Watch the live broadcast of the physics Nobel ceremony now.Two days ago, The Guardian published an interesting interview with Peter Higgs:
I turned it off once a woman talked about "darkness" and mentioned energy-saving light bulbs, sorry, this was just over the edge. What does this junk have to do with the Higgs boson?
Wikipedia top: today, the main page of Wikipedia features the article on the AdS/CFT correspondence. I founded this article in May 2004 from my feynman.harvard.edu workstation at Harvard. See the original stub; "Lumidek" is also myself. Lots of work on that article has been done afterwords, indeed... ;-)
But he says he would have been sacked – and he has been almost sacked several times at a few points in the past – because he wouldn't be productive enough for the current system. I tend to think he is right and – although it will be inconvenient for the numerous fans he has earned – I think that the system might be right to fire him.
Don't get me wrong: I am surely among the last ones who would endorse the policy of the obligatory churning out of many papers, XY papers a year, and so on. I don't think that science works in this uniform way. I don't think that a researcher is a construction worker who can be expected to lay the same number of bricks per unit time all the time. I don't think that all thinkers or scientists have the same strategy, rhythm, or tendencies to accumulate results. In fact, I am convinced that they shouldn't be the same.
But I also think it is an invalid conspiracy theory to suggest that the contemporary research institutions actually "require" something like that. I think that they don't and I have arguably quite some experience with that. Top physicists know very well that extremely important insights and discoveries may be born (and are often born) in the heads of thinkers who operate very differently than the average.
But there is a strong competition in the market today – stronger than 50 years ago – and I believe it is not a wrong thing at all. So those who are supposed to get a job – or a good job – must look superior in some respect. That's just an obvious implication of the comments above.
Many successful researchers are churning out papers – some of them "usually great papers", some of them "mostly average papers", some of them "subpar papers" – but it's understood very well that there are others who don't churn out many papers. But the very fact that someone doesn't churn out many papers is not a sign that he is a superior scientist.
So some other features – assorted types of an X-factor – may be considered and are often considered in the hiring decisions on top of the publication lists and citation counts. A person may just look extremely ingenious and bright or a single paper he or she has published may look like a revelation; or the candidate may look unusually broad and knowledgeable about everything, contributing (formally or informally) to many research programs; he or she may be known for having made no mistakes; he or she may have very ambitious plans that just seem to have a rather realistic chance to come true; he or she may be known for having overcome some high enough obstacles in the past, and so on, and so on.
But if someone doesn't have any of these virtues, well, it may be a problem for him or her to face the competition. The right way to deal with the competitiveness of the field is not to abandon any quality standards.
Peter Higgs' papers discovering the Higgs boson are clever, right, and were novel – although he wasn't really competition-free in the early 1960s. At some moment, these papers could have looked like a contribution of the magnitude that Peter Higgs would make every decade. But it just wasn't the case. Peter Higgs turned into a one-hit wonder; Francois Englert, to mention another example, has done much more later work on various other other portions of modern physics (and some physicists have done much more than himself, of course).
I do think that universities and research institutions should hire researchers because of their potential to make important enough (or many) findings in the future. And even when Higgs was already famous because of this Higgs boson papers, e.g. in the 1970s and later, it could actually make sense not to hire him if he hadn't had a research job by then.
Of course, this is a bit speculative scenario because after the publication of the Higgs boson papers, Peter Higgs was undoubtedly on the roll and there were many criteria among those above that justified his job at a good enough institution. But if he were jobless and without an apparent future potential, it's just normal for an institution not to hire such folks. Well, sometimes a famous personality may be useful even without results – especially if he or she is a great unifier, inspiration, or manager – but research institutions are generally neither museums nor mausoleums.
Peter Higgs mentions that his risks of being fired would be amplified by some political or social reasons. 50 years ago, he would sympathize with the student movement, anti-apartheid activism. He is dreading the British plans to leave the EU and would prefer an independent Scotland within the EU. He dislikes the term "God particle", hasn't owned a TV throughout most of his life, and wasn't impressed by The Big Bang Theory, the CBS sitcom, after he saw it on the first television in his life.
I think that it has always been completely wrong to harass or punish researchers for something that should be unrelated to their work – like their political attitudes. I have never had the slightest problems with my Marxist and other colleagues; and I would even say that these colleagues among physicists have never had the slightest problems with me. If I overlook minor episodes like Eva Silverstein's shock after she learned that there were differences between the male and female brains from me, it was always only some feminist and reverse racist bitches in other departments who were exporting problems of this type. Ideal physicists just don't create these problems and the real-world physicists are not that infinitely far from the ideal ones, at least not the real-world physicists in good enough departments.
I am saying these things despite the fact that (as you know) I disagree with all the political attitudes associated with Peter Higgs two paragraphs ago (and it's clearly people of my type who are being harassed today – much more harassed than Peter Higgs has ever been). I wouldn't sympathize with the left-wing student movement of the 1960s; I wouldn't think it was right to become obsessive about the "fight against apartheid", especially not in countries like the U.K. that have never experienced it (and my understanding is that "apartheid" means nothing else than "segregation" which I view as one of the legitimate options how to organize the co-existence of several cultures), and like my current prime minister, I would be dreading the possibly looming duty to attend Mandela's funeral; I think that the U.K. is somewhere in between the Continental Europe and the U.S. and it's naturally bad for the U.K. to abandon much of its sovereignty and to be controlled by many pathological tendencies that exist in the Continental Europe today (yes, I would probably vote for UKIP in the U.K.); I moderately like the term "God particle"; I moderately like television as a concept and watch it every other day or so; and I am a superhuge fan of The Big Bang Theory, having seen all the episodes and having watched the average episode 3.14159 times.
But such things unrelated to the profession simply shouldn't influence the hiring and firing decisions. A country becomes a totalitarian country once it becomes normal for almost all employers to adopt similar filters. In Czechoslovakia of the 20th century, we've had way too much experience with similar politically flavored hiring and firing decisions. I am sure that the atmosphere was much more tolerant in the early 1960s than it is now and it is the political soulmates of Peter Higgs who are the Gestapo cops today (mostly operating from outside the physics departments, however).
Politics aside, I do think it's right the the hiring committees are looking at "something like the quality" of the candidates. I think that they're looking at a much broader set of the candidates' possible virtues (beyond the number of publications and even beyond the citation counts) than what is often being caricatured. I think that they're mostly doing it well, at least in the good departments. And I think that despite Peter Higgs' likability and newly earned fame, a department could justifiably fire (or refuse to hire) someone who would be exactly like himself.
And that's the memo.