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Q&A: From philosophy to physics to Nobel
  • Q&A: From philosophy to physics to Nobel

Copyright: Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons

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  • In colleges before, one could make a living by teaching while doing research

  • Stiff competition for positions and grants has changed the research landscape

  • Researchers should be encouraged to run their own programs like in the US system

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Physics professor Sir Anthony Leggett was a co-awardee of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work on superfluid helium-3. SciDev.Net caught up with him on the sidelines of the Global Young Scientists Summit held in Singapore last 18-23 January to hear his views on science in the public sphere and his career advice for young scientists in the developing world based on his early experiences.

You took a rather unusual path to a career in physics, doing your first undergraduate degree at Oxford in classic philosophy, known colloquially as the Greats. If you could go back in time, what career advice would you give to your 17-year-old self?

Do the same, I have no regrets at all. Had I gone into physics initially, I would have missed the enormous intellectual benefits I would have gotten out of my Greats education.

Do you think then that science education is streamed too early nowadays?

Yes I do. But to be honest, I don’t really see how you can practically get around that problem. I was extremely lucky in the sense that people were prepared to support me intellectually. I was a totally unknown quantity. When I applied to switch from my Greats, I had completed my degree but had essentially zero experience in physics and there was no evidence whatever that I could do it.

The person who helped me make the decision, and is responsible for the rest of my career, is David Brink, a young theoretical physicist who had just been appointed the master of the college Balliol. He gave me a copy of a very nice book by Courant and Robbins called What Is Mathematics? I still have it on my bookshelf now. He asked me to read a few chapters over the summer vacation. When I came back, he gave me a little exam on it. On the basis of that, he apparently got convinced I could do it.

In addition, there was the financial aspect. It was very unusual for anyone to try and do a second undergraduate degree. Again, people were very generous. Another Oxford college, Merton, offered me a scholarship they normally give for postgraduate work. That was incredibly generous and I couldn’t have done it without them.

How else do you think luck played a role in your career?

Until 1959, which was the year when I took my Greats degree, Britain had the military draft. At that point, something serendipitous happened in the fall of 1957 — the Sputnik. Everyone knew that this had not been done by the United States or Britain but by the Soviet Union. So immediately came this enormous outcry from the journalists, politicians and general public that how come the Soviet Union has gotten ahead of us in this incredibly important technological field.

The answer: well, it’s because we’ve encouraged our best and brightest people to do useless things like the classics rather than useful things like physics, so we have to encourage people who have training in classics and are hopefully somewhat smart to go over into science or physics. I was able to ride the crest of that wave. It was that which was able to convince my military draft board to let me do a second undergraduate degree.

That said, it’s rather impractical for young scientists to go about trying to build their career around the notion of luck.

That’s why I think it makes no sense whatsoever for young people to think, “I want to win the Nobel Prize”. On the other hand, if I had to advise them, I would perhaps give them some guidelines as to how to have a career that is intellectually satisfying to them. Whether or not it ends up getting a Nobel Prize that is certainly a matter of luck. But whether it is satisfying, that is something that one can plan for at least to a certain extent.

The research landscape today is very different from when you were doing your Nobel Prize winning work, with stiff international competition for positions and grants. What advice would you give to young scientists starting out their careers?

If you’d asked me this question 30 years ago rather than now, particularly if you’d asked me in a US context, what I’d say is I would try to find a job at a small liberal arts college. At least in those days, there were quite a few of these colleges around, and you could go apply for a job there and basically make your living by teaching. If you wanted to, you could do research on the weekends or the evenings and the college would encourage you to do so, provide library facilities, secretarial facilities and so forth, but it wasn’t part of your job.

That was exactly how it was at the University of Sussex when I first went there in 1967. I found that very relaxing and congenial because I think I was able to sit back and say, I don’t have to worry about getting grants, I don’t have to worry about getting publications in prestigious journals, not a dot of this nonsense.

Nowadays, even if you go to one of these places (liberal arts colleges), you have to publish in prestigious journals and get grants and so forth. I think that’s very, very unfortunate. I wish there was something I could do about it.

As a Nobel Laureate, you now have the ear of different governments seeking your opinion on how to do science in their respective countries. Do you think that scientists and science in general have a sufficiently loud voice in the public sphere?

It depends a lot on where you are. I think here in Singapore, it certainly does. I’m very impressed by the extent to which scientists do have a voice, as far as I can tell, in public policy. As regards, say, to Britain or the US, probably not, but not for want of trying. Even those administrations in the US that have been widely regarded by the general public as somewhat not totally sympathetic like the Bush administration, in fact were pretty concerned about having good science policies and they did get good advisors.

The problem rather is the general public and its voice in, say, Congress. I think one can certainly make the case that the US Congress is not sufficiently scientifically literate and certainly not adequately sympathetic to science and technology.

Compared to the life sciences, physics tends to get less funding, particularly for some of the more resource-constrained developing nations in Asia. What do you feel are the prospects for young physicists in Asia?

You’ve got to be prepared. Say, if you are a young Indian physicist, and you want to specialise in experimental particle physics, you’re probably not going to be able to do it in India, or at least not very effectively. India produced great physicists in the past like Raman because essentially he only needed rather basic equipment. Nowadays, to make a big mark in experimental physics you cannot do without sophisticated equipment, which tends to be expensive.

I actually think it has been a reasonable policy on the part of the Indian government, given the limited resources available, to focus on the less expensive areas of physics, which do include some very exciting fields. For example, there is some decent observational cosmology being done in India. But it does mean that if you want to go into certain areas, you would have to work abroad.

If, on the other hand, you happen to be a young scientist in China, then most things are open to you. In some ways, the most important thing is to make sure that the upcoming generation of scientists is trained in an appropriate way. For certain countries at least, this might involve some kind of jarring of the social system.

The Asian country I probably know best is Japan where traditionally there has been this highly structured system where each senior professor has a research group. This is largely true in Germany too, where the younger members of the research group are looked on primarily as assistants to the professor. It has some advantages, but I personally tend to prefer the US system where from the word go, young researchers are expected to run their own programmes and so forth. I see some signs that in Japan, and even more in China, people are beginning to think in that way.




This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

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