whee the research has gone in terms not only of the experiments but to see where the abstract thoughts may have extended versions of the limits of knowledge. Prof. Susskind was accurate to use the word "update," in order to keep abreast of where the collaborations have been taken. Without doing the update you are just recycling and adding nothing new?:)


hush said...


The prototypes of detailed balance are Moms [or Dads] and twins [or more]. Rubber rings are emergent.

The formalism of detailed balance here can only obscure the real relationships between Moms and twins.

Farts, witches, men, ass, arch mench, mensch, arsch if in fact belonging to the laws of motion (kinematics) and the laws of forces (dynamics) governed by detailed balance remains to be seen.

(Perelman lives with Mom. Much better than her alternative: A senior home)

Spukhaft Bob

L. Edgar Otto said...


If information is not to be found in the literature of physics how can it be from on the internet? There is no guarentee, regardless of genius, that even given all the information that someone can make or see the next leap of a better theory. So math, physics, and our states of individual or collective minds do interrelate as to what can be achieved as breakthroughs.

Uncle AI, (from when I first debated Don Lincoln on the sciencechat forum I had to learn some qm language starting with Dirac) I have been meaning to ask you... the experiment you long mention on the blogs, could it not also be reduced to 5 double objects rather than a single chiral 8 as Dirac's algebra suggests?

L. Edgar Otto said...


Perelman is right for if true then every thinker has such an varied private perspective manifold.

For him to accept either award shows that the lonely isolation of thinkers is not understood by those who wish it true on a certain level. It shows great character not to accept and thereby endorse a closed but true lesser vision.

In a sense he has stood in relief the loneliness of creation that perplexes the ordinary enterprise of collective man. His solitude deserves the award of honesty in wisdom as all who dare to imagine our work can progress.

Of what we may speak and others cannot hear, silence is not a bad philosophy.