Tag Archives: academia

What Science Would You Do If You Had the Time?

I know a lot of people who worry about the state of academia. They worry that the competition for grants and jobs has twisted scientists’ priorities, that the sort of dedicated research of the past, sitting down and thinking about a topic until you really understand it, just isn’t possible anymore. The timeline varies: there are people who think the last really important development was the Standard Model, or the top quark, or AdS/CFT. Even more optimistic people, who think physics is still just as great as it ever was, often complain that they don’t have enough time.

Sometimes I wonder what physics would be like if we did have the time. If we didn’t have to worry about careers and funding, what would we do? I can speculate, comparing to different communities, but here I’m interested in something more concrete: what, specifically, could we accomplish? I often hear people complain that the incentives of academia discourage deep work, but I don’t often hear examples of the kind of deep work that’s being discouraged.

So I’m going to try an experiment here. I know I have a decent number of readers who are scientists of one field or another. Imagine you didn’t have to worry about funding any more. You’ve got a permanent position, and what’s more, your favorite collaborators do too. You don’t have to care about whether your work is popular, whether it appeals to the university or the funding agencies or any of that. What would you work on? What projects would you personally do, that you don’t have the time for in the current system? What worthwhile ideas has modern academia left out?


Interdisciplinarity Is Good for the Soul

Interdisciplinary research is trendy these days. Grant agencies love it, for one. But talking to people in other fields isn’t just promoted by the authorities: like eating your vegetables, it’s good for you too.

If you talk only to people from your own field, you can lose track of what matters in the wider world. There’s a feedback effect where everyone in a field works on what everyone else in the field finds interesting, and the field spirals inward. “Interesting” starts meaning what everyone else is working on, without fulfilling any other criteria. Interdisciplinary contacts hold that back: not only can they call bullshit when you’re deep in your field’s arcane weirdness, they can also point out things that are more interesting than you expected, ideas that your field has seen so often they look boring but that are actually more surprising or useful than you realize.

Interdisciplinary research is good for self-esteem, too. As a young researcher, you can easily spend all your time talking to people who know more about your field than you do. Branching out reminds you of how much you’ve learned: all that specialized knowledge may be entry-level in your field, but it still puts you ahead of the rest of the world. Even as a grad student, you can be someone else’s guest expert if the right topic comes up.

Pan Narrans Scientificus

As scientists, we want to describe the world as objectively as possible. We try to focus on what we can establish conclusively, to leave out excessive speculation and stick to cold, hard facts.

Then we have to write application letters.

Stick to the raw, un-embellished facts, and an application letter would just be a list: these papers in these journals, these talks and awards. Though we may sometimes wish applications worked that way, we don’t live in that kind of world. To apply for a job or a grant, we can’t just stick to the most easily measured facts. We have to tell a story.

The author Terry Pratchett called humans Pan Narrans, the Storytelling Ape. Stories aren’t just for fun, they’re how we see the world, how we organize our perceptions and actions. Without a story, the world doesn’t make sense. And that applies even to scientists.

Applications work best when they tell a story: how did you get here, and where are you going? Scientific papers, similarly, require some sort of narrative: what did you do, and why did you do it? When teaching or writing about science, we almost never just present the facts. We try to fit it into a story, one that presents the facts but also makes sense, in that deliciously human way. A story, more than mere facts, lets us project to the future, anticipating what you’ll do with that grant money or how others will take your research in new directions.

It’s important to remember, though, that stories aren’t actually facts. You can’t get too attached to one story, you have to be willing to shift as new facts come in. Those facts can be scientific measurements, but they can also be steps in your career. You aren’t going to tell the same story when applying to grad school as when you’re trying for tenure, and that’s not just because you’ll have more to tell. The facts of your life will be organized in new ways, rearranging in importance as the story shifts.

Keep your stories in mind as you write or do science. Think about your narrative, the story you’re using to understand the world. Think about what it predicts, how the next step in the story should go. And be ready to start a new story when you need to.

When You Shouldn’t Listen to a Distinguished but Elderly Scientist

Of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s sayings, the most famous is “Clarke’s third law”, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Almost as famous, though, is his first law:

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Recently Michael Atiyah, an extremely distinguished but also rather elderly mathematician, claimed that something was possible: specifically, he claimed it was possible that he had proved the Riemann hypothesis, one of the longest-standing and most difficult puzzles in mathematics. I won’t go into the details here, but people are, well, skeptical.

This post isn’t really about Atiyah. I’m not close enough to that situation to comment. Instead, it’s about a more general problem.

See, the public seems to mostly agree with Clarke’s law. They trust distinguished, elderly scientists, at least when they’re saying something optimistic. Other scientists know better. We know that scientists are human, that humans age…and that sometimes scientific minds don’t age gracefully.

Some of the time, that means Alzheimer’s, or another form of dementia. Other times, it’s nothing so extreme, just a mind slowing down with age, opinions calcifying and logic getting just a bit more fuzzy.

And the thing is, watching from the sidelines, you aren’t going to know the details. Other scientists in the field will, but this kind of thing is almost never discussed with the wider public. Even here, though specific physicists come to mind as I write this, I’m not going to name them. It feels rude, to point out that kind of all-too-human weakness in someone who accomplished so much. But I think it’s important for the public to keep in mind that these people exist. When an elderly Nobelist claims to have solved a problem that baffles mainstream science, the news won’t tell you they’re mentally ill. All you can do is keep your eyes open, and watch for warning signs:

Be wary of scientists who isolate themselves. Scientists who still actively collaborate and mentor almost never have this kind of problem. There’s a nasty feedback loop when those contacts start to diminish. Being regularly challenged is crucial to test scientific ideas, but it’s also important for mental health, especially in the elderly. As a scientist thinks less clearly, they won’t be able to keep up with their collaborators as much, worsening the situation.

Similarly, beware those famous enough to surround themselves with yes-men. With Nobel prizewinners in particular, many of the worst cases involve someone treated with so much reverence that they forget to question their own ideas. This is especially risky when commenting on an unfamiliar field: often, the Nobelist’s contacts in the new field have a vested interest in holding on to their big-name support, and ignoring signs of mental illness.

Finally, as always, bigger claims require better evidence. If everything someone works on is supposed to revolutionize science as we know it, then likely none of it will. The signs that indicate crackpots apply here as well: heavily invoking historical scientists, emphasis on notation over content, a lack of engagement with the existing literature. Be especially wary if the argument seems easy, deep problems are rarely so simple to solve.

Keep this in mind, and the next time a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, don’t trust them blindly. Ultimately, we’re still humans beings. We don’t last forever.

Different Fields, Different Worlds

My grandfather is a molecular biologist. When we meet, we swap stories: the state of my field and his, different methods and focuses but often a surprising amount of common ground.

Recently he forwarded me an article by Raymond Goldstein, a biological physicist, arguing that biologists ought to be more comfortable with physical reasoning. The article is interesting in its own right, contrasting how physicists and biologists think about the relationship between models, predictions, and experiments. But what struck me most about the article wasn’t the content, but the context.

Goldstein’s article focuses on a question that seemed to me oddly myopic: should physical models be in the Results section, or the Discussion section?

As someone who has never written a paper with either a Results section or a Discussion section, I wondered why anyone would care. In my field, paper formats are fairly flexible. We usually have an Introduction and a Conclusion, yes, but in between we use however many sections we need to explain what we need to. In contrast, biology papers seem to have a very fixed structure: after the Introduction, there’s a Results section, a Discussion section, and a Materials and Methods section at the end.

At first blush, this seemed incredibly bizarre. Why describe your results before the methods you used to get them? How do you talk about your results without discussing them, but still take a full section to do it? And why do reviewers care how you divide things up in the first place?

It made a bit more sense once I thought about how biology differs from theoretical physics. In theoretical physics, the “methods” are most of the result: unsolved problems are usually unsolved because existing methods don’t solve them, and we need to develop new methods to make progress. Our “methods”, in turn, are often the part of the paper experts are most eager to read. In biology, in contrast, the methods are much more standardized. While papers will occasionally introduce new methods, there are so many unexplored biological phenomena that most of the time researchers don’t need to invent a new method: just asking a question no-one else has asked can be enough for a discovery. In that environment, the “results” matter a lot more: they’re the part that takes the most scrutiny, that needs to stand up on its own.

I can even understand the need for a fixed structure. Biology is a much bigger field than theoretical physics. My field is small enough that we all pretty much know each other. If a paper is hard to read, we’ll probably get a chance to ask the author what they meant. Biology, in contrast, is huge. An important result could come from anywhere, and anyone. Having a standardized format makes it a lot easier to scan through an unfamiliar paper and find what you need, especially when there might be hundreds of relevant papers.

The problem with a standardized system, as always, is the existence of exceptions. A more “physics-like” biology paper is more readable with “physics-like” conventions, even if the rest of the field needs to stay “biology-like”. Because of that, I have a lot of sympathy for Goldstein’s argument, but I can’t help but feel that he should be asking for more. If creating new mathematical models and refining them with observation is at the heart of what Goldstein is doing, then maybe he shouldn’t have to use Results/Discussion/Methods in the first place. Maybe he should be allowed to write biology papers that look more like physics papers.

Adversarial Collaborations for Physics

Sometimes physics debates get ugly. For the scientists reading this, imagine your worst opponents. Think of the people who always misinterpret your work while using shoddy arguments to prop up their own, where every question at a talk becomes a screaming match until you just stop going to the same conferences at all.

Now, imagine writing a paper with those people.

Adversarial collaborations, subject of a recent a contest on the blog Slate Star Codex, are a proposed method for resolving scientific debates. Two scientists on opposite sides of an argument commit to writing a paper together, describing the overall state of knowledge on the topic. For the paper to get published, both sides have to sign off on it: they both have to agree that everything in the paper is true. This prevents either side from cheating, or from coming back later with made-up objections: if a point in the paper is wrong, one side or the other is bound to catch it.

This won’t work for the most vicious debates, when one (or both) sides isn’t interested in common ground. But for some ongoing debates in physics, I think this approach could actually help.

One advantage of adversarial collaborations is in preventing accusations of bias. The debate between dark matter and MOND-like proposals is filled with these kinds of accusations: claims that one group or another is ignoring important data, being dishonest about the parameters they need to fit, or applying standards of proof they would never require of their own pet theory. Adversarial collaboration prevents these kinds of accusations: whatever comes out of an adversarial collaboration, both sides would make sure the other side didn’t bias it.

Another advantage of adversarial collaborations is that they make it much harder for one side to move the goalposts, or to accuse the other side of moving the goalposts. From the sidelines, one thing that frustrates me watching string theorists debate whether the theory can describe de Sitter space is that they rarely articulate what it would take to decisively show that a particular model gives rise to de Sitter. Any conclusion of an adversarial collaboration between de Sitter skeptics and optimists would at least guarantee that both parties agreed on the criteria. Similarly, I get the impression that many debates about interpretations of quantum mechanics are bogged down by one side claiming they’ve closed off a loophole with a new experiment, only for the other to claim it wasn’t the loophole they were actually using, something that could be avoided if both sides were involved in the experiment from the beginning.

It’s possible, even likely, that no-one will try adversarial collaboration for these debates. Even if they did, it’s quite possible the collaborations wouldn’t be able to agree on anything! Still, I have to hope that someone takes the plunge and tries writing a paper with their enemies. At minimum, it’ll be an interesting read!

Conferences Are Work! Who Knew?

I’ve been traveling for over a month now, from conference to conference, with a bit of vacation thrown in at the end.

(As such, I haven’t had time to read up on the recent announcement of the detection of neutrinos and high-energy photons from a blazar, Matt Strassler has a nice piece on it.)

One thing I didn’t expect was how exhausting going to three conferences in a row would be. I didn’t give any talks this time around, so I thought I was skipping the “work” part. But sitting in a room for talk after talk, listening and taking notes, turns out to still be work! There’s effort involved in paying attention, especially in a scientific talk where the details matter. You assess the talks in your head, turning concepts around and thinking about what you might do with them. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice for a seminar or two, but at a conference, after a while, it really builds up. After three, let’s just say I’ve really needed this vacation. I’ll be back at work next week, and maybe I’ll have a longer blog post for you folks. Until then, I ought to get some rest!