The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 15, 2021

Why Science is like sex. And why the virtual version is not as good as the real one


Some people may think that this is the way science works: a solitary genius straining his brain in order to build a spaceship in his basement (Image: Dr. Zarkov in the "Flash Gordon" series by Alex Raymond). But science is not like that. Not at all! Science is a collective exchange of ideas that assemble themselves in the memesphere. Unfortunately, with the Covid disaster, scientists cannot get together anymore (image source)

Let me start by citing from the book by Per Bak "How Nature Works" (1996) where he describes the discovery of the phenomenon of self-organized criticality (SOC), that you probably know as the "sandpile model." 

We became obsessed with the origin of the mysterious phenomenon of 1/f noise, or more appropriately the 1/f signal that is emitted by numerous sources on earth and elsewhere in the universe. We had endless discussions in the physics coffee room, the intellectual center of Brookhaven. There was a playful atmosphere which is crucial for innovative scientific thinking. There would also one a constant stream of visitors passing through and contributing to our research by participating in the discussions, and sometime by collaborating more directly with us. Good science is fun science.

This is how one of the key concepts of the science of complex systems was born in the 1980s: in the coffee room. And it is a very general point: no coffee room, no science. You can find a similar description in Norbert Wiener's famous book, "Cybernetics" of 1948, where he describes how young and old scientists would collect around a dinner table to grill each other by a friendly but unsparing discussion. It is the same story. If you are a scientist, you know that science is collective. It is born out of discussions. The concept of serendipity doesn't exist if you are alone. 

In the US, they normally understand this point. To have good results in science, you have to let people mix together and campuses are often built with that idea in mind. But it is the way science is managed at all levels. I remember that when I was a post-doc in Berkeley, we had a Fussball table in one of the labs. Some of us had become truly proficient at the game. And, of course, the lunch seminar on Fridays was a good occasion to relax and exchange ideas.

In Europe, things were often a little more stiff and formal. In some universities where I worked, you had the student cafeteria separated from that of the staff -- not a good idea, in my opinion. And in many cases, not even staff members would mix when having lunch. In general, I found that the best universities are those that encouraged social mixing among their staff and students, those which didn't were second or third rate ones. That's not enough to demonstrate a causal relationship, but you may at least suspect it. And, if you are a scientist, you don't just suspect that. You know that.

And now? Over the years, I've seen science declining from the kind of playful search for innovation that Bak, Wiener, and others describe. Science has been bureaucratized, financialized, competitivized, and bowdlerized in all possible ways to become a pale shadow of what it used to be. There are a few superstar scientists who are forced to put out magniloquent press releases every once in a while where they explain how their most recent wonderful invention will one day solve the world's problems, maybe, and only if they keep receiving money to fool around with it. The rest, the rank and file, are running the rat race just to try to survive and can't afford to innovate. They must imitate.

The final blow to science may have been the idea of "social distancing" which destroyed everything that made science fun and interesting. Once you decide that everyone on campus is to be treated as infectious, there are no possibilities of human interactions anymore. Just to give you some idea of the situation, they closed the cafeteria of our campus and they even removed the coffee machines from the halls of the my department building, the only collective spaces that existed to enliven an otherwise grim building. Now, it is just a grim building.

Yes, I know, we have been told that this is only temporary. When the idea of "social distancing" was proposed, it was supposed to be only temporary. It was to last a few weeks, and then everything was to return as before. One year has passed, and nothing has changed. It looks like distancing will be forever. Will it? 

You mean we could use virtual meetings in science? Yeah, sure. Just like doing virtual sex. It may be fun, but I am sure it is not the same as the real thing. As Bak correctly said, good science is fun. I'd say, boring science is no science at all.

But I would like to close this post on an optimistic note. Take a look at this article by Avi Loeb and the comments on it by Chuck Pezeshki. Loeb talks about the Oumuamua asteroid, but he highlights the same problems of science that I have highlighted here: bureaucratization, lack of innovation, etc. And yet, science keeps producing innovation: the example is Loeb himself and his daring description of Oumuamua as an alien solar sail

Or, you may take a look at this recent massive book "Large Igneous Provinces" by Ernst, Dickson, and Bekker that summarizes decades of meticulous research that solved the problem of extinctions: these large igneous provinces (LIPs) create transient warming effects that bake the biosphere and kill many species. That's what doomed the dinosaurs, not an asteroid

Or how an old concept, that of "holobiont," revamped in the 1990s by Lynn Margulis, is slowly revolutionizing our understanding of the ecosphere and legitimize the once heretic concept of "Gaia." Incidentally, according to the holobiontic view of biology, sex is information sharing. And, yes, it is what I said science is (or should be)!

Science still has a lot to give to humankind, but it needs a good shakeup to get rid of the multiple bureaucratic layers that suffocate it. Maybe, the pandemic is the occasion to do just that? It could even happen, who knows? 



  1. Sorry, folks, there was a bug with blogger and comments were disabled. Now, it seems to be fixed.

  2. Sorry for asking, but what is PTBs?

  3. Non fossil fuels-run Science is in its infancy still, stopped from maturing since mass deforestation in Europe started in the 1600s and then the appearance of the steam engine.

    The really interesting age of Science will only resume after fossil fuels are well gone and over.

    We understand now that fossil fuels were highly intoxicating, they made fossil fuels tremendously hypnotic for primitive humans.

    High on hypnotism and real Science do not go together very well.


  4. The forced decline in quality of science and perhaps it,s collapse in parts of the world is reminding me of Sciences decline in Late Antiquity with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria,murder of the genius Hypatia of Alexandria,large scale decline in literacy,etc. I Believe it's important for any individual whose very interested in science or certain branch's of science to create there own private Library(And not worry about it's size) and to network with and help out like minded individuals. Science can have a future revival in some future era with the assistance of interested individuals in the present era.

  5. Enviable? Or just America dreaming?
    Quote from Avi (I followed your link to Scientific American interview):"My routine is to wake up each morning at 5 A.M. and go jogging. It’s really beautiful when nobody's outside—just me and the birds, ducks and rabbits. And, yes, because of the pandemic, the past 10 months have been the most productive in my career. I don’t need to commute to work. I don’t need to meet so many people. And most importantly, I don’t need to think about what’s wrong with all the things that other people say!"

  6. Ugo
    Avi says to Scientific Amwerican: "My routine is to wake up each morning at 5 A.M. and go jogging. It’s really beautiful when nobody's outside—just me and the birds, ducks and rabbits. And, yes, because of the pandemic, the past 10 months have been the most productive in my career. I don’t need to commute to work. I don’t need to meet so many people. And most importantly, I don’t need to think about what’s wrong with all the things that other people say!"
    He also suggests University science has a lot of dead ends - untestable stuff. Looking to his complaint and to other fields The University could be a strange place to go just to catch bugs and hope to get a post-grad bug?

    1. True. You need also moments of solitary reflection. But you need to test your ideas by discussing with others, otherwise you go nowhere.