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October 04, 2006

Fighting the dominant paradigm

Sean over at Cosmic Variance has a nice review of Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics, which is itself a critique of theoretical physic's focus on string theory as the way to unify gravity with the other forces. Most of the review focuses on Smolin's criticism of string theory's dominance, but Sean points out that Smolin is actually making two arguments, one about string theory and one about supporting interesting alternative ideas.

Smolin talks a great deal about the need for physics, and academia more generally, to support plucky upstart ideas and scholars with the courage and vision to think big and go against the grain. This is a larger point than the specific argument about how to best quantize gravity, and ultimately far more persuasive; it is likely, unfortunately, to be lost amidst the conflict between string theory and its discontents. Faculty positions and grant money are scarce commodities, and universities and funding agencies are naturally risk-averse. Under the current system, a typical researcher might spend five years in graduate school, three to six as a postdoc, and another six or seven as an assistant professor before getting tenure – with an expectation that they will write several competent papers in every one of those years. Nobody should be surprised that, apart from a few singular geniuses, the people who survive this gauntlet are more likely to be those who show technical competence within a dominant paradigm, rather than those who will take risks and pursue their idiosyncratic visions. The dogged pursuit of string theory through the 1970’s by Green and Schwarz is a perfect example of the ultimate triumph of the latter approach, and Smolin is quite correct to lament the lack of support for this kind of research today.

Although he's talking about theoretical physicists, the same applies just as much to other disciplines (perhaps with shorter postdoc periods) and their relationship to upstart ideas. Of course, finding the right balance between "normal science" and "paradigm-shifting science" is not easy, and there is a big difference between supporting interesting new ideas and supporting crackpots. Sometimes, that distinction can be hard to see at first, but all good new ideas ultimately lead to really excellent science. Fortunately, there are places that actively encourage both both excellent work and thinking about crazy ideas.

Update Oct. 4: Suresh blogs about Sean's review as well, and also zeros in on the same passage. He makes some valuable points about how important it is to build your own model of how to do good research. Separately, Dave Bacon blogs about Peter Shor's review of Smolin's book, in which Shor likens Nature to an insurance salesman.

posted October 4, 2006 09:42 AM in Interdisciplinarity | permalink