What is Missing in Academia?
We were all delighted to attend the celebration party for the launch of the first novel of my wife, Dr. Ofrit Liviatan, titled “Anything But Steady”. At the start of the evening, I had the privilege of introducing the novelist and adding three clarifications:
(i) First, in contrast to the title of the book, everything is steady about our marriage.
(ii) Second, the novelist is better than the finest wine I had ever witnessed. Every wine has its optimal age, but she keeps getting better without a limit. I married an attorney and now I am married to a novelist, a lecturer on law and politics and the director of the Freshman Seminar Program at Harvard University.
(iii) Third, this “newly born” book is not my baby. All compliments go to her. Unlike our biological daughters, she created the book on her own. A writer is an “intellectual amoeba”, capable of creating new life without partners, using nutrients supplied by the environment.
Later on, we sat down for a dinner conversation with many accomplished professors and friends. The discussion echoed a common thread that runs through all branches of academia, from the humanities to the arts and sciences. In short: too much of the academic culture is driven by ego and jealousy at the expense of substance and creativity. Senior colleagues often suppress creative work of others under the shadow of their past accomplishments. They step on fresh growth before it blossoms to threaten their prestige.
This dominant intellectual climate leads to a lingering sense of frustration by original scholars. Like seashells on the beach, intellectuals begin with different colors and shapes. But as they rub against each other — they lose their unique authenticity and break into indistinguishable grains of sea-sand. Of course, senior faculty can always be distinguished by their professorship titles or leadership assignments, but less so by the rebellious qualities that got them started on their academic path.
Senior scholars love to construct castles out of the intellectual sea-sand around them. These echo chambers of students and postdocs amplify the voice of their creators to be louder than alternatives. The sand-castles are solidified by committees which decide about promotions, grants or awards, and are often dominated by the same actors.
Young rebels who dare to follow Robert Frost’s advice: “… I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”, often find that this road does not lead to tenure. The trick is to take that road after tenure.
The concept of tenure was invented to remove concerns about job security when scholars venture into uncharted academic territories before these are recognized as valid by the mainstream. After all, quantum mechanics was discovered experimentally a century ago and its fundamental premise of entanglement was resisted by prominent physicists at that time, including Albert Einstein. Today, our scientific knowledge about the quantum world establishes the foundation for numerous gadgets that revolutionized our daily lives. Discovery of the unexpected is only possible in a culture that allows for it. For example, ancient Mayan astronomers collected exquisite astronomical data under the theoretical paradigm that it can forecast the outcome of wars. They could have figured out the laws of gravity with a more pluralistic mindset.
The reality of academia reveals that even after tenure, we tend to be preoccupied with our ego rather than with understanding the Universe that surrounds it. This often takes the form of demonstrating how smart we are, irrespective of whether the discussion is relevant to society.
For example, physicists are expected to explain the physical reality we live in. Nevertheless, a popular current trend in theoretical physics, string theory, declines to fulfil its premise of making testable predictions after a half-century-long quest to unify quantum mechanics and gravity. Some of its scientific literature addresses hypothetical debates on questions that require mathematical virtuosity at the highest level. But at the same time, questions that a quantum theory of gravity is supposed to answer, like “what replaces the singularities of black holes?” or “what replaces the Big Bang at the beginning of our Universe?”, are declared as being too difficult and beyond the scope of the current mainstream research. If plumbers argued that fixing a toilet or repairing a leaking faucet are tasks which are too difficult for them to resolve, then they would have lost their customers. However, a large enough community of scholars can justify its own line of inquiry as long as it is not subjected to external experimental verification. Society has little oversight on a focus area that outsiders cannot test.
But the primary concern about academia centers on the suppression of alternatives to the mainstream, even when those are suggested by observed anomalies. It is disheartening to watch innovation being appreciated more in the “for profit” sector of society. The non-profit nature of academia was supposed to generate imaginative, forward-looking thinking, but instead it often creates echo chambers and uniformity of thought.
What is missing in academia? It is the sense of wonder that all of us shared when we were kids. As adults, we often lack intellectual generosity towards each other and modesty in approaching unanswered questions by welcoming evidence about anomalies. It is the “adults in the room” who always pretend to know more than they actually do when confronted with anomalies, just to avoid the embarrassment of acknowledging that they missed something important.
Here’s hoping that we can all remain kids in our heart even as we are offered the privilege of academic tenure and leadership positions. This mindset will allow our intellectual horizons to grow in a way that is “anything but steady”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.