Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Missing giants of modern science

Below is some (lightly edited) correspondence between Vanderbilt cosmologist Robert Scherrer and myself on topics related to my previous post Why are modern scientists so dull?

From: Bob
Subject: why we are all so boring

I enjoyed your posting on why we are all so boring (and I agree with the bulk of it - it is certainly easier for eccentric, brilliant types to thrive in mathematics or theoretical physics than in any other field).

The issue of genius raises an obvious question. If we are cultivating brilliant people more effectively now than at the turn of the 20th century (and I believe we are), so that everyone is brilliant, as opposed to a few outliers, then why did we get the development of quantum mechanics and relativity (or, going back even earlier, classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism) during an era when the level of effort, and the number of "brilliant" scientists, was exponentially smaller? Where are the equivalent breakthroughs of today? Is it possible that the structure of the laws of physics is such that there are basically only a few breakthroughs waiting to happen and easily accessible to an industrialized society, and we've already used them up?

Reply from Steve:

I agree with you that we may have picked a lot of the low hanging fruit. It happened to be the case that in the various "golden ages" of physics technology was available to test the new theories relatively soon after they were proposed, which is not true today. I suspect if we had table top Planck energy accelerators then progress on quantum gravity might have been much faster during our careers. In fact, some people might have revealed themselves as "geniuses" because they looked at the data stream and proposed the correct models, thereby becoming famous instead of obscure scribblers like me :-)

I have an interest in psychology and psychometrics, and have been carefully watching all the "smartest" people I have come across in our field, cross referencing as best I can between older and newer generations. (I'm sure everybody else has too.) I suspect there are plenty of smart guys around today and the old guys weren't as quite spectacular as the glow from their Nobels might suggest -- at least, not when compared to plenty of smart but relatively obscure people of later generations. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good (an old Wall St. saying)!

More from Bob:

...With regard to the relative level of "smartness", I have an interest in the history of baseball. It is certainly true that an average modern team would completely devastate an "old-time" famous team like the 1927 Yankees, given improvements in nutrition, training, (and pharmaceuticals :) However, I suspect that even if you equalized these things, the modern team might still win, as we are now much more efficient at scouring talent everywhere (the integration of baseball alone is an obvious example).

...It would be interesting to speculate if there are any areas in which we've become LESS efficient in aggregating talent than we were 50 or 100 years ago. Skilled artisans, perhaps? Marksmen?

I'm sure there is a lot of stuff that was more useful in the past than today, and for that reason we don't filter as hard anymore for those talents. But society has gotten richer and more organized, information technology has gotten cheaper, statistical techniques more widely deployed, and in some fields we now have winner-take-all economies. So we're probably overall much, much better at identifying talent, whether the field is tennis, mathematics or even American Idol crooning. I can't think of any old timers who could hang with Usain Bolt!


zzzhou said...

I think this type of stagnation is actually quite pervasive across a wide range of key human endeavors. HEP/gravity are certainly prime examples, still in search of signals of the Higgs and gravitational waves after all these years, not to mention various unification ideas that led nowhere. Other stagnant areas include AI/automation, fusion power, human space travel (and transportation in general), origin of life, and even in arts and various soft subjects. Just consider, the central dogma of biology is 50 years old, the ARPANET is 40 years old, the SM and first trip to the moon, 30 years old. What are the comparable achievements in the past 30 years?

anon said...

"It is certainly true that an average modern team would completely devastate an "old-time" famous team like the 1927 Yankees"

When someone uses "certainly true" it is ceratain that it isn't certainly true, that there is no evidence it is true, and that the author is not thinking.
This is typical of present day scientists.

"if we are cultivating brilliant people..."

Who is "we"?

"...physics technology was available..."

Spoken like someone who thinks of technological advances in the same way New Guinea tribesmen think of of cargo.

"It would be interesting to speculate if there are any ways..."

Again this is just ideology. The author of these words does not think. What is the evidence that talent is exploited more efficiently today than it has ever been in any field?

The Bolt example is contradicted by the history of US high school mile times.

In the case of baseball, the opening up to non-whites is balanced by the greater number of professional sports. As late as the 60s all sports other than baseball were side-shows in the US.

DB said...

True story about Steve as a grad student: Steve decided to learn the proof of the spin-statistics theorem because he was worried we'd all eventually become complacent, accept the theorem as true and forget why, only remembering that "Once there were giants..."

Steve Hsu said...

Re: US HS mile times, see "...we don't filter as hard anymore for those talents." -- but at the world level mile times are still improving.

"Spoken like someone who thinks of technological advances..." my comment was specific to progress in theoretical physics; one can't tell whether progress has been made (even if the right theory has already been formulated) without the technology to do the experiments. In 1000 years we might finally have the technology to test quantum gravity and only then realize that the string theorists were right (or not).

Of course, technological progress in some areas has been vert impressive (e.g., in semiconductors) although zzzhou is right that lots of hard problems remain to be cracked.

Steve Hsu said...

DB: Uh... how does that theorem go again? :-)

david said...

off topic

Homeless Guy Smashes Other Homeless Guy Upside Head With Skateboard During Quantum Physics Argument
by Xeni Jardin
Bell's Theorem and the Death of Locality? Or the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Argument? We may never know what the beef was, but an argument between two homeless men about the splitting of atoms resulted in the splitting of lip:

STS said...


That's not off topic -- those were clearly two of the "missing giants".

LondonYoung said...

I view this problem a little differently. I think modern philosophy (and I mean philosophy in the sense of the Ph. in Ph.D.) is handicapped by our clinging to outdated notions that served philosophers well in the early 20th century - but no longer. Why do we have Physicists and Mathematicians and Biologists and Chemists? I don't think these distinctions are helpful in the 21st century. Examining the lives of Faraday, Maxwell and a host of others might lead you to concude they weren't helpful before the 20th century either.

Why do we park so many promising philosophers at state universities where their nominal role is to play nannies to beer-swilling adolescents too young to hold a real job in modern society but certainly without much interest in learning "from the academy". Where did Einstein do his best work? As a clerk in a patent office.

I don't disagree with the "agreeableness" hypothesis, but I think it is only a Causa Proxima. The need for agreeableness is itself a result of a system which will not produce much progress. Think of what happened to China in the centuries between Mongol rule and the arrival of European and Japanese colonialism.

Blog Archive