Monday, January 13, 2014

Learning to live with limited affirmation

My apologies to readers who saw the draft beginnings of this post. I mistakenly posted it rather than saving it as a draft. Quite embarrassing.

Teenagers who don't receive enough affirmation at home will be prone to seek affirmation in the wrong places. (A classic and controversial issue is the possible correlation between absent fathers and teenage pregnancy).

Scientists are human and we all need and enjoy affirmation for our work. But, many of us don't get as much as we would like. Just like teenagers we are prone to seek affirmation from the wrong sources. We write papers that get rejected by luxury journals. We publish papers and they may be largely ignored. Our grant applications get rejected. We don't get the invited conference invitations that we think we deserve. This can be particularly hard for the young and inexperienced.

I think it is important to be secure in yourself about the quality of your work and not start seeking affirmation from the "wrong" crowd: luxury journals, funding agencies, pretentious older colleagues, administrative bean counters, .... Just like for teenagers it will end in tears...

An old post, The alternative to doing significant research discusses how in the classic C.P. Snow novel, The Masters, many of the characters have such a pitiful academic existence.

The Physics history column in the American Physical Society News recently featured a fascinating story, Perelman posts proof of the Poincare conjecture on the arXiv.
Perelman is clearly a very secure individual who only needed the satisfaction of doing good science.


  1. I know I owe you comments on that draft. So, some affirmation will be forthcoming soon.

  2. Thanks Seth.
    That was an embarrassing mistake.

  3. I approached it as a spontaneous poem.

    Now that you have elaborated, I will issue the obvious next move: people need more than affirmation; sometimes they to earn a living, too.

    For someone like me, publications in luxury journals are not a luxury: they are the best way to secure a job from which I could, for example, point out in comfort how important it is to do science for its own sake.

    A continuing stream of evidence suggests to me that without a certain array of markers (like, but not limited to, luxury publications), it is not possible to secure a post.

    Like I said, this is just the obvious.

    I am reaching the conclusion that the problem with science is TENURE. Tenure, like pensions, is an invention from when the lifespan of working humans was much less than it is now. If you eliminate tenure in scientific positions, then you will drastically reduce demand for academic posts. Would this fix the problem, or make it worse? Traditionally, tenure has been seen as a shield for intellectual freedom. However, it is also a throttle that prevents new ideas from taking root, by giving privileged positions to people that are already established, and freezing young people (with newer ideas) out of posts. One expects a regime may exist wherein the liabilities of academic tenure outweigh the benefits.

    Are we at the point where the balance of benefits granted by traditional academic tenure provisions has turned?

    I think maybe so.

    1. I should clarify my main point.
      It is not that people should not publish in luxury journals. For the reasons you give this may be a necessary evil for survival.

      Rather, my point is that one should NOT use ones success/failure at publishing in luxury journals as a measure of
      -the quality of ones work
      -ones personal self worth

      Buying and driving a BMW may be a good thing if you can appreciate and enjoy the automotive engineering. Buying and driving a BMW as a status symbol is problematic.

  4. Very thoughtful post!

    In my copy of Walden, the foreword, by J. W. Krutch, on Thoreau has these (abridged) lines that I try to keep with me: "The lesson he had taught himself, and which he tried to teach others, ... (to) refuse to accept the common definitions of success, ... And unlike most ... he put (it) into practice."

  5. I can strongly recommend Masha Gessen's fascinating biography of Perelman. Its called 'Perfect Rigor'. From what she writes, Perelman is autistic to some extent, so his appearing to be a 'secure individual' may have more substantive roots in his psychological makeup.

  6. I agree.

    I also like Thoreau. For a long time I couldn't understand why so many live "lives of quiet desperation". Then I had kids. Now, I understand better how hard it is to live freely as he did. Did Thoreau have kids? I forget. I don't remember him writing about them.