Surely you’re publishing, Mr. Feynman!

The so called publish-or-perish culture in academia is real. Academics, specially at top-tier Research Universities, have a tremendous pressure to continuously produce publishable results, i.e. results that can be published in good journals and/or conferences. In an ideal world, publishable would be synonymous to substantial, but sadly, that is not the case. In a bid to stay abreast in this cut-throat environment, it is not uncommon for many to inflate marginal results or engage in dubious practices, leading to a noise that greatly burdens the reviewers of these journals/conferences. Once again, in an ideal world, we’d have incentivized reviewers who would heavily scrutinize each submitted draft before recommending it to be published. But since the destitute multi-billion-dollar publication machinery provides no such incentives to the reviewers, it ends up being a volunteer work. It is no surprise then, that many low-quality (or downright incorrect) works escape the sieve, so to speak, leading to what’s called a replication crisis i.e., the inability of others to reproduce what’s being claimed in an academic paper. Without going into much detail, it suffices to say that this is a severe threat to academic integrity and collective human knowledge in general.

So, how does Richard Feynman, one of the most celebrated physicists of the 21st century tie into all this? In his famous book Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman, Feynman writes about his time in Cornell as a young professor after being fresh out of the Manhattan project at Los Alamos. Having accrued considerable repute at Los Alamos, he started getting offers from prestigious universities including one from the famed Institute of Advanced Studies (with a special exception that allowed him to teach part-time) itself. This made him severely anxious because he knew that these institutes were soliciting him only because they wanted him to produce high quality results.

Institute for Advanced Study! Special exception! A position better than Einstein, even! It was ideal; it was perfect; it was absurd!
It was absurd. The other offers had made me feel worse, up to a point
. They were expecting me to accomplish something. But this offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion. The other ones were just mistakes; this was an absurdity!

But Feynman, a known rebel, was soon able to reconcile with the fact that he was just a limited individual (a remarkable one, for sure) who couldn’t possibly keep on unraveling the mysteries of nature at whim. After all, if one knew what the mysteries were, they wouldn’t be called mysteries to begin with.

And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!”I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.

And therein lied his crucial epiphany that I suspect should be a guiding beacon to every struggling academic out there: not all expectations can be met always. Or to rephrase it slightly, you are not a paper machine that can spit desired results and publications consistently at whim. And any person or institution maintaining an otherwise outlook on this is, in Feynman’s word, absurd!

Notice that I say desired results and not results in general. This is because all efforts trivially lead to *some* results. It’s an entirely different matter whether it is an expected one or not. But such is the world we find ourselves in that anything short of a ground-breaking discovery is treated as an unacceptable embarrassment. And thus, every marginal increment is touted as ground-breaking, and every deviation is repackaged to look like an intended result (which is again touted as ground-breaking). To be honest, while I find this practice absolutely abhorrent, I also can not bring myself to genuinely resent those doing this. Because after all, in an environment that always ever rewards success, the only rational action by any rational individual is to continue claiming success, even if they have to lie. It’s plain and simple Game Theory. But this is not what research should be like.

Research shouldn’t be motivated by success. Referring back to Feynman once again, he ultimately ended up rejecting all of those offers from prestigious universities and research institutes and remained perfectly content at Cornell performing his teaching duties (he eventually moved to Caltech). In the course of it, however, he became really invested in a remarkably silly question:

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went
around faster than the wobbling.
I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate–two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

Feynman was intrigued by this problem, consumed even, and when he finally solved it, he went straight to Hans Bethe, who got him the job at Cornell in the first place, to discuss his results. Bethe, however, couldn’t see the reason behind Feynman’s labor and asked him what the importance of the discovery was. Feynman simply replied:

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.”

Thus have we our answer. Research should never be driven by success, because the pursuit of it either disheartens, or beguiles, even the greatest of men. An ideal Research should truly ever be ignited by curiosity. It should be fueled by the desire to know. And it should be done for the pursuit of truth and truth alone, no matter what it is. Feynman investigated the curious wobbles only for the pure joy of satiation. And the rest, as they say, is history:

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing”–working, really –with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.
It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

1 comment

  1. Hi! I love that you reflected on this little big anecdote, and what you added to it. I really enjoyed reading it in his book originally, and this is a really cool refresher. Thank you!

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