28 September 2014

The fear of breakthroughs

text of a letter to an academic

I remember that you once asked me why schools, even the Ursuline convent school, wanted me to do maths in preference to physics, which is what I wanted to do. I said, “I don’t know. It was crazy.”

But actually, although none of the rationalisations which were expressed or hinted at held water, it seems clear that everyone was afraid of my doing research in an area where I might easily find out something fundamentally groundbreaking.

Albert Einstein
in 1921
Theoretical physics bought you up against the inadequacy of the current set of concepts about the physical world, and that was why I wanted to do it. I felt a little like Einstein when he said:
We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which the books are written. *
When I was attending the Ursuline school, aged about eleven, my father thought it was now appropriate to ask me what I wanted to do in life. I replied without hesitation, “I am going to be a physicist and do research.” My father looked a bit shocked but also, as his initial reaction, impressed. But later I found that both he and everyone else opposed my doing physics. In fact, there was opposition to everything that I did want to do, including getting more degrees than other people, and doing so at an earlier age. So there was not only opposition to my doing research in physics, but to all my ideas for working towards that end result.

However, it is now seems likely that what underlay all the rationalisations, which were supposed to justify making me do something I did not want to do, was an absolute fear of the breakthroughs which I might make, in view of my lack of inhibitions. The same thing has also been true of my attempts to start doing research in the areas associated with perception and hallucination, in which I opened up what could have been new areas of research, operating with extremely limited resources.

In fact, everyone all along has been afraid of my doing any research at all, and actually quite rightly so. As I am uninhibited in considering possibilities, I certainly would have made at least a few breakthroughs, if I had not been prevented from doing anything at all.

It is still true that I would make progress very rapidly in either physics or the psychology of perception, if not kept rigorously starved of financial support.

* quoted in Denis Brian, Einstein: A Life, John Wiley, 1996.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.