Man on Wire

Paul Klee, Portrait of an Equilibrist, [MoMA][1]

On one side, the mass of a mountain. A life I know.
On the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown that it seems empty to us. Too much space. Between the two, a thin line on which my being hesitates to distribute whatever strength it has left. Around me, no thoughts. Too much space. At my feet, a wire. Nothing else.
- Philippe Petit

When every sensible researcher starts his endeavours in basic science, he ventures out looking for new horizons. He takes a leap of faith. Walking on the thin guideline of previous studies, he tries to bridge a huge knowledge gap, venturing where nobody has gone before. Like an equilibrist between tested and completely new, he tries to get to the other side; sometimes, mustering the confidence to mesmerise the public.

Both junior researchers and performers sometimes get so absorbed by their goal to forget about their own well being. They give it low priority while striving to achieve their goal and excellence. Their pyramid of necessities gets completely reversed. Intellectual realisation comes at the basis, while personal safety comes eventually. The feat might even get amplified by the wretched lifestyle they manage to conduct, self-surging to heroes and martyrs.

But at a certain point it is time to outgrow these emotions. Personally, it hit me progressively.

12 months contract, 200£ net per day, for a bricklaying specialist. Must haves, CSCS 30£ card. 12 months contract, 2000£ gross per month, for a nuclear physics postdoctoral specialist. Must haves, PhD, publication record of original contributions to your field, must travel (for free).

My health was declining since I moved to the UK and I couldn’t figure out why. The heating in flat completely broke down in January and the landlord took 3 full weeks, 20 calls and 3 lawyer injunctions to decide to substitute them, when we had less than 15 degrees inside. In April my Italian doctor confirmed that my poor health conditions are related to my poor living standard, long hours and housing conditions. I could not afford a better housing on my prestigious Newton fellowship, and you cannot feed on prestige. I was stuck in a house and a job that was literally making me sick. Already elevated prices of Surrey county, inflate on the short term. To cover high living costs and indemnity reasons, professionals are payed hundreds pounds per day to do marginally specialised jobs, even bricklaying, if they are on yearly contracts. Not academics. Travel is must. PhD is a must. Living salary a maybe.

Moreover prestige didn’t seem to improve or be related to the long term prospects either. They say faculty interviews, grant winning and consequently landing permanent posts is a lottery. You might remember what Quine used to say about lotteries…

The possibility of winning 500k£ grants was dampened by the 50% overhead and little local support, that would have implied not even money for a well paid student and for a below junior-faculty scale salary. I was in a Ponzi scheme, but my cut was given away. Education is nowadays a business, especially in the UK among European countries. Universities incamerate yearly 15 billions of tuition fees (that in the case of student immigration, such as in the UK, imply immense ripple economical effects; the 4 bln of extra EU fees are only tip of the iceberg) and other 10 billions of private and European research funding. Dividing the total external university funding for the 150 thousands full time academics (of which only 14 thousands professors) working in the UK at the moment, you get a good number of incamerated external funds for each academic.  A salesman with the same numbers will not be short neither of job security, or monthly commissions.

Most importantly, non-profit foundations like Francis Crick institute are funded through from big companies and investment funds (like the Wellcome trust, the 20bln £ investment portfolio of  GlaxoSmithKlein founder). Even the Royal Society and other bodies nowadays acts as prestige distributors and rationalisations of this often private wealth capital, for its maximisation. They are no different than a VC board.

Venture capital relationship with universities is complicated and is both one of being funded by and founding investment firms. It’s nonsense pretending that we have no part of this business. That we still live in an ivory tower, where we are allowed to freely roam intellectual pathways as we are ‘not workers’. Only a few people in few institutions have truly the privilege of being detached from these policies. Especially if we consider young faculty.

The University is “consumerising”. Precariousness and fierce competition generate proprietary codes and data. Grant-based research, promotion and renovation determine peer and publish pressure, which fix people on a single path, to maximise their personal short term utility function. Work is commissioned since you have to “talk to” panels. You end up thinking in incremental terms. When push comes to shove, you are valued often more as an expert of tools than as a source of creativity. It’s not a thin pathway to the unknown anymore, it has mainly become cranking a wheel. A job where one has the opportunity to learn, apply and develop mainly local and specialised concepts of limited use.

I have no reason to enjoy this treadmill at the moment. I might already won the jackpot of research works, in the form of a research-oriented start-up company. They have their grant, they don’t pay overhead. They employ somebody that actually helps with admin, instead. They answer to investors, the same ways universities do; because in the grand scheme of things, are the same investors. That is, mainly by publishing and with technical presentations.

Universities want to maximise their business, therefore they become a business. But in this world people have actually no reason to prefer the modern publish or perish university to many other jobs. At least as long as universities insist in an unfair and unreasonable compensation and hiring policy. On the other hand, companies are now offering more freedom than ever, paradoxically including academic freedom, in order to compete in the talent market and realising that a free mind is more effective in the long term than a chained one.

Gentilezze da Gentiluomini

The point of contention is that I can understand or work in an University where professors don’t have to demonstrate numbers or the equivalent of sales figures. An academic is basically not the job I do, is who I am. I think it is a way to analyse reality wherever and however it is presented to me, despite practical or grant applications. And then, some will be lucky enough to receive a livelihood from that. Hopefully, I will have soon enough a little Biology paper coming out, and an economics paper too. Finally, I might have finally convinced Aaron to seriously push on the philosophical emergentism in atomic and nuclear physics. Together with my future studies in computer vision, I think at these as my academic hallmark. Not because they are jewels of quality or difficulty. But because they are (at least some of them) original, mine, outside of mine or any comfort zone, possibly outlandish. They are part of a thought process where I don’t use tools to get to N+1, but where I read to analyse everything I think, and I use creativity to come out with something else, and then try to put it in the form of paper. This is what I had in mind when I started shyly swinging on that rope disappearing into the clouds. I am quite aware that paradoxically these works will probably get me further away from tenure. It’s too soon too little. Academic freedom is barely suffered in senior staff, definitely not in postdocs. If my narrative is wrong, I will be greeted back not as a prodigal son but as a matured scientist and my move will be right nonetheless.

Now I will go research in computer vision with the same spiriting of learning, applying and trying to pull new things out and making them work. I think this is what is sought after. Hopefully this will help me get some perspective about nuclear physics too. Regarding many-body systems I often fell trap of the incremental innovation. I need and will patiently wait for my Don Draper moment (spoilers ahead). Because I still think that low energy nuclear physics, and reactions in particular, are the most important argument ever, even if not the trendiest right now.

Almost all the technologies realised in the history of mankind, from the Stone Age to the iPhones, make use of electromagnetic Hamiltonian. Its long range properties are useful and resonate with our vision and sensory organs. However it is the strong Hamiltonian (protip: and not the QCD Lagrangian) that fuel with energy and photons the universe. Regarding its properties we are still playing with fire and throwing pebbles. Because we have not found a way to resonate with it the way we do with microwave cooking. What if we could?

But I cannot keep to study this impossible question, that I may not even have properly investigated. Not without regard for my well-being and future, when a perfectly reasonable, interesting and exciting possibility presented itself. And maybe, when I will feel better, I will find the answer without asking the question.

“Alcibiades,” said Pericles, “at your age, I may tell you, we, too, were very clever at this sort of thing. For the puzzles we thought about and exercised our wits on were just such as you seem to think about now.”
- Xenophon, Memorabilia



Comment by Yoyo on 2017-10-17 07:09:30 +0000

Greetings, my friend! With esteem, I.

Comment by Thomas Kuhn on 2017-10-18 22:04:48 +0000

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.

All the best!

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