Monday, 19 July 2010

Chargaff looking back - Extinction of tradition, lost human pace and scale

Referring to his first twelve years at Columbia University, USA:

“The more than sixty regular papers published during that period dealt with a very wide field of biochemistry, as it was then understood; and a few of them may even have contributed a little to the advance of science, which, at that time, was still slow, i.e., it had human proportions.

(…)

“Nevertheless, when I look back on what I did during those twelve years, there come to mind the words ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas: Omnia quae scripsi paleae mihi videntur. All he had written seemed to him as chaff.

“When I was young, I was required – and it was easy – to go back to the origins of our science. The bibliographies of chemical and biological papers often included reference to work done forty or fifty years earlier. One felt oneself part of a gently growing tradition, growing at a rate that the human mind could encompass, vanishing at a rate it could apprehend.

“Now, however, in our miserable scientific mass society, nearly all discoveries are born dead; papers are tokens in a power game, evanescent reflections on the screen of a spectator sport, new items that do not outlive the day on which they appeared.

“Our sciences have become forcing houses for a market that in reality does not exist, creating, with the concomitant complete break in tradition, a truly Babylonian confusion of mind and language.

“Nowadays, scientific tradition hardly reaches back for more than three or four years. The proscenium looks the same as before, but the scenery keeps on changing as in a fever dream; no sooner is one backdrop in place than it is replaced by an entirely different one.

“The only thing that experience can now teach is that it has become worthless.

“One could ask whether a fund of knowledge, such as a scientific discipline, can exist without a living tradition.

“In any event, in many areas of science which I am able to survey, this tradition has disappeared. It is, hence, no exaggeration and no coquettish humility if I conclude that the work we did thirty or forty years ago – with all the engagement that honest effort could provide – is dead and gone.”


Erwin Chargaff – Heraclitean Fire, 1978.

***

Comment:

Pure gold.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Note: “the advance of science (…) was still slow, i.e., it had human proportions. (…) One felt oneself part of a gently growing tradition, growing at a rate that the human mind could encompass, vanishing at a rate it could apprehend.”

*That* is the pace of real science.

“…in our miserable scientific mass society, nearly all discoveries are born dead; papers are tokens in a power game, evanescent reflections on the screen of a spectator sport, new items that do not outlive the day on which they appeared…”

But “our miserable scientific mass society” does not operate at the pace of real science, but at the pace of management – and what is more, a management suffering from ADHD. Six monthly appraisals, yearly job plans, three yearly grants and so on. (All evaluations being determined by committee and bureaucracy, rather than by individuals.)

Note: “Our sciences have become forcing houses for a market that in reality does not exist…”

Nobody really *wants* what modern science provides, there is no real market for it; which is why modern science is dishonest – from top to bottom: modern science must engage in public relations, hype, spin – lies – in order to persuade the ‘market’ that it really wants whatever stuff the ‘forcing houses’ of modern science are relentlessly churning-out.

3 comments:

  1. "*That * is the pace of real science." Hold on, that wasn't the pace of real science when it made some of its great leaps, was it? When Newton did Mechanics, when Clerk Maxwell did Field Theory, when Einstein did his two Relativities and when the
    Quantum men rushed ahead building on Planck, Einstein and the experimentalists (Rutherford and the others). Maybe you're right, but I'm not sure of it. The extraordinary thing was that just one generation after the quantum chaps had pretty much finished, a good paperback could give a decent account of it all to a bright schoolboy - who could reflect that all this stuff had been unknown to great physicists as recent as Maxwell, Kelvin et al. 'straordinary indeed! (Though Maxwell, apparently, had deduced that there was something profoundly wrong with classical physics, from the recalcitrant behaviour of gas specific heats.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. @dearime.

    The 'human pace and scale' does not equate with being slow.

    As you know, one of my main criticisms of the modern scientific career (3-4 year BSc, 1-2 year Masters, five year plus PhDs, many years of different postdocs...) is that science 'education/ training' is now so extended such that people often do not become independent scientists until their middle/ late thirties/ early forties

    Yet long term real speculative science projects (i.e. not merely industrial projects, like the human genome project or large scale brain imaging studies) are all-but impossible; not least because the scientist is supposed to get large grants all the time.

    This applies whether a scientist actually needs large grants or, as is more likely, as with great scientists of the past including Chargaff and Einstein - and more recently Andrew Wiles - does not need large grants (indeed, administering large grants usually interferes with doing real science).

    The modern pace is both too slow where it should be fast, and too fast where it should be slow.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "...and more recently Andrew Wiles..."
    - and don't forget Grisha Perelman, arguably an even greater mathematician than Wiles, who retired and fled to his mom's house in Russia to avoid being surrounded by the second-rate impostors who stole his ideas. Perelman's story is an important example of how modern science pushes away its greatest men and replaces them with inferior academic politicians.

    ReplyDelete