by Nicholas B. Tufillaro (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reggie is thirty six, a physicist six years past his Ph.D. Reggie is tall and dresses with the relaxed precision I expect to see in an urban architect. He speaks of physics, painting, literature, and film with a fluidity that reveals the perceptive intellect behind his confident and stated exterior. His clothing is labeled "No Fears."
I am reading a paper by Reggie and his co-workers entitled, "Modeling time series data and synchronizing chaotic systems." The paper presents an idea which will delight scientists working in nonlinear dynamics. It shows how to synchronize a theoretical model to an experimental chaotic
time series by using the time series as the driving input to the model. The idea is a fresh approach to a fundamental issue in science: determining when a model and experiment are close.
The correctness of the idea gets you instantly. It should begin a mini-research industry of spin-off applications. It's just the sort of idea easy to remember, good potential for practical applications which is ideal for a young researcher, especially when he is asking for funding. Like many simple ideas it is the product of hard work over many years. The formula for discovery in an interdisciplinary field like nonlinear dynamics is easily stated: become an expert in several fields (in this instance, differential equations, computing, statistical modeling and time series analysis) and then creatively link the core elements and recent discoveries in these fields with the insight born from a passion for understanding. This is what Reggie did. As of tomorrow, Reggie will be an unemployed physicist.
Reggie tells me he has enough savings to "hold out for six months," at which time he hopes to hear about some grants he is preparing. In the interim, he thinks it might be possible to work as a teacher at the University where he has been a researcher and teacher for the past six years. I ask about health care: "No, I won't continue my health care plan through COBRA payments, but I have been healthy the past six years." He continues, "Look, it's survival of the fittest. This is my best idea so far. If I can't find support for this type of work then ...," at which point Reggie pauses and does not finish the thought. For Reggie, physics is a vocation. It was never a career move.
Reggie is single. Like most physicists of his generation, Reggie's only realistic prospect to find stable work in physics will occur after two, maybe three, temporary appointments, several years past his Ph.D. Reggie knows the score: even if he lands a permanent position he won't keep it unless he gets external funding, irrespective of the quality of his science, teaching, and service. Given this fact, Reggie sees little difference between a permanent position and a soft money position. To Reggie, prospects for funding appear to depend on whether his work can be fitted into one of the existing programs within a funding agency, and little on the quality of the science. In any case, it is hard to imagine how a young researcher can succeed in scientific academia today without focusing exclusively on short term projects, goals, and results: hit and run physics.
Bob is fifty four, twenty five years past his Ph.D., a professor noted for his substantial contributions to seemingly disparate fields in physics (nuclear physics, group theoretical methods, Lie theoretic methods, singularity theory, nonlinear dynamics). Bob does not practice hit and run physics. In fact, there is a an obvious unity to all Bob's work. Bob attacks the big questions "What is the world made of?", and more recently, "How is the world organized?" in the most ordinary way possible, one result at a time. Like a good banker, Bob understands the laws of compound interest. Continual investment does not amount to much after a few years, but over a professional life time it will pay millions. Put $10,000 in a municipal fund today and in five years it produces $17,623, in thirty-five years it produces $527,996.
Reggie and Bob are visiting myself, James, and several other young physicists in order to discuss some technical issues in nonlinear time series analysis. The discussion often turns, though, to the bigger questions: "What should a `normal form' theory of nonlinear systems look like?, Why is it that funding for nonlinear dynamics research falls through the cracks at NSF?, and, How are we going to apply our techniques to get real insight into experimental data sets ranging from the complex wonderings of the jet stream to the chaotic chattering of a bouncing ball. The one thing we are all passionate about is data analysis. To us, an insightful analysis of an experimental data set from a laser, chemical oscillator, or surface wave, can have the beauty of a Bach Fugue. Since we are ultimately attacking the big questions one result at a time and since we are all experienced in pulling simplicity out of real world chaotic and complex data sets, we are all confident that in time we will build a scientific framework of real value to workers across all the sciences. We think our colleagues in other fields of physics must be jealous of us. They just can't be having as much fun as we are as we muck
around trying to make sense of data from mud fields or bioconvection of bacteria.
James is also six years past his Ph.D. Despite protests to the contrary, he is is already well known in his field. At a recent professional meeting the most common phrase on everyone's lips seemed to be, "So what does James think about ... ." James has a family with two children. Evidently, unlike many of our generation, James decided not to put his life on hold while becoming a physicist. James' current postdoctoral position at Los Alamos ends within the next two months. As I write this, James is scrambling around seeking job interviews behind the fence. James says such jobs are in "applied work peripherally related to my research," research he would like to continue.
During an informal get together Salman goes to the board to explain some of his recent work on how to calculate Lyapunov exponents. His impromptu lecture turns into a virtuoso display of pushing around Lie algebras and series. These are the good bits to being a physicist. The net result, he explains, is that "if we do all this analytic work one time up front, then the numerics turn out to be rather easy." We are all impressed. Each of us has tried our hand at this problem at some point, and now Salman has finally shown us the rightway to do it. His result is eloquent. Better yet, it leads to a
remarkably efficient numerical scheme. Salman is also six years past his Ph.D., and in six months time will probably be in the same boat as Reggie and James. He says he has done the normal mailings and is hoping for the best, but there is a definite tone of resignation in his voice.
Yesterday during an evening conversation between Reggie, Bob, and myself Reggie surprises me with his reply when I ask him how much longer his position continues at his University. Reggie looks down at his watch, and then he looks at me and says, with a little hint of bravado, "two more days." Then Reggie strongly defends the privilege of being a physicist despite his uncertain future. I work at being convinced. I do know that both Bob and I are genuinely taken by Reggie, James, and Salman. We are impressed by their abilities and creativity. We know firsthand the discipline and devotion required to achieve mastery of the art which they practice with such ease. We share an unspoken
knowledge that common passionate concerns are a wonderful foundation on which to build friendship. This is another of the privileges in being a physicist. Getting to know and work with people like this. Then Bob startles me by saying, "I am sad because of a generation lost."
I cannot speak for Reggie when I write this, but I hope I speak for physicists of my generation when I say: We are confident that we are asking the right questions. We are confident in our skills and training to pursue these new challenges. We are confident that nature will reward our efforts. We will pursue the big questions of physics of our generation the only way we know how, by collectively chipping away at the hard block of marble before us, chisel in hand, one strike at a time. We know that the beautiful figure we imagine to be there will pale in comparison to what the block will ultimately reveal. We are confident that our work will lead to practical results contributing in a substantial way
to the greater good of our fellow citizens, just as the work of previous generations of physicists has, physicists whom we admire and respect. Physicists who inspired us to take up the challenge and continue on toward the never ending frontier. We know that our fellow citizens are keen to learn more about what we do especially in some specific areas such as astrophysics and chaos, and we promise to share our inspiration, insight, and occasionally frustration, with them.
But we are realists. As physicists, we like to be grounded in the facts. And our version of the facts is this: Many creative, talented, intelligent, competent, and devoted physicists in our generation will not be able to find their sole material subsistence teaching and doing physics. Those contemplating a career in physics should consider this version of the facts carefully. Decisions easily made in younger days have a way of getting heavier as you get older "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans." For those who can stay, and for those working elsewhere, we just ask that all of us not forget, we are all physicists. We love physics. We do physics. Funding or no funding. Salary or no salary. Union card or no union card. If we don't pass on our knowledge, skills, and experience to the next generation, who will?
And to the older generation, I have one more thing to say. Work with us in revitalizing the physics curriculum for those interested from six to sixty. We need to share the secrets of the universe with more people in a way they find interesting and exciting. Work with us in making physics the elective of choice in the college catalog. Work with us in explaining to our fellow citizens why we are excited about our work and what it takes to get it done. Work with us in supporting a diversity of peoples, topics, and research endeavors within existing physics organizations. Work with us in reforming University Departments corrupted by the money chase. Work with us or watch even more jobs vanish.
And what about all those complex and nonlinear problems?
No worries. We'll solve them too.
1. R. Brown, N. Rulkov, and E. R. Tracy, Modeling time series data and synchronizing chaotic systems (Submitted to Phys. Rev. Lett.)
2. R. Gilmore, "Analysis of complex signals with spatial and temporal structure," talked presented at Nonlinear Time Series Workshop, Santa Fe Institute, 2/23/94.
3. N. B. Tufillaro, T. Abbott, and J. Reilly, An experimental approach to nonlinear dynamics and chaos (Addison-Wesley, New York, 1992).
4. Weigend and N. A. Gershenfeld, Time series prediction: Forecasting the future and understanding the past (Addison-Wesley, New York, 1994).
5. Hallet, Spatial self-organization in geomorphology: From periodic bedforms and patterned ground to scale-invariant topography, Earth-Science Reviews 29, 57-75 (1990).
6. Pedly and J. O. Kessler, Hydrodynamic phenomena in suspensions of swimming microorganism, Ann. Rev. Fluid. Mech. 24, 313-358 (1992).
7. J. Theiler, S. Eubank, A. Longtin, B. Galdrikian, and J. D. Farmer, Testing for Nonlinearity in Time Series: The method of surrogate data, Physica D 58, 77-94 (1992).
8. S. Habib, Symplectic analysis of chaotic dynamical systems, talk presented at Los Alamos National Labs, 2/28/93.
9. J. Lennon.
I suppose that one could argue that physicists and engineers just happen to be on the wrong side of the supply and demand curve at the present time and that underemployment and unemployment is simply one of the evils of capitalism. But, in engineering (and me thinks in physics also) there are two factors driving the unemployment situation which your article did not address. The first is the fact that we are competing for jobs with the top .0001 % of the intellectual gene pool from such countries as India and China. At least 70% of the graduate students in our department are foreign nationals. In order to get tenure and promotion, gain recognition for themselves and their departments, professors know that they must attract gifted and motivated students to help them with their research. There are simply not enough of such students graduating from U.S. universities, so they go abroad and have absolutely no trouble attracting intelligent, highly trained students from most other countries, given that the base pay for a teaching assistant or research assistant here in the U.S. is as much as 10+ times the salary these individuals can expect to earn in their native lands. Where is the money coming from to pay these students?? Directly or indirectly it is coming from the American tax payer. This I have no problem with as it seems to me that America takes much more from the world than it gives back in return, and if we can use our fine upper-level education system to indirectly aid foreign students, and thereby these countries, I am all for it. But the fact is that we are doing a tremendous disservice to these countries by "stealing" their most talented individuals, as few are willing to return to their native lands after experiencing life in the U.S.
A few months ago I read a story about the trials of recent Ph.D. in physics as he attempted to find employment in his chosen field. By all accounts he was an excellent scholar: the son of a Nobel prize winner and a graduate of Stanford. Yet only by a combination of luck and perseverance was he able to find a position utilizing his some of his talents. It occurred to me that if the son (or daughter) of a U.S. senator were to graduate in the top of his class from Stanford Law School and face such a difficult processes finding a position utilizing his/her highly developed law skills, and if he/she was competing for jobs primarily with foreign nationals graduating from other law schools across the land, the pressure from Congress to pass legislation limiting the number of foreign students a government funded school could accept would be enormous. The same is true in the medical field. In the face of such a situation, the American Medical Association lobby would absolutely overwhelm the American congress. And yet Congress seems blindly unaware that we have a profound overabundance of technical talent in the U.S. at present, and American graduate schools are under no pressure to reduce enrollments. The pressure on academic research scientists & graduate schools is to increase enrollments; their most obvious objectifiable measure of prestige is based almost purely on the quantity of outside funding.
(All this sounds very bigoted, politically incorrect etc., but I think I should point out that most of my best friends here at X are not American. I get along better with the Indians and Europeans than most Americans actually, as a stereotype, as I find them generally less superficial. I would do almost anything to help anyone of them find a job in the U.S. I am arguing generalities here, and am somewhat bitter that I must compete with such a large percentage of foreign nationals for a job in my native land. The only career I really desired in this life was that involved in teaching engineering, physics or mathematics at the college level, and I find my prospects for such a position very slim at present. I feel just as strongly for blue collar workers who have been laid-off in part due to the fact that companies can find someone in a third world country to do their job for a fraction of their U.S. salary.)
Another factor driving the academic employment situation is the fact that large corporations are not interested in funding basic research. Among all my friends, I am the only one who has a genuine interest in teaching. All the others see teaching requirements as a small negative side of gaining employment which allows them to pursue their research interests. Such individuals would be much happier in environments such as the old Bell Labs or other corporate research labs. But such jobs are hard to come by, due, in part, to the short term goals of many large corporations. I have no doubt that Bell Labs showed a net deficit on any quarterly balance sheet, but balance sheets cannot measure the
positive long-term benefits of such inventions as the transistor, fiber optics, the laser, UNIX, etc. to name a few.
I do not understand the funding situation in engineering, much less physics. You may be surprised, and perhaps chagrined, to learn that though one might a first thought think that the money spent to fund academic engineers is being used for projects with greater potential short and long term benefits to society compared to more theoretical, scientific projects considered by physicists and other pure scientists, such is not necessarily the case.
For example, one of my best friends here has been funded by the Army to do research in crack growth within the context of classical elasticity. The work he does is very academically interesting and mathematically involved, but the problem he is solving is so abstract (something like what is the stress field in the vicinity of a crack when a soft elliptical inclusion is placed in an anisotropic material), that the chances of it ever leading to better tank design (its justification) is slim to none in my opinion. The Army brass who awarded the grant are too ignorant of mathematics and science to appreciate this fact, and the problem was considered as a possible thesis topic originally on the grounds that it was an unsolved problem which could be solved using a
modification of a method developed by the same student in his masters thesis. Only after the fact did his advisor decide that a potential application would be tank design and somehow managed to hoodwink the powers that be into believing this motivation.
Moreover, I have seen absolutely no correlation between the quality of the researchers and the work they and their students perform and their success or failure in obtaining funding. We have one faculty member who came to X the same time I did, who now has between 10 and 15 students and/or postdocs. He is not particularly brilliant or original, and as I am close fiends with several of his students, I am well aware of the quality and nature of the work his group is doing. He is able to get funding by specifically targeting areas the NSF or other agencies have decided to support, irregardless of his qualifications or ability to carry out the oftentimes grandiose claims projected in his proposals. It seems that funding follows Bose statistics: the more grants one already has the more likely it that one
may obtain another grant. In point of fact, the more graduate students a professor mentors, the less time that professor can spend guiding an individual student along a particular research topic.
Overall, the pattern seems to be that we are schooling more people than we want to hire, or that people are still being schooled for a market that no longer exists. I know this country is anti-intellectual, but...? is the problem that the academics haven't learned to play the system in the way that, say, the AMA does it?
At the present time, graduate programs at the majority of schools of physics ought to be closed down. Out put of PhD level physicists should be reduced below the level which our national industry can absorb. In addition, students from foreign lands ought to be required to return home for some number of years before allowing them to re enter the country, as some sort of payback to their country of origin.
In one of our faculty meetings I proposed some of these measured, and was soundly excoriated by my colleagues.
It is unequivocally true that there are more PhD's than jobs for PhD's. One can conclude one of two things from this situation.
foreigner. My grandfather came to this country to escape persecution and to give his children a better chance for prosperity. And I will bet that most of us are in the same boat, and I for one am not interested in the high and mighty view that we, now the true Americans, are fit to blame our troubles on 'foreigners.'
So let us discuss instead the problem and possible remedies. Now a "senior tenured faculty member in physics" (that is, someone who already has both a PhD and a job) concludes that:
"At the present time, graduate programs at the majority of schools of physics ought to be closed down ... students from foreign lands ought to be required to return home for some number of years .. "Lovely. And 10 years from now, when this far sighted visionary is enjoying his retirement, who exactly does he propose train MY children? Make no mistake, actions have consequences. If we severely cut back on PhD production, there will be a severe reduction in the number of PhD's. This
is nice: we will all have jobs -- for a decade. And we won't have to teach -- for a decade. And a decade hence, no one will have been taught. And anyone who believes in the worth of science will recognize that we will all pay a horrible price when that time comes.
So all right, lots of folks have had lots to say about point #1, that there are too many PhD's.
Would any of our politically incorrect friends like to say anything at all about point #2: WHY THERE ARE SO FEW JOBS? In California it is because our Republican friend Pete Wilson, devotee of our Republican president Ronald Reagan, made radical, draconian cuts in education from pre- school to university. No one who knows the first thing about what has been going on in this country for the past 15 years could conclude ANYTHING ELSE than that the job shortage is a direct and unequivocal result of right wing ideological opposition to education and research.
The fact that these same right wing idealogues like to blame ALL of our troubles, from drugs to jobs to taxes to crime, on 'foreigners' should not b lost on us.
The problem, in sum, is NOT that there are too many people who know how the transister works or who Isaac Newton was. The problem is that there are too many people who DON'T know. There are too many people who are ignorant of the causes and effects of short-sighted policy. And there are too many people who steadfastly and ferociously refuse to acknowledge that the chickens of short-sightedness are coming home to roost. You cut funding for education, and there will be fewer resources for education. You cut funding for research, and there will be less funding available for research. THAT is the problem.
Some additional references for possible discussion:
Reference Frame: "Hard Times", by Leo P. Kadanoff Physics Today, October 1992
Reference Frame: "Funding for Science: The system is broken; why not fix it?" by Philip W. Anderson, Physics Today, June 1993.
Physics Today Issues with related Information:
Feb 92, Round Table p. 38
March 92, Job Market report, p. 55
May 92, Condensed Matter, p. 40
Oct 92, Hard Times, p. 9
Nov 92, Letter, p. 13
Jan 93, Letters, p. 13
Feb 93, Round Table, AIP Job Survey, p 36, p. 79
May 93, Letters YSN, p.9
June 93, Fix it, p.9