Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The last amateurs

Is the age of the talented amateur over in science? By amateur here I don't mean a non-scientist doing science (that age probably ended earlier), but rather a specialist from one area making a contribution in another. The example below is George Gamow, a cosmologist and theoretical physicist who migrated into biology.

Specialization of science also robbed us of much of our passion. We wanted to grasp science whole, but by then the whole was something far too vast and complex to master. Only rarely could we ask the deep questions that had first drawn us to science.

Ulam on George Gamow:
Gamow, who was a complete layman in the field of biology ... proposed, with his fantastically unerring instinct, some ideas about how the code really worked. I think he was the first to suggest that the sequence of the four substances of the DNA denoted by the letters A, C, T, G expressed words, and how from these four letters one could build 20 or 23 amino acids ... defining the structure of proteins. Gamow had this idea before anyone else. He even almost had the correct way (later found by Crick) of expressing the formation by triplets. ...

One may see in his work, among other outstanding traits, perhaps the last example of amateurism in science ...

Gamow and Einstein crossing the street:
Quantum uncertainty allows the temporary creation of bubbles of energy, or pairs of particles (such as electron-positron pairs) out of nothing, provided that they disappear in a short time. The less energy is involved, the longer the bubble can exist. Curiously, the energy in a gravitational field is negative, while the energy locked up in matter is positive. If the Universe is exactly flat, then as Tryon pointed out the two numbers cancel out, and the overall energy of the Universe is precisely zero. In that case, the quantum rules allow it to last forever. If you find this mind-blowing, you are in good company. George Gamow told in his book My World Line (Viking, New York, reprinted 1970) how he was having a conversation with Albert Einstein while walking through Princeton in the 1940s. Gamow casually mentioned that one of his colleagues had pointed out to him that according to Einstein's equations a star could be created out of nothing at all, because its negative gravitational energy precisely cancels out its positive mass energy. "Einstein stopped in his tracks," says Gamow, "and, since we were crossing a street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down".


neuroecology said...

What about Bill Bialek? He's definitely a theoretical physicist who has had a large impact on neuroscience.

David Stern said...

Lots of physicists think they can do economics (see econophysics) but economists don't think much of their efforts.... More seriously interdisciplinarity is now surely bigger than ever. Of course, many argue that this is simply specialists in different disciplines working together and no truly interdisciplinary individual does any good work... but I don't think that is true. I officially have a PhD in geography but mostly work in economics. I don't think that is uncommon.

steve hsu said...

Do you count finance theory as part of economics?

David Stern said...

Finance theory is. Those links have a mixture of economics, practical finance, and someone with physics training but not a physicist (Black) who became an important financial economist. Well, there are lots of economists with training in physics or pure math who then move into econ. I was thinking of academic physicists who try to contribute to economics.

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