The Web as Dictator of Scientific Fashion

James Glantz
NY Times June 19, 2001

STILLWATER, Minn. — If the endlessly accelerating pace of scientific research is riding the telecommunications revolution, then why did physicists, historians and philosophers meet here recently at an isolated lodge where cell phones generally do not work and many of the rooms have no phones at all, let alone speedy Internet connections?

The answer is that a few scientists — including some of those who attended the annual Seven Pines Symposium here — are now saying what would have sounded not only retrograde but also deeply uncool just a few years ago: The World Wide Web and cheap satellite communications have brought trouble as well as opportunity to the scientific enterprise.

For starters, instead of fostering many independent approaches to cracking each difficult problem, the Web, by offering scientists a place to post their new results immediately, can create a global bandwagon in which once-isolated scientists rush to become part of the latest trend.

In the resulting stampede, all but a few promising avenues are quickly abandoned. The pressure to conform can be especially intense for young scientists, who may find prospective employers trying to stock their ranks with specialists in fashionable areas.

Some scientists say the idiosyncratic, brow-furrowing, brooding kind of research that has often produced answers to basic questions is the most threatened.

"The problems fundamental physics is facing right now very much require stepping back, sitting down and taking off the shoes and talking by the fire," said Prof. Carlo Rovelli, a physicist from the University of Marseille in France who was at the symposium, which was designed for just this kind of leisurely reflection.

The pervasiveness of the Internet, he said, does increase the technical sophistication of that search for basic laws as new methods are rapidly passed around. "But it raises the level of background noise," Professor Rovelli said. "Discussions, `Are we going in the right direction,' are much lower."

Another Seven Pines participant, Prof. Jeffrey Harvey, a physicist at the University of Chicago, said that "scorekeeping" Web sites, which automatically track the number of times a paper is cited by others, create another kind of social pressure against marching to a different drummer. "I think something has been lost," he said.

Exactly what has been lost may have been identified by Sir Roger Penrose, a physicist at Oxford University, when he spoke last week at a separate conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Fashionable ideas sometimes have a much greater hold on modern science than they did before communication was so easy," Sir Roger said. He added that changes should be made "in a way that increases the chances of having more variety."

Though not specifically intended to counter the Internet, the Seven Pines Symposium, which began five years ago, was designed to fill a niche that neither electronic communications nor garden-variety scientific meetings were filling, said Prof. Roger Stuewer, a historian of science at the University of Minnesota and one of the symposium's organizers.

The symposium was created and financed by Lee Gohlike, a Minnesota entrepreneur with a taste for philosophy and physics who attends the scientific presentations, spends hours conversing with participants and owns the lodge where the symposium is held. Seven Pines generally focuses on the big questions of science rather than technical minutiae.

This year, for example, the theme was the frustrating attempt to bring together quantum theory and gravity, as embodied in relativity theory. Though there were a few major talks each day, they were followed by lengthy discussion periods, long breaks and leisurely meals during which the scientists, historians and philosophers were expected to engage each other intellectually while enjoying themselves around the lodge and its extensive grounds.

With the midwifery of the philosophers and historians, unusual exchanges did take place, especially between two competing factions within the physics community, the string theorists and the relativists, who are attempting that unification of physics.

"I was surprised how well the group did manage to communicate," said Prof. John Earman, who is in the history and philosophy of science department at the University of Pittsburgh. "I didn't get the sense that either of them is going to be deflected from their chosen research program, but I did get a sense that each did get a better understanding of what the others are doing."

In some ways the approach harks back to the way science has been done throughout most of its history.

From the Greek philosopher-scientists to Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and even many 19th-century scientists like Michael Faraday, who discovered laws governing electricity and magnetism, great advances have often emerged from relative isolation or communications with just a few trusted colleagues, said Prof. Noel Swerdlow, a science historian in the astronomy and astrophysics department at the University of Chicago. "We're so used to thinking of community that we've lost sight of the complete isolation in which these guys were working," Professor Swerdlow said.

At one extreme, he said, when Ptolemy, the second-century astronomer, wrote up his work, he found it necessary to include just one "citation": of Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer who had lived three centuries earlier. All of that began to change rapidly with the rise of scientific journals in the 17th century, Professor Swerdlow said.

By the 20th century the tempo of scientific communication had increased considerably, but the benefits of at least sporadic isolation were still apparent in some of the great work by Einstein himself, said Prof. John Norton of the history and philosophy of science department at the University of Pittsburgh. "Isolation was important for Einstein," Professor Norton said.

As recently as the early 1970's, said Prof. Rafael Sorkin, a physicist at Syracuse University, the lack of communication between the Soviet Union and the West paid big scientific dividends when an approach to particle physics called field theory was largely abandoned by United States scientists in favor of an approach they found more promising.

Not long after, Professor Sorkin said, field theory turned out to be the correct approach, and its revival was spurred partly by the Soviet work. Quantum field theory dominates particle physics today.

Professor Sorkin is not sure how to preserve some of those benefits in the age of the Internet, although he suggests that perhaps scientists could somehow agree to work in "relatively disconnected groups" — which, considering the professional stakes involved, could be as difficult a proposition as asking investors not to read the stock ticker.

For all their worries about the Web, in fact, participants have no intention of giving it up. During his own talk, Dr. Norton unveiled a new electronic archive for philosophers of science (, that emulates similar services invented by physicists.

According to its Web site, the archive's goal is to "promote communication in the field by the rapid dissemination of new work."

Copyright (c) 2000 Robert C. Newman. Used by permission of Access Research Network.