Calamities of Nature, RIP

Nature got a little bit less calamitous last week when Tony Piro announced that he would no longer be updating his absolutely superb webcomic Calamities of Nature. Fortunately, he has announced that he intends to keep the site up, so you can peruse the archive of over 650 of the smartest meditations on science, philosophy, religion, and bacon that you’ll find anywhere.

I’m writing about this here because of something that he said in the post where he announced the end of the strip:

Today is my last update for Calamities of Nature. And I’ll be perfectly frank about the reasons. My full-time career is in academics, and I need to put everything I have into it if I’m going to have any chance of keeping it that way. As much as I love this comic, I can’t have it taking precious time away from my work. It’s time to move on.

Now, I hope, for Tony’s sake that he had also grown tired of maintaining his updating schedule, that he felt that five years was long enough, and that he is happy committing his efforts full-time to his academic career.

But, whatever the actual situation in this particular case, there is no question that he has hit on an unfortunate truth about academia. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to establish and maintain a traditional academic career while devoting time to other interests. Once you add in family (Tony also mentions that he has two kids), traditional academia basically demands that all of your time not spent sleeping or parenting be devoted to a very specific, constrained set of activities.

I think this is a shame. Certainly, there are people out there for whom this is the ideal lifestyle, people whose interest line up neatly with the demands of an academic career. I’m glad that they exist, and hope that they will continue to populate our Universities. But, for a lot of people, a more piece-meal career with time devoted to a broader range of activities would be more compelling, more fun, and would lead to their doing higher quality work over all.

Calamities of Nature is consistently smart and thoughtful, and it has a huge readership (roughly 5% the traffic of the mega-popular xkcd, according to alexa). It has probably engaged more people with ideas from science and philosophy than most academics do over the course of their entire careers. It seems criminal to me that the all-or-nothing structure of traditional academia means that someone with this much talent, and this great a platform, has to abandon it in order to maintain their career.

This is one of the things that the Ronin Institute aims to change. We are building an alternative model of scholarly research, one where scholars would be able to scale their commitment to research based on their personal interests and constraints. I imagine an ideal world in which someone like Tony Piro could commit, say, two-thirds of his time and effort to traditional scholarship, and one third to maintaining Calamities of Nature. I’m putting words in his mouth, of course, and I don’t know whether or not this is something that the real Tony Piro would want, but I think the world is full of Tony-Piro-esque scholars out there, who have other talents and interests that they have had to set aside in order to commit themselves to academia.

Of course, a part of this alternative model is that the two-thirds-time scholar would only be paid, say, two thirds as much as the full-time scholar. For people whose outside interests also made money, this would likely be an ideal scenario. For people whose other interests have no corresponding income stream, full-time academia might be the only way to pay the mortgage. However, I suspect that there are a lot of academics and would-be academics out there who would gladly trade a portion of their paycheck for a saner and more well rounded life.

Here’s the final Calamities of Nature strip. When you have a chance, go check out the whole archive.

Best of luck to Tony Piro in his all his future endeavors, academic and otherwise.

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