Thursday, 19 March 2009

Research for America

There's an interesting guest-post on Olivia Judson's blog, proposing a formal mechanism for recruiting fixed-term workers for scientific research,
[following the model of] Teach for America, which harnesses the energy of college graduates who are willing to give a little time before moving to the next stage of their careers... Research for America could serve a similar purpose of giving smart young people a chance to see if research is the right career for them, without committing five or more years to getting a postgraduate degree.
The writers have specifically biomedical research in mind, and (obviously) are thinking about the American situation. That said, they have at least addressed what seems to be a general problem with research at the moment: it needs a lot of workers, far more than can go on to full-fledged research careers of their own, so the academic system of apprenticeship-by-research-degree-and-postdoctoral-work strains to accomodate them. As a result we either create expectations that cannot be met, or damage the apprenticeship system for those that still truly need it, or both ...

A different mechanism, of the kind proposed, would seem to meet a need.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Einstein on intuition in physics

Using as few hypothetical laws as possible, science attempts to explain relations between observable facts, arriving at them in a deductive manner, that is, in a purely logical way. Physics is customarily referred to as an empirical science and it is believed that its fundamental laws are deduced from experiments, so as to indicate how it differs from speculative philosophy. However, in truth the relationship between fundamental laws and facts from experience is not that simple. Indeed, there is no scientific method to deduce inductively these fundamental laws from experimental data. The formulation of a fundamental law is, rather, an act of intuition which can be achieved only by one who watches empirically with the necessary attention and has sufficient empirical understanding of the field in question. The sole criteria for the truth of a fundamental law is only that we can be sure that the relations between observable events can be logically deduced from it. It follows then that a fundamental law can be refuted in a definite manner, but can never be definitely shown to be correct, as one must always bear in mind the possibility of discovering a new phenomenon that contradicts the logical conclusions arising from a fundamental law.

Experience is, therefore, the judge, but not the generator of fundamental laws. The transition from the facts of experience to a fundamental law often requires an act of free creativity from our imagination, as well as an act of creation of concepts and relations; it would not be possible to replace this act with a necessary and conclusive method...
Albert Einstein, Unpublished Opening Lecture for the Course on the Theory of Relativity in Argentina, 1925

(The full lecture is in Science in Context, Vol. 21, issue 3, pp. 451-459 (2008); posted today on the preprint server as arXiv:0903.2401v1 [physics.hist-ph] . © The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

“This was not just about greed”: Rowan Williams on trust, risk, and the material order

The Archbishop of Canterbury in a lecture on Ethics, Economics and Global Justice, takes a polite swipe at too-easy criticisms of contemporary capital, and ventures one or two criticisms of his own. Here he is on time and trust:
The loss of a sense of appropriate time is a major cultural development, which necessarily changes how we think about trust and relationship. Trust is learned gradually, rather than being automatically deliverable according to a set of static conditions laid down. It involves a degree of human judgement, which in turn involves a level of awareness of one's own human character and that of others – a degree of literacy about the signals of trustworthiness; a shared culture of understanding what is said and done in a human society. And this learning entails unavoidable insecurity... And the further away I get from these areas of learning by trial and error, the further away I get from the inevitable risks of living in a material and limited world, the more easily can I persuade myself that I am after all in control.

Although people have spoken of greed as the source of our current problems, I suspect that it goes deeper...
On risk and capitalism:
Ethical behaviour is behaviour that respects what is at risk in the life of another and works on behalf of the other's need. To be an ethical agent is thus to be aware of human frailty, material and mental; and so, by extension, it is to be aware of your own frailty. And for a specifically Christian ethic, the duty of care for the neighbour as for oneself is bound up with the injunction to forgive as one hopes to be forgiven; basic to this whole perspective is the recognition both that I may fail or be wounded and that I may be guilty of error and damage to another.

It's a bit of a paradox, then, to realise that aspects of capitalism are in their origin very profoundly ethical in the sense I've just outlined. The venture capitalism of the early modern period expressed something of the sense of risk by limiting liability and sharing profit ...
and on embodiment:
One of the things most fatal to the sustaining of an ethical perspective on any area of human life, not just economics, is the fantasy that we are not really part of a material order – that we are essentially will or craving, for which the body is a useful organ for fulfilling the purposes of the all-powerful will, rather than being the organ of our connection with the rest of the world. It's been said often enough but it bears repeating, that in some ways – so far from being a materialist culture, we are a culture that is resentful about material reality, hungry for anything and everything that distances us from the constraints of being a physical animal subject to temporal processes, to uncontrollable changes and to sheer accident.