Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A modest proposal

There is again a lot of activity related to the dream of taking Finland to the top of science. As a rule, some organizational changes are seen as the magic trick to reach this goal. The peak activity seems to have a period of roughly ten years: as in case of super string revolutions I strongly suspect a correlation with sunspot activity.

Each period of peak activity has its own buzz words. Last time one of the buzz words was "critical mass". There was a common realization among decision makers that the period of individuals is over in science and that science has become an industry, where individual researchers are those unlucky guys on the assemly line and only top leaders are what matters. Also the words "rotation", and "accountability" loaned from business world were heard often. The great promise of the organizational gurus in physics was that before year 2005 we would have a Nobel in physics. I have learned that the methods to achieve this goal created deep fear and horror in young candidates for heroes of scientific labour. My humble opinion is that a person who is told that his survival depends on whether he makes a scientific discovery within five years will not make this discovery. Or has anyone heard about great scientific discoveries made during the last five minutes before becoming hanged?

At this time "innovation" has become the central buzz word. Now it has been however realized that besides top leaders also researcher is needed to carry out successful research. Gifted scientist is modelled as a cognitive athlete who wants to be the best. It is also admitted that researcher can also have some personal traits. For instance, he can suffer from narcism and the idea is to cleverly utilize this personal weakness to cheat him to become a top performer. It is however not assumed that top researcher might have soul since this would reduce the predictive power of otherwise simple and elegant model.

In line with top-to-bottom philosophy organizational changes are also now seen as the magic manner to get to the Promised Land. One fellow says that we must fuse together three different high schools to combine art, commerce, and technology: MIT serves as a model here. Second guru is sure that by branding every possible product of scientific activity and making every idea a commercial product Finland will become the leader of science. The third wise guy thinks that very big is very beautiful: we must increase dramatically the funding of science and build the counterpart of Harward and we should not tolerate small universities anymore.

Well, this all is so big, so big, so big. And there are also many unasked questions. Is the academic assembly line really the only tool to manufacture top researchers? Could it be that brilliant young researcher with internet connection might be able to decide himself what is the most interesting problem to solve and perhaps learn himself all that is needed to achieve this? Could it be that the old power greedy men at the top of tower have long time ago lost contact with real research and are not able tell for young minds what to do?

Is Big Science the problem

Why this view of decision makers about scientists as spiritual idiots? And why do we believe in formal organizations rather than trusting on individuals? Is "Big Science" the name of the disease? Is the real problem that scientific decision making in big organizations has become politics and instead of facts complex social forces - the fear to lose face being one of the most important amongst them - determine the decisions? To mention a familiar example: in theoretical physics the proponents of quantum field theory, superstrings and loop quantum gravity are much like political parties fighting for money and the question whether these theories have to say anything new and interesting about reality has long time ago become irrelevant.

Superstring hegemony has during last years become a symbol of a colossal power system of science which has lost totally its connections with reality. Although postdoc positions for string theorists are becoming very rare, this hegemony will not lose its influence until the professors producing superstring publications have resigned. The situation in neuroscience and biology is not much better although the loss of contact to reality is not so manifest. The fact however is that the dogmas which have long ago turned out to be in conflict with experimental reality (introns as junk DNA, basic beliefs about cell membrane as pump-channel system, the view about how memories are represented, the view about consciousness as a function comparable to swetting or urination performed by a "consciousness module" somewhere in the brain - to mention only some of the most idiotic beliefs) remain official truths.

Could we learn something from the art of simple household?

What about accepting a spoonful of realism from everyday household where no one dreams of becoming the Big Boss? Science needs first rate thinkers to produce great visions. Also a small country like Finland can produce a couple of thinkers per century and perhaps the era of internet might amplify this rate somewhat. If such a thinker emerges he or she does not need very much. Thinkers want to understand: they do not dream of becoming academic mafiosos or leaders of big projects writing grant applications and sitting in meetings. Thinkers do not want to waste their precious time in continual travelling from conference to conference around the globe since web has been discovered. Even the most passionate thinker has however some basic metabolic needs and their printers and computers suffer breakdown now and then. Could one imagine that a country like Finland could afford say some euros per month (1000 would be enough!) for a person having passion and ability to think and requiring nothing else but the minor prerequisites for doing it?

Well, this question was rhetoric. I know that this is not possible because it is so utterly simple and small and requires only some good will and real wisdom which is equally rare natural resource as genuine thinkers. Finland is full of individuals who could pay the needed money from their own pocket but they will not do it because they are afraid that they would be regarded as crazy.

In any case, money does not seem to be a problem as far as theoretical science is considered. What applies to thinkers, need not hovever apply to experimental scientists - at least as we understood them in our scientific world view. In this belief system the testing of modern theories of physics requires a galaxy sized particle accelarator and super string hegemony even declares that we must give up the hope of predicting and testing anything. Not all of us agree. Some minds - thrown outside establishment of course - are working hardly to convay the message that our belief system in this and also many other respects is wrong - pathetically wrong. Sooner or later these heretics will achieve their goal and some day the era of Big Science will be seen as one of the worst periods of intellectual stagnation that human kind has ever experienced. This might mean that also the golden time of experimental physics might be here again and that big science might transform from gigantic projects with individuals acting like mindless machine parts to an activity of individuals requiring not much more than intelligence, curiosity, and open mind.

A crazy suggestion

I conclude with a cracy suggestion for scientific decision makers. Why not spend a different week end - kind of intellectual carnival during which every belief is challenged? Why not - just during this week end - to carefully listen what the heretics are saying? Why not being just for once intellectually honest - just as during those golden student days - and instead of routinely emitting this little magic word "crackpot" plung into a real scientific discussion listening and developing real counter arguments based on contents? Why not - just during this weekend - to behave like a decent human being rather than third rate politician?


At 4:48 PM, Blogger Kea said...

...and some day the era of Big Science will be seen as one of the worst periods of intellectual stagnation that human kind has ever experienced.

A stagnation with a written record for future historians to ponder in horror, and write essays about how this Big Science grew out of the mindless technological machine of the latter 20th century. Well, that's the optimistic viewpoint: that the truth will out.

And yeah, I have nightmares about sitting on committee meetings, or signing my life away on some ridiculous contract written in Newsspeak, which I can't even read.

Thanks for the post. And don't worry - it's like that everywhere - not just Finland.

At 2:55 AM, Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 08 07

Hello Matti:
I've been thinking of you a lot lately. Kea is right, this attitude is pervasive no matter where you live.

Have you ever thought about capitalizing on your ideas the way Big Science does? I know you have authored books, but what about simple children's books explaining your concepts to mold young minds? There is a big market out there for scientific writing geared towards younger ages.

If you did this, then you could make money to support your independent research. I have always felt that you have a helluva lot to say. But I need to accumulate so much knowledge before I understand even an iota of what you write...With that in mind, don't focus so much on your alienation and screwed up experiences- bad things happen to good people.

Try to figure out a way to inculcate your ideas into younger minds, then by the time they are my age, not only will they understand what you are saying, but they can augment your work as well...

Just my two cents that you may take or leave...Have a great rest of week.

At 2:57 AM, Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 08 07

To add to the above, one thing that I have noticed is that both teachers and scientists tend to be rather conformist. Compliancy is the rule- don't question orthodoxies. HOWEVER, you Kea, me or anyone else who frequents this blog is not a conformist and I am willing to bet that you can use your creative mind to generate income, which is necessary to become completely self sufficient. When that occurs, world watch out!

At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I pondered over in times of commercial ideas propagating everything.

For public or academic reasearch which is I think supposedly for the benefit of mankind(?) results should be of benefit of mankind too. But since researchers need to live too, they in return, get paid. So still it's business.

But lets suppose major progress comes from an individual who worked for free. Now, why would get share his ideas to everyone? What if attempts were made to a larger extent to patent or protect other people from exploiting the ideas in any practical applications? A person who worked 20 years unpayed and makes a discovery, might want a million Euro or so - that would actually not be alot, considering what a string theorist would cost for 20 years. And what have we received in return of our investments? How would the moralist society view such a individual, who worked for free... and now wants payment?

What's the moral in profiting on say medicine patents?

What's the moral in NOT working for free?

What's the difference?

Sometimes I feel a deep disgusts that every darn thing is business.

Some of the faiths of individuals are sad. When you were a kid you would think science was all about curiousity and growing knowledge, thus having a certain dignity as compares to other endeavours. But that seems far from the truth.

That's the single most depressing point about science. When you sit in your chair thinking about physics problems it's a joyful world. To be honest, even if I did find say the keys go Gods basement... why the heck would I care to share it with anyone? Am I doing this to preach my answers onto other people? No. Am I doing this more money? No. I don't know what it is, maybe it's a bit like art. I think if we get an artists to paint a piece of art for money you are killing the true art, aren't we?

Matti, I think your spirit seems to be that of a true artist. There is never a second thought, that you are doing this for the true love of it. More power to you. Your spirit is I think what in the end is the winning one.


At 10:16 PM, Blogger Matti Pitkanen said...

Thank your for Kea, Mahndisa, and Fredrik for comments.

To Kea: I believe that evolution is basically evolution of consciousness: we have already reached the higher cultural and spiritual levels. We either manage to evolve further or are swept out from biosphere: this is why dogmatic world views are so dangerous. I however want to remain optimist although I know that ancient cultures disappeared in time scale of century.

To Mahndisa: I am really happy that there are non-conformists among us who dare also say it aloud. I believe that mind remains creative only as long as it remains free. It would be nice to have some compensation about a work of decades but I am afraid that freedom is lost when the mind tries to make money;-). Playing with these ideas is a great joy as Fredrik said, and money would bring in purpose and and goal and it would be free play anymore and I remember what happened to Adam and Eve;-).

What I know that making of money or gaining academic position requires allies and they bring in entire society with them. And also the fear about loss of academic respectability. My ally might have opinions about what I should add to my homepage or blog and encourage me to be more diplomatic; he might suggest that I should not publicly talk about all things that I find interesting (for instance, he might be happy if I would talk only privately about cold fusion, paranormal phenomena, or memory of water); he might have also suggestions about what results be kept secret to make more money; and so on.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 08 07

SELF publishing. NO ally other than yourself needed. I do see that the conundrum is that you don't want anything to interfere with the purity of thought, which is understandable. But if you self published and simply got a distribution deal, I am not so sure that your so called allies would try to silence you.

Then again, I am an American. Commerce, capitalism, making money is in our blood. Aside from my husband & family, physics, my dog and the mountains, MONEY is the next most important thing to me. Not simply to garner material wealth but to garner true FREEDOM in a world run by capitalism.

If I had my druthers, I would do research ALL day (now only about 15-20% of my day is in research) and live in the mountains with my husband, dogs, goats, cattle and a huge garden. The only way I know to attain this dream is to be able to make a shitload of money. But my compromise is that whatever I do for a job MUST be intimately connected to my interests. Therefore, tutoring math and science is just fine. Starting my own tutoring company is not only a means to an end, but also is not completely orthogonal to the areas in math and physics for which I hold curiosities.

See what I am getting at? There are ten million ways to skin a cat, and certainly there is no more nobility in poverty than there is in richness. Ultimately, I wanna be rich so I can live my life the way I WANT to live it.

I am almost free, but not quite at this stage. Gimme another five years, then I will be there...;)

At 12:23 AM, Blogger Matti Pitkanen said...


there have been some pressures to write a popular book and I have even planned it but it became clear that the time is not ripe. It requires a lot of temporal distance to the birthday of idea before one is able to write about it to children;-). Every time I go to a conference I make quite too many slides containing quite too much details and time allows to represent only a small fraction of it. The conference in which I get through all my slides will mean change: I will start serious writing of a popular book.

At this age the ability to spend money is rather limited and most people at my age seem to spoil their health when trying to meet this challenge;-). The era of web is a paradize for people like me without any family duties (your case is of course completely different). Almost Ultimate Utopia: if I knew that I can afford a new computer when the old one crashes down and if I could afford visit Helsinki now and then, I would be perfectly happy. To have a couple of students to brainwash would be nice but too much to require and against my principles;-):

At 4:03 AM, Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 09 07

Let me know when you think the time is right. I will be the first to buy your popular book! You know I am a big fan of yours and have trudged through a few chapters that you post, but boy oh boy do you write densely!

That is the challenge of trying to convey a lot of information to many people at once, yes I see the complexity.

BUT, when I get rich, I should like to come to Finland to bother you for a spell so that you might convert my brain cells to the TGD way;)


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