One of the interesting things about reading David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics was that it paints a very different picture of physics in the mid-1970′s than what you usually see. Kaiser describes it as a very dark time for young physicists, career-wise. He doesn’t go all that deeply into the facts and figures in the book, but there’s plenty of quantitative evidence for this. The claim of the book is that this created a situation in which many younger physicists were pushed to the margins, and thus began to work on marginal topics like quantum foundations, which thus began be be dragged back into the mainstream of physics.
The interesting thing about this is that it’s starkly different from the way physics history is often described. I’ve read a whole bunch of popular-audience books about physics in the last several years, most of them with a particle physics slant, and there, the 1970′s are almost always depicted as a sort of golden age– the third-generation particles began to be discovered, electroweak unification was worked out and the pieces of the Standard Model all fell into place. The W and Z bosons were discovered in the early 1980′s, bringing to a close the real glory days of theoretical particle physics. Everything since then has been just wandering in the wilderness, with lots of grand ideas that just haven’t panned out.
It’s an interesting contrast, and a nice reminder (as if one were needed) that theoretical particle physics is not and never has been the whole of physics. The fact that the same rough time period that is usually presented as a golden age for one subfield was actually part of a gigantic crash for the field as a whole.
It also makes me wonder a bit if there is any kind of causal link between the job crash, the peaking of particle theory, and the rise of other fields of physics. That is, if the increase in the number of really smart people thinking about foundational issues in low-energy quantum physics had to do with the until-then relentless forward march of particle theory breaking up as well as the general difficulty of finding a job. If all the good ideas in high-energy theory started to dry up, some of the changes in emphasis could also be related to people shifting to more tractable problems.
I suspect this isn’t really a major factor– very few of the people who made significant advances in fundamental quantum mechanics at this time seem to be frustrated particle theorists. They either come from other subfields like AMO physics (John Clauser’s day job was as a postdoc with Charles Townes, Alain Aspect came from an AMO background), or were part of John Wheeler’s always idiosyncratic research program. But it’s something that occurred to me, and it would be interesting to see not only the change in the total number of Ph.D.’s and jobs but the distribution of those degrees and jobs among subfields of physics.
On a vaguely related note, another thing that occurred to me was that some of the change in the job market might’ve been a shift from science to engineering. That is, after the 1960′s or so, the technological basis for a lot of the things we were spending money on stopped changing quite so rapidly. Once integrated circuits took over, technological advancements were less about making new fundamental breakthroughs than making refinements in the operation of existing technologies– in other words, they shifted from being the sort of thing you need academic physicists for to the sort of thing you need professional engineers for.
I’m not sure whether this is a real factor or not– I suspect that a lot of the cash flow changes were a real overall decrease int he amount of money put into new science and technology, and that any disciplinary shift was just a perturbation on top of that. But again, it’s interesting to think about, partly because it fits with a lot of physics lore about the job market back when I was starting grad school. A lot of physicists in the early 1990′s attributed part of the poor job market for physics graduates to the rise of specialist engineering programs. The claim was that companies doing technological development used to hire physics graduates all the time to do engineering work, on the theory that anybody who could get a degree in physics could pick up, say, optical systems engineering on the job; once there started to be significant numbers of engineering majors with specific experience in optical systems, they started getting hired ahead of the physicists, because why hire a generalist who you have to train on the job when you can hire somebody with specialist training in what you want them to do? It’s not clear to me whether this was actually true or just a consolatory myth invented by unemployed physicists; it would be interesting to see if there are any numbers to bear this out.
Anyway, those are a couple of additional issues that occurred to me while I was reading the book. I know I have at least a few readers whose careers encompass the early 1980′s; any recollections people may have of what was going on in the discipline(s) at that time would be most welcome in the comments.