Karl Polanyi, Classical Liberalism, and the Varieties of "Neoliberalism": Hoisted from the Archives

Should-Read: From 20 years ago... Cosma Shalizi (1997): Review of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Jacques Badoz: Fragile Objects: "Soft Matter, Hard Science, and the Thrill of Discovery... http://bactra.org/reviews/fragile-objects/

...The third, and to my mind the most interesting part, contains de Gennes's views on science education in France (dismal), and what should be done to improve it (lots):

When I welcome a freshman class at our Institute of Physics and Chemistry, I insist on concepts that most math majors are not at all familiar with.... This 'reeducation' phase takes a minimum of two years. I am constantly astounded by how little common sense recently degreed engineers have...

If de Gennes is to be believed, it is perfectly possible to obtain a physics degree in France having only the barest acquaintance with the inside of a laboratory, and no idea of how to do simple quantitative estimates or even Fermi problems—but be letter-perfect in the properties of self-adjoint matrices. (His story of a Polytechnic graduate who, when faced with a perfectly straight-forward back-of-the-envelope problem, was reduced to crying, "But, sir, what Hamiltonian should I diagonalize?" is one I will use on my own students.)

De Gennes blames the lingering influence of Auguste Comte, and, much more plausibly, the excessive importance of entrance examinations (which test, essentially, math), the conservatism and insularity of academic departments, especially at universities, and the unwillingness of French students (particularly those who have gotten into the better schools) to exert themselves or sully their hands. Prior to reading Fragile Objects, I hadn't thought that it was possible to do much worse at teaching than American physics departments; I am happy to see I was wrong...


Cosma Shalizi (1997): A Straight-forward Problem: "Due to popular demand, here is the problem (pp. 155-6)... http://bactra.org/reviews/fragile-objects/problem.html

...An example comes to mind, of some graduates of the Polytechnic School of Paris attending an advanced program at Orsay to learn solid-state physics. They would often show up convinced they knew everything on the basis of calculations. On their final exam, I would give them a problem of the following type:

Imagine a thin, evaporated metal film, like lead, 1 micron in thickness. A cosmic ray with an energy of 10 MeV traverses the film, which is held at a temperature of 4 kelvins. A voltmeter is connected between the edges of the film. What are the amplitude and duration of the resistance pulse that can be measured across that film? Is it possible to use this design to build a simple cosmic ray detector?

The student would go off and think about the problem for an hour in front of a blackboard. The solution was rather elementary at this level of studies. One starts by considering collisions between charged particles to evaluate how much energy a fast proton of the cosmic ray gives up to the electrons of the lead film; this determines the energy input. To specify how the energy involved diffuses, I would add: "This lead film contains 1 percent impurities", which, the student should know, implies that an electron travels about 100 times the distance between lead atoms before it gives up the energy it acquired when it was hit by the cosmic ray. Two or three general concepts of this kind are all that are needed to predict the amplitude and the duration of the thermal pulse. But the typical Polytechnic graduate I inherited at the time would remain stumped in front of his bare blackboard. One of them finally blurted out (I will never forget his comment!): "But, sir, what Hamiltonian should I diagonalize?" He was trying to hang on to theoretical ideas which had no connection whatsoever with this practical problem. This kind of answer explains, in large part, the weakness of French industrial research...