Article - Commentary assembled and organized or written by:
Arkadiusz Jadczyk and Laura Knight-Jadczyk

The Bogdanov Singularity

"Robert Coquereaux answers an inquiry from a journalist of a leading

Dear sir,

Please find below a few answers to your questions. [Is Coquereaux's statement as published on this site correct.]

Yes, the statement that you are refering to, is correct, in the following sense: I sent a message to Arkadiusz Jadczyk, he asked me if he could post it on his web page, and I accepted. This does not mean, of course, that my reaction was "correct". This is/was nothing else than my immediate reaction to his previous mail.

How the rumors about Bogdanov got started in the first place?

Well, I heard several comments pointing to... somebody who, for reasons that have nothing to do with science, was rather allergic to the idea that the twins get a PhD. Since I do not know if this other rumor is serious or not, and since it is pretty much uninteresting, I prefer not to mention the name of this person.

My opinion is that for the last twenty years or so, there has been a deterioration in the style of expository or research papers. There are several reasons for that (see below). This does not mean that many recent papers are wrong, it means that either such papers are "not even wrong", or that they require a lot of time and efforts from behalf of the potential readers to become meaningful.

Please, understand me: it is not a problem of conceptual "difficulty". A very good paper of theoretical physics, written in a conceptually clear way, using the appropriate mathematical terminology can also be very difficult. The problem is that very often the authors will use a sloppy terminology that make their writings sound more palatable, more impressionistic, at the expense of clarity and precision.

In this sense, what was presented by the Bogdanov twins does not look worse than several other papers I saw. It may be that it is all gibberish, it may be that there are good ideas in their work, but I am sorry to say that you cannot make the difference at first glance: the only thing that I can say is that they were "badly educated" as far as writing mathematical physics is concerned. What is unfortunate is that they are far from being alone... this is not an excuse, of course, but my feeling is that the purpose of the argument is misplaced: the Bogdanov story should not be of interest for a New York Times reporter (or for the public in general) and you would have never heard of them if they were not public figures known from the french media.

The right question (and the important question) is "why is it so that the quality of the precision of style, in scientific writing, has been deteriorating along the last twenty years" ?

And this is directly related with your statement about the degree-granting process in France compared to US.

[The journalist had remarked that the story he was getting from physicists in the US was that this "event" would never have happened in the US since the degree-granting process is looser in France than it is here. ]

This statement is certainly unacceptable and pretentious. Actually, one could even pretend that the converse is true... and that the United States carries a heavy responsability in the deterioration of the style quality of scientific papers.

Indeed, the attribution of post - doc fellowships in the US system, a system that has been unfortunately copied in many countries, is a direct function of the number of papers published by a given student. In other words: You want a job in academics? Even for only two years? Then you need to publish. A lot. Moreover you need to publish in "hot topics". So you and all your friends will work, fast if possible, on the last fashion. Since you cannot expect that a young student will master, in seven or eight years of university studies, in america or elsewhere, the necessary language and culture to write something extremely deep, you will get lousy papers. And lousy theses.

Of course there are exceptions; there are still extremely bright students writing extremely bright and innovative papers in maths or in theoretical physics, but they are a minority, of course. They always were.

What has been changing, in the last twenty or thirty years is that the number of students getting a PhD has increased a lot. Not all of them are geniuses. Since the publication of one or two articles is now a rule, in most universities, for somebody to get a PhD, the number of publications in specialised journals has also increased. And for those who got a PhD and want to continue to work in academics, the need to look for a new job, as soon as they get a first post-doc somewhere, will also trigger an urge to write papers, as soon as possible.

This is particularly true in the US but also true in many national or international centers that welcome many post-docs.

Of course nobody knows how to stop this process, but it is clear that it has had a very negative influence on the average quality of scientific publications.

Maybe all this does not matter... after all, I still know how to find a good paper on the web or in a library. And it is certainly a good thing if more and more people are educated in science. But of course, do not expect that all these new doctors or post-doctors will all be deep thinkers. And since they will want to immortalize their name with some publications, do not expect these publications to be well written and revolutionary!

As for me, I just do not have time to waste to decipher the dreams of my fellow colleagues who are unable to write in precise manner (which, for a theoretical physicist, means that they should use a properly mastered mathematical terminology or at least, a well defined physical terminology). Not so many papers, or theses, meet such criteria. The choice is therefore easy.

To go back to your sentence "this would never have happened in the US". I repeat my reaction: this statement is not only extremely pretentious but it is, of course, wrong.

Yours, sincerely -- Robert Coquereaux

[Note by R.C.: The reply that was made yesterday to this science reporter express my personal point of view as a scientist. These ideas do not necessarily coincide with the views of the whole community. In particular I do not feel myself as being the voice of a particular institution. ]



You are visitor number .