There’s been commentary this week (due to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics, I’m sure) about the country’s eroding position in science. Uberblogger Glen Reynolds blogs on the idea as it pertains to the political parties, and brings in reactions to Intelligent Design and its impact in higher education.
Is ‘science’ in this country in trouble? Or are scientists in trouble? How are we measuring that, again?
Alright. The facts o’ the matter are:
1) although the U.S. has indeed dominated physics as measured by Nobel Prizes, the dominance seems precarious, given the fact that today’s Nobel Prize reflect yesterday’s work and the fact that
2) Europeans and Asians now dominate the physics classrooms from whence Nobel Prize winners come. Alexei Abrikosov is not the only example.
3) The efforts of these legal immigrants to America (and naturalized citizens) benefits Americans, and for all intents and purposes, they are Americans (so don’t say that Asian dominants in the class room is a bad thing).
4) There are more scientists now than ever before (or, at least, that’s the common perception).
5) Science ain’t what it used to be (and neither are scientists). There’s a kind of inflation of credentials going on here.
There is also something fundamental going on. I can see it in astronomy: we’re beyond the fact that no one expert in a discipline can understand all the developments in that discipline. Now, all the experts in a given discipline combined fail to encompass the entire body of knowledge in that discipline. For instance, the information cum knowledge contained in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is still buried in the data and awaits someone – anyone – to look at it in the right way (the large scale survey techniques to do that barely exist at the moment). And when that person comes along, much more data will have already been added and remain unexamined.
Our knowledge of the human genome is in a similar situation.
A story (one that the AstroWife has heard too many times). By the time I entered graduate school in the ’70’s, seeking to be an astronomer TM, it was well understood that one had to be An AstroPhysicist TM to do astronomy. That is, one had to be steeped in physics and advanced mathematics to be considered an astronomer. No experience in astronomy was required (or desired, for that matter). By the time I left graduate school one had to be well versed in computer science (this, before there was such a discipline).
If you want to do astronomy today, be an electrical engineer. Know how to build instruments. And you better be expert in robotics, because they will be largely autonomous and remote, often beyond the reach of humans if repair or maintenance is required. Gain expertise in nano-technology next, because that’s where AI and robotics are going.
It’s a good thing that lifespans are getting longer, because it’s going to take longer for each of us to achieve the grand synthesis of knowledge we’ll need to do our jobs! And every day more jobs are going in that direction.