04 August 2006

Why progress in science is so slow around here

Lubos Motl wrote a post trying to understand why Germany, and more generally Central Europe, after giving so many contributions to physics in the early XX century lost the leadership. He identifies three causes:

1. The American financial attractor that has caused some brain drain
2. The working American free market of ideas and its less viable European counterpart
3. The relative inability of European scholars to allow their younger colleagues to get further

It is interesting to realize that all this holds also for Brazil and possibly for Latin America. Maldacena is by far the most clear example of the first point. Even if he wanted to go back to Argentina it would be very difficult for the other reasons.

Lubos also details the other two points:

In the American system, new ideas are actively looked for and they are appreciated, together with their happy authors. In the Central European context, it is more important to be compatible with the old ideas - let us call them "perfectly balanced ideas" - that are currently dominating the intellectual landscape and in which the old myths and pre-conceptions play a comparable role to the newest developments.


The third difference between America and Central Europe that I mentioned is the insufficient desire of the Central European scholars to support their students and younger colleagues in getting further than the previous generations. A particularly bad habit is to penalize students and others for being interested in and working on new ideas.

Reading this brings recollections from many years ago. When I was a MSc student, in the 70's, the preprints I read were saying that quantum field theory was the framework for elementary particle physics. The researchers I talked to said that it was just a fashion and it would go away. I could not understand why. After all there were experimental evidence supporting QFT. So I had to study QFT by myself and I did so. After the PhD in London I came back to Brazil at the beginning of the 80's. I recall giving several talks on supersymmetry. It was usual to hear comments like this:
- You should do research in supersymmetry only after it is found, not now.
I usually replied saying that when supersymmetry is found it will no longer be the subject of research but of textbooks. As we all know susy is likely to be found at LHC and even before its discovery it is already in textbooks! A colleague of mine already deceased, P.P.Srivastava, was one of the first people to work in conformal supersymmetry. He was in Europe when he did his work but had to return to Brazil. Here he was convinced by many Brazilian researchers that supersymmetry was just a fashion which would go away soon. Unfortunately he gave credit to this argument and stopped working in susy. Being out of scene people started to stop citing his works. Some years later he realized how wrong his decision was, went back to susy and wrote a book Supersymmetry, Superfields and Supergravity in an attempt to get credit for having worked in conformal susy. His book was one of the few available at that time and is quite good.

Things like this happened in other areas as well. Still in the 80's, when the inflationary theory was born, people working in general relativity in Brazil started to despise the idea. They used to compare the researchers of inflation with those old Hollywood western movies where an old guy in the back of his wagon sells a miracle medicine fooling everybody! That is how it works in many places. If you do not have sound scientific arguments you convince people in this way. Mainly if you live in an economically or militarily oppressed country. It works! I had a bad time explaining to young students the distinction between scientific ideas and political ideologies.

Of course, string theory was also a target for these people. Take Nathan Berkovits for instance. He applied for a position in my institute in the 90's. We discussed the CV and recommendation letters of all candidates. Nathan had a very strong recommendation letter from Witten. After some harsh discussions an influent professor said:
- Who is this Witten anyway?
I immediately said
- The same who just won the Fields Medal!
And he replied in a waggish way
- But his work was in geometry not in analysis!
That was the feeling against string theory at that time! A committee was chosen to select one of the candidates and obviously Nathan did not get the position. Very soon, another university in Sao Paulo, run by younger and smarter people, hired him so he got a good position and is well now. But we lost Berkovits!

Another tactics that is often used consists in bringing foreign people to say the last word against new ideas. There is a well known retired German professor who thinks that we all should do field theory like in 60's and forget everything about string theory. Fortunately almost nobody takes this sort of foreign authority seriously nowadays.

It has to be said that this kind of people is no longer representative of physics in Latin America. As the time goes by their proportion is diminishing in Brazil and they are loosing any decision power they had before. There are many serious researchers who appreciate new ideas and work on them. Some may not work on modern topics but accept that others do so. Without any embarrassment or any mocking. Students now can choose their area without being oppressed. And more than that, they are free to do better than their former teachers did.

A warning to the students. Some of this people are still around. You can easily recognized them. Do not trust those who attack a subject without any solid scientific argument. Never accept political or sociological arguments. They were wrong in the past. And they will be always wrong.

We are slowly finding our way to do leading science.


Anonymous said...

Hi Victor,
nice post. as a young brazilian physicist i realy hope things will change in Brasil.
unfortunately i have to sign as Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Another tactics that is often used consists in bringing foreign people to say the last word against new ideas. [...] Fortunately almost nobody takes this sort of foreign authority seriously nowadays.

In other, less developed parts of the world this habit is still alive and well. In Sweden the foreign "authority" of choice is, believe it or not, a retired Argentinian professor fond of claiming fatherhood of string theory (...) and of dropping sentences like "Hawking is not so good". Why anybody ever took this comic-book character seriously is beyond me, but apparently they do. Bizarre.

Victor Rivelles said...

That is fair. You send us Germans and we send you Argentinians...

Thomas Larsson said...

a retired Argentinian professor fond of claiming fatherhood of string theory

I have read somewhere that it was Hector who told Susskind about the Veneziano amplitude.

Victor Rivelles said...

Hector who? Is there any information about him available online?

Thomas Larsson said...

Rubinstein, of the CoPS group.

The part about telling Susskind about the Veneziano amplitude I found at the Edge.