Boltzmann

Episode Nine – An Interview with the Physicist Juanma

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3) Alright, what are the things you did not like in academia?
In the end, even if it seems to be quite a free enterprise, to decide what you are going to research, you actually depend on other people’s approval just to thrive.

You can’t just do some research without telling your university, for example. Your university must approve of your research interests; your peers must accept your papers for publication.

This sometimes turns into compliance with the status quo, you know. And so some arbitrary ideas grow over time simply because it’s not easy to get a voice if you disagree with the mainstream. Even if you present loads of compelling evidence, bring lots of information, sometimes the world of academia is quite reluctant to accept it.

This, in turn, compromises the quality of the science you produce. That is an inherent thing in academia, it has been ever since universities were built and began being a thing in the scientific literature world.  So, I don’t think there is much we can do about that.

Ashna: What is it they say? Publish or perish? Well, they want you to publish stuff they think will bring in the funding. Which is fair, they obviously need the funding. But, less mainstream ideas might not be perceived as highly fundable ideas.

4) What are the things you liked being in academia?
Well, you rarely meet people that aren’t passionate about their job, so everyone is pretty much up for discussion, time permitting, of course.

You can just go downstairs to the cafeteria and find some coffee and some interesting talk. For half an hour, one hour, about your research interests.  So, you can share your passion with people.

You don’t usually find this in some other jobs. People are usually willing to forget about their jobs once they are done.  But, in science, since it is such a vocational thing, you are always finding someone, some peers. I love that.

Also, when you don’t push reviewers’ tolerance too much, you enjoy a lot of creative freedom and it rarely becomes monotonous.  Because you can always job back and forth between different research topics.

Ashna: Yeah, even the most irrational of them, say, Max Tegmark, are very passionate. I dont like what he has to say, but he is passionate.

5) Do you wish you had studied something different and if so, why?
Thinking back, had I known how academic research would turn out, I would probably have gone for something I can still be creative at, but something that doesn’t demand some gentle form of compliance.

There is also this Atlas Shrugged-related dilemma. I don’t know if your audience is familiar with Atlas Shrugged plot, I won’t disclose that much.  But, this dilemma is basically that that scientists get scorned and underestimated, usually poorly paid and discredited. While for example, pseudoscience gets more and more popular because people nowadays prefer being told what they want to believe rather than the blatant truth.

Engineering

Engineering is a more practical, hands on job than the theoretical sciences. You also are more likely to be paid for your overtime.

So that plays against science and for say, religious or pseudoscientific views.

I think it’s healthier for one’s emotional wellbeing to pursue a career where you get what you earn. I sometimes think that becoming a researcher somehow resembles becoming a nun…

It’s implicitly written in the terms of your job that you will dedicate as much as it takes of yourself to science and that what you get from becomes pretty much irrelevant. You have decided to put your whole life, all your time, all that it takes, into science.  And you are pretty much signing up for a contract where all your time, all your spare time, isn’t that valuable.

If you are about to publish some paper or if you are collaborating with someone, maybe you have to put in 18 hours. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, you have to put in a lot of hours into the day, perhaps sometimes skipping meals or coming home at past 10.

It’s just a scientist’s life. Nobody will see that, it is a strange thing.

If you get some other job, you might get paid for extra hours. In science, it is implicitly accepted that you will have to do some extra hours at some point. But you just won’t get paid for that. Simply because you are expected to be so committed to science that you are not expected to expect something else in return.

I would probably have gone for something which is more efficient in these terms. Where I can really get what I am working for and earn a decent amount to simply enjoy other aspects of life and not just let science absorb all of my time, all of my dedication.

I was about to move to naval engineering, which is something where I can see the results of my work in my hands, where I can touch the results of my work. Which I don’t think is necessarily worse than doing science.  But I also like to see where all of my work has got to.

So, looking back, I might have chosen something of the sort.

Ashna: Imagine how much better it would be if people lived in a world where we had greater respect for good science and more appreciation for how hard scientists work. I think they would be better off and might make more progress.

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