Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Q and A

Generic university facade

Answers Please!

It’s September and time for a story from academia.What do you think of when you hear, “It’s all academic”?

That it doesn’t matter? That it’s not practical? No use arguing?

Here’s an incident that might enhance your definition.

Q: What’s the difference between a physicist and a historian?

No, it’s not a joke, it’s actually a true story of an interaction between me and a friend who is a history professor at a university in the east. By which I mean Pennsylvania, not Mongolia.


He’s a PhD history professor, a good friend, and found himself on the review panel for a doctoral thesis on a problem in the history of quantum mechanics.

He called me in a panic. He was the only nonscientist on the committee. He needed to look as smart as the rest of the members. Would I help him?

Of course.

He emailed me and attached the student’s ten-page summary and asked if I could come up with two or three intelligent questions for him to pose to the student who was defending his thesis.

“I can do that,” I said, always thrilled when someone wants to learn science, for whatever reason. I read the summary, wrote out three questions, and called him the next morning

“I can’t thank you enough,” he said. “These are great.”

“I’m glad. I’m ready to discuss them with you.”

He laughed. “Oh, no, I don’t need to discuss anything,” he said. “All I need are these questions. The answers aren’t important.” 

It took a while for his message to sink in: as long as he posed an intelligent question, he’d sound smart. He could then sit back and let the others, especially the student, come up with the discussion and possible answers. 

For me, it was a different take on “It’s all academic.”

How about you?