Dangerous Opinions

23Jul06

This blog is partly in the image of Quantum Diaries, where young physicists (especially graduate students) shared their thoughts and lives as a way to promote science during the World Year of Physics (2005). My goal is to share (and document) my experience becoming a physicist. Unfortunately, I’ve been less inclined to blog about actual physics (due in large part to the lack of LaTeX support), and have instead focused on some of the more practical details of becoming a graduate student (like eating).

As of late, however, I’ve noticed some controversial topics being discussed by professors in prominent physics-related blogs. Over in Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll (a cosmologist and author of an excellent general relativity textbook) and JoAnne Hewett (a phenomenologist at SLAC and one of my undergraduate thesis readers), discussed gender-bias in the sciences. Three days later, Lubos Motl (a string theorist at Harvard), posted his own disagreeing opinion, including some strong words pointed at JoAnne. The comments left by readers of each of those blogs also include some very passionate responses (as can be expected from such a topic).

Another topic that’s tiptoeing towards becoming a controversy is string theory itself, the self-described “Socratic gadfly” being Peter Woit (a mathematician at Columbia) whose blog, Not Even Wrong, often includes discussions about the relative merits (or lack thereof) of the study of string theory. A recent blog entry responds to one of Lubos Motl’s posts, also making some very personal statements (though suffice it to say that the two have had a bit of a back an forth for some time).

Today I have no intent to talk about gender-bias in the sciences or string theory. Nor do I feel like I can talk about my opinions in a public blog. And that is what I’d like to talk about. (Read that again if it didn’t make sense.)

Graduate students are at the very bottom of the academic hierarchy. My (naive) understanding is once I sign that line commiting to a department (something I haven’t quite done yet due to a deferral), a large part of one’s future is determined by one’s adviser and the various committees that decide which post-doc/faculty applicant gets to make it to the next stage. While hard work, intelligence, and luck play a big role, it’s no longer true that there is a clear cut heirarchy in how to judge strong graduate students. There is no GPA, no transcript, no standardized exam that one can compare graduate students against, only different research papers (how can you objectively compare someone who studied a certain model of SUSY breaking versus someone who studied little Higgs model?) and recommendations.

As such, it becomes much more important that other people like you.

What I mean by that, of course, is that one’s advisors, faculty mentors, and hiring committees must think of you as someone who is professional and who can work harmoniously with them. While this does not necessarily mean that you have to have matching opinions as them, it may mean that they shouldn’t have to be aware of your differing opinions on hot topics.

So where does that leave a blogger? It’s all well and good to talk about what kind of physics I’m thinking about (supersymmetry breaking), adjustments I’ve had to make as a grad student (cooking), and various personal details (farmer’s markets), but does my professional situation preclude me from blogging about politics or other controversial topics?

Of course, one could argue that grad students (and those in similar professional situations) are free to have opinions, but blogging those opinions are a luxury that may not be a wise professional decision. One could say that having a blog at all is a luxury that research-laden graduate students shouldn’t indulge too deeply in. There would be some validity in that.

However, the issue at hand is much broader. There are many ways to leave a footprint on the web. With every forum post saved forever, with Google saving data on nearly every Internet search conducted, and with “Internet archives” saving copies of the world wide web, there are some who have become wary of putting any sort of footprint on the net for fear of it catching up to them in the future. This realization is something of a backlash against the anonymity of the net (something that has contributed to its success–where else can geeky twelve year olds speak like Samuel L. Jackson to yuppies over a computer game?), where individuals cannot escape their actions. How, then, will people adjust to this manifestation of big brother on the wild wild web?

There will be those who will share their opinions anyway, just as there will be those who clam up and do their research. I think in due time I’ll shift towards the latter (if only for the pragmatism of a PhD). But, to some extent, this is something that affects everyone who uses the web.

The Internet is a new medium (or even several media) for people to communicate. This has made it easier to find movie times, order text books, share music/pictures/movies, keep in touch, and even publish physics preprints. In principle, it provides a free forum for the exchange of ideas–free in accessibility and free to anyone to contribute. However, this freedom is, in fact, a brave new world. When someone published a strong opinion in a campus newspaper twenty years ago, one could be reasonably sure that it reached only a finite number of people and would be long forgotten in a finite amount of time. Now, everything one writes is available to everyone else in the world for as long as the Internet survives. (Not knowing the details of tracking IP numbers and such, absolute anonymity may not be possible.)

As a kid growing up during the Internet revolution, I was fascianted that my little website could be viewed by someone across the world and they could read about the things on my mind. Now I worry about whether or not it would be professionally wise to take part in the greatest means of communication and discourse of ideas ever invented.

Update: Grad student blogging is addressed by R. Goetz in the Novermber 14, 2005 “Chronicle Careers” column of the Chronicle of Higher Education.



5 Responses to “Dangerous Opinions”

  1. 1 Kyle

    This issue does indeed seem to be on everyone’s minds these days. I know its been on mine. I’ve already learned your statement about needing people to like us is painfully true, even if I’m not starting grad school for three weeks. Sometimes I find it helpful to remind myself that most people actually have to do this more, not less, than those in or around academia. It rarely helps.

    Your post does a terrific job of laying out the problems associated with blogging as a student. A grad student is, for the most part, a powerless grunt who desperately needs the approval of those near them. They are also, for the most part, highly educated, powerfully motivated intellectuals with strong opinions, great writing skills and both the need and right to say things people hear.

    I hope you find a solution you are happy with. Let us know what it is, in case it is one we haven’t thought of.

  2. I sympathise with the problems of being a grad student, or even a postdoc these days. So much emphasis is placed upon pleasing others that there is little room for originality. Is that why, having survived all this, physicists are afraid to think outside the box? Just letting you know, sexism exists and I see it all the time.

  3. Another relevant article, this time from Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2130466/

  4. 4 Rebecca Boone

    I have grandsons (grad students) at Yale and at Harvard three years into working for PhD’s. They are so naive! I’m sending them your post.


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