After my sixth visit to a university town in Europe, I decided that I had had enough. My hosts kept putting me in a small hotel room where I would bump my head against the tilted ceiling while taking a shower and had to crawl into my narrow bed without space to stretch my legs. “Next time I will reserve a double room,” I promised myself. And so I did.
But when I arrived at the hotel on my next trip, the receptionist said: “I see that your wife could not make it…. I will be glad to downgrade your room reservation to a single room.” I said, “No way, please put me in the double room that I reserved; I am happy to pay for just myself.” When I mentioned the story to my hosts and asked why space is so limited in this town, they answered: “Because the town has a rule that no building can be taller than the church.” This raised the inevitable question: “Why don’t you make the church taller?” It wouldn’t have been very expensive, for example, to put an antenna-like extension on top. To which they replied: “Because it has been like that for centuries.”
Young people often challenge the faults of reality but their revolutionary ideas are met with skepticism and dismissal by the “adults in the room” who lost their enthusiasm for challenging reality in many bruising fights long ago. They simply got used to accepting its faults. To cite just one example, the executives of Encyclopedia Britannica dismissed Wikipedia when it first appeared, failing to recognize the promise of the internet. In 2010 Britannica published its last printed version whereas the internet is still thriving. The important lesson is that reality can be changed as long as the innovative thinkers of today march forward undeterred without being limited by the undisputed height of the “church” in their town.
This topic came up at a meeting with the postdoctoral fellows in the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard University, for which I serve as director. The incoming postdocs brought up some administrative inefficiencies that could be improved upon and were shocked that I decided to act on them immediately, rather than tell them that this is the way things are and nothing can be changed. I used the opportunity to inspire these young researchers never to accept the practices of the past as given, but to keep a youthful attitude, and make the status quo better once they have the power to change it. Such an attitude is not a matter of biological age but of mindset. It means you’re willing to challenge the world rather than accepting it as a given like the weather. And there is no lesson more important for new practitioners of innovative research in science.
Students and postdocs should recognize that becoming a scientist offers the great privilege of maintaining their childhood integrity and questioning unjustified notions. There are many opportunities to translate this into action. For example, it is commonly believed in the conservative scientific community that intelligent life may be unique to Earth and that it would be a waste of funds to search for artificial signals in the sky or space junk of dead civilizations in outer space. Avoiding a search serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand.
But this notion can be challenged. Today’s new generation of researchers has access to technologies and search strategies to turn this notion on its head. Just as Copernicus revolutionized church dogma about our place in the universe, this generation can foster a new Copernican revolution by “making the church taller” still.