Your Friday Reading: “Obscurantism”

It’s Friday afternoon! Let’s look into the archives of physics and pretend we’re still working.

In 1964, Physical Review Letters published the three cornerstone articles laying down the theory behind the Higgs boson, a proposed new fundamental particle (that would not be found by experimentalists until 2012). LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Barry Goldwater ran for president. The Beatles played Ed Sullivan.

And while all that was happening, a trend became apparent to Samuel Goudsmit, then the editor of PRL: specialized language. Not just the complex mathematics and language of physics as a discipline, but, as Goudsmit wrote, “slang expressions known to a few specialists only” and “unnecessary abbreviations.”

Now, it’s not like physics journal articles ever boasted exceptionally accessible language, but, as David Kaiser, MIT History of Science professor, argued in 2012, the “boom” of Ph.Ds beginning after World War II led to sub-fields in many disciplines, not just physics, narrowing their focus as more and more researchers joined the fray.

In 1958, six years before Goudsmit wrote this editorial, he founded PRL for short physics articles that merited a quick review process in order to get them in front of the general physics community as soon as possible. A year before this editorial was published, in 1963, the long process of splitting the mammoth Physical Review began, as the journal started publishing section A on “solid-state and atomic physics” and section B on “nuclear and high-energy physics.” (Today, there are ten separate Physical Review journals.)

But in his editorial, Goudsmit took the idea of difficult-to-read articles even further, getting to what he saw as the heart of the matter—not specialization itself, but fear:

“…there is still another reason for writing an obscure paper,” he wrote. “It is the common subconscious fear of exposing oneself to scrutiny. If a paper is too clear, it might be too easy for readers to see through it and discover its weakness.”

So every time someone tells you that physics doesn’t need to obscure itself because it’s so difficult, remember that Goudsmit himself—student of Ehrenfest, co-proposer of electron spin, editor of Phys Rev—attributed the phenomenon of obscurantism in physics to a “common psychological defect” all the way back in 1964.

Read the entirety of Goudsmit’s very short editorial here.

Read David Kasier’s study “Boom, Busts, and the World of Ideas: Enrollment Pressures and the Challenge of Specialization” here.

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