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I've seen this used to explain the odd dovetailing of research and lecturing.

There was a point where this made inherent sense - no one but research experts could educate new students, and students were attempting to quickly reach the state of the art. That's long past - a complex analysis expert with no training in education is a terrible candidate to teach basic multivariable calculus.

And yet the whole thing makes a sick sort of sense, because paying and tenuring a professor to teach classes justifies their presence without demanding publications. They'll muddle through intro classes without causing any real problems, and can go back to being brilliant on no particular schedule in between lectures.

Or, on the flip side, set up something like the Institute for Advanced Study. It only took already-proven brilliance, so it could justify paying people for years without any breakthroughs to justify it.

"When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don't get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!"

Richard Feynman, "The Dignified Professor"


This is absolutely a risk. I was thinking of Feynman when I brought it up, thanks for finding the quote!

The tenure-and-teaching model is a better one than it was ever given credit for; the seemingly irrational connection between elementary teaching and cutting-edge research has been a powerful one.

Even so, I think the IAS model is better than a lot of what we're seeing today. Now, introductory classes have been offloaded onto (poorly paid) lecturers, and professors are expected to publish consistently, even without funding. The results are hideous: not just inaction but counter-productive action.

The replication crisis is, to a real degree, a function of this paradigm. "No results" is not an acceptable justification for "no publications", so we see people using statistical trickery that has been bad practice for decades to keep up their publication count. I'd really like to see them go back to teaching and researching, but even a movement to sinecures that don't demand any results at all would be progress.

This doesn't really describe life at the IAS. Maybe in Feynman's day, but it wasn't my experience. If you're at IAS, you're continually surrounded by lots of very bright people who are trying to solve problems and understand things. Lots of conferences, lots of visitors. There's always someone to talk to or something new to learn. It's probably the most stimulative environment I've ever encountered.

Ideas that generate a breakthrough are the exception not the rule. Sometimes, like in the case of Einstein all the ideas appear in one or two years and then nothing else. Newton with Calculus was another leap.

Expecting ideas to appear, no matter what you do, is not a good idea. One difficulty is that is very difficult to estimate the probability of rare events. Perhaps having more free time can increase the probability of having new deep ideas, but that is not easy to measure. Furthermore, another key ingredient is communication with people full of energy, like P. Erdos, perhap some people can generate a hub of ideas.

Edit: Added A little more of money in the table not in the hands of political but directed to those that can do real research is a real innovation.

Einstein spent ~8 years developing general relativity. Certainly not "all the ideas in one or two years".

I think this is half-true. There's historically been a lot of cross-pollination between IAS and Princeton, which has resulted in some spectacular achievements such as the first electronic computer(the IAS machine; built a little bit after Feynman left I believe). IAS also has a lot of scholars who are working "remotely" at other institutions/colleges iirc. My general impression is that while there are a lot of slackers, there are also some really active and committed researchers, much like the rest of academia, so I'm not sure if we can reject the null hypothesis here so quickly.

He sounds bitter.

Not so - he turned down the IAS long before writing that!

The full context there is that he spent a semester exempt from teaching to have more time for research. He produced very little and was deeply embarrassed, until he eventually realized that many of his insights came from rehearsing fundamentals and talking to people in other subfields.

So he returned to teaching, and when the IAS came knocking he refused on the grounds that it was the worst environment for him to work. Certainly I think he's overgeneralizing (the IAS has seen some pretty good results since that time), but this wasn't about jealousy!

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