How to be a scientific dilettante

I have worked in a lot of disparate fields from plasma physics, to nonlinear dynamics, to posture control, to neuroscience, to inflammation, to obesity, to gene transcription, and population genetics. I have had a lot of fun doing this but I definitely do not recommend it as a career path for a young person. I may have gotten away with it but I was really lucky and it certainly carried a cost. First of all, by working in so many fields, I definitely lack the deep knowledge that specialists have. Thus, I don’t always see the big picture and am often a step behind others. Secondly, while I am pretty well cited, my citations are diluted over multiple fields. Thus, while my total H index (number of papers where number of citations exceeds rank) is pretty decent, my H index in each given field is relatively small. I thus do not have much impact in any given area. To be taken seriously as a scientist, one must be a world expert in something. The system is highly nonlinear; being pretty good in a lot of things is much worse than being really good in one thing. There is a threshold for relevance and if you don’t cross it then it is like you don’t exist.

However, if you do want to work in a lot of fields, the worse thing to do is to say, “Hey I really find field X to be interesting so I’m just going to read some books and papers on it and try to do something.” I have reviewed quite a few papers, where some mathematician or physicist has read some popular science book or newspaper article on the topic and then tried to publish a paper on a problem mentioned in the book. I then have to tell them to read up on four decades of previous work first, and then resubmit. The way I have managed to meander through multiple fields is that someone will either contact me directly about some specific question or mention something to me either in a casual setting or at a conference. I could not possibly have made any progress at all if I didn’t have great collaborators who really knew the field and the literature. Still, people constantly ask me if I still work in neuroscience, to which I can only respond “Just because you don’t cite me doesn’t mean I don’t publish!”



3 thoughts on “How to be a scientific dilettante

  1. I have recently started a PhD program at an elite university (my own)—-it has the same suffix as fields like psychology, biology, physiology—but its called Dilletant(autot)ology. We train students for future careers by showing them how to rigorously prove everything, and nothing too. See ‘factcheck’, 538 (nate silver), and even better ‘replicated typo’ linguistics blog. Some are now respected members of the Trump Administration. Qualified candidates will need an undergrad degree similar to pre-med, but called Pro-cras(s)-ti-nation. You have to be pro, and for the nation (unlike some political theorists like Kropotkin–see ‘darwin’s cathedral’–by D S Wilson (nemesis of R Dawkins—see ‘false allure of group selection’ by S Pinker on edge magazine online.. (John Pepper of SFI and NIH writes on this too). (I almost applied to D S Wilson’s program –but he had only 1 spot and likely a better candidate so even though i went up to Binghampton , stayed with him, aslo met Dugatkin (cooperation in guppies) i decided my GED scores were too low and i could use the 50$ application fee in a better way).

    Our current research agenda is deriving the H index from Boltzmann’s H theorem using information geometry.
    Another power law. . (Use logarithmic utility and apply maxEnt. see wayne badger (syracuse u) ‘mathematical methods in social sciences i think edited by Bruce J West, now with DoD, and with Scafetta (Duke—he has his own journal now since they refuse to publish his n-th order polynomial epicycles fitting the hockey stick) a sortuh big global warming denier, author of ‘an essay on the importance of being nonlinear’–fills in the cracks..

    for people into applications we have an endangered species project—-our group is trying to sustain the last populations of mcdonald’s restaurants,

    Issues with citations are not uncommon. See “is the moon there when nobody looks’ by david mermin.


  2. For some addiitional excess verbiage (some additive processes, as in genetics, may end up with something—typing monkees may eventually get shakespear, wikiipeida, etc. after awhile) as a nonacademic and total dilletant (or one could say scattered, or with HDAD who finds listening to lectures like being in a cage) I do wonder how one determines what an optimal recipe might be for creating a scientific product.

    (people think about this too for pop music—what ingrediants do you use to make a hit single? some people have formulas—you can hear the results on NPR. one thing they said is that in the last 20 years people have started using many more minor chords than major—-.though that is not true on NPR’s selected musicians (they play elevator music, or waht is played in starbucks or walmart. i play like 90% minor chords. there is a small niche market for this, perhaps like organic food. )

    (For nonadditive, nonlinear processes there is very general theory—on my philosophy list, discussing today’s topic—is there meaning in coincidence?–i mentioned karl jung and wolfgang pauli (who proved the answer is ‘yes’, tho it could be ‘no’, since we may not know what we dont know —Saint Cheney)—according to Pablo Parillo of MIT (third ranked after my university and UDC based on graduation, employment and erdos number–mine has 100% of 0 =1/infinity) — ‘the theory of nonlinear systems, is like the theory of non-elephants’. For purposes of tractability, one starts with a linear system eg a quasipotential a la Hermann Haken) , and assume at first everything is an elephant, though different schools or tribes prefer spherical cows, or classical or indistinguishable particles, and build fermions out of bosons (Paul Werbos); this was already done for solitons).

    On The FOM list (foundations of math—martin davis of hilbert’s 10th problem) they were discussing a research program based on Wigner’s ‘unreasonable effectiveness of math’. The idea seems to be to sort of generate every possible theorem and/or proof, and then use some criteria to decide which of them pass the Occam’z razor (not Peter Tosh’s) test to see which is ‘most probably true’. (I tired something like this once—classifying RNA secondary structures using information theory to see which one might be translated into proteins or ‘made sense’. Which configuration makes the cut? In the microcanonical ensemble every configuration or real number has same status, but as Orwell put it all animals (or numbers) are equal, but some are more equal than others. ‘You probably wont get in the most probable distribution’. Schrodinger makes a similar point in his book What is Life?’ about quantum states. Not all states may be stable–sudan, bosnia, the EU, belgium (flemish vs french) even USA—civil war, ‘independent states of texas , new hampshire, cascadia and alaska; syria rejects rojava’s independence movement —they use murray bookchin’s form of politics)..

    I skim and glance at ‘everything’ or a biased sample. I can’t really tell what makes sense. Often academia seems split into tribes—some even create their own journals which almost creates another world. (eg H Daly of U Md created ‘ecological economics’ journal, N Scafetta has one to promote his own theory of solar or sunspot induced climate change—he does know how to fit curves with polynomials, there is also the ‘electronic journal of theoretical physics’—i’ve met one editor who is at Howard U—and looks ‘cranky’ but Hagen Kleinert of path integrals, quasicrystals, and ‘world crystal’ (his own TOE—which seems similar conceptually to Cahill’s (australia) ‘process physics’—widely debunked on arxiv; R F Streater debunked R Frieden’s ‘physics from information theory’—i saw alot of those papers in PRE -and Frieden still publishes. ) Perimeter Institute (lee smolin-LQG) host a christian–‘joy christian—who has sort of hidden variable theory based on clifford algebras-which is m ostly disputed. They also hosted the ‘surfer physicist’ from Hawaii who has his E8 TOE. Lubos Motl has a blog (ex of Harvard, now a right wing czech–my families best friends had czech holocaust survivors in their family–they went to CMU and UC together on gi bill).

    Another Christian i met yesterday—he works at Food and Water Watch in downtown dc (environment group—i volunteered to sort of see if their web site was ‘user friendly’. I actually thought his name was christiane–so i expected awomyn. Turns out he’s an asian descent male. woops!!! I’d been up all nite–saw 5 HC punk bands and then visitors showed up at my place–i let em crash here. . They are big on anti-GMO foods, or at least labeling, overturning Citizen’s United (money in politics), etc. They also knew my issues tend to be closer to things like fracking and coal—mountaintop removal–since i have spent alot of time in these areas. I’m in the blair mountain march in 2011 —us against Don Blankenship and Massey energy. I went since i support the cause, but also for the hike and to see the area (it was a 6 day hike—my job was to do security—i climbed up the mountains with a cell phone and was told to call if i saw any dangerous people arriving—they only came usually at nite when i was already down). I showed them also John Entine’s ‘geneticliteracyproject’ (has ties to Mercatus, GMU, Koch, and Mansanto). Similar competing opinions exist about ’roundup ready’ presticides, monarch butterflys–i only saw 2 last summer—honeybees, frogs etc.If i went back to W Va (or even alska where i also live near the yukon river) and was adequately equipped i’d probably never go into a city ever again. (in alaska one could even order books from U Alaska Faribanks and they’d bring them by plane to the nearest town—Eagle (see john mcphee coming into the country). it was 6 miles from my cabin (people told where an abandoned one was). i used to walk up to eagle, get a cup of coffee and come back. they called a plane on me one time when there was an early cold snap and i was out hiking—alot of snow, -25 below in september—i stayed put for a week , saw the plane, and then walked back maybe 10 miles. they tried to charge me for the rescue.

    So, who is correct? What do you read? (When i was a student stuff i sometimes mentioned were ‘many worlds theory’, ‘group selection’ synergetics–haken’, vaxjo interpretation of quantum mechanics (swedwen), EPR, prigogine, even robert rosen and rashevsky ofBull Math Bioscis’; efven SFI. i was told ‘don’t go there’.

    also, i hear a large fraction of people in academia are now basically part-time. A form of the ‘gig economy’. So some say don’t bother with student debt since you may have difficulty paying it off. Also via MOOCs half of this stuff is basically free, you can learn it yourself, etc. So you are basically buying a credential and getting a CV (i’ve read quite a few PhD thesis— i should have got one in philosophy, american studies, communications etc so then i could have qualifications and get a job hosting a CSPAN talk show).

    I once talked with U md faculty about geting a grad degree in math education. (I also talked with Lars Svenious –priority method in logic—he died at 83 in 2010—his son is famous in the DC punk rock scene, but i was from a different tribe of music– eg 9353 ‘famous last words’ on youtube, or ‘spooky room’ at 930 club. (maybe half of those band members are dead; i think even mozart died young). . I had a rough version of my curriculum–it included cantor’s theorem, turing on symmetry breaking, goodwin on economics, slutsky-yule on spurious correlations, feynman (from his lectures) on quantum theory and stat mech, ashort intro to godels’s theorem.. They told me ‘we dont do it that way’. They train people to write ‘killer apps’—how to find the closest dentist or restaurant, pay bills on line.

    see also ‘calling a spade a spade’ —its on arxiv, no citations. alexandre borovic .its also on his blog ‘mathematics under the microscope’ (and i commented on it tho he didnt respond except saying those are good questions— i pointed out a spade is a shovel and cited V I Arnold (KAM) and ‘lockhard’s lament’ or ‘a mathematicians lament’ published in notices of AMS in 2013 perhaps. He has an intro by Keith Devlin—NPR’s house Stanford mathemcian who’se MOOC i took (as did my niece at MIT) . i only took the exams and got a c– i couldnt even remember which symbol stood for conjunction versus disjunction (basic boolean algebra–one is an upised down hat, the other is the reverse. so i alternated conventions.) borovics paper on arxiv number 1405 1954 v3 discusses jobs and math. i see my niece and sudtents are all doing python, automated theorem proving, etc. I have a few papers i co-wrote with einstein, weinberg, goerge w bush, s hawking, ronald reagen etc using either the postmodern paper generator or one from MIT in computer science. (in my comment on the borovic blog i did make a comment about his funding from john f tmpleton foundation—they fund tegmark , boyd and richerson (classic book—culture and the evolutionary process 1985), and many others as well as ‘spiritual capitalism’.


  3. Well it looks like you are having fun being a scientific dilettante – totally agree with the thesis though. Great posts.


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