A Community Living Up to Its Name

August 13, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director

Last-day thoughts from the AMS Summer Community Meeting this week. From a post in the AMS project, Living On the Real World

The term “community” shouldn’t be applied to any enterprise cheaply; there should be a high bar.  Dictionary.com gives several definitions for “community.” The third of these is most pertinent here:

“a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.” [italics in the original]

Coming across that last phrase was a pleasant surprise; it’s been with me since ninth grade. Then I was a student at Wilkins Township Junior High, just outside Pittsburgh. (The school was kind of tough and my ambition was to graduate with all my teeth, but that’s another story.) Our science course that year focused on the weather. The course made an impression on me that lasted over half a century. In part this was because the Earth sciences became my career, but in addition there were two other reasons. First, our teacher, though she was nominally the science teacher, was uncomfortable with science. (This was before the AMS started its Education Program; today’s science teachers have no excuse!). So, our textbook notwithstanding, we spent the entire semester (!!!) on weather superstitions/folklore…”mares’ tails make lofty ships carry low sails,” etc. The semester seemed to me to drag on forever; I’m sure she felt the same way. Second, the opening page of that textbook stated, and I quote, from memory, “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” As the son of a scientist, even then the thought inspired me. I wanted to be part of such a community.

In college I majored in physics, and then entered graduate studies at the University of Chicago. I started out at the Institute for the Study of Metals. But there, and then, competition, not cooperation, was the word. It was dog eat dog. The field seemed over-populated. A lot of people were working on the same problem (the de Haas-van Alphen effect, which had been around about 35 years), not sharing progress but keeping results to themselves, etc. After one year, I transferred to the Department of Geophysical Sciences after a year. What a breath of fresh air! There were more than enough problems to go around. Nobody was going to win a Nobel Prize. Growing rich was not in prospect; the geophysical scientists had all taken vows of poverty. As a result, or maybe because the field attracted cooperative types, we all got along! The contrast with physics was palpable.

Today we can all feel more privileged than ever to be part of this community.