Horrible People Dragging The World Forward

This rant had it’s genesis chatting outside the Burger King, around 2pm on a Sunday, in Terminal C of Las Vegas’ McCarran “Sad Bro” International Airport. Let me tell you, early afternoon on Sunday in McCarran is a sea of desolate, hungover, broke, exhausted, and, above all, chica-less bros. It earned my new name for it that day. However, this rant is a blither across academic organizational theory, prions, not offending Germans, and the Most Important Man at the University of California, Berkeley (hint: not me, nor the Chancellor).

A friend who is a writer in the tech press related to me that he’d like to go back to school, get a new degree, and do actual science rather than report about the toys of others. No, I won’t tell you who or where, but I have renamed the company he works for to “Techcrotch”. Then he said something that I’ve heard from a lot of prospective grad students:

“I want to work in a new field, NEW SCIENCE. A field where there’s a chance to do something without all the hierarchy and the weight of your predecessors on you.”

I gave a sad smile and said, “Oh, it’s different, but definitely not nicer.”

DISCLAIMER:  While I am scientifically trained, I am not exactly a participant, nor am I quite an observer. To the point of view of the most of the research community, I am a small, petty bureaucrat. A simple obstacle to be overcome/ignored at best or, and this is a quote, “an active impediment to THE PROGRESS OF ALL HUMANITY” at worst. On rare beautiful occasions, I’ve been a collaborator to help make their experiment the best that it can be. This may have colored my worldview a titch.

At some level, it comes down to a fight for scarce resources. The hierarchies of the old hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and Teh Engineeringz) are inherited structures from medieval clerics needed to keep an abbey or cloister running. The purpose is to translate knowledge, but also to insure that there is a safe future for those clerics to grow old in.  To assure the new novices that they too could safely become emeritus if they take care of their seniors and teach their juniors properly.

Except good science doesn’t work like good religion. Good science questions assumptions and grows the body of knowledge. Sadly, people in academia today aren’t much different than they were in the monasteries 1000 years ago. Uppity undergrads that appear to have stumbled on something which refutes their adviser’s old adviser, they are not rewarded with an immediate pope hat and made full professor on the spot. Goodness no, they get told they’re an idiot and did it wrong (to be honest, there’s a very good chance they did). This preserves the institution but may hinder science. Hopefully, things will get to the right answer by and by. Eventually.

Worse comes to worse, it makes fun internet research for future people looking for how many times the radio was invented and by whom.

But it takes a very special kind of person to stand up to their adviser and grand-adviser. To, in fact, stand up to the entire world and say “I am right, you are all wrong, and I am going to prove it.” And then argue for enough money, space, time and support to prove it and change What We Know. To build an entirely new field of study!

With rare exception, the personality that can do this is a magnificent, utterly unrepentant, abyssally cavernous, asshole.

This is not the cute social awkwardness of the average first year physics or EE grads. This is malignant. It is self-centered to the point of ego singularity and it accretes people to feed it. If the old discipline is a medieval fossil serving the monolithic Church of Science, the new one they’ve created, at first, is a cult of personality, handling dangerous snakes out in the shed around back of the old gas station…I think I lost hold of my metaphor there and wandered into a Call of Cthulhu module.

When you actively seek the shiny new field of research to do New and Exciting things, you are actively engaging a small coterie of people that founded it, their students, and their collective egos. You are free of the stultifying hierarchy of the big ol’ department, but are now beholden to the vicissitudes of your founders (SEE ALSO: any number of 19th century American sects).

The book that particularly comes to mind is “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep” by D.T. Max and the tale of discovering prion diseases. In the course of doing so, we come to know the two major personalities who both garnered Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Dr. Stanley Pruisner and Dr. Daniel Gajdusek. It should come as no surprise that they aren’t entirely wonderful people, and hooooo nelly Dr. Gajdusek should come with a trigger warning for some folks, but they certainly advanced…hell…created the field of prion research.

But, sometimes, that personality backfires in the wrong setting. I recall the tale of certain astrophysicist visiting the Max Planck Institute for a discussion of the brand new, at the time, theory of dark matter. The chair of the physics department of the Institute was giving a plenary talk where he likened dark matter to a Tenth Planet, AKA no basis for this being THE explanation, but it makes the math work. Many things could make the math work and the point the chair was trying to make was that some more rigorous testing of the theory was in order before advancing it.

An institutionalized researcher would’ve gone back, chastised, and tried to bring something better, more supported back. Not the founder personality, oh goodness no. A perceived attack on their theory is an attack on them. Said astrophysicist resorted to ad hominem attacks on the chair from the crowd. The chair asked him to leave the room. He was met by the bursars who were there with his luggage, who then escorted him off the grounds and told him to get a hotel because he no longer had access to the grounds of the Institute. Oh, and he’d best a arrange a flight out first thing in the morning because his visa had been revoked by the sponsor, the department chair.

PROTIP: In America, a departmental chair gets a nice office but no particular power. In Germany, they have utter rule over everything their influence touches. Don’t piss them off.

When people pull the I-am-more-important-than-you card, which has happened often lately playing with biochem folks, I am quick to reply, “That may be, fellow staff member, but do you think you are the most important person at this University?” This usually gets met with a confused blink and declarations that they suppose that would be the Chancellor. Only once has an aspiring Nobel laureate declared that, indeed, he was the most important person on campus, which is a sure sign that he isn’t.

The correct answer is that the most important person at UC Berkeley is Juan, the bartender at the Faculty Club. When protestations start, I ask them to consider that Juan has the pleasure of taking the time (and he does take his time) to make fine cocktails in a stately old bar filled with brilliant people, people untangling the knots of the universe and human condition at his tables. But more than that, he is UC Berkeley staff, not a food service contractor. He, too, is Professor Egopants’ colleague. He is a bartender with the same benefits as a full professor. This generally causes people to consider their place in the world and the importance of their role in it. If said researcher is still up for it, I then invite them to join me for a joyous, but humble, drink from Juan as we discuss their work.

In summation, I wish my friend luck in his endeavors, that he will successfully navigate the founder personalities, and that I will smack him upside the head if he starts behaving like an ass. But a cocktail from Juan will set him right as rain.