|The Ivory Tower from|
The Neverending Story. [Source]
Before I myself got an office at a physics institute I only had a vague idea of what people did there. Absent the lauded ‘role models’ my mental image of academic research formed mostly by reading biographies of the heroes of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, plus a stack of popular science books. The latter didn’t contain much about the average researcher’s daily tasks, and to the extent that the former captured university life, it was life in the first half of the 20nd century.I expected some things to have changed during 50 years, notably in technological advances and the ease of travel, publishing, and communication. I finished high school in ’95, so the biggest changes were yet to come. I also knew that disciplines had drifted apart, that philosophy and physics were mostly going separate ways now, and that the days in which a physicist could also be a chemist could also be an artist were long gone. It was clear that academia had generally grown, become more organized and institutionalized, and closer linked to industrial research and applications. I had heard that applying for money was a big part of the game. Those were the days.
But my expectations were wrong in many other ways. 20 years, 9 moves and 6 jobs later, here’s the contrast of what I believed theoretical physics would be like to reality:
While I knew that interdisciplinarity had given in to specialization I thought that theoretical physicists would be in close connection to the experimentalists, that they would frequently discuss experiments that might be interesting to develop, or data that required explanation. I also expected theoretical physicists to work closely together with mathematicians, because in the history of physics the mathematics has often been developed alongside the physics. In both cases the reality is an almost complete disconnect. The exchange takes place mostly through published literature or especially dedicated meetings or initiatives.
I expected a much larger general intellectual curiosity and social responsibility in academia. Instead I found that most researchers are very focused on their own work and nothing but their own work. Not only do institutes rarely if ever have organized public engagement or events that are not closely related to the local research, it’s also that most individual researchers are not interested. In most cases, they plainly don’t have the time to think about anything than their next paper. That disconnect is the root of complaints like Nicholas Kristof’s recent Op-Ed, where calls upon academics: “[P]rofessors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”
- The Machinery
My biggest reality shock was how much of research has turned into manufacturing, into the production of PhDs and papers, papers that are necessary for the next grant, which is necessary to pay the next students, who will write the next papers, iterate. This unromantic hamster wheel still shocks me. It has its good side too though: The standardization of research procedures limits the risks of the individual. If you know how to play along, and are willing to, you have good chances that you can stay. The disadvantage is though that this can force students and postdocs to work on topics they are not actually interested in, and that turns off many bright and creative people.
I did not anticipate just how frequent travel and moves are necessary these days. If I had known about this in advance, I think I would have left academia after my diploma. But so I just slipped into it. Luckily I had a very patient boyfriend who turned husband who turned father of my children.
- The 2nd family
The specialization, the single-mindedness, the pressure and, most of all, the loss of friends due to frequent moves create close ties among those who are together in the same boat. It’s a mutual understanding, the nod of been-there-done-that, the sympathy with your own problems that make your colleagues and officemates, driftwood as they often are, a second family. In all these years I have felt welcome at every single institute that I have visited. The books hadn’t told me about this.
My lectures at the Sussex school went well, except that the combination of a recent cold and several hours of speaking stressed my voice box to the point of total failure. Yesterday I could only whisper. Today I get out some freak sounds below C2 but that’s pretty much it. It would be funny if it wasn’t so painful.
You can find the slides of my lectures here and the guide to further reading here. I hope they live up to your expectations :)