Thursday, June 22, 2006

Presumption of Dumb

A big part of the social interaction among physicists is how you are perceived. And sometimes such perception can be very important, such as whether or not you get invited to a conference, to what extent people seek you out for collaborations, etc. Don't get me wrong, much of those depend almost entirely on politics and power, but not all.

Maybe lots of young physicists know this, but there must be some out there like me who have to get whacked in the face with this kind of stuff. In high school, people thought I was smart. Not because I answered all the teacher's questions or tried to show how smart I was. In fact it was the opposite. The less I interacted, the smarter they thought I was. It was the not-so-bright people who were always
trying to show how smart they were.

But in physics, it seems the presumption is that one is dumb...well not dumb, but not so bright. So those who jump up at conferences, and ask probing questions, they get the respect. Those who gush over the latest physical results, especially those slightly out of one's field, they get respect. This may sound obvious, but what confounds me is that even these same people who say things incorrectly do not seem to get penalized for the mistakes! And even when they expound about stuff that surely everyone in the conversation already knows, they get respect. That makes no sense to me.

I avoid making mistakes. I don't try to act like the smartest one in the room. I want my performance (i.e. papers) to speak for themselves.

Anyway, so my advice to the youngins for whom the above is not obvious is to practice this early. Learn to speak like a physicist. Always have questions ready and don't be paranoid that they're obvious. Practice talking about all sorts of physics as if you're an authority. It probably helps to try it the first time on inconsequential people.

Hope I don't sound too cynical.

4 comments:

Doug Natelson said...

Preach it, brother. When I was a postdoc at Bell Labs, one of my colleagues pointed out the phenomenon that he called Cornelling, because folks from Cornell were particularly adept at it. Cornelling is when someone asks a question at a talk or a conference not because they want to know the answer, but because they want to demonstrate to everyone else in the room how smart they are.

professormike said...

I admit that I have no experience in the field of physics (yet) but I believe an important thing in continuing to have interest in a topic is not caring so much about what others think. If you care about what others think, then you won't be able to ask questions in a natural way, since you'll be paranoid of what other's would think of it and it may affect your judgement. I asked a lot of questions in school not because I wanted to prove how smart I was, but rather to prove that I didn't care about what others thought of what I was thinking.

moosino said...

Very well said! And sadly very true...a first hand example is those large oversubscribed HEP collaborations, where more and more it's the noisiest people who get any sort of recognition, independently of the goodness of their remarks.
Go to any HEP experiment meeting and "cornelling" is all over.... maybe one of the reasons why HEP is failing?

Finally, There Are No Stupid Questions, But There Are A Lot Of Inquisitive Idiots.....

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