Science and Civility

The Twentieth Century was the biggest century for physics since Newton, and the revolutionary developments provoked a lot of impassioned debate. Most of this debate was conducted with the utmost civility, most famously the great Einstein - Bohr debate. Probabably not coincidentally, this debate was extremely fruitful in clarifying the foundation of quantum theory.

We are now about 30 years into the dog days of fundamental physics. We have a good old theory (the standard model) which explains almost everything, and some new theories which are yet to explain anything measurable. Meanwhile, scientific debate has become acrimonious.

For Lubos Motl, self-professed reactionary, this is wonderful. He has a post up celebrating a recent speech by Alan Guth denouncing a rival's theory and emphasizing his point with a picture of a monkey.

Let's take reaction back another couple of centuries. In those days, Neil Turok (the victim of Guth's infantile critique) would have had no choice but to respond to Guth by killing him - or at any rate challenging him to a duel in which one of them would be likely to be killed. The loss to science might be significant (I own books by both the protagonists), but the gain for civilized behavior would compensate. A side effect would be that LM would only be alive if he was the greatest swordsman in the world - in which case I wouldn't dare to make fun of his spelling.

So what's responsible for the current outbreak of infantilism, aside from the prohibition against dueling? LM links to a story in The Australian in which Peter Woit is quoted:
The academic world is often thought to be one of reasoned debate rather than vitriol. What is driving the heated emotions? Peter Woit, an advanced maths lecturer at Columbia University, in New York, believes he has an explanation for the present fury: the physicists are simply getting bored.

Yes, but. Boorish behavior has always existed. Once upon a time, though, institutions would not have tolerated it.


  1. Anonymous2:15 AM

    For the record, he says he was misquoted, and, as a minimal correction, would substitute "frustrated" for "bored".


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