Category Archives: Life as a Physicist

Research Rooms, Collaboration Spaces

Math and physics are different fields with different cultures. Some of those differences are obvious, others more subtle.

I recently remembered a subtle difference I noticed at the University of Waterloo. The math building there has “research rooms”, rooms intended for groups of mathematicians to collaborate. The idea is that you invite visitors to the department, reserve the room, and spend all day with them trying to iron out a proof or the like.

Theoretical physicists collaborate like this sometimes too, but in my experience physics institutes don’t typically have this kind of “research room”. Instead, they have “collaboration spaces”. Unlike a “research room”, you don’t reserve a “collaboration space”. Typically, they aren’t even rooms: they’re a set of blackboards in the coffee room, or a cluster of chairs in the corner between two hallways. They’re open spaces, designed so that passers-by can overhear the conversation and (potentially) join in.

That’s not to say physicists never shut themselves in a room for a day (or night) to work. But when they do, it’s not usually in a dedicated space. Instead, it’s in an office, or a commandeered conference room.

Waterloo’s “research rooms” and physics institutes’ “collaboration spaces” can be used for similar purposes. The difference is in what they encourage.

The point of a “collaboration space” is to start new collaborations. These spaces are open in order to take advantage of serendipity: if you’re getting coffee or walking down the hall, you might hear something interesting and spark something new, with people you hadn’t planned to collaborate with before. Institutes with “collaboration spaces” are trying to make new connections between researchers, to be the starting point for new ideas.

The point of a “research room” is to finish a collaboration. They’re for researchers who are already collaborating, who know they’re going to need a room and can reserve it in advance. They’re enclosed in order to shut out distractions, to make sure the collaborators can sit down and focus and get something done. Institutes with “research rooms” want to give their researchers space to complete projects when they might otherwise be too occupied with other things.

I’m curious if this difference is more widespread. Do math departments generally tend to have “research rooms” or “collaboration spaces”? Are there physics departments with “research rooms”? I suspect there is a real cultural difference here, in what each field thinks it needs to encourage.

Still Traveling, and a Black Hole

I’m still at the conference in Natal this week, so I don’t have time for a long post. The big news this week was the Event Horizon Telescope’s close-up of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87. If you’re hungry for coverage of that, Matt Strassler has some of his trademark exceptionally clear posts on the topic, while Katie Mack has a nice twitter thread.

Pictured: Not a black hole

A Field That Doesn’t Read Its Journals

Last week, the University of California system ended negotiations with Elsevier, one of the top academic journal publishers. UC had been trying to get Elsevier to switch to a new type of contract, one in which instead of paying for access to journals they pay for their faculty to publish, then make all the results openly accessible to the public. In the end they couldn’t reach an agreement and thus didn’t renew their contract, cutting Elsevier off from millions of dollars and their faculty from reading certain (mostly recent) Elsevier journal articles. There’s a nice interview here with one of the librarians who was sent to negotiate the deal.

I’m optimistic about what UC was trying to do. Their proposal sounds like it addresses some of the concerns raised here with open-access systems. Currently, journals that offer open access often charge fees directly to the scientists publishing in them, fees that have to be scrounged up from somebody’s grant at the last minute. By setting up a deal for all their faculty together, UC would have avoided that. While the deal fell through, having an organization as big as the whole University of California system advocating open access (and putting the squeeze on Elsevier’s profits) seems like it can only lead to progress.

The whole situation feels a little surreal, though, when I compare it to my own field.

At the risk of jinxing it, my field’s relationship with journals is even weirder than xkcd says.

arXiv.org is a website that hosts what are called “preprints”, which originally meant papers that haven’t been published yet. They’re online, freely accessible to anyone who wants to read them, and will be for as long as arXiv exists to host them. Essentially everything anyone publishes in my field ends up on arXiv.

Journals don’t mind, in part, because many of them are open-access anyway. There’s an organization, SCOAP3, that runs what is in some sense a large-scale version of what UC was trying to set up: instead of paying for subscriptions, university libraries pay SCOAP3 and it covers the journals’ publication costs.

This means that there are two coexisting open-access systems, the journals themselves and arXiv. But in practice, arXiv is the one we actually use.

If I want to show a student a paper, I don’t send them to the library or the journal website, I tell them how to find it on arXiv. If I’m giving a talk, there usually isn’t room for a journal reference, so I’ll give the arXiv number instead. In a paper, we do give references to journals…but they’re most useful when they have arXiv links as well. I think the only times I’ve actually read an article in a journal were for articles so old that arXiv didn’t exist when they were published.

We still submit our papers to journals, though. Peer review still matters, we still want to determine whether our results are cool enough for the fancy journals or only good enough for the ordinary ones. We still put journal citations on our CVs so employers and grant agencies know not only what we’ve done, but which reviewers liked it.

But the actual copy-editing and formatting and publishing, that the journals still employ people to do? Mostly, it never gets read.

In my experience, that editing isn’t too impressive. Often, it’s about changing things to fit the journal’s preferences: its layout, its conventions, its inconvenient proprietary document formats. I haven’t seen them try to fix grammar, or improve phrasing. Maybe my papers have unusually good grammar, maybe they do more for other papers. And maybe they used to do more, when journals had a more central role. But now, they don’t change much.

Sometimes the journal version ends up on arXiv, if the authors put it there. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the result is in between. For my last paper about Calabi-Yau manifolds in Feynman diagrams, we got several helpful comments from the reviewers, but the journal also weighed in to get us to remove our more whimsical language, down to the word “bestiary”. For the final arXiv version, we updated for the reviewer comments, but kept the whimsical words. In practice, that version is the one people in our field will read.

This has some awkward effects. It means that sometimes important corrections don’t end up on arXiv, and people don’t see them. It means that technically, if someone wanted to insist on keeping an incorrect paper online, they could, even if a corrected version was published in a journal. And of course, it means that a large amount of effort is dedicated to publishing journal articles that very few people read.

I don’t know whether other fields could get away with this kind of system. Physics is small. It’s small enough that it’s not so hard to get corrections from authors when one needs to, small enough that social pressure can get wrong results corrected. It’s small enough that arXiv and SCOAP3 can exist, funded by universities and private foundations. A bigger field might not be able to do any of that.

For physicists, we should keep in mind that our system can and should still be improved. For other fields, it’s worth considering whether you can move in this direction, and what it would cost to do so. Academic publishing is in a pretty bizarre place right now, but hopefully we can get it to a better one.

Grant Roulette

Sometimes, it feels like applying for funding in science is a form of high-stakes gambling. You put in weeks of work assembling a grant application, making sure that it’s exciting and relevant and contains all the obnoxious buzzwords you’re supposed to use…and in the end, it gets approved or rejected for reasons that seem entirely out of your control.

What if, instead, you were actually gambling?

Put all my money on post-Newtonian corrections…

That’s the philosophy behind a 2016 proposal by Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall, recently summarized in an article on Vox by Kelsey Piper. The goal is to cut down on the time scientists waste applying for money from various government organizations (for them, the US’s National Institute of Health) by making part of the process random. Applications would be reviewed to make sure they met a minimum standard, but past that point every grant would have an equal chance of getting funded. That way scientists wouldn’t spend so much time perfecting grant applications, and could focus on the actual science.

It’s an idea that seems, on its face, a bit too cute. Yes, grant applications are exhausting, but surely you still want some way to prioritize better ideas over worse ones? For all its flaws, one would hope the grant review process at least does that.

Well, maybe not. The Vox piece argues that, at least in medicine, grants are almost random already. Each grant is usually reviewed by multiple experts. Several studies cited in the piece looked at the variability between these experts: do they usually agree, or disagree? Measuring this in a variety of ways, they came to the same conclusion: there is almost no consistency among ratings by different experts. In effect, the NIH appears to already be using a lottery, one in which grants are randomly accepted or rejected depending on who reviews them.

What encourages me about these studies is that there really is a concrete question to ask. You could argue that physics shouldn’t suffer from the same problems as medicine, that grant review is really doing good work in our field. If you want to argue that, you can test it! Look at old reviews by different people, or get researchers to do “mock reviews”, and test statistical measures like inter-rater reliability. If there really is no consistency between reviews then we have a real problem in need of fixing.

I genuinely don’t know what to expect from that kind of study in my field. But the way people talk about grants makes me suspicious. Everyone seems to feel like grant agencies are biased against their sub-field. Grant-writing advice is full of weird circumstantial tips. (“I heard so-and-so is reviewing this year, so don’t mention QCD!”) It could all be true…but it’s also the kind of superstition people come up with when they look for patterns in a random process. If all the grant-writing advice in the world boils down to “bet on red”, we might as well admit which game we’re playing.

What Science Would You Do If You Had the Time?

I know a lot of people who worry about the state of academia. They worry that the competition for grants and jobs has twisted scientists’ priorities, that the sort of dedicated research of the past, sitting down and thinking about a topic until you really understand it, just isn’t possible anymore. The timeline varies: there are people who think the last really important development was the Standard Model, or the top quark, or AdS/CFT. Even more optimistic people, who think physics is still just as great as it ever was, often complain that they don’t have enough time.

Sometimes I wonder what physics would be like if we did have the time. If we didn’t have to worry about careers and funding, what would we do? I can speculate, comparing to different communities, but here I’m interested in something more concrete: what, specifically, could we accomplish? I often hear people complain that the incentives of academia discourage deep work, but I don’t often hear examples of the kind of deep work that’s being discouraged.

So I’m going to try an experiment here. I know I have a decent number of readers who are scientists of one field or another. Imagine you didn’t have to worry about funding any more. You’ve got a permanent position, and what’s more, your favorite collaborators do too. You don’t have to care about whether your work is popular, whether it appeals to the university or the funding agencies or any of that. What would you work on? What projects would you personally do, that you don’t have the time for in the current system? What worthwhile ideas has modern academia left out?

Interdisciplinarity Is Good for the Soul

Interdisciplinary research is trendy these days. Grant agencies love it, for one. But talking to people in other fields isn’t just promoted by the authorities: like eating your vegetables, it’s good for you too.

If you talk only to people from your own field, you can lose track of what matters in the wider world. There’s a feedback effect where everyone in a field works on what everyone else in the field finds interesting, and the field spirals inward. “Interesting” starts meaning what everyone else is working on, without fulfilling any other criteria. Interdisciplinary contacts hold that back: not only can they call bullshit when you’re deep in your field’s arcane weirdness, they can also point out things that are more interesting than you expected, ideas that your field has seen so often they look boring but that are actually more surprising or useful than you realize.

Interdisciplinary research is good for self-esteem, too. As a young researcher, you can easily spend all your time talking to people who know more about your field than you do. Branching out reminds you of how much you’ve learned: all that specialized knowledge may be entry-level in your field, but it still puts you ahead of the rest of the world. Even as a grad student, you can be someone else’s guest expert if the right topic comes up.

Pan Narrans Scientificus

As scientists, we want to describe the world as objectively as possible. We try to focus on what we can establish conclusively, to leave out excessive speculation and stick to cold, hard facts.

Then we have to write application letters.

Stick to the raw, un-embellished facts, and an application letter would just be a list: these papers in these journals, these talks and awards. Though we may sometimes wish applications worked that way, we don’t live in that kind of world. To apply for a job or a grant, we can’t just stick to the most easily measured facts. We have to tell a story.

The author Terry Pratchett called humans Pan Narrans, the Storytelling Ape. Stories aren’t just for fun, they’re how we see the world, how we organize our perceptions and actions. Without a story, the world doesn’t make sense. And that applies even to scientists.

Applications work best when they tell a story: how did you get here, and where are you going? Scientific papers, similarly, require some sort of narrative: what did you do, and why did you do it? When teaching or writing about science, we almost never just present the facts. We try to fit it into a story, one that presents the facts but also makes sense, in that deliciously human way. A story, more than mere facts, lets us project to the future, anticipating what you’ll do with that grant money or how others will take your research in new directions.

It’s important to remember, though, that stories aren’t actually facts. You can’t get too attached to one story, you have to be willing to shift as new facts come in. Those facts can be scientific measurements, but they can also be steps in your career. You aren’t going to tell the same story when applying to grad school as when you’re trying for tenure, and that’s not just because you’ll have more to tell. The facts of your life will be organized in new ways, rearranging in importance as the story shifts.

Keep your stories in mind as you write or do science. Think about your narrative, the story you’re using to understand the world. Think about what it predicts, how the next step in the story should go. And be ready to start a new story when you need to.