Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading books that I don't have a strong motivation to blog about.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Anderson being curmudgeonly

1) Anderson notes that physicists are the shamans of our day, charged with telling a secular world what the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything might be.  He likes particle physics hype even less than I do.

2) In a 2004 address to the Santa Fe Institute he has some pretty harsh words for an academic system that is more interested in collecting tokens of prestige and generating overhead on grants than generating genuinely insightful work.

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.

Recent reading: Richard Hofstadter, An Intellectual Biography

I recently read Richard Hofstadter--An Intellectual Biography by David Brown.  For some reason I didn't feel like blogging it.  But a few takeaway observations:

  1. A few months ago I was aghast that anybody would call Hofstadter a smug liberal.  In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life he displayed nothing but contempt for a certain type of progressive posing!  However, after reading more about his views, writings, and political activity (such as it was) in the 50's and 60's I now admit that he was a creature of a certain liberal consensus, and while he had no use for fluffy progressives (including student protesters) he clearly had a disdainful attitude toward conservative detractors from a centre-left consenus.
  2. Perhaps Hofstadter's worst transgression was to see the defeat of Adlai Stevenson by Dwight Eisenhower as the triumph of Mencken's "booboisie."  Whatever might be said in favor of Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower was a highly accomplished man who had commanded millions of people in one of the most logistically complicated acts ever undertaken by the US government.  If that isn't a plausible resume for a Presidential contender, what is?
  3. Hofstadter started college a year early, married the daughter of a doctor, and loved doing impressions.  JUST LIKE ME!!!11!!!! 
  4. The author's description of his undergraduate college (University of Buffalo, now SUNY Buffalo) is absolutely fascinating.  The university started as a med school, added an undergraduate college of arts and sciences much later, and then (according to the author) was pushed to become a place of serious theoretical study as the children of immigrants started to pour in.  I cannot imagine a university today saying "We are getting more immigrants so we are going to up our academic game."  Even though that would actually be the right course of action when serving the disadvantaged, the Academy of today would go full-on bleeding heart, necessitating intervention from the heart surgeons of the med school.  
  5. Hofstadter had no patience for hypotheses of America's authentic past being rooted in the now-closed frontier (e.g. Turner).  To Hofstadter, the true present, future, and character of America was in the diverse cities of the east coast.  Being a descendant of people who came here to farm (in some branches of my family) and also people who came here to work in cities (other branches) I don't see it as an either/or.  I think it's a mistake to dismiss the impact of a few centuries of expansion on the national character; we need a historical narrative that balances the many different reasons that people came here.  OTOH, I fully endorse the idea of America as a melting pot, and I reject the notion that small towns are the "Real America."
All in all, I found reading about my idol to be a bit less inspirational than I thought it would be.