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.

Comments

  1. #1 Peter Woit
    June 1, 2011

    I’ve also read the Kaiser book (review to appear soon), here’s a few comments on your posting:

    I don’t know much about the non-academic job market for physicists, but the history of the situation in academia (where most jobs are for theorists and HEP types) is pretty simple. The 1970 recession/end of Vietnam war marked the end of a huge expansion in academic and military hiring. To a good approximation, everyone in American physics departments with a permanent job was hired in the 60s, hiring stopped in 1970, and the average age of physics faculty started marching up nearly a year every year until 2000 when these people started dying and retiring. The late 70s and early 80s were a time when high energy physics was in an intellectual golden era, but the job market was awful.

    After the early 1980s, HEP entered a much more difficult era, with very little progress. Some of the few theorists who managed to find permanent jobs took up string theory, others moved into quantum information (I’m thinking of John Preskill and Eddie Farhi for example). My impression is that this may have had a real effect on raising the visibility of quantum information science. I’m not convinced by Kaiser’s arguments that the Berkeley “hippies” had much to do with it ten years earlier.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    June 1, 2011

    After the early 1980s, HEP entered a much more difficult era, with very little progress. Some of the few theorists who managed to find permanent jobs took up string theory, others moved into quantum information (I’m thinking of John Preskill and Eddie Farhi for example). My impression is that this may have had a real effect on raising the visibility of quantum information science. I’m not convinced by Kaiser’s arguments that the Berkeley “hippies” had much to do with it ten years earlier

    I think the strongest evidence for the Hippie Hypothesis is the way things like the no-cloning theorem arose as a direct response to the Fundamental Fyziks Group’s proposals for superluminal communications and ESP. In some sense, their very hippie-ness helped, by annoying people enough to inspire detailed rebuttals.

  3. #3 Rich Y.
    June 1, 2011

    The description of run-ups in physics budgets and hiring in the 60′s and stagnation in the 70s remind me of the more recent expansion and leveling of biology funding.
    A question for someone more knowledgeable: Is this an apt comparison? I know there are currently a lot of bio grad students and postdocs from very large labs that won’t get academic jobs. Was the physics environment of the 60s and 70s particularly cutthroat for results as well as academic jobs? Or did the scale of some of the experiments (at least in nuclear, particle, and plasma subfields) require more cooperation and shape the culture differently?

  4. #4 Rich Y.
    June 1, 2011

    The description of run-ups in physics budgets and hiring in the 60′s and stagnation in the 70s remind me of the more recent expansion and leveling of biology funding.
    A question for someone more knowledgeable: Is this an apt comparison? I know there are currently a lot of bio grad students and postdocs from very large labs that won’t get academic jobs. Was the physics environment of the 60s and 70s particularly cutthroat for results as well as academic jobs? Or did the scale of some of the experiments (at least in nuclear, particle, and plasma subfields) require more cooperation and shape the culture differently?

  5. #5 Rich Y.
    June 1, 2011

    The description of run-ups in physics budgets and hiring in the 60′s and stagnation in the 70s remind me of the more recent expansion and leveling of biology funding.
    A question for someone more knowledgeable: Is this an apt comparison? I know there are currently a lot of bio grad students and postdocs from very large labs that won’t get academic jobs. Was the physics environment of the 60s and 70s particularly cutthroat for results as well as academic jobs? Or did the scale of some of the experiments (at least in nuclear, particle, and plasma subfields) require more cooperation and shape the culture differently?

  6. #6 Peter Woit
    June 1, 2011

    Chad,

    My personal experience as a student in the late 70s was that seeing Bell’s theorem promoted in the context of parapsychology and faster-than-light communication encouraged me to ignore the subject and not take it seriously as something interesting, and I doubt that I was the only one with that reaction. Kaiser does a good job of showing exactly how Nick Herbert’s claims got addressed by more mainstream physicists, and what this had to do with the no-cloning theorem. But it seems to me that if Herbert hadn’t been around, the no-cloning theorem is such a fundamental idea and obstruction to things one might try to do that it would have been discovered around the same time anyway.

    Rich Y.,

    My impression is that the field so quickly went from “any idiot could get a job” (60s) to “no one, even if really good, could get a job” (70s) that the degree of “cutthroat”-ness didn’t much change. In both environments, cutting your colleague’s throat to try and get a job wasn’t worth the effort.

  7. #7 CCPhysicist
    June 1, 2011

    I’ll avoid the “two link” problem by putting the more important link (to Part 1 of my Jobs series) in the URL that gets linked to my name. It is also linked from early in the article cited below.

    What “Part 1″ shows and elaborates on is the crash in PhD production that took place after a 1970 peak. The sharp peak in 1970 and 1971 reflects students finishing ASAP to try to snag the last jobs as the market crashed in 1969 and 1970, followed by students abandoning ABD because there were (almost literally) no faculty jobs available. I know someone who got one of only 2 jobs in the country in a particular year.

    To clarify: there were STILL jobs, they just weren’t in academia. It went from 90% academic to 95% industry in the span of a couple years. We slowly got back to the historic 30% academic ratio for physics.

    It wasn’t “stagnation” unless you mean that there were no additions or departures from the existing faculty. It was a golden age for discoveries by those who were already professors (the leaders were born in the 20s and 30s and earned a PhD in the 50s or 60s), and not bad if you got an experimental degree and wanted to spend your career working as a well-paid research staff member at a national lab. I know someone who is probably going to retire as Fermilab shuts down, but never had a chance to teach or run an independent research program.

    The ad from Physics Today that is featured in the following article nicely captures the attitudes of many from that era.

    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2008/06/jobs-part-i-update.html

    I’ll add that J*ck S*rf*tt* does fit that pre-BabyBoom group that made up most of the Hippie movement circa the SF golden years of 1966 and 1967. He was born before WW II and started grad school in 1960, but didn’t finish until 1969. Two years too late for the Great Hiring.

    PS –
    One thing you see me argue in that series of articles is that Biology is definitely repeating what happened in physics, except most bio jobs are soft-money “scientist” rather than “faculty” so even more vulnerable to what is going to happen in the next decade.

  8. #8 Sherri
    June 1, 2011

    My impression as an undergrad in early ’80s (80-84) was that the academic market for physics PhD’s has indeed crashed during the 70′s. The upside of that for me personally was that my small state school was able to hire better faculty members for its physics department than it probably otherwise would have been able to, and so rather than just being a service department for an engineering school, we had professors doing research. Since there was no graduate program, the professors used undergraduates on their research projects, so I spent my summers working on that and making trips up to Brookhaven.

    I went on to grad school in computer science, and I wasn’t alone in my generation of physics students ending up in CS.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    June 1, 2011

    Or did the scale of some of the experiments (at least in nuclear, particle, and plasma subfields) require more cooperation and shape the culture differently?

    Physics had something that biology never had, and probably never will have: the Manhattan Project. Pretty much everybody in the US who was anybody in physics worked on the Manhattan Project between 1940 and 1945, and very little other research was done. The result was a tradition of cooperation and sharing preliminary results that other fields don’t have. The people who participated in the Manhattan Project were the leaders in physics through the 1960s and 1970s, so they would have maintained that tradition. Much of that lives on in things like the arXiv preprint server.

    Peter exaggerates slightly when he says that there was essentially no hiring between 1970 and 2000. In the not-very-large department where I got my Ph.D., two assistant professors started the same year I did (both got tenure by the time I graduated), and two more were hired while I was a student. Likewise, my undergraduate alma mater’s physics department did have a few relative youngsters who would have been hired in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it is true that hiring dropped abruptly around 1970, and it showed in demographics: large numbers of people who (if still alive) would now be in their late sixties or older, not so many from late 40s to early 60s (the few who would now be in that age range stood out when I was a student; more recently some have moved from government or industry labs into academic positions), and lately, some people in their 30s and early 40s.

  10. #10 Markk
    June 2, 2011

    What Sherri said above was my experience in late 70′s early 80′s physics undergrad – really the CS area was booming big and a lot of people (including me) moved in that direction.
    My Big 10 university physics dept didn’t help by not so subtly insinuating that the academic track was the only true way to go for graduate physics. Please move to the engineering dept or elsewhere if you didn’t want to go toward tenure track academics was the very obvious position.

    I do remember that several thousand engineers also lost their jobs right before I graduated in ’82. McD-Douglas closed some plants. It was tough on the technical fields also.

  11. #11 Raima
    June 2, 2011

    Sounds like an interesting book. I haven’t read it, but maybe I should, since I was a grad student in Chemical Physics from 1976-80. My advisor was a physicist, but a member of the Chem Dept faculty, and he advised me to major in Chemistry (we could choose either Chemistry or Physics) “so I could get a job.” Since my undergrad degree was in Chemistry, it seemed sensible advice, so I followed it and, indeed, got a job, although my research interests in what we now call complex systems science never fit well within a chemistry department.

    The major influence in the Physics job market at that time, as I recall, was the loss of funding for the superconducting supercollider. Not sure if the book touches on this (I didn’t see mention of it in your review). My understanding is that many of the physicists who would have gone into HEP ended up on Wall Street as finance experts. Most people who actually got jobs in academic physics departments were doing condensed matter physics or biophysics, so it’s always amazed me that so much of the “science for the public” stuff that we see in books, etc is about cosmology and high energy particle physics when there are so many other topics that non-science people would probably find more relevant.

  12. #12 Raima
    June 2, 2011

    Sounds like an interesting book. I haven’t read it, but maybe I should, since I was a grad student in Chemical Physics from 1976-80. My advisor was a physicist, but a member of the Chem Dept faculty, and he advised me to major in Chemistry (we could choose either Chemistry or Physics) “so I could get a job.” Since my undergrad degree was in Chemistry, it seemed sensible advice, so I followed it and, indeed, got a job, although my research interests in what we now call complex systems science never fit well within a chemistry department.

    The major influence in the Physics job market at that time, as I recall, was the loss of funding for the superconducting supercollider. Not sure if the book touches on this (I didn’t see mention of it in your review). My understanding is that many of the physicists who would have gone into HEP ended up on Wall Street as finance experts. Most people who actually got jobs in academic physics departments were doing condensed matter physics or biophysics, so it’s always amazed me that so much of the “science for the public” stuff that we see in books, etc is about cosmology and high energy particle physics when there are so many other topics that non-science people would probably find more relevant.

  13. #13 Lord Phat
    June 2, 2011

    Another interesting fact is the bust in physics hiring in the 1970s coincidentally corresponded with the rise of quantitative finance on Wall Street and many who could not find academic appointments migrated there to begin the tradition of financial engineering.

    Another big shot in the arm to Wall Street was when the Super Collider in TX was cancelled. I am sure the bioinformatics whizzes can find a lot of opportunities in data mining, actuarial science, etc. if that field’s hiring tapers off.

  14. #14 Rich Y.
    June 2, 2011

    Whoa. Just saw the multiple posts. I was having some problem with allowing javascript, but I didn’t think I hit it more than once. My apologies.

  15. #15 AcademicLurker
    June 2, 2011

    One thing you see me argue in that series of articles is that Biology is definitely repeating what happened in physics, except most bio jobs are soft-money “scientist” rather than “faculty” so even more vulnerable to what is going to happen in the next decade.

    As others have mentioned, my impression from those who were around at the time is that the transition from boom to bust in physics was much more abrupt than it’s been in the biosciences. And yes, “soft money” has a great deal to do with that. It enabled Med. Schools to continue to expand far past the point where they could afford it. The crash is in the process of happening now I think.

  16. #16 nick herbert
    June 15, 2011

    “But it seems to me that if Herbert hadn’t been around, the no-cloning theorem is such a fundamental idea and obstruction to things one might try to do that it would have been discovered around the same time anyway.”–Rich Y.

    Bell’s Theorem could have been discovered by Schrödinger; it’s so obvious–after the fact. Without Nick Herbert, the no-cloning rule would also have (eventually) been derived by some clever chap. But without Nick Herbert the world would never have been able to experience this (http://tiny.cc/URGE).

  17. #17 kmarinas86
    June 22, 2011

    “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.”

    That seems to be right.

    Today we have a similar problem. It’s not just the decline of science in my country, but that of engineering. The United States has a ballooning private bureaucracy as it is hard to innovate fast enough to compete against cheaper, and increasingly more educated, workers outside the United States. So most of the innovative minds in our country create financial cocktails, such as derivatives, because it is easier for these minds to “game” the system than it is for them to live at third-world wages where they would compete on the same level as a blue-collar worker in a Chinese factory.

    We have suburbs and fancy city apartments to maintain, so reducing our wages to competitive levels would be tantamount to forcing many Americans (especially recent graduates) into tenement housing and/or living with family. Ironically, that would do nothing to solve the country’s overall economic mess as the rest of the infrastructure would have to be purchased -and occupied- by immigrants to be maintained, which would only serve enrich the owners of foreclosed homes (seem familiar?). As a consequence, our wages are in essence subsidized by a loose monetary policy. Entire business modalities are often “justified” by such policy, most notably in the financial center known as Wall Street.

    Furthermore, there is now less economic drive than before to expand much beyond the United States’ current level of in-border, labor-tied productive capacity per capita. In a vain attempt to remain “solvent”, my country appropriates for itself the resources of other countries. Note that the United States is not the only country which does this.

    More university graduations in the U.S. seem to be in the area of Business Administration or in heavily subsidized areas such as transportation, energy, food, healthcare, and education, which have little export value (food) or negative export value (energy) for this country given its situation.

    This diversion from science and engineering to business is evident to me personally. I would have likely have stayed to an area of science, such as computer science, physics, or biology, had I not been lured into accounting. (It was often said to me by relatives and their friends that it is not hard to find a job in accounting.) That was then, and this is now. Now I have a B.B.A. in Accounting with a very unpromising GPA and a bad economy. To have any luck with my degree, I will have to do my own studies to pass the CPA exam because I cannot afford any more classes at this time.

    At least I can say that am more “well-rounded” as a business graduate than I would have been as a science graduate. This is, however, at the expense of having good formal credentials relative to other students of my same class. Now I am a self-didactic, multidisciplinary who works for minimum wage at a grocery store. I hope it turns out well though.

  18. #18 Andrew
    June 23, 2011

    In arXiv:0708.1917 John Schwarz does say that the job market for theoretical physicists was very bad in 1972.

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