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April 15, 2014

"At 90, Freeman Dyson Ponders His Next Challenge"

Very interesting. Three highlights:

Why math?

I think the decisive moment was reading the book “Men of Mathematics” by Eric Temple Bell. Bell was a professor at Caltech, and he wrote this book, which is actually just a wonderful collection of biographies of mathematicians. Historians condemn it as romanticized. But what was wonderful about this book is that he showed the mathematicians as being mostly crooks and people of very mixed kinds of qualities, not at all saints, and many of them quite unscrupulous and not very clever, and still they managed to do great mathematics. So it told a kid that “if they can do it, why can’t you?”

. . . 

You became a professor at Cornell without ever having received a Ph.D. You seem almost proud of that fact.

Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.

. . . 

What scientific advance do you see on the horizon that will have a big impact on society?

People are often asking me what’s going to happen next in science that’s important, and of course, the whole point is that if it’s important, it’s something we didn’t expect. All the really important things come as a big surprise. There are many examples of this, of course, dark energy being the latest example. Anything I mention will be something that, obviously, is not a surprise.

Comments

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Ken

What would a good academic rant be without the obligatory "IT'S SEXIST!!!!" trope, amaright? You want to talk about something that's a kind of union card, then let's talk about it: the need to be a liberal to successfully get a job in academia.

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