A golden age?

Was there a lost Golden Age for science? I am grateful to Ursula Martin for directing my attention to a paper by a geographer at Queen Mary, Kerry Holden, entitled “Lamenting the Golden Age: Love, Labour and Loss in the Collective Memory of Scientists”, in Science as Culture 24 (2015), 24-45: DOI 10.1080/09505431.2014.928678. I don’t agree with the thesis of the paper, but I very much appreciate a thought-provoking read which raises some very important points.

Myth

The word “myth” in popular usage has the connotation “untruth”, though academics who are concerned with it are quick to point out that this is not necessarily the case; rather, myth is something which shapes our perception of ourselves and our place in the world. I think this needs to be discussed, because some people have maintained that myth embodies a different sort of truth, and in our post-truth society we need to be very careful about such claims.

Two of Britain’s most famous Christians in the twentieth century illustrate this. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were members of the Inklings. In the 1930s, Tolkien, a lifelong Catholic Christian, persuaded Lewis (brought up as a Christian but having abandoned his childhood faith) to return to the fold; and, indeed, Lewis became a celebrated Christian apologist, but from a Protestant perspective, rather to Tolkien’s dismay. The actual conversion is discussed in some detail in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the Inklings, and indeed in a poem by Tolkien. Both men were deeply attracted to tales of the North, especially the Icelandic sagas, which they read in the original language. Lewis saw the Christian story as a myth comparable to the dying and reviving god Balder in Norse legend, and could not see how this could help him now: he described it as “lies breathed through silver”. Tolkien explained that it was a myth which happened to be true, and not a lie.

Tolkien felt this very strongly. The philologist Max Müller said “Mythology is a disease of language”; Tolkien was so offended that he half-seriously proposed the revision “Language is a disease of mythology”. Shades of mythos and logos in early Greek culture.

But in any case, a myth, true or false in objective reality, must have the power to shape our sense of self and our lives, and the world around us.

Science in the Golden Age

I am absolutely sure that there has been a golden age in science, though I would be less happy putting precise dates on it than Holden’s interviewees.

It is a fact (and figures exist to prove it) that, as universities have grown in size, the ratio of administrators to academics has also grown. Cameron’s Law says that the number of administrators grows faster than linearly in the size of the university. (This has the interesting corollary that, when a university exceeds a certain size, it will have more administrators than the total size of the university. This is not as crazy as it appears. Already there are university administrators who draw a salary for part-time work, though this is more common in commerce or public life than in academia.)

As this happens, more and more of the administrators have no experience of doing research, and often they tend to assume that traditional management methods are capable of increasing our productivity. David Colquhoun has this to say:

I have news for HR people. They are called experiments because we don’t know whether they will work. If they don’t work that’s not a reason to fire anyone. No manager can make an experiment come out as they wish. The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to manage research. If you want real innovation you have to tolerate lots and lots of failure. “Performance management” is an oxymoron. Get used to it.

A few scientists still live as if the academic revolution had not happened. They support themselves by working at another job, or are supported by a partner, so that they have time to think. Two such in Britain in recent times are Julian Barbour and James Lovelock. Barbour has thought more deeply than most about the history of mechanics since ancient times, resulting in original views about the structure of the universe, including the idea that time is not basic but derives from a “best-matching” distance between spatial configurations. Lovelock, who early in his career invented a sensitive detector of trace chemicals in the atmosphere, is well-known for his Gaia theory, according to which the whole earth is a self-regulating ecosystem; this has been very productive in leading to the study of cycles of various elements in our environment. Both of these people cite the independence from the traditional research/academic environment as an important factor in their success.

In the case of my own career, nobody ever told me what to work on, even as a research student (though advice would have been available had I wanted or needed it). I think that mathematicians are almost certainly closer to the golden age than the biomedical scientists Holden interviewed. The course of mathematics research is more unpredictable than most of science, but in addition I now have many correspondents around the world who send me interesting problems, to which I can occasionally make a contribution (and of course these arrive out of the blue).

Thetis Blacker said, in recounting her dream of “Mr Goad and the Cathedral” in Pilgrimage of Dreams, that “Eternity is always now, [but] now isn’t always eternity”. It is clear to me that the Golden Age still exists for those of us fortuate enough to live in it, and I do count myself as one.

At present, I am employed on a half-time contract at the University of St Andrews. Although the contract assumes I work an 18-hour week, the School of Mathematics and Statistics finds it more convenient for me to work full-time in the second semester (teaching, supervising projects, administration, as well as keeping research going), and to have the first semester free for research visits. It is like having a six-month sabbatical every year. And as to the effect, 2017 will probably be the best year in my entire career for publications in top journals, the kind of thing that the administrators no doubt want; while much of this is down to my outstanding coauthors, in most cases they are in different universities, so I can claim it as my own work for the REF. There is absolutely no doubt that the comparative freedom I now enjoy has played a big part in this.

Holden’s paper

For the paper, Kerry Holden interviewed 45 academics, from early career researcher to head of the faculty, in the biomedical faculty in a London university. Neither the university nor any of the academics is identified.

Holden identifies five losses felt by the scientists: intellectual freedom, time for thinking deeply about the problem, a proper apprenticeship in science (replaced by PhD time subject to the same deadlines and pressures to perform as all other academics feel), serendipity (eroded by modern management techniques), and overall the idea that science is a calling which is pursued for love.

They mostly talked about a lost Golden Age of scientific research in the past. Holden discounts the truth of this, since different interviewees identified different past periods as the Golden Age. I think this conclusion is wrong; and indeed there is a simple alternative explanation. If things are going downhill fast, then any past period (even one quite recent) will have the characteristics of a Golden Age compared to the unsatisfactory present.

Holden, as noted above, says that a myth doesn’t have to be false (though the truth of this one is dismissed). It shapes academics’ perception of self and its relation to the University. In particular, it is claimed that although they all claim that decline is occurring, the myth “instils a willingness perhaps to forgo action that might address the inequality and increasing precariousness of scientific careers”. Again, there is an alternative explanation. Teaching is dismissed in the paper as just something else to distract academics from research. This is obviously wrong; teaching is important to us, and we tend not to take strike action because the people who would be hurt by it would be our students, to whom we feel a responsibility.

Holden finds that the Golden Age myth still works to recruit and retain committed scientists, and so supports the imposition of managerial techniques from above (since scientists’ idealism will lead them to swallow their anger and get on with the job). I wish I could be so sure.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to A golden age?

  1. Laurent Therond says:

    Could it be that progress in Science is bound to follow a curve similar to the curve showing the progression of world records in distance running? Outlandish for sure, or so it seems.
    But, every new inch of progress appears to require an ever greater amount of accumulated knowledge. (And therefore an ever greater need to teach towards further progress.)
    Seen from another angle, could it be that, at some point, advancing Science further would demand a world population our planet could not support?
    Or instead of “ages,” are we dealing with “waves”?

    • Good points; but I don’t think that was at all what the paper I was commenting on had in mind. This appeared to be how practitioners of science view the myth of a golden age in the past, with not too much connection to the reality of how science is done.

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