Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Ash Wednesday Supper

No, I know, this is not Ash Wednesday in the sense of the Christian calendar of festivities, but it is a warm late summer Wednesday night and ashes from forest fires are raining down the skies of Los Angeles. It is the season when the Santa Ana blows a stream of hot air down the Saint Gabriel mountains and the campuses are frantically working to meet their grant proposal deadlines. For many this is a time of reflection, a sort of scientific Yom Kippur, where one is forced to draw a picture of one's own scientific activity over the past year and tries to envision where one is going and why. The harsh reality of Darwinian selection, by which a large pool of highly qualified applicants will be selected against by lack of resources and only a small elite will savor the privilege of supported research, makes the introspection at this time of the year all the more poignant, all the more sincere.

I personally think that forcing people with periodic regularity to perform a long and careful reflection on the status of their research work and aspirations is an excellent idea. One sees too often in other countries (in my own experience, Germany for example illustrates this point rather clearly) how senior scientists are generally no longer, or only very rarely, subjected to a direct scrutiny of their activities. Sure, there are reviewing committees for departments and research institutes but those come infrequently and the confrontation with the evaluation is less direct, since the latter typically focuses more on addressing the performance of entire units and less on specific individuals. It is easier in such circumstances to hide behind inflated egos who too easily convince themselves that whatever they are up to at any given time is of crucial importance to the scientific community, even though this may patently be a self generated delusion. "If I did not believe that what I do is extremely important, I would immediately stop doing it" a German scientist once told me: LOL, as they say in internet youth jargon. Such examples make one wish that more frequent and harsher forms of peer reviewing would provide a good cure for this type of exaggerated and unjustified self aggrandizing. At the same time one would like to have a situation where a society that cares about science would have the mean to support science as a whole, which means supporting essentially all scholars who are actively engaged in scientific research and not just the lucky five to ten percent, as is typically the case with government grants in the US. After all, one does not want to do the opposite mistake either, and neglect something that may perhaps not look sufficiently flashy and promising today, but which may reveal itself as being of real importance tomorrow.

The issue, in a sense, is like the political reflection about anarchy versus the status quo of law and order: do we really need to invent god and police to make sure that people can aggregate into a civilized society? Is it really only the fear of punishment that can move a person to act in a way that is mutually beneficial to all? Isn't there also something that one likes to call reason that people can appeal to? Transplanted in the context of science and the support for research activity: is harsh selection for scarce resources and the fear of losing the means of financing one's own research activities the only way to force people into a critical reflection of their own ideas? Isn't there a better way, which would be compatible with the principle of a more widespread and less elitist support for science, but which at the same time would avoid the excesses of narcissism and indulgence described above? I believe it all boils down, somehow, to an issue of "class consciousness" or of lack thereof. Despite the fact that science is a collaborative enterprise that grows upon itself and self regulates, a lot of scientists seem to be incapable of seeing themselves as a collective, a union, a class with common interest and common needs. No trade union of scientists yet exists, as far as I know (though I was personally tempted to talk the Wobblies into creating one). It is probably too much individualism, too much ego worship, too many ingrained habits of seeing others as rivals, competitors to outrun, to foster one's own delusions of superiority, that make it difficult for many to take the necessary steps towards perceiving us all as a commune. The professional associations of scientists try to bridge that gap by generating, somewhat artificially it often appears, a sense of belonging, but individualism is still the rampant and unchallenged behavior of most. Had there been a bit more "class consciousness" in our midst, perhaps a broader umbrella of public support for research would have been negotiated, while at the same time the excesses of self-indulgence would have been curtailed from within, without the need to resort to god, police, and the NSF to do the chastising for us. That healthy deep moment of reflection that comes to us every year at the seasonal Yom Kippur of science would still be possible, even in the presence of better and more broadly spread funding for scientific research, not because people are forced to reexamine their ideas, but because they feel that it is healthy to do so, for the common good.

The Ash Wednesday Supper, as the reader has certainly not missed, is also the title of the first of the three major philosophical dialogs of Giordano Bruno. Written at the time of his Oxford years (1583-1585) it is deeply critical of the British academic system, in ways one can still see reflected in the attitudes of today. In Oxford Bruno lectured about Copernicus and his then brand new revolutionary work in astronomy, as well as about Renaissance Neoplatonism. He was the first who dropped all the convenient "save the phenomena" paraphrasing used by Copernicus in his writings and went straight for the simple bare statement: the Earth revolves around the Sun. Yet, he was accused by the Oxford academic establishment of not being capable of independent original thought, of simply repeating what others have written in books: Copernicus's astronomical work, and Marsilio Ficino, for the Neoplatonic revival. It appears that already at the time of Giordano Bruno people where incapable of understanding that reading books and being knowledgeable of the interesting work done by other people is not a sign of being incapable of creative and independent thinking. As a response to the unjust accusation laid before him by the Oxford academics, Giordano Bruno promptly composed and published his three major philosophical works: "The Ash Wednesday Supper", where he severely criticized the attitude of his detractors, and the two beautiful and deeply original "Of the infinite, universe, and worlds" and "Of the cause, principle, and one". Then, he promptly left his position in Oxford and resumed his wanderings about the lands of Europe until he was eventually arrested by the Inquisition in 1592, after having been turned down for the chair of mathematics at the University of Padova (which would have granted him immunity from prosecution), which was instead assigned to the other candidate on the "short list", Galileo Galilei. After eight years of trial by the Inquisition, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic, for those very same philosophical claims on the plurality of worlds and the infinite cosmos that he laid out so elegantly in his British writings.