Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The greatest scientific book ever written

Andrew Jaffe writes in Physics World that "Nowadays, science (or at least physics) progresses not by sustained argument in books but by short snippets. Books serve to consolidate knowledge and present it to students or to the public."

This is sadly true, and indicative of the way in which science in particular, and academia in general, has been mechanised, and transformed from a compulsion into a career. The output of most scientific research consists, not of genuine discovery, but of modestly scoped, often irrelevant, and even straightforwardly incorrect papers published in narrowly specialised journals.

Scientists should stop writing papers, and should avoid the desire for a career in a particular discipline. There should be no desire to maximise citations, or to gain tenure in a university department. If science is a calling rather than a career, then knowledge and understanding should itself be sufficient reward. A true scientist should aim to finish life in abject loneliness and poverty.

The end product to which a true scientist should be aiming is the greatest scientific book ever written. This book will be stylishly and succinctly written with clarity and precision; it will synthesise concepts from different subjects and simultaneously solve multiple problems in disparate disciplines; it will tell an engrossing story; it will paint vivid pictures; it will cast speculative asides and footnotes like confetti through the text; it will re-cast the familiar as the unusual; it will titillate the reader, and hold him in suspense; it will defy convention; it will be a seamless blend of the lyrical and the analytical; it will integrate natural language concepts and mathematical concepts, the observational and the theoretical; and it will be as broad as it is deep. I look forward to reading it.


raul said...

An excellent thought, and something I considered myself doing. However, I am totally dependent on grant support (which requires publications) and my salary depends on the number of snippets. I don't like it and I have been trying to change it but I cannot succeed. Only a concerted effort by scientific associations could do that. The change has to be all at once, otherwise the people who step out of the system get hurt.

raul said...

True but impractical. We all depend no grants to do research, and depend on publications to stay employed with a reasonable salary. Change has to occur all at once, otherwise one would create a two-tier system.

Gordon McCabe said...


Although, depending upon which part of science you work in, there are options. If you're a theoretician, and have no need of expensive equipment to do your work, then you could abandon the world of grants, and cast yourself into personal penury, but continue your research efforts in isolation. Preferably in a hut, somewhere in the mountains.

And there are scientific jobs in government which provide a salary, and the kit to do research, but without the need to seek grants.

raul said...

I am experimental physicist using lots of equipment. Of course I could retrain myself to be a theorist, but I prefer to observe nature directly.

There are no government positions that I know of, which would allow me to do research without writing proposals and papers. Besides, what about maintaining my dignity?

Gordon McCabe said...


However, does experimentation really enable one to observe nature directly? In a sense, experiments just generate a mass of measurement data, beset with random variations, potential systematic bias, correction factors and detection limits. I like theory precisely because it is a more direct means of accessing nature itself.