Science’s Lone Highlander Speaks


One can delve only so deeply into the physics of matter before one must forsake all reasonable philosophy and resort to throwing bones and interpreting the flight of birds (these practices taking the form of particle-pummeling and wave-scattering in this age’s new mythology of the very small). For a long time, for a very long time, when it came to studying magnetism, electricity, gravity, and sub-microscopic behavior in general, I thought I just didn’t “get it.” But after years of exploration in these realms, I have come to the conclusion that the lack of understanding does not –and never did– reside entirely within me alone… Even the big brains of physics don’t really, fundamentally, “get it.”

Recently, I have come to a hilltop in my scientific studies. From here, I have a pretty good view of the entire discipline, though there are still higher peaks to climb if I choose to do so. But what I can see already, from this mid-altitude, is that almost everyone who has climbed higher than where I am now, has done so only by ascending sheer cliff-faces of very particularized knowledge. From those heights of learning, they command spectacular views of their particular areas of scholarship. But their ability for complete circumspection is limited. They cannot see what’s on the other side of the cliff they are climbing. They are, in other words, specialists.

They do not realize– or, at least as often, they choose to forget or ignore– that while they work diligently in their area under certain theories and particular interpretations of nature, others– just as intelligent and just as educated, but tooling around on other cliffsides– are just as successfully utilizing CONFLICTING theories and interpretations in their work in their own specialized fields  (here I am thinking especially of the schizophrenic life of the electron).

There’s not many of us left today in a position to compare, much less worry about, the different theories accepted in different spheres of work.  The simple fact is:  there are not many of us left upon the mid-altitude hilltops. There is practically zero incentive for a man or woman to obtain a middlin’ high level of general scholarship. In fact, there is great disincentive, for we have disachieved a culture in which scientific institutes, respected publications, and potential protege-adopting mentors do not take seriously those without the “proper” credentials. There are sociological, institutional reasons for this prejudice, as well as personal, psychological ones. I won’t go into those in this essay, other than to say that, sociologically, it is easier for busy, decision-making people to have their workload threshed, meshed, and mostly reduced by the bureaucratic machine before they have to deal with it, and that people who have suffered and sacrificed in order to gain their place by jumping through the proper hoops and playing by the sediment of rules settling upon current generations are not disposed to lend down a hand to others who have not made similar concessions.

Most people attempting to ascend the heights of scholarship make the choice to veer-off somewhere before the top of the line of general-knowledge hills. They choose, instead of further climbing, to turn and to practically apply, in some technical job, what they have learned. There is certainly no shame in this.  There is good money in being a skilled technician, as well as respect and a sense of accomplishment…  Not to mention the hands-on good that such work does for our neighbors and our descendants.

Other studiers continue climbing, becoming full-fledged scientists. To do so, however, to go higher than the general-knowledge hilltop, they must, today, choose an area of specialized study, a particular cliff to climb. These positions (largely, if sometimes indirectly, tax-payer-funded) are frequently even higher-paying than the well-paying technical jobs, with the bonus that they often come with tenure.

Put simply, it doesn’t PAY to merely surmount a general-knowledge hill and know 60% of all the big ideas in life, or even 60% of all the big ideas in a particular discipline, such as science. For pay and prestige, it pays much better to know 90% of a particular technical craft or a specialized research-area. And I purposefully bring-up “research” here, for as part of the credentialling of the modern, respected scientist, he must, seemingly, not only speak the very specialized cant of a narrow subculture, but he must also have been invited to join the club of this or that extremely high-spending research institution.

Human-beings are a funny lot. It’s difficult for us to retain a sense of self-respect when no one else values what we have accomplished. In theory, our own self-respect should be enough to sustain us. But prestige is like oxygen… we begin to wither without it. When we are held in low-esteem by our fellow Man, our sense of self-respect grows shaky at the knees.

For all these reasons and more, most of us abandon the hilltops of generalized knowledge and choose either to turn from our studies into a technical, practical, and productive craft– or else, we keep ascending toward deeper understanding– though with an ever more limited horizon.

So, who is left with me on the hilltops? Frankly, I see no one. I am the lone Highlander. And I hear no sounds of music in this beautiful desolation. I hear only the winds of isolation and derision.

There is the pressure, of course, to pick a field and specialize. And I do not mean just for career or prestige purposes, but pressure out of a sort of quasi-necessity. You see, in any particular area of science, I’m still only 60% of the way there. That means, my opinions mean nothing to the gatekeepers of the scientific community. My insights are discounted as the ravings of a dilettante. Since modern physicists have become the slaves of their instruments (instead of the more proper, other-way-round), and since modern physics has lost its balance by all-but-forsaking philosophy in favor of esoteric mathematics, I would, in order to climb higher, need to learn the runes and rubrics of the specialist’s shoptalk– which I am not so very disinclined, and certainly not unable, to do (it’s merely a matter of memorizing terms and algorithms and learning to perform and record experiments). However, Life is short, and the Art is long.  Specialization, in the modern way, would require years of dedicated following of a very narrow line. And since my years upon this earth are limited, that would mean there would be huge areas of life I would never get to explore. I would especially fear for the continued existence of my creative side.  From the hilltop, however, there are vast vistas of the Universe open before me on all sides– more than a lifetime’s worth of sublime viewing. To give that up would mean subjecting myself to a lifetime of mourning and regret.

So, though part of me longs for pay and prestige, I guess I’ll never abandon my lovely hilltop. I suppose I’ll continue gleaming insights from this bounteous and circumscribing creation for as long as I am granted the life to do so.  Yes, I watch the climbers on the cliffsides. I often envy them.   Their lives look exciting and successful, and in many ways rewarding. But I am who I am. I don’t want 90% of lesser. I want 60% of greater.

It’s not a moral choice I am making.  It’s simply a matter of personal tastes and preferences.  The only problem for society as a whole (that is, the only ethical aspect) when it comes to making the choice between the lifestyle of the technician, the generalist, or the specialist emerges when and if too many people choose the SAME style of inquiry.  We need all types.  The whole spectrum of workers and philosophers.  My fear now is that we are losing the middle ground, the land of the informed generalist.

Me?  I don’t want to start climbing up a cliff, however lucrative and prestigious. I would miss too much the vistas on the other side of the cliff which would become hidden to me. I choose instead, the relatively lowly general path. I choose the panoramic.  I choose, in fact, another year of writing this blog.

[This prattle was inspired from the reading of Steven H. Simon’s very good book, The Oxford Solid State Basics, from which I took copious notes.  I’m not sure if I’ll post more on this book directly, or just use my notes in other posts generated from related books]


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