a thousand paper cuts

It’s a rare occasion when I go off on a bona fide rant, but I feel I
must say something to the physics community, solely out of love
(which means some of you won’t want to hear it): what’s with all the
sour grapes of late, people? Maybe it was just an unfortunate
coincidence, but almost everywhere I turned this past week, I was confronted
with the grumpy toxic outpourings of various nattering nabobs of negativity. Even Jen-Luc Piquant lost patience with all the sniping, and she’s faux-French, and thus naturally elitist, as well as a skilled connoisseur of the artfully disdainful put-down. Seriously, she can make other avatars cry with just a raised eyebrow and a dismissive shrug of her perpetually black-clad shoulders.

It wasn’t constructive criticism either, just pointless griping about petty stuff. People were
bitching about how physics students clearly have too much time on their
hands if they’re making silly YouTube videos; how dumb the ATLAS videos
employing a Star Wars motif were (personally, I found them amusing and informative); and about how frivolous events like next week’s Physics Singalong at the APS March Meeting in New Orleans, or Talk Like a Physicist Day, are silly and pointless and why are we celebrating scientific jargon anyway? And also? The Big Bang Theory sitcom will singlehandedly rot your brain and destroy science because of all the negative stereotypes. Just so you know. (I’m leaving out a few other instances because the above should be enough to make the point.)

I’m not suggesting we all become perky little Pollyanna cheerleaders — ick, how horrid would that
be? — and frankly, one or two instances like those cited above in any given week would
have little effect on my mood. No biggie. Let My People Bitch. But
cumulatively, all in one week? It felt like the slow lingering death of
my soul from a thousand paper cuts. Clearly I didn’t get the memo about
the approaching dark cloud of gloomy pessimism with scattered
showers of snide disdain. Mehcat
Silly me, always out of the
loop. I guess it made me a little hyper-aware of how prevalent these attitudes can become, very quickly — and we give very little thought to how this might be perceived by those on the outside looking in.

You know, it’s a really big playground out there, folks, and
nobody is forcing you to play in any particular sandbox. Just politely
opt out and find another sandbox more to your liking. It’s as simple as
that. What I just don’t get is the compulsion to piss all over someone else’s
sandbox and spoil their fun, because you don’t happen to like what
they’re doing, or had a particularly bad day. What, you don’t like
something, so nobody else should either? Get over it already.

I care deeply about the science community, and the field of physics
in particular: it’s filled with incredibly smart, altruistic, hard-working and
good-hearted folks of great substance and depth, who also have a sense of humor and like to have fun on
occasion. (*gasp* Haul out the smelling salts!) A big part of what I try to do, both here at the
cocktail party and in the Real World (TM), is to convince those outside
of physics that this is a community worth knowing, even embracing —
whether or not someone wants to become a professional scientist or not.
It’s very disheartening when there is a sudden wave of collective
sourness that reinforces the (false) stereotype of physicists as dour,
humorless buzzkills. This sort of thing does far more to damage the public
perception of physicists than The Big Bang Theory, Talk Like a Physicist Day, silly YouTube videos, or March Meeting physics singalongs combined ever could.

Of course, it would be a shame to waste all that accumulated bile,
so why not find a more productive outlet, and more deserving targets, for all that negative energy?
For instance, vent your spleen over the
latest round of devastating budget cuts by dashing off angry letters
and emails to your government representatives — or even your local newspaper — whenever a foul mood strikes you. The American Physical Society, for starters, has a whole suite of advocacy tools, enabling you to write to Congress, join a science coalition, and even organize grassroots efforts on behalf of science locally. There are all kinds of groups and individuals working tirelessly behind the scenes to improve the situation, but a continuing collective outcry couldn’t hurt, too.

In addition to the
Department of Energy’s ongoing woes, the uncertain fate of major projects like LISA, and the plight of Arecibo (just to name a few), news broke on Thursday that the UK is closing down Jodrell Bank, a venerable radio astronomy observatory in England. I’m sure other countries also have serious funding woes. Frankly, if things continue on the current draconian path in the US, there won’t be much of a meaningful physics enterprise left in a few decades or so. A nostalgic physics singalong might seem just the ticket when PhD physicists find themselves forced to work in the local Tastee-Freez because all the major research facilities have been closed down for lack of funding. So channel your discontent and rage in such a way as to
effect meaningful change if you feel the urge to vent.

Once you’ve got that out of your system, consider more positive efforts to effect change. That’ll help keep more disgruntled bile from building up inside you, necessitating another outburst to clear the air. If you’re in the Bay Area, maybe you could volunteer to help a local grade schooler participate in this year’s Tech Challenge at the Tech Museum of Innovation, which centers on finding imaginative solutions to provide safe drinking water, especially in developing countries. Or consider reaching out to your local schools to help students appreciate the glories of science.

Opportunities to make a difference abound! Why, just last Monday, Neil Turok, cosmologist extraordinaire and this year’s recipient of the TED award gave a blackboard lunch talk here at KITP describing a particularly intriguing project. In 2003, Turok founded the African Institute for Mathematical Science in Wuizenberg (AIMS). It’s "a post-graduate education center supporting the development of mathematics and science across the African continent." (There have been articles about it in all the major science mags by now, and even a few major newspapers.) Turok was born in South Africa. His parents were jailed for opposing apartheid when he was just a kid, and the family lived for a time in abject poverty in Kenya and Tanzania, respectively. Not that he’s bitter: he loved the astonishing landscape, and it was a bit of a blow when the family moved to "gray, depressing England," although his educational opportunities were far superior.

Turok has made the most of those opportunities and risen to dizzying professional heights. But he hasn’t forgotten where he came from — in fact, he’s still in touch with his childhood math teacher. AIMS is his attempt to give something back to Africa, a continent where the educational system is "truly Victorian" and more than a little divorced from reality — in part because there’s no money to do actual experiments. Yet there is a vast amount of untapped intellectual talent. Aims_500x385_jpg

Turok told of how he spent a stretch living in a mining town at 17 before heading off to college, where inhabitants lived "a brutal life, with almost no prospects." But the kids were bright and highly motivated. For instance, when he asked students to estimate the height of a building, one boy solved the problem by measuring a single brick, counting the number of bricks to the top, and multiplying to get the answer. Turok’s "wish" — a tradition granted to TED award recipients, plus you get to make your wish "in a room full of billionaires" — is that "the next Einstein will come from Africa." And he maintains that while Africa needs physics, "Physics also needs Africa" — precisely because of all that untapped talent.

Frustrated at the lack of any measurable impact from the traditional aid-giving models on Africa’s plight, Turok found a new model. He bought an old hotel for $100K practically on the beach, and refurbished it. (He could always consider a career as a real estate mogul should this physics thing not pan out. The town is now a major tourist destination, and thus prime real estate; the value of the building has skyrocketed.) Now 50 or so students — college graduates, the best and the brightest from all over the continent — live in for nine months each year for what amounts to "a 24-hour learning environment." Some students have dubbed it "the house of no sleep." This isn’t obligatory, mind you: the students are just so fired about about what they’re learning, and the instructors so thrilled to find such hyper-motivated students, that nobody wants to waste precious hours doing much of anything else.

Turok invites the best minds, and best lecturers, in the world in math and physics to serve three-week stints (also living in) as instructors, supplemented by more permanent tutors to ensure some continuity. The emphasis is on interactive teaching and learning, with constant feedback within the classroom, and on problem-solving rather than grades and exams. (Apparently the invited lecturers often find their teaching styles completely transformed once they return home.) After their stint at AIMS, the students go on to earn master’s or PhD degrees in their chosen fields, ideally returning to Africa after they’re done to help others like them in turn — which means building up a solid scientific enterprise and infrastructure in those countries, so these promising young minds can make a living. That’s why Turok wants to expand his model to add a "wealth building" component through things like entrepreneurial partnerships, and also by establishing similar centers in other African countries.

The first group of students should be finishing up their degrees in the next year or so. It will be interesting to see where they all end up. Now Turok is trying to replicate the AIMS model throughout Africa. He and his partners have been investigating prospective new sites, and settled on sites in Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, and the Sudan. (He admits the latter is a controversial choice, and negotiations are being handled delicately to avoid official association of the planned center with the draconian Sudanese government). Turok is working hard to raise the requisite $10 million endowments to provide $10K scholarships for students at each center, with each country’s government ideally paying for operating costs (except for Sudan), thereby giving them a sense of local ownership and involvement.

He has no shortage of volunteers willing to spend three weeks at an African tourist resort town teaching math and physics; there’s currently a waiting list of 400 or so, and competition for the three-week slots is pretty fierce. What he’s really looking for are physicists willing to make a major time commitment and spend a year living at one of the new centers, helping to get things up and running.  As Turok put it, the idea is to dream big, shoot for the stars, and while you probably won’t reach those unrealistic targets, you might just hit the moon.

We need more visionaries like Turok in physics. I’m guessing anyone who volunteers for such a year-long stint will have a
life-changing experience, and when they return, they won’t even notice
silly things like physics sitcoms or YouTube videos made by overworked physics majors, much less feel
compelled to sneer at them. (They might even decide — correctly, in my opinion — they’re just
harmless fun: a way of dissipating tension or blowing off steam after a lot of very hard work.) That’s really the point of this post. Instead of a
thousand tiny paper cuts tearing each other down, let’s shoot for a thousand small individual
efforts to collectively make a difference in our communities — wherever
they may be.


19 thoughts on “a thousand paper cuts”

  1. Well said, when I tire of blogs this type of pointless negativity is usually the reason, then again it is easy to ignore most times…and then you can be rewarded by occasionally finding gems like the interesting story about Turok and his initiative.

  2. I just have to give a shout out for the Spiro Agnew reference. You don’t often get a good Spiro Agnew reference these days.

  3. Huzzah!!!!
    The whole time I was in the professional physics world, from grad school, I felt like too many of the people there too themselves far too seriously. Not that we shouldn’t take ourselves seriously, for we believe that what we’re doing is worth doing and worth investing resources in. But to refuse to joke or chuckle around just a little bit? Too often I wanted to scream “everybody get over yourselves!” (Instead, I ran screaming.)
    In grad school, it was when another grad student was doing Fabry Perot imaging, and putt the word “Ross” in his title and crossed it out. (This was during the 1992 election season.) A prof told him that that was undignified and he shouldn’t do it. (For the lunchtime talk of just IR and submm profs.) Sigh. Or it was the fact that I *always* felt like I had to hide the things I did and put energy into outside of work, because I always saw grad students and professors saying that somebody “had too much time on their hands” if they did something active that wasn’t physics. (Interestingly, the culture somehow exempted some things from that criticism, such as attending (but not acting in!) plays or doing sporting events. But let people find out that you run a website, or even just read non-highfalutin SF novels, and “you’ve got too much time on your hands.”)
    At the AAS some years ago, it was when Greg Henry gave his talk about the RECONS project, and started with a very fun little bit using the Mission Impossible theme, and him running around the auditorium with a trenchcoat and spyglass and pointing at people on his team scattered about through the audience who held up signs naming many of the stars in the Solar Neighborhood. Great fun, only about 5 minutes long, and got us all charged up and interested for his talk. But, of course, I overheard some grey beards waggling afterwards about how this was a serious scientific meeting, not some circus where we should all be yuking about and such.
    Geez! Get over yourselves!

  4. Jennifer West

    Jennifer O., I thought the youtube video was totally darling!! They are adorable, and who could forget the bongo drum playing Feynman, and all the people I know, including me, who find that things like music and dancing and painting can all add to your creativity and ability to come up with new ideas in science….I think it is best to work like mad, play like hell, and let the naysayers enjoy their cup of bitter tea…as van Gogh said, life is so short that there is not time to both argue and act…thanks for the link to the AIMS program, I’ve just signed up on their email list, it sounds like an awesome program…say hi to beautiful Santa Barbara for me…

  5. So I had already written half of this comment and have to do it again. Why? Because I decided to delete one line and tried to find out how to delete a whole line with one keystroke while the cursor is on the back of the line. It isn’t Ctrl+<--, it isn't Ctrl+Shift+<--, and Ctrl+Alt+<--, well, restarts the X-Server in Linux. So, that was stereotypical physicist (a computer scientist would either know the combination, or mostly, don't care). Serves my point that I don't understand the outcry about Big Bang Theory either. I think the show's fantastic, and often blushed when I detected glimpses of my former student ego. Yes, the characters are exaggerated but so was Niles Crane, and did anyone complain (Probably...). Besides that, for the average physicist progress is soooo sloooowww. One works weeks on a step, that from a greater prespective is still infinitesimally small and probably was done by 1900 other scientists already. At least in my head, there's creative mass building up and complaining that it needs to get out, so really - several outlets are needed for that. I try some, but more in a chaotic or mind-numbing way (no, not excessive amounts of beer, more like stupid little computer games). I think I have to reorder them and dedicate them as my creative outlet as support to my work.

  6. Hi Jennifer,
    A correction: AIMS was founded in Muizenberg, South Africa, not “Wuizenberg” (which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t exist). Muizenberg is a lovely little town south of Cape Town.
    – joe

  7. Joerg, I agree, Big Bang Theory was (is?) a lot of fun. It pokes fun of geeks in a way that skates reasonably close to my college apartment. Enough that I laugh in recognition pretty often.
    Fun stuff.

  8. OK, I’m with you on the “pointless negativity” thing, and I post enough silly stuff on my blog that I doubt I could ever pass for a guy who takes himself seriously, but this bit here makes me want to play the game of One Thing Here Doesn’t Belong:
    “It’s very disheartening when there is a sudden wave of collective sourness that reinforces the (false) stereotype of physicists as dour, humorless buzzkills. This sort of thing does far more to damage the public perception of physicists than The Big Bang Theory, Talk Like a Physicist Day, silly YouTube videos, or March Meeting physics singalongs combined ever could.”
    . . . except that, maybe, more people watch **The Big Bang Theory** than read physics blogs.
    I mean, isn’t this what we science bloggers stay up at night, fretting about? The people who read our writing online are, to a first approximation, the people who are already interested in science. The same goes for the people who attend Cafe Scientifique or go out of their way to TiVo Clifford Johnson whenever he appears on The History Channel. The people we want to reach are the ones watching prime-time TV, not the ones who have already junked the Tube in favor of the Intertubes!
    Rather than complaining about the mass media “reinforcing negative stereotypes”, I’ll try to describe the problem in my own way: almost every time I see a scientist or a mathematician portrayed on the silver screen, I get a sense of lost opportunities. Movies like **Pi** and **A Beautiful Mind** and **Proof** come so close to provoking a genuine interest in what mathematicians do, and yet they fall at the last hurdle.

  9. Great story about Turok. Small point: Those are my juniors being silly in the Youtube video — I posted their video on my blog ‘cos I thought it was great they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Chad’s subsequent comment about too little homework was surely surely surely also tongue in cheek.

  10. Arjendu: I wasn’t actually referring to Chad: I’ve met Chad, like him tremendously, and know full well what his sense of humor is like. I knew he was being tongue-in-cheek. When I said “everywhere I turned” there was negativity, I meant literally EVERYWHERE — not just online in the blogosphere, but in my personal emails, via telephone, in the actual “meat world” — you name it. The same remark was made to me, twice, via email and in person, in all seriousness, alas… which is so, sooooo silly. Tell your pals I LOVED their YouTube video, and they will be the coolest physicists ever when they embark on their careers if they manage to hang onto their sense of play (as opposed to getting it crushed out of them by Da Man). 🙂
    Blake, see above comment re: my experiences not being limited to the blogosphere. The fact that everyone seems to assume this is telling in itself. We love ya, buddy, love the “blag” and your wicked sense of humor, but must remind you to repeat this mantra: “It’s fiction, it’s fiction, it’s fiction.” And what appeals to you is probably not going to be the same thing that appeals to “the masses.”While TBBT or Pi or Proof or A Beautiful Mind might fall short of YOUR expectations, it could indeed turn someone onto science or math. Or not. That’s really not the point of such shows, you know. TV is about selling entertainment. Ideally, we’d like it to be intelligent, with a reasonable amount of verisimilitude, but these are not documentaries, and trying to inject didacticism invariably kills the joy. At least such things entrench in their minds the notion that physics and math are trendy enough to warrant being featured on TV and film.
    We had a great workshop on Friday (audio/video is now up at the KITP Website), and I’ll address this very issue in-depth in a future post (as soon as I have time to write it, which, frankly, will not be for at least a week). For now I’ll just say this (somewhat incoherently, as I just got off a plane): It is not the job of Hollywood to “correct” negative stereotypes. Hollywood is trying to sell a product and thus it will REFLECT whatever appeals to the largest market share. When public attitudes change, then we’ll start seeing the shows follow suit. Case in point: we’ve started seeing more gay and lesbian characters on TV, both cable and network, far from the most desired portrayals, and certainly not reflective of the actual gay/lesbian community at large, but it’s telling that our society has advanced to the point where it is now acceptable to have TV characters that are likeable and at least nominally gay. [I don’t think we ever saw Will on WILL AND GRACE do more than an occasional polite dinner date; poor guy NEVER got any action.]
    How do we change society at large? We can start by interacting more with it. Blogs are a start, but Blake is right: often we’re “preaching to the converted.” There’s really no substitute for getting out into the “real world” and interacting directly: bringing folks to visit campus, the lab, one’s office, etc. One of the best things about David Saltzberg’s involvement with THE BIG THEORY (he’s the technical consultant, and a physicist at UCLA), is that he brings the writers, actors, wardrobe and prop people to campus to see actual physics labs, and every week he brings a special physics guest to meet everyone backstage. [I’ve had this privilege, and it’s a really terrific group of people. If they’re poking fun at geeks and physicists, they’re doing so out of genuine affection.] The reason there are no lab coats, and why the occasional lab scenes use old rundown equipment, is precisely the result of those visits, which directly countered the mental stereotypes, with a real payoff: no lab coats on TBBT.
    Change happens slowly, and so gradually that we might not even be aware it’s happening. But it is…

  11. Sure, it’s fiction. “Versimilitude”, in the narrow sense, isn’t even what I care about. (Most days of my life would make terrible TV, and I’ll be the first to admit it.) But one of the funny things about art is its multiplicity, the ability for one thing to be appreciated at multiple levels. Grown-ups and children alike read the Harry Potter books, for example, and get different things out of them.
    Perhaps I’m simply deluded in thinking that more could be done with the sort of cinematic and televisual experiments people have tried so far.

  12. Jennifer: Bien Merci! I’ll pass the comments on to my students. They’re currently suffering through a nasty take-home, so this might cheer them up.
    In passing, may I note that my honey is a Lit/Cultural Studies person who has actually written an academic article on Buffy for fame and fortune, such as it is in academia, so when I stumbled across your book it was a personally kinda interesting moment? And yes, I purchased a copy immediately.

  13. Blake,
    You asked if more could be done. Well of course more could be done. If everything could be as smart and as entertaining as Jennifer’s works the world would be a much better place. But most things fall short, and TBBT does as well. But what it gets right is playing off the stereotypes without being mean, and without making the physicists super- or sub-human. He’s a geek, but he does create sexual tension with the hot girl. He’s a nerd but he’s not hapless. In half a generation he’ll be the ancestor of a character who is a geek-in-full: one who heats his soup with is lab’s laser, but who also is the best volleyball player on campus (I almost chose racquetball, but it seems to me that the computer engineers are racquetball players and the physicists are the volleyballers).

  14. Does anyone know what Lee Smolin (co-founder of Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics) is up to now-a-days? I’d kind of like to get in touch with him. Am posting everywhere, so as to spread the question as wide as possible. Thanks.

  15. I love your blog! Americans are down on science because it scares them out of religious superstitions. That is a big reason for stereotypes and pessimism.

  16. fascinating blog. i really like it. there’s something i’ve been wondering about and i was hoping someone here might help me out. okay, so when lightning strikes a body of water (ocean, lake etc.) do the living entities nearby die of electrocution (because water conducts electricity), and if not, why?

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