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!