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No Time To Think

It does not bother me if you think slowly. But I have something against if you publish faster than you think. W. Pauli, as quoted in “Wolfgang Pauli: Das Gewissen der Physik” by Charles P. Enz

Students of physics typically have little time to reflect on the foundations of their discipline, and even find themselves discouraged from such reflections by their teachers.

From “Gauging what’s real” by Healey

Students solve problems by rote, a skill that improves with every year in school, and have no time to develop understandingA Radical Experiment in Mathematics Teaching by SANJOY MAHAJAN

If you have a restless intellect, it is very likely that you have played at some point with the idea of investigating the meaning and conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics. It is also probable (albeit not certain) that your intentions have been stopped on their tracks by an encounter with some version of the “Shut up and calculate” command. You may have heard that everything is already understood. That understanding is not your job. Or, if it is, it is either impossible or very difficult. Maybe somebody explained to you that physics is concerned with “hows” and not with “whys”; that whys are the business of “philosophy” —you know, that dirty word. Shut up and let me think. Or why you should work on the foundations of quantum mechanics as much as you please by Pablo Echenique-Robba

“Wanted: PhD scientist to work as self-directed seeker of truth. Successful candidate will determine own work topics. Excellent laboratory and computer facilities. Competitive salary and benefits package. EOE/AA, M/F/D/V.

Scientists will tell you in a second that this job ad is fictitious.”

Disciplined Minds, Jeff Schmidt

No one is doing physics because of the money. It should be fun. It should be about ideas about nature at the fundamental level. There should be enthusiastic discussions about the newest ideas. Instead, all PhD students I know are doing some long and complicated computation or implementing some toy model in a software program (or do work on said software programs). There are rarely discussions at all. People aren't enthusiastic about their work. Some even say themselves that they do “boring physics”. The experience of the author that students do net get the time necessary to understand the current landscape of theoretical physics is absolutely normal. Instead students get a to do list. "Shut up and calculate".

This seems to make sense. The senior guys know the landscape and therefore guide the younger ones through the landscape to the spots that are worth exploring. However, in practice this system is deeply flawed. The senior guys didn't have a choice themselves and equally followed the lead of their advisors. This way they built up some technical expertise during their PhD years through complicated computations. Then during their postdoc years they needed to publish as many papers as possible. Therefore, they continued working in the same field where they already gained some expertise and reputation. Finally, they got a permanent position. However, no one likes to be an amateur. They spent years during their PhD and postdoc years to become experts in the field their advisor has chosen for them. Naturally, they continue working in this field and to the same kind of research they previously did. They want to continue to publish, go to conference and keep their expert status. You don't get funding for work in a field where you haven't proved that you're an expert. This way the senior guys aren't really free and that is how so many students end up with “boring” to do lists as their PhD topic. (A great read on this problem is the book Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt).

If you want to make a career in physics you need to follow the rules. You need to run with the others in the hamster wheel. You need to publish results. There is no time to reflect and think.

Modern physics is full of hill climbers who master their particular spot of the landscape. However, there is no room for “valley crossers” who explore the land between the hills and discover new hills. Thus it's not very surprising there is so little progress in theoretical physics. There are a lot of good ideas. This is not the problem. The problem is that there is almost no one working on them. There is no funding for risky research where they may not be results. There is no way a young researcher can explore the landscape of theoretical physics and explore his own ideas. (This metaphor is elaborated on here).


There is a Guardian article that describes Peter Higgs‘s thoughts on the modern academic system:

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today's academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.” […] „Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough

Similarly Kenneth Wilson, the father of the renormalization group, was no resume gardener. In his own words:

In 1958, I was given a project to work on for a thesis by Murray Gell-Mann. I pursued this topic in a direction that was different from his primary interest. […] With this decision, I became largely isolated from the mainstream of high-energy physics of the time, working instead largely in a world of my own.

Unsurprisingly he hardly published anything in his first years and had a hard time securing a permanent position. He was only granted tenure because one powerful man, Hans Bethe, believed in him. He got lucky that he was at the right time at the right place. There is little doubt that in todays publish or perish culture he would have an even harder time.

In the wake of the Cultural Revolution and now of the recession I observe a mounting pressure to co-operate and to promote ‘teamwork’. For its anti-individualistic streak, such a drive is of course highly suspect; some people may not be so sensitive to it, but having seen the Hitlerjugend in action suffices for the rest of your life to be very wary of ‘team spirit’. Very. I have even read one text that argued that university scientists should co-operate more in order to become more competitive….. Bureaucracies are in favour of teamwork because a few groups are easier to control than a large number of rugged individuals. Granting agencies are in favour of supporting large established organizations rather than individual researchers, because the support of the latter, though much cheaper, is felt to be more risky; it also requires more thinking per dollar funding. Teamwork is also promoted because it is supposed to be more efficient, though in general this hope is not justified. … the co-operation seems more to force the researchers to broaden their outlook than to increase the efficiency of the research. … everybody complains about the amount of red tape … Why should a vigorous, flourishing department seek co-operation when it is doing just fine all by itself? It is the weak departments that are more tempted to seek each other’s support and to believe that there is might in numbers. But such co-operation is of course based on the theory that, when you tie two stones together, the combination will float.

Further Reading

causes/no_time_to_think.txt · Last modified: 2017/11/10 14:26 by marco