Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Don't help them to bury the light

Hey you, don't help them to bury the light
don't give in without a fight!

(Pink Floyd -- "Hey, you")

I crossed continents once more and I am back soaked
in damp cold darkness. Every dimly illuminated surface
in this wintry urban landscape glows as if coated with a
film that reflects and radiates an essence of anguish
and bereavement. A feeling of loss: loss of life, of balance,
of will and desires. An acquiescent all encompassing darkness,
silent and slippery darkness. There is a sense that germinates
in this grey opaqueness of earth and sky that all is
past and lost and no ideal is worth fighting for any longer.
A sense of slow and tragic bitterness that is penetrating
the essence of life, just like this cold dampness and icy rain
penetrates to the bone. A sense of old torpor and leaden
heavy sadness, all traces of joy and life extinguished in an
all consuming slow decay.

Hey you, with you ear against the wall
Waiting for someone to call out
Would you touch me?

Rather than trying to fight against this all encompassing
darkness, I let its soft glow surround me and its coldness
drench me. There's a morbid sense of complacency at giving
in and letting the pain echo down the wells of consciousness.
It acquires a transcendental quality, a sense of
inevitability. One feels with enchanced intensity at
such times and, painful as it may be, it is worth
experiencing in full this descent into the underworld.
I am going through the kind of "Pink Floyd - The Wall"
decay and transformation experience, as if a wall had
progressively risen, sealing off my attempts to reach out
to others. As in the Pink Floyd movie the wall is at the same
time self built and imposed by a combination of external
forces and events of abandonment, disillusionment, and
progressive loss of stability.

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?

A number of somber thoughts have been accompanying me
these days. The reason that momentarily brought me back
to reside under these gloomy skies is an event involving
a young friend of mine from Baghdad, in whose scientific
training I've been quite heavily involved. Despite the
near collapse of civilization in his home country, he
succeeded with a lot of effort and hard work in earning
a PhD from a good European university. It's a story with
a happy ending, isn't it, so why am I so gloomy about it?
Well, because the truth is that, despite being able to
write a thesis with enough supervision and help from the
advisor, he still does not have a grasp on the basic
functioning of his discipline to be able to function
as an independent researcher, as would be ordinarily
expected from a recent PhD. The problem does not lie
with his ill will, nor with lack of hard work and
dedication, but with what looks now sadly like an
irreversible damage created by the desruption of his
previous education determined by the political events
of the years of the war and the wave of violence that
accompanied the military occupation of Iraq. What
went wrong did so at a very early stage. I would like
to be able to pinpoint where the damage is located,
so as to try to provide some sensible advise, but it
is not easy.

There are many different levels at which doing
research in basic science happens. Let us say one is
trying to do research in theoretical physics or in
mathematics. If it's mathematics, then one is trying
to prove a theorem. At one level, one needs to identify
which theorem one should be proving. This is often one
of the main difficulty that professional mathematicians
face. One may be attracted by famous and well defined
problem, in which case the statement (Fermat's last
theorem or the Pincare' conjecture, just to mention
the most famous recently solved ones) is clearly defined
and well known and one's own efforts are concentrated
on providing different but equivalent reformulations,
or stronger statements that would imply the desired one,
and from these devise a divide and conquer strategy that
will break down the problem into a number of steps that
become doable. Most mathematical research, however, is
not around trying to solve long standing problems (though
the latter certainly provide important motivation for
other developments). Most of the time one is not trying
to answer a given question, but to come up with both the
question and the answer at the same time. Thus, a
professional mathematician needs to have developed a
sense of what questions it may be interesting to ask
oneself, and among these which statements might have
important consequences if proved true. This sensitivity
that is very much needed to mathematical research can
be thought, even to a person approaching graduate
studies from a disadvantaged background. Following
closely the developments of the literature: looking
regularly at the eprints and attending talks and
conferences whenever possible will allow one to get
a sense of what topics and what questions are interesting
at a given time in a given field. The second challange
that faces a researcher who comes from a country with
poor infrastructure is the access to the literature.
Obviously the eprints have much improved the situation
with respect to the time when scientific literature
was only available in commercial journals, but one
still needs to know where and how to access the
information to make good use of it. I remember it
being one of the first things I showed to my friend
from Baghdad as he came out of Iraq, and I was surprised
to find out that, from what he told me, none of his
colleagues at the university there knew of the existence
of freely available scientific literature in the form
of electronic preprints repositories. This again is
something that can be easily taught. Specific notions,
definitions, existing results, techniques used in
certain contexts also can be taught, given enough
time, but there is one last ingredient, which unfortunately
lies at the foundation of all the rest, and it's the
stone upon which all the edifice of mathematical
creativity is built upon, and that's the structure of
logical thinking out of which the very texture of a
mathematical proof, any proof even the simplest one,
is made. If that step fails the rest will have nothing
to hang on to and will fail to take roots. Even if
one takes some of the most intuitively accessible
areas of mathematics, such as knot theory for
instance, one will not go anywhere with intuition alone,
or better, not with any kind of vague touchy-feely
intuition. Intuition of course exists and plays a
major role in mathematical creativity, but it's
an intuition that moves fully within the boundaries
of stringent mathematical logic and where the
underlying structure of implications, levels of
generalization, and rigorous definitions are
the very essence of what the intuitions are about.

This failure in the basic grasp on the logical structure
of science is unfortunately what I saw happening to
my friend. The kind of things that involve correct
use of logical quantifiers and propositional calculus are
implicitly hidden inside any, even the most straightforward of
mathematical statements, and it would make all statements
vacuous or nonsensical if those rules of logic failed to
click in the right way as an automatism, to become second
nature to the mind of a trained mathematician. If that very
basic level fails, then no amount of further learning, of
hard work and dedication, no amount of literature reading,
of sitting in lectures, and so on, will ever make a
person able to work as a professional research mathematician
(the same goes without saying for physicists as well, and
for all the other sciences). When in the training of a
mathematician does one expect to learn that kind of basic
thinking? In many cases it happens at a very early age,
during the school years, either when some prepare for a
standard test for university admission or an entrance
examination, or just because of a like for certain kind
of logical puzzles and mathematical games that usually
accompany the childhood and adolescence of many future
scientists. One way or another, few people who will
become professional scientists usually have to wait until
college to learn how to manipulate logical quantifiers
correctly, or to complete a sillogism in the right way.
For those who might still have to go through that stage
at the time when they begin college education, there are
usually those sorts of remedial courses with names like
"Introduction to proofs" that are supposed to help
college students overcome the gaps between knowing
how to do some calculations and understanding the
basic logical thinking that is needed to correctly
organize the structure of a mathematical proof. Because
these are things that are learned at such an early
stage in the process of scientific education, it is very
hard to imagine a way to teach them to someone who is
already at the level of mid graduate school and who,
because of the disruption of normal functioning of
society in a war ravaged country, has not had the proper
training at the proper time. My friend's case is not
atypical: in fact, he even ranked among the best students
in his home country. The tragedy that this situation
reveals is that the failure of this early training
of students in the logical thinking needed to do
mathematics and science might as well have doomed the future
of science in Iraq for generations to come. Namely, if
the graduate students of today have not been taught at
the time when they were in high school or college how
to manipulate the logic of mathematical thinking, they
will never become fully capable scientists tomorrow,
no matter how much dedication and hard work they put
in the effort. If they will not be capable scientists
tomorrow, there will in turn be nobody able to teach
those very same skills of basic logical thinking to the
next generation of students. Of course, the quality
of highly cohesive and intricate logical structure
behind mathematical thinking requires the mind to be
able to concentrate fully on its task. A mathematical
statement is rigid and usually any minimal modification
of wording, a change of quantifiers, a reverse implication,
the replacement of one concept by a slightly more or
slightly less general one, will simply turn a true
and interesting statement into garbled nonsense. The
required kind of concentration is perhaps just something
that cannot be acquired when all one's mind is occupied
by urgent thoughts of survival, by trying to gauge how to
commute to work avoiding being blown up by a roadside bomb.
People who are left with post traumatic effects hardly
can find the peace of mind to ponder what exactly are
the correct hypotheses for that lemma. And yet, either
science will die out completely, signing in this way the
final demise of civilization in those parts of the world
that have been ravaged for years by senseless wars, or
there has to be a way to overcome this very fundamental

Perhaps more than all the tragic images of
destruction in Iraq that the media reverse
on us daily, the much more quiet and
private events I witnessed these days have
gotten me to fully understand the extent of the
devatation produced by the Iraqi war. My friend may
one day go back to Iraq as one of the people with
some of the highest scientific qualifications in the
country, since after all he does now have a PhD in a field
of basic science from a major European institution,
but I am now really afraid that that will only, all
the more, reveal the gaping hope in his background,
as large as those craters of bombs we are so used to
seeing portrayed by the media, a deep crater in the
middle of the road that supposedly leads to independent
scientific research and that nobody will be able to fill.

There was a time, centuries ago, when Baghdad was
the scientific capital of the world. Today is has
all but disappeared from the map of scientific
existence. A couple of years ago, a wave of
violence in Baghdad singled out people with
scientific and technical expertise, especially
those affiliated to universities, as primary
targets of violence.
Faculty members where gunned down on the way in
and out of their departments, students where blown
up by suicide bombers while coming out of classes.
Anybody with scientific training either fled the
country or died. The violence might have calmed
down by now, but the effects of the devastation
remain and will last for generations, because of
the devastation it caused on the young generation,
deprived of that crucial time and opportunity
to go through the early process of learning how
one does science.

Is there a way out now? I don't know. Just a
year ago I would have been a lot more optimistic.
I am one of those who read once too many times
Abdus Salam's "Ideals and Realities" and still
cultivated the dream that, freed from the chains
of colonialism, the many cultures of the world
could finally flourish in their own scientific
development and maybe one day Baghdad would again
be a capital center for advanced science as it
once was in history. It might have worked for the
countries like India and China: they did and do,
and all the more will in the near future, develop
their own path to scientific prominence and
excellence in research. Other countries, including
those who experienced the new wave of American
colonialism, sank into scientific oblivion.
Will there ever be again scientific splendor in
Baghdad? Today I am afraid the answer is likely no.
I have identified today the source of the defect
that undermines the Abdus Salam dream: one cannot
build science from the top down! The latest stage
of scientific training is of course crucial to
get people on to the right track of research, but
it's not a hanging garden: it needs roots that
lie far below. Without those roots the hanging
flower will die out as quickly as it tried to bloom.

At the same time while I have been seriously reflecting
upon the failure of my attempts to build over the ruins,
I am being forced into a more general painful reflection
on the course of my own work. Once again, trying to
reach out to those I hoped I could be gaining comfort
from had been increasingly like trying to be heard across
a wall.

Hey you, out there beyond the wall,
Breaking bottles in the hall,
Can you help me?

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the uncertain steps
of science in disadvantaged backgrounds lies the big machine
of big science: the system of harsh selection and government
fundings that guide the research activities in the US. Moving
between these two extremes, one sees even more strikingly
the width of the gap. In a climate of extreme competition as
the scientific community is where it moves at the edge of
things, there is no room for survival for anyone but the fittest.
It is harsh natural selection in its raw and unmitigated form and
people seem to be willing to bend the boundaries of the
acceptable professional behavior to dig their trenches. My most
recent experience with this environment resulted in two scientific
proposals, submitted to the standard funding agencies, both being
plundered for quick-and-dirty papers, possibly by people who where
supposedly bound, as reviewers, to treat the content as confidential.
Competition in the best spirit of capitalism, I would say. It does
serve some purpose: be it topological effects on the polarization
of the background radiation or arithmetic of Feynman integrals, it
will surely have the effect of accelerating my response time to
salvage my research plans. So, do we need to add basic lessons
in self-defense to the training of scientists? What are the qualities
that are being selected for fitness by this process? What will be the
resulting evolutionary effect on the scientific community.

If one is prone to deep reflections and great
uncertainties about one's own choices of research
directions, as I certainly am and at this particular
time more than ever, neither the awareness of the
extremely limited boundaries within which our
scientific community is confined (the habitable
zone for scientific thought, so to speak) nor the
repeated exposure to internal friction, professional
jealousies, and fights for access to limited funding
resources, can possibly help in generating a positive
reinforcement. Maybe somewhere, out there beyond
the wall, there lies still some hope of reverting this
course, but is there anybody out there?

Hey you, would you help me to carry the stone?
Open your heart, I'm coming home.

Hey you, dont tell me there's no hope at all:
together we stand, divided we fall.