The Physics of Betrayal:
How the System of Academic Tenure has Sacrificed a Generation of Young Physicists While Enabling Morally Criminal Abuse
By Alec Rawls © 1997/1998. (2800 words) Originally published in The Stanford Review 5/12/98.

Tenure is a corrupt trade-unionism of the already employed. Like any other form of collusion by sellers of a good or service, it ought to be illegal. What are the consequences of this corruption? Consider the disaster that has befallen physics in the last fifteen years. Under the rigid seniority rules that characterize all trade-unionism, physics has eaten its young. Young physicists (and physicists are most productive when they are young) have almost been exterminated. The cream of a generation has been put to the blade so that the aging dead wood can be spared.

The crunch began where it has for all of academia. Because the number and size of universities and colleges exploded in the sixties, a vast co-hort of young professors was hired at that time. They got tenure thirty years ago and are still filling professorships at every university in America, regardless of their current productivity. Because this cohort is moving through the university system together there is not even a steady stream of retirements letting new people in.

The situation is greatly compounded in physics by a couple of factors. First, almost all the important work in physics is done by young men in their twenties, thirties and forties. Most of our aging physics professorship nationwide literally does not have a clue. They lost all touch with progress in the field twenty years ago. Thus the disparity between the productivity of those the young who are passed over and the tenured hangers-on is far greater in physics even than in other fields. Second is the fall of the Iron Curtain. Many of the world's best physicists are Eastern European and Russian. When the wall fell, almost all the tenure openings went to the best known of these physicists, many of whom were still doing good work but, as one might expect, were no longer young.

So what happened to the young physicists? They have been sacrificed, obviously. But there is more to the story than that. There is a story of corruption, exploitation and betrayal, all enabled by the concentration of power in the hands of those doyens who hold the keys to the few precious tenure spots. You see, it is not that the young physicists are no longer doing the heavy lifting in the field, but that they are no longer getting credit for it. It is a tale best told through the story of my buddy Nick, one of the most productive physicists of his generation. His work may well win a Nobel prize, but it will almost certainly not have his name on it.

Nick was a Stanford boy. With rare gifts, and an important dissertation to his credit, he married his sweetheart Rani (a freshly minted doctor from Stanford's own medical school) and took her with him to a post-doc in Boston. Making discoveries apace, he published several significant papers in rapid succession, but at the end of the year the total number of available tenure track openings in his specialty in the entire country was two and Nick did not have the powerful patrons necessary to even be considered. With another post-doc, he produced another spate of excellent papers, but at the next year's job market Nick again lacked the patronage to land one of the few openings. Eventually he was was able to get a non-tenure track position at an Ivy League university. Optimistic about his productivity, little did he realize that he had fallen into the coils of a python.

Theoretical particle physics at this time was at an impasse. The energy levels necessary to distinguish between the different models being proposed were no longer attainable by existing or even forseeable experimental equipment. Some physicists, like Witten at Princeton, were leading the way in charging ahead without the benefit of evidence to guide them, believing that sheer intelligence could find the way. Nick wished them well, but believed they were on a fool's quest. The possibilities were too infinite. You needed to find some way to wring more clues from the universe, and Nick found a way, in cosmology. He figured out how how the pattern of background radiation left over from the big bang would differ according to categorizations he could make amongst different models of particle physics.

At this time a team of experimentalists was in the process of mapping the pattern of background radiation with the new Hubble space telescope. Nick's patron at his university -- Professor Mugliver (a pseudonym) -- was agog at what Nick had found and started planning a wide collaboration. They would team up with the empirical group to write the definitive paper on the data and its implications. Also brought into the collaboration on the theoretical side would be a Professor Spinner (another pseudonym). Nick was already alarmed about the idea of admitting Mugliver into a "collaboration" to which he had contributed nothing, but the name of Spinner really raised a warning flag.

Nick had known another student who had done work under Spinner. The student had come up with an impressive result and gone to Spinner for advice. Spinner was very enthusiastic, gave help on how to polish the results, and told the student what journal to send the paper to. While the student was waiting to hear back from the journal, the identical results appeared under Spinner's name in a fast track journal. Spinner had suckered him, flat out stole his work, steered him to a slow turn-around journal for the express purpose of robbing him. When the student threatened to go to the dean, Spinner offered him a choice: if he complained, Spinner would call him a liar and see to it that he never worked as a physicist. If he knuckled under, Spinner would get him a job at Podunk state. Crushed, the student choose a career.

Nick was sweating bullets. Mugliver and Spinner had concocted some results that aimed in the direction Nick had taken (luckily Nick hadn't shown Mugliver everything) and they were claiming that they deserved to be in on a collaboration. Also, they could deliver the experimentalists. Nick figured that, even with Mugliver and Spinner horning in, the paper would be important enough that his status should be guaranteed. Also, there was someone else to consider. Nick had been helped in his theoretical work by an ingenious computer simulator who had been able to take Nick's theoretical work and derive simulations that demonstrated what the different patterns of background radiation should look like. He had also worked with Nick on earlier collaborations. Nick struck a deal. If Mugliver and Spinner would promise to get this original collaborator a tenure position, Nick would let them in on his paper.

The collaboration was a triumph. The image of the background radiation appeared on the front of every newspaper. Time Magazine put the pattern on its cover with the caption "God's Fingerprints?" Mugliver and Spinner, as the big names on the theoretical side, got all the attention. In the feeding frenzy, even the empirical group started claiming credit for Nick's theoretical work. Not one of the big names in the spotlight ever mentioned Nick. In the end, only a few physicists who had seen Nick's earliest presentations knew the truth. Emboldened, Mugliver and Spinner ignored their agreement and the next year Nick's friend was out of physics. Luckily, he was able to land a job on Wall Street.

Nick, however, was much too valuable a commodity to let go. He had to be kept right where he was: in Mugliver's pocket. The couple of tenure openings were very competitive, after all. Witten had to have his one or two. Others had to have theirs. It would be Nick's turn eventually, and his non-tenure position could still be funded: a nice little box with airholes.

In the next year Nick had an even bigger breakthrough. He figured out how all the models of partical physics that were being proposed could be arrayed on a single function and that where our universe would lie on that function could be deduced from a small number of observable cosmological parameters. Nick was a bit more careful this time. He gave a number of early talks on his new work at various conferences. More people would know that it was his. Still, there was a substantial amount of work yet to be done using the spectrum of models to pin down the actual shape of the underlying function. This would be Mugliver's way in.

In the interest of day to day life, and buoyed by his continuing optimism about his work, Nick had papered over his betrayal by Mugliver and Spinner. He couldn't let himself get consumed by anger when he had physics to do. Also, he wanted to be above that side of physics. "Physics is full of accusations of stealing" he told me. "In the end it is just noise. The truth or untruth of it ceases to make any difference. I can't get involved in that. I have a life to live."

So Nick remained congenial with Mugliver (as he has to this day, and he has never confided the crimes against him to any but a few closest friends). When he was ready to present his new paper at conferences, congeniality of course required that he share his results with Mugliver, who saw the work still to be done and leapt in. Immediately he rewrote the paper, adding some of the unfinished parts and restructuring the entire paper in an attempt to put his stamp on it. It would be a year before Mugliver finally understood what Nick had actually accomplished and conceded that the paper had to be put back the way Nick originally had it. In that time, though, Mugliver did do a tremendous amount of the grind-it-out work necessary to complete the results, the effect of which, Nick gladly concedes, was to produce a much better paper. A collaboration it was then, and Nick just kept his fingers crossed that it would turn out better this time.

It was not to be. At the conferences where Mugliver presented the paper he did nothing to give Nick proper credit and allowed the impression that the work was primarily his. Others started calling the scheme for deducing our universe's location on the underlying function "the Mugliver parameter," and Mugliver did nothing to counter it. Mugliver was the big name, Nick the lowly assistant. What difference did it make if a few more people knew the truth this time? Mugliver couldn't care less. Who was going to challenge him?

That is the first thing I asked: "Can't anything be done?" If you see someone robbing a Brink's truck, you call the police. Couldn't he take it to the deans? Nick just laughed. "These guys are much more powerful than the deans," he said. "They are the ones who bring in the money and the prestige. Without Mugliver, physics at this university would have no reputation and no ability to bring in grant money. The deans would not think of going after him." Maybe so, but if it weren't for the extreme dearth of tenure openings, created by the damnable tenure system itself, Nick would never have found himself under a criminal's thumb in the first place.

At the next job market there was a tenure opening in Nick and Mugliver's own department but Mugliver refused to offer it to Nick. The masquerade was up. In order to take credit for Nick's work, Mugliver had to keep Nick from achieving any position of status. It was the end of Nick's career as a physicist. Forced out, he followed his friend to Wall Street where he has finally been able to achieve some financial security for his family. Mugliver undoubtedly thinks he has gotten away scot free. Nick continues to be amazingly productive.

Valuing complex options turns out to require just the kind of stochastic analysis that theoretical physics employs. Nick was faced with a whole new set of problems to solve that were not entirely unfamiliar. The huge arbitrage opportunities that originally were there for the taking in options trading has steadily shrunk as more players have entered and the market has matured. By the time Nick arrived, profits depended on being able price options quickly and accurately, to beat one's competitors to the punch.

Shortly after he got settled with the new problems Nick figured out a general way to analytically reduce the hugely complicated term structure models for pricing options (which at the time were taking days to solve numerically with extensive computer power) to one's that could be quickly solved on a PC. Nick's team could go in with lap-tops and price assets as fast as they could break them down. With the Nick advantage, his trading group prospered. Unfortunately, he again got no academic credit -- this time his discovery was a trade secret and could not be revealed -- but at least he was well paid.

This last year Nick made another breakthrough, one that could have a huge impact throughout both the social and the physical sciences. He figured out an algorithm for generating analytical solutions to non-linear Markov processes (a form of statistical analysis that arises in many fields but has been impenetrable until now). Nick's algorithm has the potential to unblock research log-jams from one end of the university to another. With some prodding, he is copyrighting his algorithm.

Eeee-haw! He ought to be allowed to patent it. Proudhon declared that "property is theft." He had it backwards. Denial of property is theft. People should get paid for what they produce and academia has robbed Nick enough. Universities pay three hundred dollars a copy for Word. I will look forward to their paying for Nick's program.

For all those academics whose jaws just dropped at the thought that the insurmountable hurdle of non-linear Markov processes might be surmounted, e-mail your requests for Nick's algorithm to and I'll forward them to Nick for you. If nothing else, maybe we can get him a Nobel prize in economics.

So buddy Nick, your story is told. Finally, after all these years, I had to do it. Give my love to Rani, and baby Reina. Maybe your experience will help us get rid of this damn commie trade unionism called "tenure."

If Stanford cares at all about merit and justice, it can do its part by offering Nick a position to return to his beloved physics. And I will do my part: if Mugliver and Spinner ever set foot in my county, I'll see if I can't arrest them as a pair of degenerates.

(Alec Rawls is running for Sheriff of Santa Clara County. His writings on many subjects can be found at


Editor's note: Mr. Rawls is publishing this account over the mild misgivings of his friend "Nick" who agrees that the story needs to be told but is glad to have the past behind him and dispairs just a bit at the thought of dredging it up (hence the small concession of pseudonyms). A sheriff can sympathize, but his job in the end is to stop crime and this is a necessary step.


Sidebar: Is Genius in Theoretical Physics Related to Moral Intelligence?


"God's Fingerprints" at Crime Scene? To view the COBE Cosmic Microwave Background maps, visit the COBE web site at



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