Monday, October 01, 2007

Ah, the good old days...

"Physics and the excellences of the life it brings" -- those words appear in a letter from Robert Oppenheimer to his younger brother Frank, who was then embarking on his own career in physics. Frank Oppenheimer worked on the Manhattan project and became a high energy experimentalist at Minnesota, but was dismissed over communist party ties. He later helped found the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco.

Here's a nice overview of R. Oppenheimer's life, in the form of a table of contents:

Robert Oppenheimer - Letters and Recollections
by A.K. Smith and C. Weiner

I "Work frantic, bad and graded A"
HARVARD, 1992-1925
II "Making myself for a career"
III "Physics and the excellences of the life it brings"
IV "These terrible years of war"
LOS ALAMOS, 1942-1945
V "High promise ... yet only a stone's throw from despair"

How excellent are things today for young scientists? Here's what Nature had to say:

Is the US producing enough scientists?

Why do young people go into science? Many can't imagine doing anything else—the excitement of discovering new things is irresistible. Robert Oppenheimer once referred to "physics and the obvious excellences of life it brings". Stephen Jay Gould wrote movingly of being a street kid from New York City who hoped one day "to become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge..." For talented people, at least in countries where a wide range of opportunities are available, these decisions are often based on the feeling that there is simply no other kind of life that would be as personally rewarding. For others, however, different kinds of rewards no doubt loom large, with employment and salary prospects being the most obvious. As a result, anyone interested in understanding the flow of people into science must come to grips with the larger economic forces that might be shaping it. ...

...Producing more science graduates is undoubtedly a good thing for American science; whether it's a good thing for young American scientists, however, is much less clear, and the current generation of students will be right to be skeptical. The reasons for this were outlined in an excellent 1999 article in the New Republic by Scott Stossel ("Uncontrolled Experiment"). Fundamentally, Stossel argued, American science is a victim of its own success. The impressive increases in funding from the National Institutes of Health have led to an army of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to carry out the promises of all the funded grant applications. But even this generous level of support isn't adequate to satisfy the demand for independent jobs when these postdocs want to become principal investigators themselves. At the same time, foreign-born students see these low-paying fellowships at well-regarded American graduate programs as relatively attractive. Given that this puts further downward pressure on salaries, the effect is to discourage many American students from embarking on the long training period that is necessary to secure an academic position. To be sure, many students see science as a calling and are perfectly willing to take their chances; others, however, are less likely to ignore the laws of supply and demand when their livelihoods are on the line.

The tone of this editorial is funny -- it's obviously written for the typically monkish and narrowly obsessive researcher, who can't imagine that economic or career considerations might deter someone from pursuing a life in science. (Homo economicus and homo scientus stare at each other in mutual incomprehension :-) Nowadays, success in science seems to be as much a selection for these character or personality traits as it is a selection for talent.

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