Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eminence and demise

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

I have been, in one capacity or another, associated to the world of science for about twenty years. In this span of time I have come across all the possible forms of human nastiness hidden behind the pretense of objectivity of the scientific enterprise, and at the same time I have also repeatedly come into contact with the beauty of science itself. It is because of the latter that I am still engaged in this profession, despite the increasingly impossible task of dealing with the first.

"The eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time he can hold up progress in his own field."

It is hard to locate the exact source of this much quoted aphorism. Personally, I heard it mentioned for the first time back when I was a young physics student. At that time I heard it attributed to one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. Later, I stumbled upon it repeatedly, with various attributions, ranging over a broad spectrum of distinguished representatives of various scientific disciplines. Some may think it is an expression of cynicism, but in fact hardly ever anything more truthful was said about the community of scientists.

Science, by its very own nature, is in the strongest possible terms a denial of any position of power and authority. By definition science is about questioning, about the rigorous scrutiny of all assertions, about skepticism, about bold creativity balanced by the utmost respect for intellectual honesty. In principle, in science there is no room for self aggrandizing fantasies.

In principle... that is the problem. In reality, this truthful spirit of science is continually deceived by the darker side of human nature. Despite all the mechanisms in place in the functioning of the scientific community that are designed to prevent exactly this happening, there is an endless supply of ego-obsessed power-hungry narcissists out there, who would rather run over all established conventions of correct professional behavior in order to reinforce their own feudal power structure.

Unfortunately, in certain fields of science, one such person in a position of power suffices to ruin the whole community, by actively pushing bright young people away from the field, and only tolerating those who readily submit and never dare to challenge the ruler. This can lead easily to disastrous situations by which important opportunities for scientific discoveries are lost, missed or actively prevented, because of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the dominant ruler, who, in his "knows-it-all" self-proclaimed infallibility attitude, will readily dismiss what could have been important directions of development.

Picasso, King of Minotaurs, 1958

A monstrous minotaur trapped in the center of his labyrinth of mirrors, endlessly looking at his own distorted, multiplied, and reflected images, which are all he will ever be able to see. Science, if it ever was of any importance, is reduced to a mere tool of self-affirmation. The key to the scientific spirit is that we do not project our prejudices upon what we are trying to understand. This is impossible for the kind of narcissistic character I am describing. In the way of example, if this "little father of the nation" had not been breaking into a childish tantrum whenever he would hear the word supersymmetry, and if most of the people working in the field for the past twenty years had not been shitting in their pants at the thought of crossing him, we would have had by now a much broader range of possibilities in our models and we would have credible estimates now that the relevant data are coming in. People with reasonable guts are on it now, but it won't make up for all the time lost. Or, if the same person had not been always so frightened at the thought of possibly encountering people who are smarter than he is, we would not have two completely separate branches of the same field that hardly communicate with each other and we would have made a lot more progress much faster.

"Empty space is a place where man wishes to find asylum... In this empty space he wishes to stand outside views, images, and conceptions, outside struggle and existence which has shattered into little pieces like ice that hinders his movements, pushing him in different directions... He seeks spaciousness... he will find a location that is without path..." (Kasimir Malevich)

As anyone who's been reading my blog (or who's been paying attention to what happened in the field) surely knows, I've been locked into an all out war for the past three years. I did not want it. I did not initiate it. I did not even imagine that it could ever happen, but it did, and I have learned the hard way that it is here to stay. It has worn me out, endlessly, transforming my waking hours into an inescapable battlefield and my sleep into a panoply of monsters. And it escalates, continuously, like all the strategies of tension inevitably do. My own existence has indeed been shattered into endless fragments, and I wish I could find a way to step out of all this, into that "empty space" Malevich so powerfully evoked in his paintings, where only beautiful geometry exists, away from all this meaningless struggle. "The location that is without path", without rulers who try to impose on everyone their cheap revelations. I am tired. Tired, exhausted. Tired of having to fight around every single paper, around the fate of every student. Tired of the endless negotiations with conference organizers to avoid direct (and potentially violent) confrontations. Tired of trying to anticipate the next move, or having to respond to the previous one. My mind has stalled, locked in this impossible endless siege, forever balancing a precarious equilibrium over the edge of the abyss in the middle of a raging storm.

William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

In a last desperate attempt to set boundaries to the conflict, and to avoid more and more people being unwillingly dragged into the battlefield, I argued, about students and younger people caught in the crossfire, that "it is not just professionally incorrect but profoundly unjust that they should become collateral casualties in this war". There was no answer, but within days a very concrete retaliatory act aimed precisely at those people I was hoping to spare provided an eloquent answer and signaled a further escalation of tension. So, I have no choice but to escalate too, which is what I am presently doing.

Meanwhile, there are journal editors who would not handle my papers for fear of retribution, and others that are so inactive that young collaborators are losing their jobs because of papers being buried for years in the refereeing process. I cannot blame them though for chickening out: I know how impossible a struggle it is to sustain, and I understand very well how others may fear going through it themselves. I would not wish this nightmare upon anybody else. I would have gladly avoided it too, if only I had been given the choice, but not at the cost of having to disappear.

There are conference volumes (for which, incidentally, I did the entire editorial work) in which the official photographs of the event were printed so carefully cut, that neither I nor persons close to me would any longer appear in the same frame with the overlord (I have the originals of the pictures for anyone who cares to compare). I mistakenly thought that only Stalin was in the habit of making people disappear from official photographs, once they had fallen out of grace. From what I hear, at the conferences in the field, where I no longer go, it has become highly undesirable for my name to be publicly pronounced. There is a very interesting book, called "The commissar vanishes" dedicated to the Stalinist art of "removal" of undesired former comrades from all the official records. I could easily write a similar volume: "The collaborator disappears".

The problem is exactly that I did not dutifully disappear when the ruler so wished: in an unexpected act of defiance, I continued to exist. Surprisingly, I am still here, alive and working.

...hija de una voluntad para la que no se conocen palabras de este lado del delirio... (Julio Cortázar, La prosa del observatorio)

Well, if one can really call this working, this desperate rush to fight back on all fronts. It has very little in it left of what I always felt scientific work should be. It has none of the pleasure of savoring the learning of new things, the slow developments of new ideas, the sudden burst into light of unexpected connection, the flash of recognition, none of the exhilarating sense of freedom in thinking about what one likes, in doing what one enjoys doing. There is hardly any room left for that, when one is locked into a fight like this: there is no way one can lower the guard for even a single moment, to create room for oneself to enjoy the peaceful contemplation of a thought. One can only fight on, blow after blow, bloody wound after bloody wound. otra manera, desde otro punto de partida, hacia otra cosa hay que emplumar y lanzar la flecha de la pregunta... [op.cit.]

An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, the Mahatma rightly said, but here it is an impossible lose-lose situation. If I quit the field, he wins. That's what he's been trying to achieve all along over the past three years. Plus, I give up nearly fifteen years invested in this work and I leave behind younger people who have put their trust into the mentoring I promised to offer them, for what it's worth. If I don't give up, the struggle carries on, which is all very well as a political program, but in practice it means he wins also, because he's keeping me prisoner of a defensive structure inside a world of his own creation.

...sus máquinas hicieron frente a un destino impuesto desde fuera, al Pentágono de galaxias y constelaciones colonizando al hombre libre, sus artificios de piedra y bronce fueron las ametralladoras de la verdadera ciencia, la gran respuesta de una imagen total frente a la tiranía de planetas y conjunciones y ascendentes; el hombre Jai Singh, pequeño sultán de un vago reino declinante, hizo frente al dragón de tantos ojos, contestó a la fatalidad inhumana con la provocación del mortal al toro cósmico... [op.cit.]

The only possible future is in the continuation of the present. The only hope is in trying to hold the ground, one day at a time, while slowly trying to explore other less threatening territories, not yet littered with corpses, without the acrid stench of a bloodied battlefield. Holding out, day after day, for as long as it will take for time to run its course, orchestrating eminence's demise (egestatem, potestatem, dissolvit ut glaciem), provided I can survive that long. It already felt like an impossible task to hold out for these past three years. I cannot bear to imagine how this can continue to drag on, day after day, for a decade. My own creativity, not to say anything of general mental well being, has already suffered an enormous amount in getting this far.

...habrá que seguir luchando por lo inmediato, compañero, porque Holderlin ha leído a Marx y no lo olvida; pero lo abierto sigue ahí, pulso de astros y anguilas, anillo de Moebius de una figura del mundo donde la conciliación es posible, donde anverso y reverso cesarán de desgarrarse, donde el hombre podrá ocupar su puesto en esa jubilosa danza que alguna vez llamaremos realidad. [op.cit.]

The struggle carries on, because there is no other choice, really. And in the process of attending to my survival, maybe, just maybe, I can still try to rediscover, once again, what it was really all about, to begin with. What it really meant to do science. I am still hoping to find the door that will lead outside of this impossible situation, and back to that healthier state where science can once again be science, and be filled with pleasure and not with anguish.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

Jaipur, Observatory