Wither has the blue sky gone?

I pose this not as an answer, but as a question.  My fondest memories as a physicist date from graduate student days, and my post-doctoral years, when my colleagues and professors would spend hours on end discussing fundamental issues in an attempt to understand something about the workings of the universe.  People like John Wheeler and George Sudarshan always (almost) had their doors open.  Wheeler, who was largely responsible for resurrecting interest in Einstein’s general theory of relativity in America, never tired of talking about his favorite subject, or of the interpretation of quantum mechanics.  George Sudarshan, who probably knows more about quantum mechanics than anyone alive, regularly drew unexpected connections between the classical and quantum worlds.  My fellow students an I would discuss such matters in corridors after hours, on Saturday nights in the physics building, on walks through the parks, hoping to improve our understanding.

I no longer see this happening.  I am no longer a freshly minted PhD, and as one ages in the field, one’s focus tends to shift from research to teaching.  At my current institution, we of course have regular research seminars, but they tend to be focused on the latest observations or improvements in equipment.  Theoretical talks are mostly about new models for this or that and shed little light on fundamental principles.  In general, colleagues are so busy that one needs to make an appointment to say “good morning,” and when I do want to talk about basics, I find that I turn to a few senior physicists, who are generally retired.

I have asked one or two colleagues whether this lack of interest in fundamentals is real or my misperception and it seems I am not alone in feeling this way.  I have been told that it is due to the fact that everyone must spent half their lives writing grand proposals for “important” (i.e., trendy) topics.  I have been told that it is due to the fact that everyone spends their lives writing and answering emails.

Such responses seem a bit simplistic, but if it is true and a bunch of old fogies are not just  imagining things, then it is truly sad, for the beauty of science lies not in creating the latest MacApp, or smartphone, but in getting close to the mysterious.  When mysteries lie unperceived, curiosity, and with it science, ends.


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