Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Social Scientist

Last month Yisroel Brumer wrote a Newsweek My Turn column Let's Not Crowd Me, I'm Only a Scientist. Brumer talks about how he has become a "social superstar" since taking on a job at Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.
It wasn't always this way. Just a few years ago, I was a graduate student in chemical physics, working on obscure problems involving terms like quantum mechanics, supercooled liquids and statistical thermodynamics. The work I was doing was fascinating, and I could have explained the basic concepts with ease. Sure, people would sometimes ask about my work in the same way they say "How are you?" when you pass them in the hall, but no one, other than the occasional fellow scientist, would actually want to know. No one wanted to hear about a boring old scientist doing boring old science.

People want to hear only about how there's now a cell phone that plays iTunes, or maybe about cool communications that will facilitate emergency responses. But think about all the science that goes into making a cell phone work. Someone had to figure out the equations of electromagnetic waves, circuitry and myriad other scientific details. People have to figure all that stuff out, people who could have made more money and garnered greater prestige had they applied their skills in fields like patent law, business or medicine.

I sympathize with the old Brumer. Even among academics, I remember the political scientist who had the great opening line "My business is war, and business is good", or even my friend the food scientist who did his doctorate on starch. Much as I get excited about the P versus NP problem and its great importance to all science and society, trying to express these ideas to uninterested laypeople always seems to end up with "Should I buy an Apple or a Windows machine?"


  1. Interesting article, but I don't think what he says applies to most of what we do (or, for that matter, to his previous work in chemical physics). Sure, medical research by biologists is likely to have real-world impact, but complexity theory? Nah.

    PS: "old Brumer" is actually pretty young, I think under 30. (Yes, I know him personally.)

  2. Kleinberg's research strikes me as something that the lay person could appreciate.

  3. Definitely buy an apple. No question there.

  4. In the vast social ecosystem that is the science and technology sector of the global economy, mathematicians and scientists are pretty obviously at the top of the intellectual food chain.

    Which makes the following ecological questions very natural to ask:

    (1) How many career engineers does it take to support one scientist/mathematician?

    (2) How many manufacturing jobs does it take to support one engineer?

    (3) Why have North American graduate student enrollments in physics (and other sciences) stagnated for the last forty years?

    My own answers are "5", "10", and "Because these ratios have not been respected, the science and technology 'ecosystem" has been slowly becoming 'fubarred'!"

    Here, I am interested especially to hear what younger people think ...

  5. Keep in mind that many of these technologies are based on scientific ideas that had little or no practical use when they were discovered. And the next time you meet a scientist at a party, remember: he or she may be working on something really, really boring, but 20 years from now, you'll be glad he or she did. So say thanks, after all, they make your world a better place.

    REALLY? the last stentence is very problematic.

  6. Anonymous sez: The last stentence [sic] is very problematic.

    Anonymous, if you don't perceive any problems, then you should either post under "Pangloss," or else run for President!

    Hmmmmm ... its easy to think of problematic questions: In a world with six billion people, what is the "right" number of computational complexity theorists?

    Note that if only one person in a hundred is a scientist/mathematician, and one in a hundred of those people works in complexity theory, and each of those people publishes only one peer-reviewed article per year, then that's ... let's see ... isn't that on the order of two thousand new articles every day?

    Just to point out, it's far from easy to be a humanzee/scientist on a crowded planet!

  7. Much as I get excited about the P versus NP problem and its great importance to all science and society, trying to express these ideas to uninterested laypeople always seems to end up with "Should I buy an Apple or a Windows machine?"

    Most people also like Britney Spears over Beethoven.
    Scientists, especially today, should ignore public opinion altogether in forming a scientific view or setting a scientific goal. (Of course, for practical reasons, total rejection of public demands might not be possible).

    Unfortunately, today, even the scientific community yields to public demands. If these trends will continue, in some years from now, all basic scientific research would be almost completely stopped.

  8. In reply to anonymous' bewailing that "today, even the scientific community yields to public demands", here's a contrary opinion from John Bardeen ...


    author = {L. Hoddeson and V. Daitch},
    title = {True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen},
    publisher = {Joseph Henry Press},
    year = 2002,
    page = {245},
    pages = {245--7},
    jasnote = {John Bardeen's philosophy at Xerox Corporation, pages 245: "Invention does not occur in a vacuum \ldots [most advances] are made in response to a need, so that it is necessary to have some sort of practical goal in mind while the basic research is being done; otherwise it may be of little value." P. 247 "There is really no sharp dividing line between basic and applied research." Charles Schreiffer, page 182: "The spirit will not be aroused in the student by one who is himself not filled with it."},}


    But then, what did John Bardeen know about fundamental science?