Rebel with multiple causes
At fifty-four years of age, the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont willingly stresses the human aspects of research – “coincidences and encounters, friendships and conflicts, illusions and surprises”. The author, with Alain Sokal, of the best-selling satirical tract Intellectual Impostures casts a sceptical eye over the evolution of science and research - a world which somehow gives him the impression of "belonging to a disappearing species".
© Frédéric Deleuze
At the UCL (Catholic University of Louvain - BE), the student developed an interest in a number of philosophers, as well as in Bourbakism, that vision of mathematicians that gives preference to abstraction, generalities and rigidity over intuition and applications. When it came to choosing a direction for research, he went for mathematical physics. “Understanding the world that surrounds us – rivers, plants – through its microscopic foundations, at atomic and particle level, constitutes a prodigious quest. It all comes down to boiling water, of course, but what else? Our challenge, in mathematical physics, consists in this case of rigorously formulating the conversion from the liquid state to the gaseous state, by devoting ourselves to switching from one scale of measurement to another. This interdisciplinary branch of science studies the same subjects as theoretical physics, but imposes a require - ment for conducting reasoning with the rigidity of mathematicians. This sometimes allows for a decision between several contradictory forms of reasoning.”
The young physicist produced a thesis on a subject that was a “hot” topic at that time, the phase transition theory, in association with the quantum field theory. Showing an interest in the “inequalities of correlation”, he explored the close and demonstrable relationships between certain fundamental quantities of this theory, a subject that allowed him to continue his research in the United States. Invited to Rutgers University by the statistician physicist Joël Lebowitz in 1978, Jean Bricmont immediately experienced a “radical change in level” within cosmopolitan and competitive research. He then attended the “Mecca” of mathematical physics at that time, Princeton University, where he studied alongside other passionate people, including some exceptional students who were to define the future of his own career. Bricmont also formed part of the thesis panel for an American “known for asking everyone questions and discussing things until he was satisfied with the reply”. Alan Sokal – for that is who it was – showed that certain field theories could not be constructed, at least not as one might have expected. The ideas that lie beneath this work are known by the name “renormalisation group”. “The quantum field theory was no longer envisaged as a single item, but as a series of theories, each describing the world on a certain scale. It was then a matter of switching from one scale to the other.”
Following his return to Belgium, where he pursued a career as lecturer and researcher at UCL, Jean Bricmont collaborated with another acquaintance from Princeton, the Finn Antti Kupiainen. Together, they resolved several controversies between physicists and mathematicians, namely with regard to statistical systems whose parameters are themselves random, and explored the links between statistical mechanics and dynamic systems or, more recently, stationary states outside of equilibrium situations. “Did you know, for example, that there is, at the present time, no satisfactory theory for the transmission of heat in a metal bar heated to different temperatures at each of its ends? The solution to this type of problem, at least from a mathematical point-of-view, is only in its initial stages.”
|Jean Bricmont & Alan
Sokal, Impostures Intellectuelles, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1997
Impostures and commitments
In 1994, exchanges with Alan Sokal took another turn. Now a physics lecturer at New York University, Sokal sent him an article pompously entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. This text suggested a relationship between quantum gravitation theories and the post-modern philosophical current. Resorting to a scientific terminology that was, to say the least, confused, Sokal cheerfully quoted a number of French and American social science intellectuals. Although Bricmont found the jest to his liking, the American journal Social Text saw no mischief in it and published the text in the spring of 1996. The matter was to cause a great stir when the New York Times, followed by the world press, recounted the hoax which, in reality, was a parody aimed at certain aspects of cultural studies and post-modern philosophy.
Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal were to detail their thoughts in Intellectual Impostures, taking apart the “physico-mathematical mystifications” of such eminent intellectuals as Jacques Lacan, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Bricmont rebelled against the abusive use of an “incomprehensible jargon, which consists of invoking physics or mathematics results in order to draw philosophical or political conclusions.” Because “when they address a non-scientific audience, which is not very likely to understand the reasoning (much less criticise it), such invocation constitutes a typical abuse of the authoritative argument.”
Widely published in the media, this affair opened the debate on the rift between “hard” sciences and social sciences, the content and quality of education, the status of objectivity and scientific methodology, the relativistic drift in epistemology and the possibility of drawing a demarcation line between sciences and pseudo-sciences. Jean Bricmont, who had meanwhile become Honorary President of the French Association for Scientific Information, was clearly strengthened by this in his liking for public debate. “I have always been interested in politics, at least on a passive level. My commitment dates back to 1999 and was revived by the war in the former Yugoslavia. Humanitarian grounds invoked by the United States for justifying this aggression left me somewhat sceptical.” He has participated in numerous debates, given talks in various environments (Protestant churches, Muslim movements, Internationalist groups, etc.) and his latest book is dedicated to “humanitarian imperialism”. In it, he devotes himself to “untangling a certain amount of widespread ideological confusion, especially in progressive environments, on subjects relating to human rights and relations between the West and the rest of the world”.
A scientific vision of the world
For Jean Bricmont, science affects society, but society quickly forgets the advances it allows, recalling, above all, catastrophes, pollution or climate change. “I defend a scientific vision of the world. I am not, in essence, opposed to genetically modified organisms or nuclear energy. You have to look at what you do with them – namely the social use of science and technology. If we look closely, science has a fundamental impact on the vision that man has of the world.” In November 2005, the UCL physicist received the quinquennial prize from the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) in the field of fundamental exact sciences. This award was presented for his “contribution to mathematical physics [which] has, on several occasions, allowed for providing definitive answers to questions raised or being debated.” “I felt happy, but somewhat surprised. I get the impression of belonging to a species that is disappearing, because in certain fields, from pure science to literature, the future appears to be reserved for the adoption of a model that dominates industrial research: large teams of people, the unending writing of reports, the permanent quest for funding, the need for publications in journals, etc. No doubt this model works very well in a whole range of sectors, but its application across the board shows a preference for quantity, to the detriment of quality.”