"Observable" has reminded me of a video I was sent a few days ago, a 12-minute introduction by Dan Harlow (MIT) to topological field theories etc. within high energy physics, presented during an event at Harvard's CMSA (Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications) last week.
Aside from some general technical points about topological matter, he also discussed the refocus of physicists to subfields. Around 1:40, he said it was harder to build particle colliders etc. and around 1:55, he asked "what are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know we need to write papers and posting them to hep-th".
That was quite a frank demystification of Harlow's "moral foundations and motivation" to do physics.
When Harlow was finished, at 10:16, top IAS Princeton physicist Nathan Seiberg praised Harlow's "beautiful" summary but pointed out that one thing shouldn't have been said. We're not doing what we're doing because we need to fill the time, as Harlow implicitly said. We're doing it because it's important, Seiberg thinks.
Those are of course very different ideas about the very reason why people keep on being employed as physicists. Harlow has backtracked and claimed that he agreed the topic was important because he's also working on it – and he doesn't like to waste time. Well, it is equally sensible to hypothesize that this was just a lame rationalization of a different statement than one in which Harlow actually believes.
There is a clear difference between the views (about the very value of physics) of the older physicists like Seiberg on one side; and younger ones like Harlow. Older ones think that physics is interesting and makes sense (or at least they continue to flawlessly pretend to believe so); younger ones generally don't. I have followed similar "conceptual" pronouncements by Harlow for quite some time and I think he is one of the main people who have been open about the idea that "he is in it mainly for the money" and to get the money, he needs to "fill the time and submit some papers".
The transformation took place at some moment, gradually, not uniformly across the world. The transformation hasn't reached some of the best places – while it has conquered many of the šitty places a very long time ago. And a part of the transformation may perhaps be justified by some objectively caused slowdown in HEP physics, not just politically driven changes. But the fact that this transformation is real seems clear. Are Seiberg and Harlow physicists of the same kind?
Professionally, in the case of these two men (OK, a man and a person), I think that the answer is Yes. Harlow has good enough capability to do physics research of a kind that is somewhat similar to Seiberg's. Both are working on rather conceptually high-brow aspects of quantum field theory and general quantum mechanical theories that are tightly connected with string theory when done properly – but they also tend to avoid the "most stringy" topics. They're not doing the same things but the analogy would work well and would be very far from some evidence supporting a "tectonic shift" in the field.
However, the overall motivation, psyche, thinking about the value, purpose, and future of pure science – and the scientific institutions and their relationships to science – couldn't be more different. If you have common sense, you know that "we have to fill the time and send papers" was the actual way how Harlow thinks about these matters – and he only backtracked because he saw some (surprising?) opposition from a senior person. When Harlow leaves such a conference, he talks differently to the people in his environment whom he considers his actual soulmates, unlike Seiberg. He probably tells them that he, Harlow, was a target of hundreds of microaggressions if not several milliaggression from the evil old white male Seiberg's side so he simply had to surrender – but he is still the same heroic snowflake whom all his comrades know.
And they find it obvious that the physics departments are just buildings giving rather convenient jobs to somebody – assuming that some bureaucratic criteria are obeyed – and the main question is how to divide these feeding troughs. And because Harlow is one of the main feminist activists – in fact, the primary or only author of the utterly despicable petition against Strumia written during a nasty, Nazi-era-style witch hunt – he believes that all the "progressive" quotas on the less capable ("underrepresented") groups of people in the physics departments are the main thing that physicists should be concerned with.
The broad similarity of Seiberg's and Harlow's work shouldn't confuse us. The tectonic shift is real and dramatic. Harlow was hired by MIT which is one of the last top places where the hiring is meritocratic. But Harlow no longer feels to be a part of this old system. Instead, he is just an – accidentally more talented than others – member of an entirely new community of physicists and (mostly) "physicists" whose goals and psyches are totally different.
Harlow's papers make sense and some of them have been valuable but most of the people in "the community that he considers his own" can't do meaningful research. Most of them have been hired for political reasons, because of affirmative action, because of their support for this or that cause. Most of these people end up at much less prestigious places than the MIT but it doesn't matter – all of them including Harlow still act as a united community with a new, very different, set of values.
It's a community that takes it for granted that pure science is meaningless and worthless per se and what really matters are just the feeding troughs that have to be divided according to the right – i.e. far left – criteria. Lots of these people candidly tell you that all the work they were doing in the recent 10 or 20 years is worthless crap according to their own judgement – but they find it OK not to return the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they have received for this crap. In fact, some of them act as if they were morally superior because they have robbed the taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the crap and they brag about it! They know what it means to write nonsense for 20 years and be getting high salaries for that – so they should be promoted and celebrated for that experience and special expertise! It's completely insane and I am not making it up. And there's virtually no adult left in the room at universities who would chastise them – Seiberg's objection was a tiny fluke.
Some basic morality has largely disappeared from the community of younger physicists – along with the excitement and curiosity. The moral decay has been intense. These people no longer share even the most basic ideas about the scientific integrity – e.g. that a scientist shouldn't do things (and be paid for things) that he or she believes to be wrong or worthless nonsense. Again, why did it happen, when did it happen, and how did it happen?
It has happened because it was allowed to happen. In fact, it was encouraged to happen. And it was allowed or encouraged even by the likes of Nathan Seiberg. For 10 or 20 years or longer, the likes of Nathan Seiberg have been quietly okaying the transformation of the physics community by agreeing with all the ideological deformations, by being silent even in the most egregious cases. Now, the younger part of the community is composed in such a way that most of the members feel existentially threatened by meritocracy such as the expectation of any interesting scientific results. And the likes of Harlow are their allies so they don't want to support any kind of sociologically-independent values or meritocracy, either.
Of course internally in "his community", Harlow has to agree that the only task for a physicist is to fill xir time and submit some number of preprints – with the assumption that something may always be written and everyone can learn how to do it. So everyone can be a "physicist" and xe can even omit the quotes because no one will shout at xir to return the damn quotes at their proper place. If something more were expected, he would be existentially threatening most of the people whom he considers his comrades. And that would be so bad! So of course, they mostly don't want to do a very ambitious or difficult stuff.
I think that the rot is beyond the point of no return – and it's been there for many years. In fact, I find it utterly ludicrous that Nathan Seiberg acts as if he were surprised that "filling the time" is how Daniel Harlow thinks about the reasons why physics research exists. Nathan Seiberg must have spent a decade or two in Josef Fritzl's basement if he hasn't noticed that this is how the bulk of similar young people at the universities think today (especially those who are visible activists – and Harlow is unquestionably one of those). Is Seiberg really unaware of their basic views – or does he only pretend to be unaware? And does it actually matter what the answer to this question is?
So the pressure suddenly exerted on Harlow in September 2019 is weird and it is too little too late (a decade or two decades too late). Such ludicrous theaters should be avoided now because it's damn obvious that the "plan for the physics departments" has been modified so that Harlow's attitude is the conventional, tolerated one and it is bound to spread further as the "old dinosaurs" such as Seiberg retire or die away. You should have opened your eyes, escaped from that basement, and do something about a decade or two earlier, Dr Seiberg! Now, the universities are just generic feeding troughs for everybody where no special skills let alone moral values are expected from anybody. Just parrot the recommended PC clichés, fulfill some formal bureaucratic criteria, and get the food in your feeding trough. That is the new ideal template for a research institution. This will continue and it will be getting worse up to the moment when some wise politicians start to abolish the universities whose ludicrously useless character will be manifest to basically everybody.