Written by: Stephen Hsu
Primary Source: Information Processing. 9/22/2018.
Dom’s essay is also highly recommended. He has spent considerable effort to understand the history of highly effective scientific / research organizations. There is a good chance that his insights will someday be put to use in service of the UK. Dom helped create a UK variant of Kolmogorov’s School for Physics and Mathematics.
Topics discussed by Connes: CNRS as a model for nurturing talent, materialism and hedonic treadmill as the enemy to intellectual development, string theory (pro and con!), US, French, and Soviet systems for science / mathematics, his entry into Ecole Normale and the ’68 Paris convulsions.
France and Ecole Normale produce great mathematicians far in excess of their population size.
Connes: I believe that the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. It is a dream to gather many young people in an institute and make sure that their basic activity is to talk about science without getting corrupted by thinking about buying a car, getting more money, having a plan for career etc. … Of course in the former Soviet Union there were no such things as cars to buy etc. so the problem did not arise. In fact CNRS comes quite close to that dream too, provided one avoids all interference from our society which nowadays unfortunately tends to become more and more money oriented.
Q: You were criticizing the US way of doing research and approach to science but they have been very successful too, right? You have to work hard to get tenure, and research grants. Their system is very unified in the sense they have very few institutes like Institute for Advanced Studies but otherwise the system is modeled after universities. So you become first an assistant professor and so on. You are always worried about your raise but in spite of all these hazards the system is working.
Connes: I don’t really agree. The system does not function as a closed system. The US are successful mostly because they import very bright scientists from abroad. For instance they have imported all of the Russian mathematicians at some point.
Q: But the system is big enough to accommodate all these people this is also a good point.
Connes: If the Soviet Union had not collapsed there would still be a great school of mathematics there with no pressure for money, no grants and they would be more successful than the US. In some sense once they migrated in the US they survived and did very well but I believed they would have bloomed better if not transplanted. By doing well they give the appearance that the US system is very successful but it is not on its own by any means. The constant pressure for producing reduces the “time unit” of most young people there. Beginners have little choice but to find an adviser that is sociologically well implanted (so that at a later stage he or she will be able to write the relevant recommendation letters and get a position for the student) and then write a technical thesis showing that they have good muscles, and all this in a limited amount of time which prevents them from learning stuff that requires several years of hard work. We badly need good technicians, of course, but it is only a fraction of what generates progress in research. It reminds me of an anecdote about Andre Weil who at some point had some problems with elliptic operators so he invited a great expert in the field and he gave him the problem. The expert sat at the kitchen table and solved the problem after several hours. To thank him, Andre Weil said “when I have a problem with electricity I call an electrician, when I have a problem with ellipticity I use an elliptician”.
From my point of view the actual system in the US really discourages people who are truly original thinkers, which often goes with a slow maturation at the technical level. Also the way the young people get their position on the market creates “feudalities” namely a few fields well implanted in key universities which reproduce themselves leaving no room for new fields.
Q: So you were in Paris [ Ecole Normale ] in the best place and in the best time.
Connes: Yes it was a good time. I think it was ideal that we were a small group of people and our only motivation was pure thought and no talking about careers. We couldn’t care the less and our main occupation was just discussing mathematics and challenging each other with problems. I don’t mean ”puzzles” but problems which required a lot of thought, time or speed was not a factor, we just had all the time we needed. If you could give that to gifted young people it would be perfect.
See also Defining Merit:
… As a parting shot, Wilson could not resist accusing Ford of anti-intellectualism; citing Ford’s desire to change Harvard’s image, Wilson asked bluntly: “What’s wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn’t it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?”
E. Bright Wilson was Harvard professor of chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences, later a recipient of the National Medal of Science. The last quote from Wilson could easily have come from anyone who went to Caltech! Indeed, both E. Bright Wilson and his son, Nobel Laureate Ken Wilson (theoretical physics), earned their doctorates at Caltech (the father under Linus Pauling, the son under Murray Gell-Mann).
Top Nobel-producing undergraduate institutions
Rank School Country Nobelists per capita (UG alumni)
1 École Normale Supérieure France 0.00135
2 Caltech US 0.00067
3 Harvard University US 0.00032
4 Swarthmore College US 0.00027
5 Cambridge University UK 0.00025
6 École Polytechnique France 0.00025
7 MIT US 0.00025
8 Columbia University US 0.00021
9 Amherst College US 0.00019
10 University of Chicago US 0.00017