Last week, The Guardian published two intriguing articles [1, 2] about Dr. Peter Higgs, by Decca Aitkenhead. It paints a picture of the Nobel laureate that I wouldn’t have imagined. About the Dr. Higgs’s take on the current practices in academia, Aitkenhead writes, “He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers.” (To put the era in perspective, Dr. Higgs’s paper that started the search for the Higgs Boson, was published back in 1964. As the article says, Dr. Higgs’s published papers can be “counted on two hands”.)
In the interview, Dr. Higgs said, “Today, I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.” (Ouch.) The articles also mention how Dr. Higgs was “an embarrassment” to his department because of his small number of publications, and about his dislike for the phrase ‘God particle’. You can also see Dr. Higgs’s talk on “My Life as A Boson” (where he also talks about his “Gang of Four” students who “had been lubricating” their late-night discussions on particle physics with some of his “leftover wine” [at 2:10 – 3:10 minutes]).
Aitkenhead’s article provided some food for thought regarding deep, impactful, paradigm-shifting research in the current academic environment. Another article by Craig Loehle (from over two decades ago) makes for some interesting reading as well. I couldn’t help chuckling at these imaginary research proposals (shown below) that Darwin and Einstein might have written.
From: “A Guide to Increased Creativity in Research: Inspiration or Perspiration?” by Craig Loehle
Indeed, as John Heilbron mentioned in “Creativity and Big Science”: “The idea of creativity in science is contemporary with the institution of the Nobel Prizes.”
What do you think about Dr. Higgs’s comments? Is life in academia today too busy for long-term, high-impact, fundamental research?