Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Cam and the Sea of Cortez

British countryside after an unusually dry summer, with the weather just restored to the familiar alternation of showers and glimpses of sunshine. I backed off speaking at a conference (I cannot stand taking the podium anymore, too much of the same showing off in front of the same people) and I am mostly hiding in a small office with a view on the countryside and making daily excursions to the bookstores in town, across the college green.

Compared to other parts of the world, large sums of money are spent in Europe for scientific meetings and conferences. In North America for example, one typically attends one or two conferences every year, possibly less. In fact, in many fields it is common to have one large yearly or bi-yearly event rather than a scattered number of smaller workshops. One can see advantages to the small scale meetings system, with fewer participants and better modes of interaction. On the other hand, in Europe a veritable proliferation of these events has been fuelled by the system of EU funds, which makes it easier to spend a lot of money in travel and workshop organization than in paying stipends and salaries to scientists. Scientists often end up hopping from one conference to the next: a caravanseray of scholars, students, postdocs, traveling from one destination to the next on a monthly (if not weekly) basis. At least that's becoming my standard experience during the part of the year I usually spend in the EU countries. If a few occasions to meet and discuss with colleagues can be profitable, all this excessive organizational zeal is detrimental to scientific productivity: with the easy circulation of preprints on the freely accessible electronic archives and with fast and easy communication available uninterruptedly through the email, does one really need conferences?
They seem more designed to establish a sphere of influence or increase the personal prestige of the organizers within their local academic community than for the good of the scientific community at large.

In any case, I have had enough of conferences to last me a lifetime. Nonetheless, I keep being invited and cannot refuse out of a wide range of personal and professional obligations: so I hide as much as I can, skipping talks, refusing to speak, showing up at institutes and departments only at night. That's what I am doing at present, taking long walks in the light rain of the British countryside and browsing in bookstores during the day.

I ended up by complete chance on a remarkable book I didn't know at all, which I immediately bought and began reading voraciously over a very spicy curry in a vegetarian cafe'.

The Log from the "Sea of Cortez" is a marvelous, not very well known, Steinbeck (yes, the same Steinbeck of Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men) here engaged in the narrative of a scientific expedition in the gulf of California (Gulf of Cortez) taken in 1941, while "the whole world was going to hell" collecting shell fish on the littoral and classifying species of marine mullusks in the fashion of the scientific expeditions of the previous centuries from Alexander von Humboldt to Charles Darwin. At one time human as much as naturalistic observation, the book is philosophical, witty, full of profound observations about nature, art, and the human mind. It does portrait the drive to scientific enterprise more than many accounts by professional scientists could. It also manages to convey something (which resounds very deeply with me at this particular time) about science and the need to travel. I am going to get all the way through it tonight and I'll probably be done before the beginning of the morning talks tomorrow, and I hope to find in it a way to reconcile the urge I sometimes feel for travel, the drive for science that motivates me, with the strange revulsion that affects me at increasingly frequent times when I am confronted with the established practice of conference meetings.

Well, it took me longer than expected to finish the book and I
missed the morning talks entirely. I think I got some more out of it
that might give me a better clue. What is beautifully portrayed in
the book is not only the excitement of the mixture of
scientific/naturalistic expedition and travel adventure, but also a
certain fundamental ingredient in such ventures, which is a kind of
companionship among the human being involved, a sense of common
purpose and of comradeship, a drive towards achieving a common goal
mixed with the pure enjoyment of each other's companionship. It
isn't just that, though. There is a certain ruthlessness that goes
with it, which is also perfectly captured in Steinbeck's book, which
makes the characters in fact not that much of a desirable
companionship. So that's where the paradox lies: a sense of
comradeship is a necessary basis for partaking of the scientific
adventure, but the spell is broken by the (recently acquired?)
inability to share the ruthlessness that accompanies it. There is
indeed something there for me to analyze: the kind of companionship
that is described in the sea of Cortez expedition I have experienced
many times, especially in the years of my physics studies when I
would retreat with a group of four or five (sometimes more) of my
fellow students to a remote country house for two or three weeks at
a time, dedicating ourselves to the study of fundamental matters of
matter and energy, mathematical abstractions and philosophy
included. It is probably inevitable that this kind of experience
only works well when one is in one's early twenties, mature enough
to muse about higher mathematics but young enough to drink a bottle
of wine each night and suffer no consequence. Yet the ruthlessness
that I recognize in Steinbeck's book (which one can find portrayed
equally well in Kerouac's "One the road") and which I see (or think
I see) in the academic carnival of conferences and workshop meetings
was simply not there in my experiences of those days. Maybe I was
sufficiently involved into them as to not notice. In any case this
was a most suitable reading to provoke some thinking on what the
human side of the scientific enterprise really looks like and
whether we'd like to look at it or not.