The usefulness of a degree depends on what field one is working on. In the Software arena, smart kids out of high school can do a lot if college is not holding them back. But try to start a laser / semiconductor / biotech company with high school kids if you dare ;-)
One might not need a degree to be a good software entrepreneur, but there are many other entrepreneurs who don't live in the software world. Sure, HN is focused on software, but it seems to me that it's irresponsible to promote the idea that all that entrepreneurs need is passion and hard-work. Necessary but not sufficient.
Exactly. We've inadvertently created a culture that rewards extremely shallow achievements. Thirty years ago, brilliant 20-somethings wanted to send men to Mars and build super-colliders. Today, the smartest college kids are trying to build social networks for dogs.
Frankly, that's not a trend worth celebrating. A society where an advanced education isn't an economic advantage is a society going the wrong way.
You could just as easily argue that thirty years ago (I was actually around then and old enough to be paying attention), technical people just wanted safe jobs solving circumscribed problems for large organizations.
The truth is that, all other things being equal, each generation of people is roughly equally ambitious. Past generations weren't golden ages compared to the present, or vice versa.
I agree that people are probably as ambitious as they were decades ago on an individual basis, but that doesn't mean that their goals have stayed the same over time. Even in the last decade, there's been a massive shift of technical talent toward entertainment technology, whereas it's getting harder and harder to find R&D jobs in physics, chemistry, biology and computer science.
There are always a few companies doing interesting technical work, but if the number of under-employed PhDs I know is any indication, the fraction of companies doing R&D is pretty darned small, and getting smaller every year. It's much easier for a PhD in Physics to get a job as a sysadmin at a web startup than it is for her to get a job in her field. I think that's sad.
IMO, there is value to understanding the limitations to existing technology before you start doing basic research.
"The Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes finds that mercury loses its electrical resistance at temperatures near absolute zero. This low temperature effect is observed in other materials as well."
That takes advanced equipment to reduce things to that temperature, an expectation that resistance is effected by temperature, and an formula that works at higher temperatures to notice the discontinuity.
PS: Consider all the benefits high speed computing has provided when designing aircraft. You need a lot of wind tunnel / real world tests to build a model, but with that model and lot's of computing power you can design aircraft out to the limits of your simulation. At which point you need to collect more data.
Do you have any evidence for this massive shift toward entertainment?
Surely there are more research jobs in biology than there were 30 years ago, considering biotech was mostly invented in the intervening period.
There's plenty of evidence of a shift toward entertainment. Look at the big startup successes of the last decade: Google, Myspace, Facebook, Friendster, YouTube, Blogger, Flickr, Digg, Bebo, etc. Save Google, nearly every major success story has been an entertainment/media play. In fact, I don't see this argument as particularly surprising or controversial, given that the web has been the dominant technology of the last two decades, and that the web has always been about media.
I think we both agree that personal ambition is pretty much constant over time. My argument is that if that's the case, then it's not reasonable to argue that people preferentially sought out "safe" jobs three decades ago. Smart, ambitious people have always sought out the opportunities that make them most successful; today those opportunities are clustered in industries that reward ephemera.
Unless they want to not publicize it, to avoid anti-patent sentiment? e.g. two TechCrunch comments:
Could you tell them to publish the papers or the notes please?
As useful as sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are (not to pick on any of them), their achievements are nothing compared to putting people in space, designing planes like the Dreamliner and the A380. or even the engineering that went into the Chunnel.
The Facebook team's accomplishment may be much smaller than putting people on the moon, but the size of their team (and partners) and their budget isn't comparable either.
I say an accomplishment of X value by spending Y resources is equivalent to one of 100X value by spending 100Y resources (numbers and proportions unrelated to facebook VS moon example).
Without an education, you might still have a marketable skill, but people have to take your word for it.
Personally, I don't have a university degree. I do have a marketable skillset, but it's up to me to prove it, and through a bit of luck I'm in a pretty good position. But it's certainly not a path I would recommend others to travel, you leave too much to chance.
And while I'm on the subject, Sergey Brin also still has a Stanford web page (http://infolab.stanford.edu/~sergey/), which helpfully informs us that "Currently I am at Google."
Could it possible that these are really people who dropped out after studying for a few years having learnt what they can or realised what they cannot learn rather than people who never went to college.
This is a big difference.