I neither Met Newton nor Einstein

I am just reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. I am not familiar with string theory, quantum gravity, and the related communities, so I cannot comment on Smolin’s main statement. But there is a section in the last chapter of the book that resonated with me. He describes his expectations and feelings when entering graduate school as follows:

I was in awe of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger and how they had changed physics though the force of their radical thinking. …. The great physicists I was rubbing shoulders with at Harvard were rather different from that. The atmosphere was not philosophical; it was harsh and aggressive …

This is actually what I had experienced, too – but would rather use the term competitive instead of harsh and aggressive: Competitive is used to denote this type of behavior of professionals in the corporate world, and it has positive connotations there. Thus to make a long-winded blog post short and give you an executive summary: I see lots of similarities between the academic and the corporate world. I do not attempt to offer a thorough review but rather give you my personal thoughts which are not significant statistically.

As Smolin I had also been bewildered and sometimes disappointed to find the typical physics professor or postdoc deviate so much from the idol I had in mind. Probably this was an idol I had simply made up, or that had been implanted into my mind by movies and documentaries on science professors. It would be extremely interesting to time-travel to the beginning of the 20th century and talk to members of the physics community back then. Heisenberg and Schrödinger might have quite competitive as well and not only driven by the philosophical quest to unveil the mysteries of the universe. The historian of science, Peter E. Fischer mentions Heisenberg’s and Schrödinger’s ambitions at the beginning of this article (in German). He also states that great results with be achieved (in physics) if there is a central major person with unquestionable high ethical standards and personal integrity; regarding quantum mechanics this was Niels Bohr according to Fischer.

When I am musing about this today I put this into a different context: I am comparing “academia” to the “corporate world” (the world of large global corporation), and I do not see so much difference with respect to selection mechanisms, the importance of self-marketing, and competitiveness. Both are complex systems and governed by certain rules with respect to how your status and success is measured: number of papers, grants, citations – in academia – and utilization (billable hours) and customer satisfaction in the corporate world. The latter example is taken from consulting business. Probably scientists will find this comparison insulting. But as an individual I felt exactly the same way when one or the other system had inflicted its laws on me.

I even found the corporate world a bit easier to deal with for a probably unexpected reason – at least unexpected to me: the corporate world it was about money and beating the competitors – phrased in even military language that turned conferences and meetings into airlifts, boot camps and war rooms. In academia, the targets you had to meet were actually not nobler: e.g. you had to cut your big paper into a lot of small ones to increase the number of publications. But the official goals were noble: It was about increasing the knowledge of humanity, improving standards of living or what was on the agenda of the large research programs funded by governmental agencies (and finally the tax payer). The glaring contradiction was one of the reasons I left academia. I hated the part of grant applications the most that required me to make up the statements on “social and economic improvements”.

I feel obliged to add a disclaimer here: Yes, I thought about “staying in the system and changing it from within” and yes, this is a personal statement and it might not be applicable to any other scientist’s life. And yes, I did well with regards to benchmarks and numbers in any of the systems according to whose rules I felt forced to play. I am obsessed with metrics because I was so good at meeting them. I still think it is hard to meet the targets and keep up your true motivations as a hobby. I noticed that some people can deal better than others with this kind of divide. I did not.

Most ironically, academia and the corporate world are converging in a way that I did not expect 20 years ago:

  • Also corporations officially turned into noble entities, all “social”, “green” and whatnot. As I said, I can deal better with a so-called greedy capitalistic company that does not cloak its intentions by having the CEO or his ghost writers blog on corporate social responsibility. The corporate world is exhibiting the same sort of divide between metrics and targets on the one hand, and noble ambitions on the other hand. Corporations are now attempting to measure success in terms of these noble goals; I believe this will turn them into just another number to be met.
  • The infamous metrics invented in the corporate world trickled down to academia via management consulting wisdom. Even similar tools are used to manage numbers in the academic and the corporate world. Think SAP implementations at universities. (My favorite reference is in German again – philosophy professor Konrad P. Liessmann on “knowledge society”).

What is left today for ambitious persons of integrity who want to make a difference? Do I really dare say that both large corporations and academia are built on sort of dysfunctional metrics? No, of course I do not because they have been far too successful so far. But I believe that reporting, forecasting, benchmarking, quality management is going to extreme levels now and we have just seen the beginning. I sometimes wonder how big corporations can still be productive on top of administration. I have heard and read a lot of people in academia complaining about ever-increasing administrative duties.

I am guilty as well: I been part of the corporate and the academic realm. What I have learned from both are the basis of what I am trying to do now. I have neither been as consequent and enduring to avoid these systems right from the beginning, nor did I spend all my life in one of them and try to make a change as a fully accountable member of the community.

I can only add some preliminary conclusion here: I believe  groupthink and alignment of members of communities have become too strong today – in whatever aspect of life. Smolin points out that this is specific to the String Theory community but I believe it is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Metrics thinking seems to be contagious, and it spreads from organization to organization. All managers and consultants seem to get the same training. My theory is that management systems are selected by asking other managers on the golf course – I found some anecdotal evidence for that. I have worked in an industry sector that is called fast-paced and I was a member of a very strong sub-community. What Smolin says about the String Theory physicists could be applied perfectly to that tech community. I like his references to the slightly cult-like nature of the communities.

Despite and because of the options we have to “connect with each other” (in social media marketing lingo) we should try – harder as ever – to keep up our independence. I know this sounds a bit vague. I might expound in detail what this means for me personally in this blog. For the time being it is important for me that I know from first-hand experience how it feels to be part of these communities. Otherwise the grass might always be greener over there.

Many years ago, I literally said good-bye to the specters of the great physicists – by visiting the physics library for a last time before I left. I bemoaned the lack of career opportunities for young scientists in the speech I gave at my graduation ceremony. I said that I once had thought as a physicist I would ponder about how the results of my research would be used for better or for worse (I argued, pathetically: fight cancer or design weapons). But then I had realized that most young scientists are happy if they work in a job loosely connected with science at all. Philosophical musings meant luxury that would be affordable only to the lucky few who had made it.

Having “made it” now in a more money-oriented world I am gradually realizing my personal vision of a science-oriented job, and I am indulging in all kinds of philosophical speculations. (No, I am not Mike Lazaridis and I am not founding a research center. And no, I am also not working on sort of Theory of Everything, I hope my personal crackpot index is zero, although I referred to Einstein in this post. My “science” or “research” topics are so menial I do not dare yet to mention, at least not in this post that started with a reference to a book on quantum gravity.).

So, I have found some sort of solution, and I will try to investigate if it scales to a larger number of physicists. I have not made my mind up, but generally I do not like solutions that only work for the lucky few and that require serendipitous coincidences.

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