Yesterday, I attended an insightful talk by A.J. Leggett at the APS March Meeting entitled Reflection on the Past, Present and Future of Condensed Matter Physics. The talk was interesting in two regards. Firstly, he referred to specific points in the history of condensed matter physics that resulted in (Kuhn-type) paradigm shifts in our thinking of condensed matter. Of course these paradigm shifts were not as violent as special relativity or quantum mechanics, so he deemed them “velvet” paradigm shifts.
This list, which he acknowledged was personal, consisted of:
- Landau’s theory of the Fermi liquid
- BCS theory
- Renormalization group
- Fractional quantum hall effect
Notable absentees from this list were superfluidity in 3He, the integer quanutm hall effect, the discovery of cuprate superconductivity and topological insulators. He argued that these latter advances did not result in major conceptual upheavals.
He went on to elaborate the reasons for these velvet revolutions, which I enumerate to correspond to the list above:
- Abandonment of microscopic theory, in particular with the use of Landau parameters; trying to relate experimental properties to one another with the input of experiment
- Use of an effective low-energy Hamiltonian to describe phase of matter
- Concept of universality and scaling
- Discovery of quasiparticles with fractional charge
It is informative to think about condensed matter physics in this way, as it demonstrates the conceptual advances that we almost take for granted in today’s work.
The second aspect of his talk that resonated strongly with the audience was what he dubbed “the scourge of bibliometrics”. He told the tale of his own formative years as a physicist. He published one single-page paper for his PhD work. Furthermore, once appointed as a lecturer at the University of Sussex, his job was to be a lecturer and teach from Monday thru Friday. If he did this job well, it was considered a job well-done. If research was something he wanted to partake in as a side-project, he was encouraged to do so. He discussed how this atmosphere allowed him to develop as a physicist, without the requirement of publishing papers for career advancement.
Furthermore, he claimed, because of the current focus on metrics, burgeoning young scientists are now encouraged to seek out problems that they can solve in a time frame of two to three years. He saw this as a terrible trend. While it is often necessary to complete short-term projects, it is also important to think about problems that one may be able to solve in, say, twenty years, or maybe even never. He claimed that this is what is meant by doing real science — jumping into the unknown. In fact, he asserted that if he were to give any advice to graduate students, postdocs and young faculty in the audience, it would be to try to spend about 20% of one’s time committed to some of these long-term problems.
This raises a number of questions in my mind. It is well-acknowledged within the community and even the blogosphere that the focus on publication number and short term-ism within the condensed matter physics community is detrimental. Both Ross McKenzie and Doug Natelson have expressed such sentiment numerous times on their blogs as well. From speaking to almost every physicist I know, this is a consensus opinion. The natural question to ask then is: if this is the consensus opinion, why is the modern climate as such?
It seems to me like part of this comes from the competition for funding among different research groups and funding agencies needing a way to discriminate between them. This leads to the widespread use of metrics, such as h-indices and publication number, to decide whether or not to allocate funding to a particular group. This doesn’t seem to be the only reason, however. Increasingly, young scientists are judged for hire by their publication output and the journals in which they publish.
Luckily, the situation is not all bad. Because so many people openly discuss this issue, I have noticed that the there is a certain amount of push-back from individual scientists. On my recent postdoc interviews, the principal investigators were most interested in what I was going to bring to the table rather than peruse through my publication list. I appreciated this immensely, as I had spent a large part of my graduate years pursuing instrumentation development. Nonetheless, I still felt a great deal of pressure to publish papers towards the end of graduate school, and it is this feeling of pressure that needs to be alleviated.
Strangely, I often find myself in the situation working despite the forces that be, rather than being encouraged to do so. I highly doubt that I am the only one with this feeling.