The noble art of gold digging

I sometimes think of fundamental research in terms of the noble art of gold digging. When you dig for gold you need two basic skillsets. First of all, you need to be able to find the right place to dig. And secondly there is the digging itself. And those, who have tried it, knows that it requires both skill sets to be successful. It is no use having a nose for spotting the right location if you cannot dig a hole, if you have no tools, no determination and no endurance. And likewise, it doesn’t matter how big your shovel is if you’re digging your hole in the wrong place. In that case all you will accomplish is a hole. And holes can be beautiful, magnificent even, they can be full of super nice symmetries, but the key quality of a hole will always be emptiness.

Now, the world of theoretical physics that I have come to know through my career is one where there is an abundance of people with big shovels but very few people who knows how to find the right place to dig. Or rather, the type of physicists, who win the fierce fight for permanent positions, are those with the big shovels. They are the winners. The physicists with a talent for finding a new and promising spot to dig are, in my experience, the losers. The result is a scientific community where everyone digs their hole in the same place. 

The scarcity of new ideas

Today the world of theoretical high-energy physics consist mainly of a handful of very large communities where people flocks around a few and by now quite old ideas — and where new ideas, should they emerge, are mostly treated with a mix of indifference, ridicule and hostility.

It is incredible that in a time, when theoretical high-energy physics is in desperate need of new ideas, everyone is working on the same few ideas, that have mostly been around for decades. The questions we are faced with today are largely the same that were asked forty or fifty years ago: — does a theory of quantum gravity exist? (and what does it look like?), — why does the standard model of particle physics look the way it does? and — what is quantum field theory? No answers have been found and yet everyone works within a very small number of communities around an equally small number of old ideas, either in the string theory community, where the buzzwords are supersymmetry, amplitudes, AdS/CFT, landscapes, ADHD and what not, or in the loop quantum gravity community,  once the rebel in the classroom but now itself an old mainstream guy, where everything is largely based on the Ashtekar variables and the corresponding Ashtekar-Lewandowski measure, spin networks and the idea that its cool to look at quantum gravity by itself without unification, or in one of the other smaller communities such as the non-commutative geometry community or the communities around axiomatic and constructive quantum field theory. One would think that at a time like this there would be a blossoming of new ideas but that is not the case. On the contrary, there appears to be a contraction. 

Why is this the case?

In my opinion the problem is in part structural.

The way the academic world operates today a young researcher, who has just finishes her Ph.d., will apply for a two-year postdoc position at a university. If she is successful the first postdoc position will be followed by one or two similar positions at other universities after which she will apply for a more permanent position where, if she is exceptionally successful, she will be accepted. The key currencies in the market for permanent positions are scientific publications and citations. What matters is how many publications you have, where they are published and especially how often they are cited. If your score is high you’ll get grants, you’ll be rewarded, you will be noticed and the road ahead will open up. If not, well, nobody wants to hear about losers. 

The competition for permanent positions has grown fiercer over the last decades, the age at which postdocs land a permanent position has increased, often to around 40, and the number of applicants has increased too. Also, the emphasis on measurable quantities, number of publications and citations, has grown much stronger.

What this means is that researchers, who stay close to mainstream, win. Its that simple. When the measure is the number of publications and citations then the winning strategy is to stay close to mainstream and produce damn good research there. With this strategy you can earn large numbers of citations, which translates into a career. If, on the other hand, you should choose to wander away from mainstream research and perhaps even explore your own ideas, then you’ll not win. 

Why? Well, first of all, to be cited you need to be read. But there are more readers, who read mainstream research than there are readers, who read about exotic new topics. In a environment with fierce competition people must spend their time on things, which will enhance their chances of winning, and that means that they’ll spend their time reading papers, which are relevant for their own research. And it will be those papers, which they cite. 

A new idea usually involves new techniques, it involves new concepts and terminology. And most importantly a new idea breaks with old ideas. All this means that it will be challenging to read and that means time. It takes time. 

And for most researchers time has become a scarce commodity. The battlecry is publish or perish and you must publish a lot to avoid the perishing part. And the more you publish the less you read and what you read will be what benefits you. And that means mainstream. When there is a stronger emphasis on quantity people will spend more time writing and less time reading papers. And the paper they read will be the ones they have to read: alas, close to their own research.

And even if your papers are read they still wont get cited unless your readers work on a related topic — which they won’t be because everyone knows that working on topics away from mainstream research is a loosing strategy. Theoretical physicists are smart people and smart people quickly work out what the winning strategy is.

Scientific clusters 

This emphasis on measurable quantities, publications and citations, produces a dynamics, which pushes the scientific community towards more mainstream. There is a strong tendency to form clusters, where people work on the same topics and the same ideas, and these clusters will become increasingly isolated from one another. Each cluster becomes a new self-sustained system where people are rewarded for staying within the cluster (more citations) and punished for straying away from it (fewer citations).

These clusters are build around a set of core ideas and beliefs and around a number of leading researchers. Over time a culture emerges, where the debate within each cluster aligns itself with these core ideas and avoids challenging them. A researcher has little benefit from challenging these core ideas. Unless you’re on top of the system and has the power to move the cluster, you will only loose by challenging its core beliefs. If you do not have a permanent position then you depend on the goodwill of the leaders of the cluster that you belong to. You will want to impress them, not challenge them. So the winning strategy within a cluster is to produce high-quality variations around its core ideas.

An “us against them” mentality is developed within each cluster, where its members will be less likely to read papers from the outside, which means that the clusters become increasingly isolated. 

And what happens if you’re not a member of one of the large clusters? Well, then you’ll most likely lose. If you do not have a permanent position and you choose to work outside of one of the main clusters, there will be fewer people who read your papers, which means that you’ll have fewer citations. And that is a problem, you’ll not get research grants, you’ll not get job offers. 

So who are the winners in this system? The winners are those with the big shovels, those who are good at digging, the technicians. Because if you work close to mainstream what you mostly need is technical skills. You don’t need to develop radically new ideas, you don’t need as much creativity as you do when you throw everything away and start anew. What you need is to be a highly skilled technician. The winners are the diggers and the losers are those, who are good at finding news places to dig. The visionaries.

Is all this really true? Can it be? Well, just look at the real world. The world of theoretical high-energy physics looks exactly this way. We have a few very large clusters — string theory is by far the largest, then there is loop quantum gravity and a few smaller ones such as non-commutative geometry and various directions within quantum field theory (axiomatic, constructive, asymptotic safety, etc). 

One thing you notice about these clusters is that they are surprisingly stable. They don’t change much. The core set of beliefs remain the same despite the fact that their goals have not been reached — for string theory it is clear that the goal of finding a falsifiable theory of unified quantum gravity is not within reach, for loop quantum gravity the same can be said just without the unification part and for non-commutative geometry one can say that although Chamseddine and Connes formulation of the standard model in terms of spectral triples is beautiful it hasn’t produced much more than a reformulation of what we already knew. The core beliefs within each cluster has hardly changed at all during the past two or three decades, despite their lack of success.

The reason why these communities do not change is clear. Its the basic dynamics of the way science works today, people are rewarded when they adhere to the core beliefs of their community and they are punished when they do not. 

The only people, who can challenge these clusters are the ones, who have permanent positions. But those people are either the ones, who helped build the cluster or the ones, who fought their way up their hierarchy by sticking to the core beliefs. There are no rebels within these clusters. The rebels have been groomed or weeded out long ago. The new ideas, that do emerge in theoretical high-energy physics today, almost all come from the top of the hierarchies. 

But revolutionary ideas never come from the top. Revolutions don’t start at the top, revolutions start at the bottom, where the nobodies become somebodies because they attack the old ideas, tear them down and replace them with better ones. I see very little chance of that happening in the present environment of modern theoretical high-energy physics. I think that unless he or she has the support of someone powerful it is essentially impossible for a young researcher with radically new ideas to break through the academic walls of contemporary high-energy physics.

Go rogue

What can be done to change this? 

I think that we need rebelion. Social systems are made by people and thus can be changed by people. What is needed is that people stop following the rules. 

I think that young researchers, who have ambitious new ideas that do not adhere to the core beliefs of one of the main clusters and who find themselves having to choose between securing a career or pursuing their own ideas, should consider whether it might be best for them to break away from academia. 

Don’t break with science, don’t break with the scientific community at large — but consider whether it might be best to pursue your scientific career outside of academia. Because if academia is dysfunctional and you don’t have the power to change it, well, then it might be useful to think about what prevents you from doing science elsewhere.

Who said that fundamental research can only be done at a university? 

So I encourage young, ambitious and brilliant theoretical physicists, who find themselves at odds with the present system, to go rogue.

I have done that. I didn’t belong to one of the main clusters. After finishing my Ph.d. I commenced a completely new research project together with the mathematician Johannes Aastrup and I experienced first hand what it means to work far away from mainstream without a permanent position. After a handful of postdoc positions I found myself at a dead end. No job, no funding, no career. Today I work as a fulltime researcher outside of academia. I don’t have the benefit of a monthly pay-check or travel allowances — or a heated office, for that matter — but I have the freedom to pursue my own ideas. Full time. And it works. I encourage others to do the same.

But let me warn you, this is not an easy thing to do. It should be a last resort. But I believe that it should be considered. To go rogue is not easy but to compromise on your ideas is worse. So again: if you’re a young researcher with great ideas, and if you find yourself in the impossible situation of having to choose between a career and your ideas, then I say choose the latter. We need you and we need your ideas.

This is a complex problem and much can be said about it. I intend to write more about my own experiences in and reflections about the academic world on this blog. I do not claim to have the full truth but I believe that my rather unique path through that world — which brought me in close contact with most of the main clusters — has given me some insights, which are worth sharing. So that I’ll do.

Best wishes,