Why I Am Not a Scientist

I’m not a Christian, either: let’s get it clear right up front that this is not a response to Bertrand Russell’s famous screed. This is a purely personal retrospective on the person I was thirty years ago, who became the person I am, with a side commentary on science, society, and education.

I’m writing this because I feel autobiographically self-indulgent today, and also because not long ago, my oldest son approached me with the question — filled with self-doubt and uncertainty — whether his arrival in the world had screwed up my life and career. I have no idea where he got that idea — maybe I’d said at some point that I’d needed to quit school to raise a family, as a brush-off answer to a casual inquiry from someone, an easy answer that doesn’t require elaboration, and is at least not-entirely-untrue. The full truth is considerably more complicated, and the idea that children in any way ruined my career is the very opposite of true.

I’d like to set the story whole and straight.

I grew up on the science fiction of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. My father had collected Astounding Science Fiction magazines, had taught himself the art of bookbinding, and practiced by binding these pulp magazines into hardbound volumes. Standards were different in those days: even the pulps, like ASF, were printed and bound in signatures, though the magazines used glue instead of thread, so it was easy for my father to make them into durable books, which I was reading avidly by the time I was in fifth grade. I learned to love the smell of the already-yellowing cheap paper they used, which still brings back fond memories. As a teen, I borrowed E.E. Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series in paperback from my uncle, and he never asked for them back; I still have them.

In these tales, the Scientist was the Beowulf of our era, or the Arthur Pendragon, or the Heracles: a mythical figure bordering on godhood.

Consider Richard Seaton, the protagonist of the Skylark series, who is raised a poor boy in the rugged mountains of Idaho, puts himself through college working odd jobs, gets a lowly job as a government chemist, plays tennis at a near-professional level, is a skilled sleight-of-hand magician, makes a discovery and invents a space drive and a starship and builds it by himself (with a little help from his wealthy friend, and that friend’s many faceless employees), marries the prettiest girl in town (who happens to be a concert violinist capable of appreciating the qualities of a Strad, but gives it all up for her guy) in a grand royal wedding ceremony on a distant world, and ends up ruling the galaxy (after saving it from an escalating series of Bad Guys) from a modest suburban home set in the middle of a Kentucky blue-grass lawn created out of pure energy, located at the center of a planet-sized super-ultra-mega-mighty-awesome dreadnought starship run by thought-waves that can (literally) destroy whole galaxies. All before Doctor Seaton’s son is out of diapers.

Gosh. Who wouldn’t want to be a Scientist when he grows up?

By the time I reached high school, the Apollo program was at its peak, the government “space race” propaganda of the previous decade was thoroughly embedded in the school system, and the Vietnam War was about to end.

The impact of putting a man on the moon was immense: it was a wonder of our age, perhaps the wonder of our age, and I was there to see it on television. I built the plastic model of the Apollo lunar lander and command module, painted it with painstaking care, and opened and closed the spindly little plastic legs and dreamed big dreams. I could not express how badly I’d wanted a jet-pack like the astronaut flew in the Keds tennis shoe commercials of the late ’60’s. Everyone wanted to be an astronaut: an explorer on the edge of the “final frontier.”

Years later, after I’d left graduate school, I came across a piece of government propaganda published by the National Science Foundation, buried in the high school career guidance library. I’d read that very document in high school and forgotten all about it, but it had made an indelible impression. It advised that if you wanted to do science, you absolutely must have a PhD. With a Master’s in science, you’d be at best the flunky of someone who had a PhD, while with a mere Bachelor’s in science, you might get a job washing test tubes and pushing a broom around the lab, if you were lucky.

I can’t understate the importance of the Vietnam War in this mix in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Whatever popularity it might have enjoyed in the early 1960’s, was long gone: it had become a mass grave for our young men, trained to be the best canon fodder they could be. Most who could get a college deferment did so, and stayed in school as long as possible to wait out the war. Those who couldn’t, fled to Canada, or sucked it up and went to Vietnam. Too many who went to Vietnam in those last years died, or came back with missing body parts and their minds broken by what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even worse mental problems and addictions. Many of my classmates had older brothers who never came back, or came back changed in terrible ways. Very few came back and claimed to be better for the experience. It was all very real, and very frightening.

All of these things shaped my unconscious thinking about college: go to college and stay out of a suicidal war — go to graduate school and get a PhD so you can do better than wash test tubes — become a Scientist, get the girl, and save the galaxy.

So I applied myself in high school, eventually gaining a National Merit Scholarship and a full-ride four-year scholarship at the state university.

I’m reasonably sure I picked physics as a major because of those pulps I’d read as a child. Even though we didn’t have starships, yet, it was clearly the Physicists who would figure that out, not the Chemists or Biologists. Plus, the Physicists had all the cool toys, like lasers.

The coursework in college was challenging, which I needed to stay focused. A lot of students went to college in those days to get drunk and have sex for four years, then stumble out with a degree in something: it didn’t much matter what. College was relatively inexpensive, at least in the state schools, well within the means of the middle class, and a lot of kids worked their way through school; admission requirements for state residents were not onerous, and a degree had already become a golden passkey to the workforce. It made sense to go to college, if you could, even if you stayed drunk for four years and had other people write your term papers.

Beowulf would have approved of these students, and probably King Arthur before he got religion. Thor and Loki would have drunk the town dry and bedded every woman in town in a single night, then done it again every night for the next four years.

But not my heroes.  They were all born, though I did not know it at the time, of the peculiarly stilted post-Victorian prudery that dominated the early part of the 1900’s in the US and Britain: they were often as not teetotalers, and were always perfect “gentlemen” with the ladies, though their crude sexism is now painfully comical to read. So, like them, I stayed out of the bars and brothels, and mostly applied myself to my studies. As a geek, it was what I was used to, anyway.

The standard physics curriculum comes in three stages.

The first stage, which lasts two years, will cover all of physics: statics, dynamics, electromagnetism, atoms and nuclei, optics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and basic solid-state theory. It also involves a lot of required mathematics courses.

In the second stage, you go back and do it all again, but this time you use real blades instead of wooden sticks: calculus gives way to Hamiltonian and Lagrangian differential equations in classical mechanics; electromagnetism introduces Maxwell’s equations, orthogonal functions, and contour integration; quantum mechanics introduces Dirac notation, and you start solving special (simple) cases of the Schrödinger equation; statistical mechanics introduces phase spaces, negative temperatures, and what’s really going on with entropy.

The third stage comes in the first two or three years of graduate school, and you go back and do it all over again. At this point, however, you take off the gloves and face mask and work the problems with tempered Spanish steel under the hot sun, and risk losing an eye. You solve problems in quantum mechanics that expand into multiple pages of crabbed mathematical notation; you work problems in electromagnetic theory that curl your hair and give it highlights, using ad hoc mathematical theorems with names like “the handy-dandy theorem” or the “hairy ball theorem” or theorems which lack names altogether; you are introduced to general relativity, non-Euclidean geometry, and affine transforms. You start to work as a real assistant in real experiments in real laboratories, where real money is spent, the results are not known in advance, and someone’s reputation and career is on the line. The homework load is heavier than anything you’ve ever imagined, and getting a B on tests is not really acceptable.

At the end of that gauntlet, you need to pass “the qualifier,” which is a test on anything the test-makers choose to ask. Some professors want to see you apply conventional physics to unconventional problems; some want to see you wave the blade of mathematics around fiercely and accurately; some want to test your knowledge of the history of physics. Rote memory is also important — if you don’t remember Planck’s constant to at least two decimal places (and the right order of magnitude), you might not be able to answer a question. Nothing in the field of physics is off-limits, and some questions may not even be answerable in a test environment: you need to recognize those and sketch the method for answering the question, rather than try to answer it directly.

After that comes an oral exam, and only after passing that are you deemed ready to work with an advisor on a thesis topic. You’ve probably already begun to work with someone on something you are interested in, but before passing the qualifier, you’re probational: no professor is going to invest a lot of time or effort in you.

If I’ve made this sound brutally difficult … well, it is.

I loved the first three years of college. I didn’t find the coursework especially difficult — well, except for ordinary differential equations, which I dropped, as it was taught by a professor who started with a class of sixteen and ended up with three students at the final exam, two of whom passed. It was an enchanted and exciting three years.

Everything changed in the fourth year. Some of the changes were personal: I’d gotten married, and we had a rough start, beginning with some last-minute changes to our living arrangements, which left us searching for an apartment after all the good ones were gone. I remember looking at one place where the “bedroom” was actually too small for a bed, and the “clothes closet” was a ragged hole punched in the drywall, exposing a water pipe that served as the closet-rod.

There’s also that ghostly feeling that comes with your last year in any institution, or the last two weeks in a job you’ve quit. My freshman chemistry class had three hundred students, and the freshman physics class perhaps half that. By the last semester, there were three of us left in the physics program: the senior optics class consisted of the professor, a junior, and me. Many of my friends had been a year ahead of me, and they were gone. I remember it as a cold, dark school year, with early snows and a late spring.

But something also happened to my interest in physics. I’d been through everything twice, and the whole field of physics seemed pretty much wrapped up — no real surprises left. A fellow by the name of V.L. Ginzburg, a Russian physicist, had written a short monograph in 1978 entitled “Key Problems of Physics and Astrophysics,” and listed twenty-four of these “key problems.” I still have his little book. Here are the first nine, from the subsection on “Macro Physics” (separated from “Micro Physics” and “Astrophysics”):

  1. Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion
  2. High-Temperature Superconductivity
  3. Exotic Substances (Metallic Hydrogen)
  4. Metallic Excitons
  5. Second-Order Phase Transitions
  6. Matter in Ultrahigh Magnetic Fields
  7. X-Ray lasers, Grasers, and Superpowerful Lasers
  8. Large Molecules and Liquid Crystals
  9. Transuranides (Superheavy Elements)

I see nothing in this list that looks like anti-gravity, interstellar space drives, tractor beams, teleportation, mental telepathy, or any of the other stock-in-trade of science fiction. Okay, maybe “death rays” under the Graser topic, but the proposed way to do this involved setting off a nuclear bomb: a messy affair.

If you look at this list more closely, you’ll note that very little has changed in the last thirty years. Controlled fusion — the “hot” variety — has become bigger and uglier and more expensive, but is no closer to reality. There have been improvements in superconductive materials, even some breakthroughs, but we still don’t have room-temperature superconductors. Transuranides — the proposed “island of stability” out somewhere beyond the last visible element — is still a distant shadow on the horizon that may not even exist.

For the last three decades, physics has been in a holding pattern of what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” in his seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The early 1900’s saw a churn of excitement, even chaos, with revolutionary “new physics” popping out of nearly every experiment, and these new discoveries were swiftly converted into engineering principles, new inventions, and more questions than answers about how the universe is put together. By the end of the 1900’s, the particle zoo had been tamed, quantum theory had become an experimentally unassailable dogma, and general relativity had stalled in the face of intractable mathematics. The recent and much-ballyhooed “discovery” of the Higgs boson — one of the most exciting things to happen in experimental physics in a long time — brought no surprises at all. It was right where it was supposed to be. Lee Smolin has written his controversial book about string theory, The Trouble With Physics, and opens with his own informal observation as a physics insider that nothing important has really happened in the field in the last thirty years.

Perhaps I was extraordinarily prescient as a young man thirty years ago, or perhaps I was just responding with a child’s disappointment to the discovery that there is no Vulcan Santa Claus lurking beyond the orbit of Pluto waiting to induct us into the Federation of Planets.

Either way, my romance with physics ended sometime during my fourth year in college.

Disillusionment first showed up on my GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores in the spring of my last year, which were good, but not stellar. I should have done much better than I did. That spring should have been an excited round of applications to dozens of graduate schools, but I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I had no idea where to apply. In the end, I applied to only two schools: Stanford, and SUNY at Stony Brook, picked in part (I think) because they were about as far apart as I could get, geographically, and still remain in the contiguous United States, and were both very far from my undergraduate school: both, of course, had excellent physics programs. I applied for a number of scholarships and fellowships, but again, not nearly as many as an excited graduate student might have been expected to.

I was almost accepted at Stanford: I was in the running against another student for the last graduate slot, and the other guy got it, probably because of my stumble on GRE scores. I was accepted at Stony Brook. I also learned, while I was visiting the Stony Brook campus before accepting their offer, that I’d been awarded a coveted three-year NSF Fellowship, which sealed the deal all the way around.

I think every life has certain major turning points, where radically different futures diverge. That spring was one of them for me. My marriage was already in trouble, and could have ended that spring. I could have ended up on either coast, or been rejected by both schools. I could have turned down all the opportunities and gotten a job. Every hypothetical future that plays out from that spring is different, and the person sitting here, now, writing about it, would be a very different person in each.

As it actually played out, I remained married and moved to Long Island to pursue a PhD in physics, in order to become a scientist, but not a Scientist. After all, I was a grown-up.

I’ve described the graduate experience in a physics program. I think I might have enjoyed the challenge, brutal as it was, had I remained emotionally engaged with the program. But I’d lost my drive, and was running on empty from the day I arrived.

I’d also left the bush leagues: I was in a cohort in which I was, at best, a little above average, and needed to work my ass off just to stay afloat. I was married, which imposed certain “domestic responsibilities” like sharing laundry duties rather than letting it pile up on the floor until I couldn’t find a shirt clean enough to wear, and then wearing the cleanest of the lot anyway, or finding time to have a civil conversation about something other than physics, and maybe even go out to see a movie. I was told by one professor, point-blank, that very few married graduate students managed to hold their marriages together. I was even hauled into one professor’s office and told to stop playing D&D in the evening with the undergraduates — it didn’t carry the right image of serious commitment.

But what probably hurt the most was that I felt compelled to give up music. I knew there was no time for it, but without music, life was empty. After I left New York, I went back to visit my old undergraduate advisor. When I mentioned that I’d had to give up the music, he scowled, and said that just wasn’t right. In retrospect, that’s quite clear.

I floated around the department, looking for a potential thesis topic and advisor, too shy and too confused about my own interests — or frankly, capabilities — to corner each professor in his office and quiz him. I knew I needed to do this, and aggressively, but could not muster the fire.

I worked for a short while in the heavy-ion beam lab — they always needed minions — and even ended up on graveyard shift at Brookhaven for a short while, on a project looking for a very rare carbon-carbon resonance that needed two weeks of continuous beam-time to spot a half-dozen events. Another group was working on a huge machine designed to measure the spin of liquid helium-3 to yet another decimal place.


The theorists in the ITP (Institute for Theoretical Physics, or the Ivory Tower, as we called it) were mostly engaged in supergravity (a precursor to string theory). They terrified me for any number of reasons, among which was the fact that they were all reputed to be monastic monomaniacs of a kind that makes the character of Sheldon Cooper, in The Big Bang Theory, look well-adjusted: they’d abandoned wives, friendships, and even Christmas in their pursuit of The Great Mystery of Why the Universe Exists, and they expected the same level of commitment from their students.

Plus, some of them were just plain mean bastards. I got to watch that play out one Tuesday afternoon during a graduate colloquium, and that inspired me to stay far away from the ITP.

The only experimental research project that I found truly interesting was a phased-array radar project using SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices). But that already had a full complement of graduate minions, and was running under a DoD contract: I didn’t want to get mixed up in defense contracting and government secrecy. Remember that Vietnam thing? And older physicists of the sort I’d had as an undergraduate still carried around a lot of guilt about the atomic bomb, and passed that on to their students.

In short, I spent graduate school marking time, waiting to reach a foregone decision.

There were some important things I learned in the process.

One was that there were very few job opportunities for physicists with PhD’s.

In the early 1980’s, academic positions were drying up and blowing away. As professors died or retired, the universities closed the positions rather than hiring new professors. Graduate fellows were already stacked up ten years deep waiting for openings at many universities. Gallows-humor among the ranks advised us to seek help with homework by taking a cab ride into the city — chances were, the driver already had his PhD in physics and would be able to help out.

The other big employers were government (e.g. NASA) or defense-related private sector companies, and both sectors were glutted with new applicants. The electronics boom was ten years away. Reagan’s SDI (Star Wars) program would not be announced until 1983.

Most other employers wouldn’t touch a PhD scientist of any sort with a ten-foot-pole. The most-often-stated reason is that the PhD deserves (and will be seeking) to trade up as soon as an opportunity presents itself, and so can’t be reliably retained, so why hire one in the first place? But there’s a worse problem in that a PhD is trained to do research, not development. There are very few commercial enterprises that care if the current value of the Hubble constant is off by ten percent, nor do they even want a detailed study of the underlying microphysics of why their bolts aren’t holding under vibration. They have a problem, and they want it fixed.

PhD’s are not trained to fix problems. In nine cases out of ten, they aren’t very good at it, either.

One fact that has been borne out by many conversations with others over the years, and is still true, is this: any degree up to a Master’s in the sciences generally opens employment doors — the PhD tends to close them.

I was married with aspirations of having a family someday. I wanted to be able to support that family, and I realized I was educating myself out of employability. That became a major consideration during my second year of graduate school.

Then I started to grasp something that has taken many years to find words for: that modern science is primarily political.

Academic science, of course, has always been political. Isaac Newton’s famous quote, “If I have seen far, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants” is thought by some to have been a vicious jab at Robert Hooke, a contemporary with whom Newton quarreled fiercely, who was both short and possessed of a hunched shoulder. The spite, vitriol, and incivility exhibited in academic disputes traditionally exceeds what you will find in nearly any other walk of human life, and reflects the fact that reputation is everything. Protecting a reputation — or destroying one — is politics.

But this has deeper consequences.

If you drive a cab, you can sleep with your boss’s wife, punch him in the face when he confronts you, quit your job, and still find another job — perhaps even in the same city — as a cab driver. If you are a vacuum-ultraviolet spectroscopist, there are maybe a thousand people in the world who know what that is, and a hundred who understand what you do in any detail, and perhaps ten who care enough to read your papers. If you piss off even one of those ten — especially if that person holds rank in the pecking order — your career is finished. There is no place in the whole world you can go to find work.

You have to play careful, high-stakes, small-town politics to stay alive in academic science. There are theories you challenge, and theories you don’t challenge. There are experiments you don’t perform. There are papers you choose not to publish. The reasons are not scientific: they are political, especially for a newly-minted PhD. There is research that will bring you acclaim, and research that will end your career, and you have to know which is which: when to draw back, when to press forward, and when to strike preemptively and without mercy. It is part of your mentor’s job to help you through this mess.

Government politics entered the picture as well in the 1940’s, when the US government became directly involved in funding scientific research for purposes other than war. Just as the main work of a modern politician is to feed his electoral war-chest, the main work of a modern research scientist is to secure funding, most often from the government. If a modern scientist fails to secure funding, research does not happen, and the scientist loses his or her job.

I’m now able to watch my son-in-law and daughter-in-law go through the process of starting up new labs in new tenure track slots at a major university, and it strikes me as being not at all unlike starting up a new company under venture capital. You have to solicit funds, attract and hire (and fire) graduate students, purchase equipment and supplies, do accounting, manage labor disputes, act as cheerleader and slavedriver, sell your research to the department heads and journal editors, and be continually subject to “review” by those who have given you money, who have expectations of return on their investment.

A research scientist is the CEO of a tiny start-up company that does research. The scientist’s job is not to do research: it’s to run the company and turn a profit in terms of publications.

Publishing scientific papers has also changed. Journals are also constantly grubbing for more money, so they don’t want just good science, they want sexy good science. Science that will turn heads and attract readers and citations. A paper needs flair, pizzazz, and a touch of showmanship in both the presentation and the material. It has to resonate with the times; it must be appropriately trendy. But it must never, ever cross that fuzzy line into actual misrepresentation. You have to somehow imply that your research has direct bearing on, say, human longevity, without at any point saying anything that misrepresents your research as actually having anything to do with human longevity. It’s what you might call a “creative challenge.”

Grant application reviewers want this, too: I’m told that recent comments from the NIH and NSF indicate, without saying it in as many words, that they aren’t going to fund any more “pedestrian” science — they want “breakthrough” science.

I’ve written about this before, as the tension between “theurgical” and “thaumaturgical” science: the idea that the paymasters want thaumaturgy (sorcery) and are only paying for theurgy (prayers) in the hopes that it will result in powerful juju. They get very testy if the wizards of science don’t come through with the juju.

None of this was quite so naked in the early 1980’s, but I was picking up plenty of hints of it in the conversations and comments among professors and students. There is “good science” and there is “bad science,” and the difference is politics.

No one had ever mentioned any of this to me as an undergraduate: if they did, it was guarded advice that flew over my head.

Here’s the thing: I’m terrible at political games. I simply don’t have the temperament to be a politician, or a CEO, or (by extension) a modern scientist. Whatever my skills in test-taking and problem-solving and even experimental design or theoretical research, my success as a modern scientist was doubtful from the start — and if I’d somehow had exceptional mentorship and managed to learn all the skills I needed to avoid a fatal stumble, I’m pretty sure I’d have been among the most miserable of men.

I see this clearly, now. At the time, I sensed it, vaguely, but could not put it into words.

At Stony Brook, the qualifier had two levels of “passing” — one to the Master’s level, the second to the PhD candidacy level. I had taken the qualifier at least twice before, and passed to the Master’s level at least once. As I came to the beginning of my fifth semester, I was ready to leave, but thought I should take the qualifier one more time, and let the result advise me.

My test score was almost exactly halfway between the Master’s and PhD levels. The sense of relief I felt at having failed the qualifier — enough to go light-headed — told me that leaving was the right choice for me, the only choice. I decided to finish out the semester, after which I was a free man. I spent most of that semester in the library and in coffee shops, reading up on computer graphics, which had nothing to do with physics, and everything to do with my crazy idea to write graphics-based computer games. But that is a completely different story.

A few weeks after the qualifier results were posted, my wife took me out for a lovely, romantic birthday dinner and told me I had a son on the way.

In the last three decades, I’ve had a recurring nightmare that visits me every few years. In the dream, I find myself back in a physics lab in New York, or sometimes in a tiny, bare student apartment, and I know that I’m in school again, restarting my PhD studies after some period of absence. Nothing terrible happens in the dream — I’m not taking any tests or missing any classes, nor am I chased by shadowy people with dire intent, and the people I do meet seem to take my return as a matter of course, with noncommittal acceptance or at least benign disinterest. The horror of the dream is the sense of depression and despair at simply being there — as though my waking life were the pleasant dream from which I have suddenly awakened into a dreary scholastic grind that I somehow never escaped. But I had a life, is the panicked thought that runs through my mind in the dream. I had a real life. How did I end up back here?

Sometimes that sense of horror will follow me for half the day before my real life manages to drive it out.

It isn’t untrue that I left graduate school to raise a family. It also isn’t untrue that I didn’t make the cut, and that I didn’t have the temperament to succeed, and that I was unhappy and unmotivated.

But I made the decision to leave before I knew I had a family on the way, and the news about my son was by far the best birthday gift I’ve ever received.

This entry was posted in General.

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