Saturday, February 19, 2005

Out on the tail

Lev Landau, a Nobelist and one of the fathers of the great Soviet physics system, had a logarithmic scale for ranking theorists, from 1 to 5. A physicist in the first class had ten times the impact of someone in the second class, and so on. He modestly ranked himself as 2.5 until late in life, when he became a 2. In the first class were Heisenberg, Bohr, Dirac and some others; Einstein was a 0.5! (For reminiscences of great physicists in that generation, see From a Life in Physics.)

My friends in the humanities, or other areas of science like biology, are astonished and disturbed that we physicists think in this essentially hierarchical way. Apparently, differences in ability are not manifested so clearly in those fields. Personally, I find Landau's scheme appropriate. There are many physicists whose contributions I cannot imagine having made. James Gleick, in his insightful biography of Feynman, devotes an entire chapter to these issues and the elusive subject of "genius."

I once asked a famous theorist what fraction of the population was capable of doing good work in our field. He had already thought about this question (as later became clear), and immediately answered: 1 in 100,000. Whether his answer is correct is debatable, but surely the fraction is a small number. Even taking 1E-05 as the answer, there are many such people on the planet, most of them in developing countries (20,000 in China and India combined!). Do they have access to educations commensurate with their abilities? Won't the world benefit more and more from their talents as globalization continues? The US has benefited enormously from the brain drain that brings such people to our country.

[Note added (2009): In About Science, Myself and Others, Nobelist V.L. Ginzburg notes that Landau had ranked Feynman in the 1 category (so, higher than Landau himself). Ginzburg describes many similarities between Landau and Feynman, although unfortunately the two never met in person. p.281]


Anonymous said...

So the problem is where do I fit on the tail. Am I not insecure enough. Good grief, you physicists have no empathy. No matter, I am good with birds :)

Anonymous said...

The Cars Aren't Really Exploding, but the Terrorist Metaphor Is

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. - Not every museum has space the size of a football field to allot to a one-person show. But at Mass MoCA, the rambling factory-turned-art center here, Building 5 is where an artist can get carried away. With its several rooms, including a main gallery 300 feet long, 55 feet wide and 28 feet high, it has, like a big movie soundstage, a voracious appetite for spectaculars. And the museum's staff seeks them out, sometimes commissioning works especially for the space, at other times taking shows already put together.

Choosing from a small cadre of artists who can handle the scale, the museum has had no trouble feeding the hungry maw. Building 5 has housed big doings by Robert Rauschenberg, Tim Hawkinson , Robert Wilson and Ann Hamilton. Its current impresario is Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese-born New Yorker known for his melding of Eastern and Western culture, whose specialty is making spectacles from fireworks. (A "fusion" artist?)

Now internationally recognized, Mr. Cai is best known to New Yorkers for the brief but showy rainbow he created of exploding fireworks that arced over the East River for the Museum of Modern Art's opening in Queens in 2002, and for his colossal pyrotechnic display over Central Park in 2003 that produced, among other effects, a 1,000-foot halo over the reservoir.

Nor has he lacked for attention elsewhere in the country. Right now, besides this show, he has a two-part exhibition in Washington, a collaboration between the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian that runs through April 24.

For the commission at Mass MoCA, Mr. Cai (pronounced "sigh") was more than ready, actually requesting an extra gallery. A reluctant "no" was the answer. Not to worry. He's come up with a multipart installation titled "Inopportune" and, like a Chinese New Year combined with the Fourth of July, it is full of snap, crackle and bang bang.

Based on the idea of an ancient scroll painting whose long horizontal format gradually unfolds to reveal its imagery, the work has four parts, each seen separately but making key visual connections. The main gallery display is a gasp-maker, a fantasy car bombing involving nine identical white Ford Tauruses and lines of flashing multicolored lights.

As you enter, the first car sits peacefully on the ground. The second takes off into the air, suspended from the ceiling, followed by six other cars held by ropes that fix them in tumbling positions to make a long arc. The procession ends with the last one, plunked on the ground again with no evidence of damage.

An explosive effect is created by the tiny rope lights, tied to rods and pulsing with color, that seem to flash out from the cars themselves. Beginning with white and segueing into a different hue for each car, they end with a peaceful blue that spreads out like wings from the penultimate car to ease its landing. Like a time sequence made by a still camera, recording a single event in multiple frames, the line of cars is meant to be construed as an image of one.

Mr. Cai is not a political artist, and although the image suggests car-bomb violence in Iraq, he's borrowed the spectacle, not the message. The fact that the car lands undamaged, you see, means that this is art, not war.

The same rationale prevails in the second room, where a video projection 9 feet high and 35 feet long takes up an entire wall. It's a loop scene of Times Square at night, almost life-size with its usual commotion of foot and wheeled traffic inflected by raucous signage. Into this bustle floats a phantom car, an interpolated image that is not really part of the scene but seems to flow along on top of it.

As you watch, it explodes in a storm of fireworks, shooting out streams of color, light and noise that all but obliterate the car itself. But passers-by don't notice, and the car drives through, repeating the whole performance every 90 seconds. (You can see the actual car that was used, scorched, battered and draped with exploded fireworks apparatus, in a room behind the video screen.) ...


Anonymous said...

Where on the tail is Cai Guo-Qiang?

Anne :) A marvel.

Anonymous said...

Lots of room on the tail. There are many talents, many potentials in us collectively.


Anonymous said...

Of course, you physicists still make me feel insecure :)


Anonymous said...

The Revenge of Ellen Swallow

Back in the post-Civil War era, Ellen Swallow yearned to get a graduate degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which did not admit women. She wangled her way into classes by doing housework for her professors. "Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical," she optimistically wrote to her parents, "and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things is winning me stronger allies than anything else." Faculty members, it turned out, were happy to let her keep darning their socks but not to give her an advanced degree. Eventually, thwarted in her attempts to get a job in chemistry, she married a metallurgy professor and invented home economics.

Generations of women with a bent for science managed to get college teaching jobs because Ellen Swallow Richards figured out a way to connect their field to the analysis of cleaning products. It was something, but not exactly ideal. Today - after another century of discrimination and sexual harassment in the laboratory - female scientists are getting an increasingly large percentage of all undergraduate degrees and they get a little prickly if an extremely powerful man raises the question of whether their field has an inherent sexual divide.

All of which, of course, takes us to Lawrence Summers and his china-smashing remarks on gender and academia. Back in January, the president of Harvard shared his thoughts on why so few women get tenure at the best schools at a conference on "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce." His conclusion - couched in many assurances that the jury was still out - was that female scientists are distracted by the demands of family, and that "there are issues of intrinsic aptitude."

Dr. Summers told his audience that he wanted to be controversial, and if that's so he must be extremely gratified by the results. Several apologies and clarifications later, Harvard now has two brand-new task forces on recruitment of women and a restive faculty that seems to be teetering on the verge of revolt. Last week's release of the long-sought transcript of his remarks is not likely to improve things much. Dr. Summers compared the shortage of female scientists at the highest ranks of academia to, among other things, the shortage of Jewish farmers, and white men in the National Basketball Association. (Coming soon: Female Biologists Can't Jump.)

Dr. Summers's defenders say he is being tarred for the very intellectual openness that places like Harvard are supposed to encourage. Even in the best of circumstances, it's questionable whether the head of an institution that has a bad reputation when it comes to promoting female scientists was the perfect person to free-associate on why women have trouble getting tenure. However, the transcript provides the best possible refutation of the charge of political correctness. Whatever Dr. Summers was doing at the conference, it had nothing to do with serious intellectual inquiry. "I don't think anybody actually has a clue" was one operative phrase. "I don't remember who had told me" was another. It was every woman's nightmare of what a university president thinks privately about equal opportunity.

We have been informed many, many times in the past that Dr. Summers likes to make waves, and who could blame him? It's fun to toss out provocative ideas and watch as everyone's ears redden and all eyes turn to the daring speaker who started the hubbub. But it's an exercise better restricted to radio talk show hosts than the heads of major academic institutions. Harvard is supposed to be teaching its students not just how to start a controversy, but also how to have an intelligent conversation.


Anonymous said...

Where's the Road Beef?

There have been a lot of gaffes about women lately.

And as Michael Kinsley trenchantly observed, a gaffe occurs not when somebody lies, but when he says what he really thinks.

We got a brutal glimpse into the thinking of a certain segment of the male species reading the transcript of the condescending musings of Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, on the "intrinsic aptitude" and "variability of aptitude" of women.

Whatever point he was trying to make, he ended up making this one: It's not female aptitude that's the problem, it's male attitude. He confuses the roles society assigns to women with what women might really want. The "different socialization" Dr. Summers talks about may be getting worse, thanks to goofballs like him. How did he get to be head of Harvard anyway?

We also got a scalding peek into the locker room mentality in Jose Canseco's new book, "Juiced." In a segment called "Slump Busters," Mr. Canseco writes: "As everyone knows, baseball players are very superstitious. Players who are struggling start talking about how they need to go out and find something to break their slump. And often enough it comes out something like this: 'Oh my God, I'm 0-for-20. I'm going to get the ugliest girl I can find and have sex with her.' "

Mr. Canseco nobly points out that he never stooped to this tactic. "I'd rather go 0-for-40," he protests. But he tattled that many of his fellow athletes did seek out "slump busters." What a lovely term used by our sports heroes, our boys of summer.

"It could mean the woman was big, or ugly, or a combination of both," Mr. Canseco explains. He said that golden boy Mark Grace, the former Chicago Cubs first baseman, who seems like the kind of nice guy and good sport you'd want to bring home to mom, defined a slump buster as making out with the "fattest, gnarliest chick you can uncover." ...


steve said...

Hi Anne,

As you said, people are multitalented. The physics "tail" is just one of many (and a narrow one at that)...

I don't imagine you have to look very far to find examples of sexism (a MLB locker room is probably a good place to start). But I don't actually think Summers is a sexist in quite the same way.

"Whatever Dr. Summers was doing at the conference, it had nothing to do with serious intellectual inquiry." Summers was the one asking a valid scientific question. The lady who ran out of the room claiming she had to vomit was the anti-intellectual. (Strangely, though, I found Summers remarkably un-eloquent :-)

Anonymous said...

Agreed :) There really was no charm no gracefulness to Larry Summers speech, but I am not been annoyed. Israel Scheffler, my friend, never spoke of potential, only potential[s]. Now do not fret about the fine topics you raise, just raise and find where they amy lead.


Anonymous said...

The conversation can continue, there need be should be no recriminations.


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