Wednesday, March 02, 2005

History repeats

Brad Delong, in his course on economic history, lists the following among the reasons for the decline of the British empire and its loss of industrial superiority to Germany and the US.

British deficiencies:
* low infrastructure investment
* poor educational system
* lags behind in primary education
* teaches its elite not science and engineering, but how to write Latin verse

Sound familiar? What is the ratio of Harvard students who have studied Shakespeare, Milton or (shudder) Derrida to the number who have thought deeply about the scientific method, or know what a photon is? Which knowledge is going to pay off for America in the long haul?

Most photon experts are imported from abroad these days. We're running a search in our department for a condensed matter experimentalist (working on things ranging from nanoscale magnets to biomembranes). The last three candidates we've interviewed are originally from (1) the former Soviet Union (postdoc at Cornell), (2) India (postdoc at Berkeley) and (3) China (postdoc at Caltech).

Of course, these Harvard kids may be making a smart decision - why fight it out in an efficiently globalized meritocracy (i.e. science), when there are more lucrative career paths available? Nevertheless, I think we would be better off if our future leaders had at least some passing familiarity with the science and technology that will shape our future.


Anonymous said...

Somehow, I don't think our current elite leaders studied much Shakespeare, Milton, or Derrida either, despite having spent time at Harvard and Yale.

Carly, on the other hand, did study mideaval history at Stanford, if memory serves, and probably still doesn't know what a photon is even after Lucent and HP labs.

Anonymous said...

Well, you are right, but I am vaguely annoyed by your snuffling at Shakespeare. There are Asian and eastern European students about who happily adore Shakespeare. Oh dear, can I be subverting them? Why the family of an Asian student has even taken to recording bird songs to surprise me. Oh dear, what have I done :) Yes, there is even painting in China :) Shudder...


Anonymous said...

Imagine, knowing King Lear we are doomed :) Macbeth, I can understand but surely not Lear. Just when I thought it was safe to read Jane Austin again I grow afraid of undoing the empire.


Carson C. Chow said...

If only they did study Shakespeare, Milton and yes even Derrida. Have you tried to read Derrida, it takes concentration. The question is how many know who won American Idol, compared to how many know how the fridge works.

Anonymous said...

Nice, Caron :) We have a problem, and I do worry, but Steve needed arguing.


Steve Hsu said...

I was referring specifically to our elites. While a few students may get through Harvard without learning very much, most learn a great deal.

But what do they learn? Would you be more disturbed that a Harvard grad knew little about Macbeth, or the Central Limit theorem? I think our current educational standards are deeply slanted in the wrong direction. I think Brad Delong was expressing the same about the British empire.

Anonymous said...

Well, this 'complacency' I think it is an inevitable feature of prosperity and dominance ("we were the best, ergo, we are the best and will be" and "all the best ideas come from here, others can teach us little" etc.). 100 years (or so) from now the Chinese intellectuals will be lamenting similar things about their populations: they are not studying hard sciences, or working hard, etc. (the "back in my days, we used to study diff. geom. at high school..." :) )

Also, please do tell your American-born friends ---Janes and Joes currently in high school--- to continue pursuing 'hard sciences' at grad school and don't give up on academia. As this article shows, competition may get less fierce from outsiders as the opportunities grow in the rest of the world.

IMHO, the federal govt. should increase funding for "rigorous fields" mathematics (pure and applied) and theoretical physics, because the skills developed are *EASILY* transferred to other disciplines, like finance, cutting-edge software engineering, etc.. This is money very well spent. So failure to find jobs in academia right after not the end of the world and the economy benefits more due to even higher caliber professionals. This is not the case with 1-track professional careers medicine, for instance. Let us face it: math is (and will be) everywhere, including advanced medicine. And medicine is bound to feel the pinch soon; already "medical tourism" is increasing. And insurance for doctors (and education) is not cheap, I am told.

And, don't worry Anne, all this rigorous stuff will eventually help them appreciate the birds even more, though it will take some time ;)


Rated among the world’s 10 best of its kind, Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureates are insiders to their science. ‘‘In a tribute to the vitality of the group, almost all return to India even when they have lucrative opportunities abroad,’’ says David Gross, last year’s Nobel Laureate in physics, from Santa Barbara, USA, over email.

Anonymous said...

The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome

He didn't look like much at first. He was too fat and his head was so big his mother feared it was misshapen or damaged. He didn't speak until he was well past 2, and even then with a strange echolalia that reinforced his parents' fears. He threw a small bowling ball at his little sister and chased his first violin teacher from the house by throwing a chair at her.

There was in short, no sign, other than the patience to build card houses 14 stories high, that little Albert Einstein would grow up to be "the new Copernicus," proclaiming a new theory of nature, in which matter and energy swapped faces, light beams bent, the stars danced and space and time were as flexible and elastic as bubblegum. No clue to suggest that he would help send humanity lurching down the road to the atomic age, with all its promise and dread, with the stroke of his pen on a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, certainly no reason to suspect that his image would be on T- shirts, coffee mugs, posters and dolls.

Einstein's modest beginnings are a perennial source of comfort to parents who would like to hope, against the odds, that their little cutie can grow up to be a world beater. But they haunt people like me who hanker for a ringside seat for the Next Great Thing and wonder whether somewhere in the big haystack of the world there could be a new Einstein, biding his or her time running gels in a biology lab, writing video game software or wiring a giant detector in the bowels of a particle accelerator while putting the finishing touches on a revolution in our perception of reality.

"Einstein changed the way physicists thought about the universe in a way the public could appreciate," said Dr. Michael Turner, a cosmologist from the University of Chicago and the director of math and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation.

Could it happen again? "Who or where is the next Einstein?"

No question is more likely to infuriate or simply leave a scientist nonplussed. And nothing, of course, would be more distracting, daunting and ultimately demoralizing than for some young researcher to be tagged "the new Einstein," so don't expect to hear any names here.

"It's probably always a stupid question," said Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Case Western Reserve University, who nevertheless said he had yet to read a profile of a young scientist that does not include, at some level, some comparison to Einstein.

Dr. Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist and best-selling author, who is often so mentioned, has said that such comparisons have less to do with his own achievements than the media's need for heroes....

Anonymous said...

Was me :) No worry, I still think the world of you, Steve. MFA too. There is easily as much value in knowing Macbeth as knowing the Central Limit Theorem or other way round, easily as much.


Anonymous said...

At a table with a physicist and a few students, the physicist was asked whether the work he was doing was applied or theoretical. The answer was, "I am a pure physicist." I really really did not smile :) Of course if I were a pure philosopher, I could be more sympathetic. How much more than Hamlet is the Central Limit Theorem worth :)


Anonymous said...

The Musical Odyssey of Min Xiao-Fen

In his well-known Norton lectures at Harvard in 1973, "The Unanswered Question," Leonard Bernstein asked, "Whither music in our time?" The influences of Schoenberg and Stravinsky were duly pondered; the question remained unanswered. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the answer is all around us. The future is global. Non-European and popular music, not 12-tone rows and Neo-Classicism, are what have refreshed and expanded the musical traditions Bernstein held dear.

Composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, none of whom can be called classical musicians, are one part of "postclassical" music. And legions of young conductors and instrumentalists have broader, less Eurocentric worldviews than their elders.

The Chinese, whose Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 sent Westernized musicians into the countryside, have carved a special place in this transitional moment. Steeped in their own traditional and folk music and equally schooled in Western practice, composers like Zhou Long and Bright Sheng have forged a hybrid idiom remarkable in expressive range and sophistication of timbre. And by finding new ways to write for pipa, erhu and zheng, they have catalyzed a generation of Chinese instrumentalists scarcely less remarkable.

Min Xiao-Fen, who performs at the BAM Cafe tomorrow, is a pipa player like no other. When she speaks the language of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, the results are not ersatz but transformational. In her trio, Blue Pipa, with guitar and double bass, the lutelike pipa becomes a super-banjo. With orchestra, she performs concertos by Zhou Long, Tan Dun and Bun-Ching Lam in which a Western concert genre acquires new foreign accents.

Ms. Min's fretted string instrument is itself unusually versatile. Its four strings and heavy rosewood body traditionally invite sharply contrasted "martial" and "lyric" performing styles. The martial, connecting with depictions of battle, is harsh, noisy and percussive. The lyric, connecting with nature, is fragrant: with quivering vibrato, the pipa here imitates the human voice....


Anonymous said...

Imagine, a pipa player. We enrich ourselves in mnay ways :)


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