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Passing through the membrane

by Michael Nielsen on April 14, 2004

A while back I wrote an extended post about the culture of academia, and how success and failure are defined within that culture.

In the comments to that post, Seb Paquet just posted a link to an interesting related article by Alex Pang about his experience in leaving academia.

From → General

  1. Mary Messall permalink

    Argh. All year (and for a couple of years before I got to grad school) I’ve been angsting about whether I really want to get into academia. These posts seem to confirm my worst fears about ivory-tower irrelevancy and uncertain rewards.

    It’s why I talked myself into moving into a research area with potential applications — technically in the electrical engineering department. I’m feeling very good about that, after reading this.

    Of course thinking about big ideas is more fun than solving problems, but that doesn’t make it more noble. The more I hear theorists talk about “pure science” and their own enormous importance, the more I want to be an engineer, a teacher, a popularizer… Anything but a “pure scientist”. I’ll bet I can do all of that and still think about the nature of reality just as successfully as they do.

  2. Mary: I’ve spent a while in Computer Graphics research, which is definitely applied science and close to engineering. What I’ve found is that CG research is a world of its own, more divorced from practice than I expected; basically, my understanding is that people in the industry generally don’t (and shouldn’t, imho) trust that they will be able to reproduce the impressive results that appear e.g. in SIGGRAPH proceedings. A similar disconnect occurs in other applied fields – information systems for example:

    On the other hand, theory sometimes generates original, elegant ways of thinking that can be put to use in solving practical problems elsewhere.

    But if you care first and foremost about real-world relevance, I guess neither orientation will be a perfect fit for you.

  3. Mary Messall permalink

    It’s not theory I’m grudging, really (my slightly younger self would’ve been shocked at the sentiments in that post). That outburst was brought on by the sentiments attributed to historians rather than scientists, actually. “I shared my colleagues’ disdain for popular historians and science journalists, lumping them together with motivational speakers and gossip columnists.”

    Scientists have that disdain plus, in some cases, a disdain for applications, which are the part of science which ordinary people interact with most. What I dislike about academia is this elitism, this snobbish insistence that the less relevant and understandable to ordinary people the work is, the more important it is… Anyway, never mind me. It’s just stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. I can’t ever seem to resist commenting when the topic is something which was already on my mind.

  4. Mary wrote: “I can’t ever seem to resist commenting when the topic is something which was already on my mind.”

    That’s exactly what blogs and comments sections are for!

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