With departments under threat for few majors, physicists say value isn't reflected in numbers

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U. of Southern Maine is latest institution to consider closing its physics department. Are there disciplines whose lack of popularity with the masses shouldn't doom them?

In wake of controversy over Harvard dissertation on race and IQ, scrutiny for Michigan State researcher

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Jason Richwine quit Heritage Foundation amid controversy over his Harvard dissertation on race and IQ. Critics are now raising questions about work by a Michigan State physicist and vice president.

Senate bill hopes to speed up technology licensing process

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Commercialization offices are fighting a Kauffman proposal that would let researchers take potential commercial ideas to any technology transfer partner, not just their home institution.

Review of Jeremy Bernstein, "A Palette of Particles"

Intellectual Affairs

At the end of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957), our unfortunate hero -- having survived encounters with a house cat and a spider on the way down -- finds himself smaller than an atom, with no end in sight. We see him awaken on what looks like a planet, made up (one reckons) of even tinier atoms. Which in turn contain worlds, containing atoms, and so on.

A mystical epiphany seems totally appropriate under the circumstances. "Smaller than smallest,” he says in the closing voice-over, “I meant something too. To God there is no zero. I still exist!" A galaxy fills the screen: vaster, and more infinitesimal, than the viewer can possibly imagine. A psychedelic moment, with the 1960s not even started yet.

It works, in part, because the audience has seen the standard textbook drawing of an atom, with electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets around the sun. (A lumpy sun, to be sure, made of protons and neutrons.) All of the particles are little spheres. The obvious parallel to a solar system feels sublimely appropriate. To use the maxim alchemists once learned from Hermes Trismegistus: “As above, so below.”

But the parallelism, while convenient, is misleading. Electrons resemble clouds more than they do the billiard-ball planets in a science-fair exhibit. Protons and neutrons are waves as much as they are particles. And there’s scarcely any point to attempting a visual rendering of the still more elementary components of matter that Jeremy Bernstein writes about in A Palette of Particles (Harvard University Press). Apart from vintage photographs in which scientists discerned the trails left by a positron or an Omega-minus particle on the move, most of the entities Bernstein writes about are best “depicted” as mathematical formulae.

A professor emeritus of physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Bernstein is a prolific author of books on science for the lay reader -- and he brings to this popular history of particle physics the advantage of having been around when some of that history was being made. Bernstein, now in his 80s, knew Wolfgang Pauli, who hypothesized the existence of the neutrino in 1930, a quarter-century before it could be confirmed. (He also came up with two devastating remarks sometimes appropriated by people who haven’t heard of Pauli. One was to say of a theory that it “wasn’t even wrong.” The other was to refer to a colleague as “so young and already so unknown.”)

Particle physics has become staggeringly expensive (the search for the Higgs boson or “God particle” cost more than $13 billion) but Bernstein entered the field when budgets, like computation speeds, were a lot lower. He mentions being “the house theorist for the Harvard Cyclotron from 1955 to 1957,” when the machine and the building to house it “cost something like half a million dollars.”

And the old venues had their charm: he expresses a certain fondness for the Cosmotron, a particle accelerator that went into operation at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the early 1950s. “I was on the theoretical staff at Brookhaven for a couple of years in the 1960s,” he writes. “When the machine was down I used to go into the building at night to practice my trumpet. The acoustics were wonderful.”

His personal observations help ground what can prove a mind-bending tour of the infinitesimal. Physicists have discovered a whole menagerie of subatomic entities since James Chadwick identified the neutron in 1932. Some of them have hard-to-grasp qualities such as zero mass, or power that increases with distance. The distinctions among them involve terms such as “spin” or “color” that bear little or no relation to what they mean in ordinary usage.

Furthermore, particles are related to one another in various ways, and there are symmetries (and anomalous asymmetries) between them as well. Keeping it all straight is like remembering who’s who in a Russian novel.

Not a complaint, let me hasten to say: Bernstein covers the material in a sprightly manner, with only the occasional equation that will reveal the beauty of it all to the reader who can grasp it. And he takes a quick look at hypothetical particles that sound like something out of a sci-fi flick. One is the graviton: a gravitational quantum with no mass that moves at the speed of light. Another is the tachyon, which cannot move slower than the speed of light.

If tachyons do exist and could be used to transmit information (so goes the speculation) it might be possible to reverse cause and effect – to go backward in time. Bernstein does not sound optimistic about anyone proving the existence of the tachyon. Even so, the search is on. (Imagine the day that breakthrough is made. What could possibly go wrong?)

A Palette of Particles ends by comparing the domain of subatomic particles to “a series of nested Russian dolls: inside each one there is another.” Add to that the estimate by physicists that 85 percent of the matter in the universe consists of subatomic particles we don’t recognize or understand yet…. It turns out that Bernstein’s sober and lucid introduction to particle physics has an almost mystical quality, even if the author shows no interest in that kind of cosmic thinking. We’re back to what the incredible shrinking man tells us:

“So close, the Infinitesimal and the Infinite. But suddenly I knew they were the really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle.”

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Cornell, Stanford go big on competition for New York City campus

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With a week until the deadline, universities vying for a high-tech campus in New York City are competing on vision and size but are unsure of what deciding factors will be.

U. of Texas Grad Student on Trial in Iran

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Science groups say a researcher is unfairly facing accusations of espionage.

It's Time to End 'Physics for Poets'

At the small liberal arts college where I teach, we have recently undertaken a wholesale revision of our core liberal arts curriculum. This is the set of requirements -- some specific courses, some chosen from a range of options -- that all students at the college must take before graduation. For professors in the natural sciences, this revision has required a good deal of thought about the content and nature of science courses offered to a non-major audience.

Conventional wisdom -- usually unquestioned -- has it that there are three basic elements that go into making up a good non-majors science course. First, the class should cover a relatively narrow range of topics. The classic "Physics for Poets" survey class, which attempts to cover an entire field in one semester, is almost always a disaster, satisfying neither the students taking it nor those teaching it. It's better to restrict the course to a subset of a given field, and spend more time covering a smaller range of topics.

Second, the topic chosen as the focus of the course should be something relatively modern. Students respond much more positively when they can immediately see the relevance of the material. Ideally, a good non-major science class should deal with either a "hot topic" in current research, or something connected to an ongoing public policy debate. It's much easier to engage the students in a subject if they're likely to read about it in The New York Times.

The third element is perhaps the most important: the course should involve the minimum possible amount of math. Many of the students who are the target audience for these classes are uncomfortable with mathematical reasoning, and react badly when asked to manipulate and interpret equations. This final characteristic is also the main reason why I am profoundly ambivalent about such classes.

Science for non-majors offers an important chance to reach out to students outside the sciences, and try to give them some appreciation for scientific inquiry. This is critically important, as we live in a time where science itself is under political assault from both the left and right. People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of "intelligent design." It's more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.

I worry, however, that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. Despite the effort we put into providing classes that are both relevant and informative, I am troubled by the subtext of these classes. By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject.

The first of these messages is sadly misguided. Science is more than just a collection of difficult facts to be learned. It's a way of looking at the universe, a systematic approach to studying the world around us, and understanding how things work. As such, it's as fundamental a part of human civilization as anything to be found in art or literature. The skills needed to do science are the same skills needed to excel in most other fields: careful observation, critical thinking, and an ability to support arguments with evidence.

The second subtext, however, is disturbingly accurate. We do make special accommodations for students who are uncomfortable with science, and particularly mathematics. We offer special classes that teach science with a minimum of math, and we offer math classes at a level below what ought to be expected of college students. Admissions officers and student tour guides go out of their way to reassure prospective students that they won't be expected to complete rigorous major-level science classes, but will be provided with options more to their liking.

It's difficult to imagine similar accommodations being made for students uncomfortable with other disciplines. The expectations for student ability in the humanities are much higher than in the sciences. If a student announced that he or she was not comfortable with reading and analyzing literary texts, we would question whether that student belonged in college at all (and rightly so). We take the existence of "Physics for Poets" for granted, but nobody would consider advocating a "Poetry for Physicists" class for science majors who are uncomfortable with reading and analyzing literature.

The disparity in expectations goes well beyond simple literacy. I was absolutely stunned to hear a colleague suggest, to many approving nods, that all first-year students should be required to read The Theory Toolbox. We would never consider asking all entering students to read H. M. Schey's Div, Grad, Curl, and All That: An Informal Text on Vector Calculus, even though the critical theory described in The Theory Toolbox is every bit as much a specialized tool for literary analysis as vector calculus is a specialized tool for scientific analysis. Yet faculty members in the humanities can seriously propose one as essential for all students in all disciplines, while recoiling from the other.

This distaste for and fear of mathematics extends beyond the student body, into the faculty, and our society as a whole. Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post, wrote a column in February in which he dismissed algebra as unimportant, and proclaimed his own innumeracy.

"I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again."

It's a sad commentary on the state of our society that a public intellectual (even a low-level one like Cohen) can write such a paragraph and be confident that it will be met with as many nods of agreement as howls of derision. If a scientist or mathematician were to say "I can handle simple declarative sentences all right (although not transitive verbs)," they could never expect to be taken seriously again. Illiteracy among the general public is viewed as a crisis, but innumeracy is largely ignored, because everybody knows that Math is Hard.

Fundamentally, this problem begins well below the college level, with the sorry state of science and math teaching in our middle schools and high schools. The ultimate solution will need to involve a large-scale reform of math and science teaching, from the early grades all the way through college. As college professors, though, we can begin the process by demanding a little more of our students, and not being quite so quick to accommodate gaps in their knowledge of math and science. We should recognize that mathematical and scientific literacy are every bit as important for an educated citizen as knowledge of history and literature, and insist that our students meet high standards in all areas of knowledge.

Of course, the science faculties are not without responsibilities in this situation. Forcing non-science majors to take the same courses as science majors seems like an unappealing prospect in large part because so many introductory science courses are unappealing. If we are to force non-science majors to take introductory science major courses, we will also need to commit to making those courses more acceptable to a broader range of students. One good start is the teaching initiative being promoted by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman who is leaving the University of Colorado to pursue educational reforms at the University of British Columbia, but more effort is needed. If we improve the quality of introductory science teaching and push for greater rigor in the science classes offered to non-majors, we should see benefits well outside the sciences, extending to society as a whole.

As academics, we are constantly asked to look below the surface to the implications of our actions. We are told that we need to consider the hidden messages sent by who we hire, what we assign, how we speak to students, and even what we wear. Shouldn't we also consider the hidden message sent by the classes we offer, and what they say about our educational priorities?

Edward Morley
Author's email:

Edward Morley is the psuedonym of an assistant professor of physics.

Still Waiting to Be Consulted

Those of us in the humanities were reminded recently of our place in the universe. Here's the deal: When space was handed out, we were out having coffee and lost our place in line to ... wandering cognitive scientists. But the coffee was good and gave us a chance to ponder yet again what we thought were the very serious questions: Was Heidegger a Nazi? Was Manet an Impressionist or was that Monet? Is the universe -- oops, the university -- in ruins?  We learned on August 24, however, that a decision of importance to those interested in knowledge in general was made without our input and that -- on top of it all -- this decision involved shrinking the available space in the university -- oops, the universe -- allotted to humanistic endeavors. Is this gerrymandering? You bet. And Pluto's out. We're down from nine to eight in our naming rights, and that's what humanists do -- we name things.

I was prepared to research this decision. Before going to Belize last summer, I had taken my daughter, Lucy, to the Kennedy Space Center and we had bought a book about space. Find the Constellations was written by H.A. Rey and published first in 1954. You might remember that H.A. Rey was the illustrator of the Curious George series, which his wife, Margret Rey, penned. In fact, one of the Curious George stories has George blast off into space ( Curious George Gets a Medal). H.A. was an amateur astronomer so he wrote and illustrated this guide to the wandering planets for children. Here's what it says in the index, under "Pluto":  "Planet Pluto discovered as recently as 1930." Here is how the planet is described: "Ninth, and so far, last of the planets; 3,700 million miles from Sun; only about 1,400 miles across. One moon. His trip around Sun takes almost 250 Earth-years. Don't go there unless you are equipped to stand a cold of about 400 degrees below." You don't have to be a literary critic to see that Rey was promising ("so far") that even more planets would eventually be discovered.

I needed to check more sources, so I consulted Lucy's bookshelf. Here's what 1,001 Facts About Space, published in 2002, has to say about Pluto: "The most distant of all the planets, Pluto is the least understood." And here's what Dogs in Space (1993), by Nancy Coffelt, has to say: "There is very little light on Pluto. Dogs in space are far from the Sun. They are very near the edge of the Solar System, where it is cold and dark and lonely." Coffelt claims that dogs like it in space because there are no cats there -- but the dogs cramped on Pluto don't look too happy. I had learned that Pluto was small, dark, cold, lonely, and misunderstood. Was this why scientists were cavalierly jettisoning it?

I turned to the Internet and found that the body of scientists responsible for the momentous decision is called the International Astronomical Union. This organization has 8,858 members. The Modern Language Association, by contrast, has "over" 30,000 members (notice which number is more precise). Clearly, democracy was not at work. I read the IAU resolutions that were passed in August. They apparently come from what is known as the "Planet Definition Committee" (I'm not kidding). Resolution 6A creates a "new class of objects for which Pluto is the prototype" and which are called (see Resolution 6B) "plutonian objects." We are told that astronomers chose the term "plutonian" instead of "pluton" after checking with geologists. I also found out that "plutonians" are really just a sub-category of "trans-Newtonian objects." In a footnote, we read that "An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planets and [sic?] other categories." How can I get elected to the borderline objects committee?

Just when you think you are a humanist finished with playing with language for the day you discover another doosy. The IAU states that one of the main reasons for no longer considering Pluto a "classical" planet but a "dwarf" planet is that Pluto "has not cleared the neighborhood of its orbit." WOW.  Neighborhood -- are we talking community here? What does Pluto need to clear its neighborhood of, exactly? I see racial overtones looming.

My colleagues in Classics are pissed, with Latinists especially up in arms. You've got the Sun at one end of the solar system -- is anyone going to mess with the designation of "the" Sun as a sun? -- so it was proper, even poetic, to have H-E-double-toothpicks at the other end, where it's really dark and lonely and cold (pace the idea of burning in Hades). Now we have, hmmm ... the Sun (let's rename it Apollo) at one end and Uranus?, Neptune? -- who can really keep them straight? -- at the other. What's next? Should we replace all the names of planets or pieces of rock out there with numbers and rely on the mathematicians to keep track of them? Are the nice stories of lions and tigers and bears going to Pluto in a hand-basket also? On that note, should we pretend there is really no hell and that our parents invented it so we would do our homework?

When I was a graduate student in the humanities I had a boyfriend who was in physics. I was pretty proud to be dating a "theorist," a word that all us would-be literary theorists liked to say as often as possible. He was odd in a good way with some odd-in-a-bad-way friends, and even though it didn't work out I've always had a crush on the discipline of physics. I can report, however, that he once told me very seriously that his professors believed they were the ones answering "the big questions" and that he had bought into this. In other words, anyone else's questions just weren't as big. Even history's.  Even philosophy's. Being in a humanistic discipline that doesn't attain to such heights, I marveled at the chutzpah. In any event, I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Pluto has suddenly been cut down to size: physicists and astronomers don't only want to reserve the big questions (Where do we come from? What are we? What's going on? -- to quote Gauguin, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates) for themselves, they want to demote celestial bodies. The universe is a big chess game and someone's got to move the pieces, they imagine. (You have probably noticed that all physicists play chess.)

Finally, as a baby-boomer -- and therefore as a tenured radical -- I bring, along with my humanities baby-boomer colleagues, a perspective on Pluto's demise that may be traced to German Romanticism and all that crying over the ruins of Greece and Rome: I loved Pluto. I loved having nine planets because I could then divide them into threes. This was not only a good mnemonic device, it looked pretty. Dividing eight into fours or twos does not come natural. I also liked the recognition of the outsider, the little guy, the underdog. As children, we liked the fact that Pluto was always dark and always cold, like the spooky closet in our rooms. No matter how many times we mixed up Jupiter and Neptune and Mercury and Saturn, we knew that Pluto was there, at the end of the line, the caboose of the solar system. I know many people of my generation who would much rather have seen a man walk on Pluto than on the Moon, even if it took him 2,000 light years to get there and even if he never came back.

Other recent decisions in the scientific community have also been pushed through committees without the input of the humanities. As everyone knows, any bona fide humanist reads The New Yorker. The bona fide among you will recall a recent article in that magazine on the "Fields Medal," the big shot medal in mathematics (we thought it was the Nobel Prize -- wrong again). According to The New Yorker, this Fields Medal business could lead to increased global warming, as Russian and Chinese scholars duke it out. (By the way, the Russian guy, who lives with his mother and has no friends, sounds suspiciously like a humanist). I am not saying that if someone from, say, modern languages and literatures had been on the committee that world peace would be ensured; I am saying that that person could have communicated in the native tongues to help sort out misunderstandings -- translation is, after all, just another way of naming things.

There's another science decision that has a human aspect, but about which we have been, again, not consulted. I refer to President Bush's insane desire to get a man back on the Moon by the end of the decade and (presumably) a different guy on Mars by the end of some other decade. I know a bit about this controversy and here's what I've been able to gather: Bush is a humanist; most scientists aren't. Hmmm ... make that Bush is a media hog, most scientists aren't. I've read a lot about the history of humans going into space and I know that the friction between scientists who want to do science in space and guys who want to do road trips there has been around at least since Eisenhower. Scientists, in other words, want to learn about space; the other guys want to go there. It's kind of like Galileo and Newton debating Lewis and Clark. Now, if I truly believed that sending a guy to the Moon and to Mars would actually yield something -- say, the discovery of a lost Munch painting or the Holy Grail (to get Dan Brown off our humanist backs) -- then I might be all for it. What we do know scientists will find there, however, is in the end excruciatingly boring:  sand, dust, rocks, evidence that a bazillion years ago there was water, rocks, Jesus' face on the side of a cliff, more rocks. And although some of the snippets thought up by the Apollo astronauts to describe their experiences on the Moon could be termed poetic -- "It was so empty, man" -- most showed no sign of poetic impulse, or even a poetic pulse -- "My wonker stings, too, man." If they'd send humanists to the Moon it might be a different story, but they won't. They haven't even sent a woman or a person of color of color. When NASA had the chance to send an old person to space they sent Glenn and he had already been there! Hello? Or should I say Hell-o?

I'd like to end with Georges Méliès, who started the whole "film the Moon" craze. Méliès was a wonderful silent film director and he was French. That gave him all kinds of license. He made two short films that are of interest here: A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Eclipse (1907). In the latter film, the Sun (a woman) and the Moon (a man) flirt with each other to the point of undergoing some kind of climax, that is, eclipse. It's pretty racy. In A Trip to the Moon, a fat rocket catapults into the cheesy Man in the Moon and this is a good scene for teaching students the phrase "phallic symbol." W.E.B. Dubois is famous for having written in the early 1900s that the question of the century would be the color line; Méliès revealed the second major question, the goings-on on the Moon. Some would have it that in the 21st century we are past the color line; they are, unfortunately, wrong. Others would like to believe we are done with the Moon; they are, unfortunately, wrong. But we do seem to be done with the nine planet consortium.

Returning to nomenclature, I wonder the following: Can we take the name Pluto and give it to the Moon? Other planets' moons have names -- why can't ours? Or how about Charon? That was the name of Pluto's moon, but since Pluto is no longer a planet Charon has been recategorized as a "satellite" of Pluto. Can I get on the committee that decides these things? Who's on the committee on committees for the IAU? Will this count as "professional service"? Will I get a boost in salary?

Not in this universe -- oops, university.

Fleur LaDouleur
Author's email:

Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.

Prized Vocations

I know a professor who enjoys as much success as any of his colleagues would ever want: an endowed chair, numerous books from major publishers, and a position in the leadership of his professional organization…. This is the short list. But he once pointed out that something was missing from his CV. He had never won an award.

This came up a few years ago, not long after I’d won one award and been listed as the finalist for another. My initial assessment was that he was pulling my leg. But there was something mildly forlorn in his manner, and this did not seem like irony. Though neither was it envy, exactly. My worldly status is pretty small beans; and heaven knows that no money was involved in my award -- unlike, say, receiving an endowed chair. (That goes on my tombstone: No Money Was Involved.)

And yet the element of longing was unmistakable. So much so that I have pondered it ever since -- not in regard to my friend’s personality, as such, but for what it implies about the role of prizes and awards in general. More than fifty years have passed since Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” in a work of social satire. It was not meant as a term of praise, by any means. He worried that the rise of meritocracy would be destructive of social solidarity -- filling those at the bottom with despair, and those at the top with ever more perfect arrogance.

This was a good guess. The term has long since lost any critical force; the very notion of meritocracy now seems self-legitimating. But prescient as he was, Young did not anticipate the excess of desire that the system might generate – and not only among individuals. The giving and getting of awards creates its own expansive dynamic. As the number of awards proliferates, so do the committees required to nominate and judge them. (Upon receiving an award, one’s chances of being co-opted onto such a committee approach 100 percent.) This situation may be beyond satire’s power to illuminate, although the Nobel for Literature should certainly go to anyone who manages it.

Meanwhile, a recent issue of Theory, Culture, and Society contains a paper called “The Sociology of Vocational Prizes: Recognition as Esteem” by Nathalie Heinich, research director in sociology at the National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris. It draws on interviews with winners of French literary and scientific awards -- although the data so harvested appear in the paper almost as an afterthought.

An old joke has it that natural scientists discuss findings and social scientists discuss methodology. In this case, one might go a step further; the center of gravity is almost metaphysical. And appropriately enough, perhaps. Heinich’s argument is that understanding the social function of awards should go beyond more or less economic analogies -- i.e., the award increases one’s access to consumption goods, either directly or by enhancing one’s power -- and instead look to the dimension of “ ’intangible’ outcomes.”

But this is not a matter of what Heinich calls “mere psychology.” Rather, the granting and receiving of awards is part of the intricate and interdependent processes of social recognition within democratic societies -- about which, see half a dozen or so sociologists and philosophers (Norbert Elias, Axel Honnith, Nancy Fraser, etc.) on the dialectics of respect and esteem.

The paper feels like the prolegomenon to something much longer: a book that would interpret how the drive for prestige operates in institutions where the spirit of collegiality must reign. Heinich is, in short, framing questions rather than giving answers. But what’s interested me about the paper, after reading it three or four times, are the passages when you get a whiff of her fieldwork.

Beginning in 1985, Heinich interviewed a dozen French authors who had received major literary awards, including the Nobel. In 2002, she conducted another 16 interviews, this time with “mostly French-speaking” scientists who had received the annual Jeantat Prize for research in medicine and biology.

She defines both literature and science as “vocational” endeavors -- borrowing from the old religious sense that a vocation is a calling: one that involves both demands and rewards that are distinct from those of the market place. (On this point, an American would tend to use the word “professional,” although the differences of implication would require opening a very much longer parenthesis than this to discuss.)

But the relative isolation involved in writing makes it a more purely “vocational” activity than is the work of scientists, which is conditioned by access to institutions and infrastructure. And this -- by Heinich’s account – means that literary awards tend to have a much larger impact on recipients than do scientific awards.

“There is no formal recruitment procedure” for poets and novelists, she writes, “no regular permanent salary, no career marked out in advance, no official titles and ranks, no regular collaborators, and no work premises to go to every morning to meet with one’s colleagues. Given such a weak socialization of the activity and the uncertainty of its value, a big literary prize can be a great event in the life of a writer. For a scientist, however, winning a prize is only one element among many within the highly structured stages of professional recognition … [which include] laboratories, procedures of institutional recruitment, the system of varied and peer-reviewed publications, collective work, the material registration of proceedings, the regular handling of considerable financial resources, etc.”

This study in contrasts is not beyond all dispute. Writing is a solitary activity, but the literary life also has its own politics and economics, even among the poets.(Especially among the poets, is my impression.) Interviews with playwrights might have generated very different data about the relationship between vocation and socialization.

And Heinich seems to treat literary prizes as falling outside the normal routine of a writer’s life -- while the sheer proliferation of awards now makes them a routine part of one’s daily awareness. The announcement of winners for awards come by e-mail at a steady clip. Indeed, one arrived as I was revising this.

So there is plenty more work to be done on the sociology of literary awards. But let me go on to cite an interesting observation from Heinich’s interviews with 16 Jeantat Prize-winning scientists:

“Only three of them, including two non-native speakers of French, have hung it on their office wall. The rest have stored it ‘somewhere,’ sometimes ‘in a nice place’ (but not on the wall) in their apartment, sometimes only to be put away by their spouse, and sometimes to be later packed away in a drawer or box, where nearly all of these prize winners would be hard put to find it again. ‘Don’t ask me where it is!’ begs one of the awardees, while another confesses, ‘I’ve got a lot of plaques; they’re collecting dust at my place. And I think the Jeantat Prize must be there, too, collecting dust.’ ”

The sociologist notes that “this openly asserted discretion on the part of the interviewees concerning the display of prizes is clearly a pronounced cultural trait that distinguishes them from prize winners from the English-speaking world, who seem to have no qualms about proudly displaying their distinctions.”

Asked to account for this reluctance to put the award up for all to see, one of the Swiss interview subjects responded that it might be a lingering effect of Calvinism. Either an awful lot of French biologists are of Huguenot extraction (someone should look into this) or the Puritans had less effect on American culture than is commonly supposed.

Of course, another explanation is possible, such as Heinich’s hypothesis. Anglophone cultures are, she writes, “often marked by the competitive spirit.” In them, “victory consecrates the good player but does not, however, signify an agonistic wish to eliminate the adversary.” By contrast, there is “the value of cooperation in Latinate cultures, where formal equality prevails and any claim to excellence appears as a moral shortcoming.” Hence “victory must not be asserted by the winner, only designated, more or less clearly, by others.… On the one hand, then, a performance imperative reigns, and on the other hand, a modesty imperative.”

Perhaps -- though as a worldly colleague points out, Sarkozy's effort to turn French educational and research institutions into so many lean, mean, reputation-generating machines may yet tip that fine balance.

And on this side of the water, all the awards anyone may ever find wall space to hang will never quite silence the feeling that, after all, you'd best keep nose to the grindstone. "For the night cometh, when no man can work," as we recovering Calvinists sometimes say.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Low-Hanging Fruit?

Smart Title: 
Looking for savings, Tennessee State eliminates "low-producing" majors, including physics and Africana studies. Critics ask why a black college would cut such offerings.


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