Preposterous Universe

Monday, December 27, 2004
Moses only wrote one book

An article in the Duluth News Tribune recreates the atmosphere at the Arrows of Time meeting I went to recently. One of the things it doesn't mention is the dinner-table reminiscences of the late Sidney Morgenbesser. I had never heard of Morgenbesser, but two of the participants knew him well -- Steve Savitt was his Ph.D. student, and David Albert was a close friend of his at Columbia.

Morgenbesser was a philosopher who was known for making a profound impression on his students and colleagues; you can read some personal remarks at 3quarksdaily (also here and here). There are clearly a good number of favorite anecdotes about his dry Jewish humor, as several of the stories told around dinner in Minnesota are reproduced in the New York Times. He is less well-known to those who didn't meet him personally, as he was notorious for publishing very little. He managed to have an important impact through his interactions with others, rather than by systematically expounding a particular system of thought.

Of course, there are figures throughout history who managed to make a splash without having an impressive publication record; Socrates and Jesus come to mind. But they were fortunate enough to have Plato and St. Paul put their words (or some possibly-distorted reflection thereof) onto paper; who knows how history might have been different if they didn't have such prolific acolytes. Even in the recent history of physics, there are good examples of people who wrote very little and then managed to come up with big ideas when it counted; Ken Wilson's ideas about the renormalization group and Alan Guth's inflationary universe are good examples.

It's hard to compare across generations, but I suspect that brilliant-but-reticent geniuses have a harder time getting hired as professors today than they did a few decades ago. It just seems that the competition for jobs is a little more fierce, and among the candidates for any one position there will always be someone who looks brilliant and also publishes a lot. You can hardly blame departments for being short-sighted if they tend to hire people who write papers, for the simple reason that most people are not quiet geniuses. For every Morgenbesser, there are a dozen others who show promise but will end up just taking up office space for the next thirty years as a tenured faculty member. It's a shame, of course, as there are people who are great to have as colleagues and mentors in a department, even if they don't publish very much. But, short of doubling all of the budgets so that we can hire more people, I don't know of any better way than the system we have.

Update: Steve Savitt informs me that Morgenbesser was his undergraduate advisor, not his Ph.D. advisor. His Ph.D. advisor was Jean van Heijenoort, who was Leon Trotsky's private secretary before going into academia. Another colorful life.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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