— “Why are you not employed at a university?”
— “Why are you financed by crowdfunding and private sponsors instead of research foundations and universities?”
These are questions that I am sometimes asked. I work full-time as a researcher in theoretical physics, I publish in some of the best journals worldwide in theoretical and mathematical physics, and yet I am not employed at or funded by any research institution. How come?
In this blog post I would like to try to answer these questions. The truth is that it is complicated, even for myself, to fully understand this, and thus this post is also be my own attempt to find an answer.
Broadly speaking there are two reasons why I am not employed at a university:
- I do not match the profile, that academia rewards
- Academia is unsuitable for the kind of research that I wish to do
Let me try to expand on this:
1. Fitting in or out of the academic research profile
As I have already described in an earlier post, modern theoretical physics — and academia in general — revolves around a currency of publications and citations. In recent decades the emphasis on publication and citation counts has become all dominant: what matters is how much you publish and how often you are cited.
What this means is that those, who get cited, win. Its that simple. And who gets cited? Well, generally speaking you get cited a lot if you’re 1) very, very good at what you do and 2) if you work in a field where lots of others work too. That is: you get cited if you work on mainstream topics and if you’re very good at it.
This means that researchers tend to cluster; modern theoretical physics is characterised by large research communities: the string theory community is by far the larges; loop quantum gravity and non-commutative geometry are two smaller communities and there exist a number of other communities too. There is a tendency that people only speak to those within their own cluster and since the competition for funding and jobs is fiercer than ever the pressure to publish forces people to read only papers near to and relevant for their own research topics.
What this means is that there is very little room (read: none) for people without permanent positions to work on topics far away from mainstream research. And it also means that those, who win the fight for funding, are those who have the highest technical skills. What matters is not how visionary your ideas are — if you work on mainstream stuff the general direction will already have been laid out for you — but how good you are at computations. Thus, technicians, who work on mainstream ideas win; visionaries, who work on their own new ideas, lose.
And I happen to belong to the second group. After completing my Ph.D. I commenced together with the mathematician Johannes Aastrup a completely new research direction — we call it Quantum Holonomy Theory— which involves noncommutative geometries on configuration spaces, and although I managed to survive within academia for more than ten years I didn’t manage to land a permanent position. And when you reach the age of forty without a permanent position your academic life is over. Which is what happened to me.
So the short answer to the question why I am not employed at a university is that I didn’t make it. immediately after I received my Ph.D. I started working in an area far away from mainstream — in fact, together with my colleague Johannes Aastrup I opened a new research field — and thus I lost the fight for a permanent position.
But this is not the complete answer to the question. So let me continue:
2. The culture of modern theoretical high-energy physics
The point is that I made a choice. I actually came quite close to landing a lucrative academic position — around ten years ago I was second on the final shortlist for a german W3 professorate, the highest academic position in Germany — so I almost made it. If I had worked a little harder to fit in, if I had been more willing to compromise, to work more on mainstream ideas and less on my own ideas, well, I might actually have made it. But I didn’t. I wouldn’t.
The point is that the way academia works today people are being punished for creativity and rewarded for conformity. People who stay within the box win while those, who break out of the box and explore completely new territory, lose. And that is wrong. Its not how academia ought to work. We need new, revolutionary ideas. The world need those new crazy ideas and — by God! — the research field of theoretical high-energy physics badly need new ideas. More than ever.
What I realised is that academia is not suitable for the kind of research that I wish to do. The academia that I came to know has many faces and many colours, this is not a black-and-white story, but there are some general problems, which are not merely structural. The problem is not only the emphasis on measurable quantities like publications and citations. There are also some cultural issues and it is because of them that I am glad that I didn’t manage to land a permanent position. I am in fact relieved that I got out.
What are those cultural issues?
I think that people in high-energy physics have lost faith. The problems that we are faced with are extremely hard — unification, quantum gravity, etc. — and have been around for decades. All the giants tried and none succeeded and I think that most people have given up trying — like truly trying! — and instead they wait for some genius, some new Einstein, to turn up and solve the problem.
What has happened is that idealism has been replaced with cynicism. People don’t believe that they can solve those problems and a corollary to that belief is that they also don’t believe that their peers can.
This is the reason why people, who dare present completely new ideas are often met with indifference, ridicule or outright hostility. In modern theoretical physics it is socially acceptable to work on stuff that nobody believes will lead to anything but which many others work on too, while it is not socially acceptable to work on your own, new ideas.
Cynics hate idealists because they function as a mirror where they get a glimpse of their own shortcomings. The older professor attack the young, naive physicist who at a conference present some new idea, because it makes him remember what it was like to believe and how much it hurts to have lost that idealism.
The only people, who can afford to present new ideas in contemporary theoretical physics are those at the top of the hierarchy, the leaders of the various research communities and those with permanent positions. They are being taken serious and their ideas discussed.
But revolutions never come from the top of the hierarchy, revolutions happen when the nobodies become somebodies because they try, because they are hungry and because they want to break down the hierarchy and overthrow their leaders. Revolutions always come from the bottom of the hierarchy.
Revolutionary ideas do not come from people who have spent their entire career working on mainstream ideas. Revolutionary ideas come from people, who are not deeply embedded within the old ideas.
What happens, when people stop believing that they can actually solve the problems they are working on is that it becomes acceptable to pretend they are trying. It’s okay to work on something that everyone knows lead nowhere because, well, “we’re not the new Einstein, right?” (as someone once told me).
When idealism goes out the door what is left is the social hierarchy itself. The power game. The academic world, that I have come to know, is plagued by power games. A very small number of kings and a lot of peasants.
3. What is missing
What is missing is a social atmosphere where it is okay to make mistakes. To solve the problems, that we are faced with, we need creativity. But creativity dies in fear.
The academic world is a world filled with people who seek praise but with very few to give it. It is a world in need of therapy.
I remember once I told a former colleagues of mine, a world leading expert on black holes, that I thought it was fantastic what he was doing and that I truly appreciate how much he knows and how hard he works. He almost fell off his bike. Nobody had ever told him that. Isn’t that sad? He’s one of the brightest people of his generation and yet nobody ever told him that.
I wish that academia would be more generous with compassionate and friendly words. Everyone would benefit from that. Obviously its necessary to point out mistakes and shortcomings, but if all we do is criticise we end up in a sad place. What I miss is a place where the old professor say something positive to that young guy presenting his new and crazy idea instead of just running him over and killing his passion. A place where we see the king in each other instead of the enemy. What I miss is a sense of comradeship. Newborn ideas are often hideous; their beauty comes with age. If we kill all the ugly babies we’ll never see the coming of the new king.
I didn’t find any sense of comradeship in the academic world and that is why I am glad to have left it.
But it is a sad story too, because it would have been so much more fun to have done the work with good friends instead of doing it alone — my colleague Johannes Aastrup is a good friend but two is a small number: more would have been merrier.
— And so this is my answer to the question: I am not in academia because there is no room there for someone like me, and because I didn’t find the sense of comradeship that I was looking for.