gino_segre's picture
Professor of Physics & Astronomy, University of Pennsylvania; Author, The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age
Are We Becoming Too Connected?

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the World-Wide-Web (WWW) coming into full existence. It was created at CERN, home of the world's largest particle accelerator in response to the needs of large groups of experimenters scattered around the globe. They wanted a way to quickly and efficiently share data and analyses. WWW provided them with the tool. That model has been replicated over and over again. Our understanding of genetics, bolstered by international consortia of sequencers, is yet another example of this phenomenon.

The benefits of increased technological connectivity are so clear and appreciated that I need not make any further effort to describe the gains. Rather let me consider what might be negative impacts of being so well connected.

I do so at the risk of sounding like one of those crotchety old guys whose every other sentence starts with In my day, we used to do things differently ….., Let me therefore make the disclaimer that I am not trying to vent my irritation at seeing the young texting their friends while I impart my so-called wisdom to them or at the disconcerting effect of all too often being surrounded by individuals continually checking their iPhones for messages. Those are trivial annoyances and in any case have nothing to do with the argument at hand.

The issue of the threat of increased technological connectivity is not inconsequential. Potential losses that follow from it can be seen in the broader context of the perils posed by the lack of diversity following from homogenization of world culture and the dangers this poses for human evolution. But, though sweeping syntheses of this sort can be drawn, I will limit myself to a few speculations regarding progress in science. In doing so I almost entirely ask questions rather than, unfortunately, provide answers.

At a very basic level, this has played out in academics in the matter of junior faculty appointments. A postdoctoral fellow now needs to have numerous publications and, since the number of times he or she has been cited by other publications is part of the dossier, the momentum for publishing often and visibly is hard to resist. But is it productive of thoughtful or even innovative science? In efforts to join the club, these efforts may be compromised.

And how likely are you to be promoted if you have not gone forward in lockstep, following the golden path that leads to more publications, more citations and the all too precious grants? Or if you step out of the mainstream and take the less trodden path, are you more likely to come to a career dead end?

I am by no means advocating isolation, but it is overwhelming to see on my computer every morning the list with synopses of all the high-energy physics preprints submitted the day before. They appear complete with routing for access in PDF and alternative formats. Does this run the risk of producing a herd mentality? Submit now before you are scooped and it becomes too late! Can we imagine incidents when such pressure is unproductive? Does it encourage groupthink?

A somewhat oblique comparison may be made to the way a budding scientist presently acquires information. The computer is the quick, easy and efficient way of doing so, but the earlier stumbling through science journals in the library had its advantages. Though it did lead down many blind alleys, it was also a way of picking up and storing odd bits of information that might stimulate the wanderer in unforeseen ways.

Are we discouraging the oddball, the maverick or simply the individual who wants to let a wild idea rumble around his or her mind for a while? Let's not go one more time into the story of Einstein toiling away unknown in a patent office, but consider the more mundane case of Max Delbruck. He was the son of a Berlin professor, earned his physics doctorate under Max Born and was a postdoctoral fellow in Niels Bohr's Copenhagen Institute, at the time when this was the straight and narrow path to success as a theoretical physicist. But at age 26 he opted to begin studying connections to biology. This eventually led to his investigating how viruses replicate, a system that he hoped would become his hydrogen atom. His first faculty appointment did not come until he was forty. It was Vanderbilt University offering him an assistant professorship, hardly one's dream of a rapid rise through the ranks. But the work that he had already done would earn him the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology twenty years later.

It was never easy, but is it harder nowadays for a Delbruck to survive?

I believe the desire to make an unforeseen offbeat discovery is an integral part of what draws anyone to become a scientist and to persist in the quest. As is true in other walks of life, demands to conform intervene. It would be naïve to discount the struggle to obtain funds and the increasingly weighty burden that they impose as research grows more expensive. But that is yet another facet of the scientific life.

However, coming back to our original message, isn't it possible that increased technological connectivity has subtle negative effects that should be considered at the same time as we praise the gains it has offered us? As the march of science goes forward, perhaps we should heed a few warning signs along the road.