Saturday, September 3, 2016
Next book: More and Different by Phil Anderson
I'm reading More and Different, a collection of essays (of varying length and, sadly, readability) by Nobel-winning solid-state physicist Phil Anderson. Most of the essays that I've read so far have been his remembrances of great moments in the history of solid state physics and his work at Bell Labs. However, in his reflection on the trajectory of 20th century physics as a whole, he makes the unusual move of offering a sober-eyed lament about the state of science careers at the dawn of the 21st century. People know that there is a game, and so they collect tokens of accomplishment rather than simply pushing forward on problems that they find to be intellectually significant. I've noted before that sometimes you learn more about people when you observe them in comfortable circumstances rather than competitive ones. Alas, as we keep expanding the number of scientists (while proclaiming that project to be a moral and economic imperative) we get fewer chances to observe how people respond to comfort and more chances to observe how they respond to competition. Of course, it is completely impossible in a democratic culture (a concept that is related to but somewhat distinct from a democratic government) to afford intellectual elites too much visible comfort. Forget about what the masses will say--the educated themselves will recoil from it, because Americans are Americans. Just look at how the National Science Foundation wants to keep people busy with the democratic work of outreach, whether graduate students or established faculty, rather than let people focus on science.