The Myth of the Abrasive Genius

Via Steve Hsu, a lengthy rant by Bruce Charlton about the dullness of modern scientists:

Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science.

The paper in question goes on at great length about IQ and various other measures of intelligence, and how we ought to be selecting scientists. Frankly, the whole thing kind of gives me the creeps, mostly because the whole concept of IQ has been so thoroughly poisoned by the likes of Charles Murray and “Uncle Al.” While there may be a serious point here, it’s hard to read without hearing echoes of racism, crypto- and otherwise.

The “Uncle Al” vibe aside, I’m also a little bothered by one of the assertions Steve quotes:

As science becomes ever-more dominated by ‘peer review’ mechanisms, pro-social behaviour in scientists has been accorded primacy over the brilliant and inspired – but abrasive and rebellious – type of truth-seekers who used to be common among the best scientists.

This is a fairly common view of science: that brilliant thinkers are necessarily socially awkward if not actively obnoxious, and that this is somehow a key component of the personality required to be a brilliant scientist. The problem is, I’m not convinced it’s actually true.

Obviously, the field I know the most about is physics, and when I think about revolutionary discoveries in physics, I’m just not seeing that high a correlation between scientific genius and personal abrasiveness. I mean, OK, there’s Newton, but after him…?

The greatest revolutions in modern physics were the development of relativity and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. And when you look at the people responsible for those theories, they’re not really lacking in social skills.

Einstein, for example, was a brilliant thinker, but also personally very charming. His enduring fame probably owes at least as much to his personality as to his science– he was well-liked and respected by pretty much everybody. He spent years arguing with Bohr about their deep disagreements regarding the foundations of quantum mechanics, but they were also great friends.

Of course, Bohr appears to have been friends with absolutely everybody. His falling-out with Heisenberg (dramatized in “Copenhagen”) is notable not just because of the context, but because it seems to be one of the few personal grievances he had. He remained on good terms with people on both sides of WWII.

Look at the other great figures of early modern physics, and you find the same sort of thing. Planck introduce the whole idea of quantization, and while he was never fully comfortable with what his desperate trick spawned, he was successful as an academic and administrator. Louis de Broglie’s wave theory of the electron was nothing if not revolutionary, and he was at least as influential as an academic as he was as a scientist. Rutherford was responsible for completely changing out view of the atom, but he was also enormously successful as an ambassador for science and as the head of the Cavendish Laboratory. Erwin Schrödinger had the morals of an alley cat, but he was evidently a charming fellow (he wasn’t getting all those women with his looks…). Of the quantum pioneers, Heisenberg may come the closest to the ideal of the abrasive genius, but his main problem was that he was kind of stuffy. That didn’t stop him from administrative success.

Do you really think that any of these people would’ve been weeded out by the modern academic selection system? I don’t.

Cast the net a little wider, and you see the same sort of thing. Michael Faraday was a renowned public lecturer. J.J. Thompson was as noted for his success building the Cavendish Laboratory as for the discovery of the electron. Fermi was successful as an administrator, Rabi was politically influential. Feynman was Feynman.

I suppose Schwinger might fit the mold, but I really only know of him as an incidental character in books about Feynman, so I can’t really say.

The myth of the revolutionary genius as someone who is scientifically brilliant but lacking in “people skills” is very appealing, especially to those who find themselves on the outside of the system of academic science, but I don’t think it really holds up to scrutiny. If you look at the lives of the great figures of physics, most of them turn out to have been awfully successful at working within hierarchical systems that are no less rigid than the modern academic system. Even Newton, who was apparently kind of a dick, managed to do well for himself as a political appointee.

So in addition to the creepy vibe I get from anything relying on IQ these days, I find the premise of the whole rant kind of dubious. It doesn’t look to me like “Agreeability” and scientifc genius are necessarily in conflict. In which case, the whole “Medical Hypotheses” rant seems more like a roundabout way of excusing the bad behavior of people who happen to be assholes than a bold and visionary statement of deep truths about how science ought to work.

Comments

  1. #1 Dennis
    June 21, 2009

    I guess it’s highly dependent upon field. For instance, in organic chemistry your worth as a PI is judged mainly on how many of your graduate students you can get to commit suicide.

  2. #2 Bee
    June 21, 2009

    Well, I already left a comment on Steve’s blog saying that I wasn’t too taken by this rant either. There is a question here you should be asking yourself though. Some people are better with playing social games than others. That benefits their career chances because, face it, a lot of decisions rely on personal contacts. Thus, the present selection systematically favours more social people. While I wouldn’t go so far to say a genius is necessarily unsocial, a person’s social skills are to my best knowledge not in any obvious way correlated with their scientific promise. Thus, is it good to rely on a selection process in which a scientist’s social skills play heavily in their favor?

  3. #3 Sam K.
    June 21, 2009

    It’s interesting to contrast the examples you bring up with genius that has surfaced in mathematics over the years. I think mathematics breeds a little more detachment from the world than, say, physics. Erdos is the best example I can come up with at the moment, but there are definitely many others like him with an almost fanatical devotion to math and relatively stunted social skills. Part of this might have to do with the fact that many famous mathematical minds were child prodigies who focused on little else.

  4. #4 becca
    June 21, 2009

    Just as an observation, doing well with the ladies does not imply one is not “abrasive and rebellious”.

    Also, pointing out the most successful individuals will inevitably lead to the conclusion that multiple factors are required for success. You can have interesting revolutionary ideas as an asshole- but nobody will note your name in the history books. You can be agreeable and conscientious as all get out and never pursue a revolutionary idea. To get famous, it helps a lot to have both sorts of traits.

    The Bohr-Einstein relationship is important. If anything seems to be lacking in my personal experience of academic science, it is a significant number of people with which I could see myself arguing for years with while remaining good friends. I don’t know if there’s really a historical change going on (or if it was always unusual), but aguments favor the process of rigorous questioning necessary for non-incremental science.
    The longer training period does facilitate more socialization. If the training period is longer because of some science-society issue, or because there is so much broader a body of knowledge to master, and there’s some socialization that happens incidently, maybe that’s ok. But if we’re training people longer simply to socialize them more (which, from the trainee perspective, can certainly seem to be the case), I worry that the socialization we’re subjecting ourselves to isn’t very rational.

    Personally, I think there are bigger problems with who the system weeds out then favoring nice guys over assholes, or even extraverts over introverts.
    There are many untested assumptions as well as creepy-IQ-is-all vibes in Hsu’s post. He assumes conscientiousness is valuable during education, but not necessary in solving scientific problems. Even revolutionary ideas do not always come by a simple flash of brillance, but often only through sustained effort. He also seems to assume that significant scientific progress never depends on cooperative behavior. I don’t necessarily dislike what he proposes, but his reasoning is not generally sound.

  5. #5 Graydon
    June 21, 2009

    Bee –

    There’s not much practical difference between not having brilliant ideas and having brilliant ideas but not being able to co-operate in groups and do something with the brilliant idea.

    Co-operating in groups is what people do; doing science isn’t an exception to that. Of course there’s going to be strong selection pressure for it in any organized approach to doing science.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 21, 2009

    “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact” ( A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1, Line 7).

    This conjecture applies equally well to Scientists and Mathematicians. In an academic world dominated by dull administrators, why should they want any creative lunatics cluttering the campus? In a world promoting stable research marriages, “for the good of the children” (i.e. students), how can they tolerate illicit lovers? In a Republic of 7! = 5040 citizens, rigidly controlled by Philosopher Kings, why should one not want to jail or banish Poets, who are a threat the the state’s lock-up of free thought?

  7. #7 William
    June 21, 2009

    Sam K., Erdos had more than 500 collaborators. He must have understood something about working with people. Taking a look at famous mathematicians throughout history, you find a broad range of personalities. But once someone becomes famous, we tend to exaggerate some of their personal qualities so as to fit them into the narrative of genius.

  8. #8 humorix
    June 21, 2009

    More (+) of 31000 scientists signed a petition against Al Gore’s ” climate change “. Why the Government does not consider them? Who are the imbecile, the swindlers, the quacks?

    Plus #+# de 31000 scientifiques ont signés une pétition contre le “changement climatique” d’Al Gore. Pourquoi le Gouvernement ne les prend pas en considération ? Qui sont les imbéciles, les escrocs, les charlatans ?

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 21, 2009

    At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people.

    What a load of crap!

  10. #10 Orac
    June 21, 2009

    It figures that this would be published in Medical Hypotheses. It’s basically a crank journal, where “speculative” papers about vaccines causing autism found a happy home.

  11. #11 ShadowBanker
    June 21, 2009

    Sounds like the writers over at Medical Hypotheses watch a bit too much House

  12. #12 jim
    June 21, 2009

    Not just Newton: P. A. M. Dirac comes immediately to mind. No-one seems to have liked him.

    It does seem to me that modern (the last 30-40 years or so) US scientific training has a tendency to filter for the good subordinate: longer PhD programs, post-docs, working in someone else’s lab, supporting someone else’s research program. No doubt some of this — sit by Nelly, see what Nelly does, copy what Nelly does — is necessary for people to learn the processes of research. But it’s not clear that so much of it is needed. Nor is it clear that good subordinates become good leaders.

  13. #13 steve hsu
    June 21, 2009

    Just to clarify — the rant is not mine, nor are any of the excerpts that Chad has in his post :-)

    The author is UK professor Bruce Charlton who tends to be an IQ-fundamentalist. However, he’s written a number of interesting essays which can be found on his web page.

    Re: abrasive personalities, I do think that one can get away with more hyper-aggressive or Aspergian behavior in theoretical physics than in many other fields. Einstein as a young man had a pretty sharp tongue with his colleagues!

  14. #14 Uhcle Al
    June 21, 2009

    Intelligence does exist, it can be measured, it does make a difference. Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression. 45 years of insanely expensive social advocacy since President Johnson’s “Great Society” are empirically explicit: There are only engineering solutions. The universe is particularly good at punishing those who believe causality can be subverted, exacting a terrible price over time.

    Keep your diversity; suffocate and drown in it. Uncle Al wants brass rats, Asperger’s syndrome, high autists, prodigies, savants… every unlovable, twitching, rocking, pill-rolling, hair-pulling, malodorous, space alien mutant smart git.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Kearney
    Look for the Union label

  15. #15 Doug Natelson
    June 21, 2009

    All I know is, some of the most brilliant people that I’ve ever met have also been extremely nice. There’s a difference between being self-confident and being a jerk. On the other hand, perhaps my veneer of social skills is what’s been holding me back from greatness. (To the socially challenged: that was a joke.)

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    June 21, 2009

    Bee: Well, I already left a comment on Steve’s blog saying that I wasn’t too taken by this rant either. There is a question here you should be asking yourself though. Some people are better with playing social games than others. That benefits their career chances because, face it, a lot of decisions rely on personal contacts. Thus, the present selection systematically favours more social people. While I wouldn’t go so far to say a genius is necessarily unsocial, a person’s social skills are to my best knowledge not in any obvious way correlated with their scientific promise. Thus, is it good to rely on a selection process in which a scientist’s social skills play heavily in their favor?

    That’s a much weaker statement than what Charlton is claiming. He seems to be arguing that we ought to be actively selecting for assholishness, because that’s an indicator of “revolutionary” potential.

    Personally, I don’t think that there’s any particular correlation between abrasiveness and genius. Nor do I believe that the modern academic system is really weeding out the hard-to-get-along-with to a worrisome degree– high energy theoretical physics in particular seems to have an abundance of abrasiveness.

    Ultimately, though, I kind of agree with Graydon (#5): science is a human activity, and necessarily involves communicating effectively with groups of other people. I don’t think there’s any way around that.

    jim: Not just Newton: P. A. M. Dirac comes immediately to mind. No-one seems to have liked him.

    I don’t recall hearing that he was actively obnoxious, just that he was incredibly awkward. But then, I don’t know all that much about him.

    steve hsu: Just to clarify — the rant is not mine, nor are any of the excerpts that Chad has in his post :-)

    Sorry about that– I’ve edited the post to add the actual ranter’s name.

  17. #17 onymous
    June 21, 2009

    Nor do I believe that the modern academic system is really weeding out the hard-to-get-along-with to a worrisome degree– high energy theoretical physics in particular seems to have an abundance of abrasiveness.

    Oh, fuck you ;-)

  18. #18 Sam K.
    June 21, 2009

    William, although part of what I know of him is from the book “the man who loved only numbers,” I have spoken with a number of people who knew him personally and they all echo pretty much exactly how the book portrays him. Yes, he was relatively friendly, but by any account, his social skills definitely needing some brushing up and he was certainly obsessed and interested only in math.

  19. #19 Emory Kimbrough
    June 21, 2009

    Some random, unconnected comments:

    If you’re smart enough to figure out the most difficult scientific problems of your era, shouldn’t you also be smart enough to figure out how to be a decent human being?

    James Clerk-Maxwell had a reputation for being modest, humorous, and generous.

    On the other hand, when Murray Gell-Mann finally tackled writing his book The Quark and the Jaguar (after losing an earlier book contract due to excessive delays), some in the publishing industry found the process so unpleasant that they referred to the project as The Jerk and the Quagmire.

    Quoting scientist and author James Trefil: “The fact of the matter is, we scientists are simply not all that interesting. If I may generalize wildly, we are usually dull people with interesting ideas – as distinguished from artists (interesting people with dull ideas) and dancers and athletes (dull people with dull ideas and magnificent physical skills). – From “Science Faction,” Scientific American, November 1995.

    There’s a very good new biography of Dirac that includes some exploration of the possibility that he had autism or Asperger’s, but also notes that he was a loving step-father and father. See:

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/38471

  20. #20 agm
    June 22, 2009

    Re: Erdos’ collaborators, this.

  21. #21 milkshake
    June 22, 2009

    Teller and Szilard got a reputation of being difficult, in collaboration. (“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.”)
    The same goes for Luis Alvarez.

  22. #22 zayıflama
    June 22, 2009

    he was relatively friendly, but by any account, his social skills definitely needing some brushing up and he was certainly obsessed and interested only in math.

  23. #23 mmfiore
    June 22, 2009

    We are a group that is challenging the current paradigm in physics which is Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please Help us set the physics community back on the right course and prove that Einstein was right! Visit our site The Theory of Super Relativity: Super Relativity

  24. #24 becca
    June 22, 2009

    “He seems to be arguing that we ought to be actively selecting for assholishness, because that’s an indicator of “revolutionary” potential.”
    The argument isn’t that there’s a direct correlation between genius (intelligence) and assholishness- just that creativity is correlated with lack of agreeableness. Afterall, if everything is always just hunky-dory, why innovate?
    Since ‘nobody can measure creativity’, he’s not proposing that we gate on that. Since the supposed recipe for success is intelligence + creativity, it’s better to select on ‘pure’ intelligence (test score) then on intelligence ‘diluted’ with diligence/agreeableness (grades).
    I still think he’s underestimating the importance of dilligence in revolutionary science and ignoring the fact that great ideas don’t always get recognized- it helps to be nice enough to people that they want to consider what you have to say.

    “If you’re smart enough to figure out the most difficult scientific problems of your era, shouldn’t you also be smart enough to figure out how to be a decent human being?”
    I think so, but it’s also important to remember that some people have further to go when it comes to bridging the gap to relate to others. It may take longer. I find it rather comforting that Einstein’s reputation as a young man might be very different from his reptuation as an old man. Maturing fast at mathematical skills does not ensure maturing fast at interpersonal skills. I’d question the true intelligence of anyone who couldn’t make progress at social interactions, but not necessarily assume that lack of social skills (particularly at a young age) reflects anything in particular about intelligence.

  25. #25 Greg
    June 22, 2009

    Milkshake,

    I’m currently (re)reading Richard Rhodes’ book Dark Sun and while Teller certainly comes off as being difficult (Szilard and Alvarez don’t seem quite as bad), John von Neuman seems not at all difficult to get along with even as he was described in this way:

    “…von Neumann was indeed a demigod, but that he had made a detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly.”

    The “imitate them perfectly” bit suggests where he may have diverged from his fellow Hungarian prodigies.

    I think that some geniuses may end up being perceived as abrasive simply because letting someone else know that you are smarter than they are carries with it an implied insult no matter how true that assessment may be. Failing to understand this and incorporate the understanding into one’s relationships can cause much friction. For example take this bit from Dark Sun (p.309):

    “Lewis Strauss never reported when he first began to despise Oppenheimer. Strauss was both intellectually insecure and thin-skinned, two weaknesses that would have made him especially vulnerable to the physicist’s notorious arrogance. Finding his name at the bottom of the IAS faculty and Oppenheimer’s at the top was a good start on enmity.”

    Aside from that factor, I am not sure that an abrasive personality is any more common among geniuses than it is in the population as a whole.

  26. #26 daedalus2u
    June 22, 2009

    I think the idea doesn’t go far enough, I think that there is an explicit trade-off of social skills for skills at manipulating ideas, the trade-off that I call “theory of mind” for a “theory of reality”.

    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2008/10/theory-of-mind-vs-theory-of-reality.html

    I see this as the trade-off along the autism spectrum, a trade-off necessary because the maternal pelvis is limited in size, so the infant brain that can be successfully born through that pelvis is also limited in size.

    The most effective time to “program” a brain is while that brain is growing and undergoing differentiation and epigenetic programming.

    I don’t think that “abrasiveness” captures the deficit in “theory of mind” that typifies people on the spectrum. It is an inability to “read” people, and inability to read and project the body language that everyone takes for granted. That may induce antipathy (via the uncanny valley effect inducing xenophobia), but not via abrasiveness.

    What about Tesla? I see him as typifying the type of tradeoff I am talking about. Not abrasive, but certainly considered an odd duck.

  27. #27 Pseudonym
    June 23, 2009

    Whatever. You’ll be laughing on the other side of your faces when my Moon-based death ray threatens your puny continent. I dare you to mock my theories then!

  28. #28 Eofhan
    June 23, 2009

    Sparks a few thoughts:
    1) The idea that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary (sufficient?) to gain expertise. If accepted, that would argue that a longer training period is, perhaps, beneficial. I suspect it’s easy to think that 10,000 hours are more rapidly attained if one ignores “distractions” such as good manners, conversation skills, hygiene, etc.

    2) I believe Tesla had some symptoms of mental illness, e.g., compulsive tableware polishing, an aversion to human hair, and immersive, schizophrenia-like hallucinations accompanied by auras. His personal problems, from what I’ve read about him, were more than social awkwardness.

    3) TV/movie centered around an abrasive genius is probably easier to make than one centered on a genial genius. Conflict is built-in. Perhaps this leads to a common expectation that all leading scientists are abrasive? Similar to the common belief that all sociopaths are charming geniuses.

    4) Didn’t Einstein suggest that imagination, rather than intelligence, is the more important quality?

  29. #29 CC
    June 23, 2009

    Yeah, but I thought Einstein and Bohr were notorious as rare examples of brilliant people who weren’t jerks. That is, they’re known for being exceptions.

  30. #30 CC
    June 23, 2009

    Also, if you’re leery of the concept of measurement of intelligence, or if you query that ability in physics is synonymous with “intelligence”, it doesn’t seem to hurt the argument any to rephrase it in terms of some “raw talent” or “ability” variable. If I understand the point of the original rant it’s an assertion that there’s some such variable which is not identical with diligence and agreeableness and the selection process puts undue emphasis on diligence and agreeableness and insufficient emphasis on this variable. It is not necessary for the purpose of the argument to be able to precisely define or measure this quantity.

    Of course, one would think that diligence and agreeableness would be themselves be helpful in actually being a good physicist. That is, they’re bona fide qualifying traits. Presumably a sensible (not necessarily true, but logical) argument would be that the selection process places importance on diligence and agreeableness in excess of the amount to which they contribute to being a good physicist, at the expense of this “ability” quantity.

  31. #31 BGC
    June 24, 2009

    Bruce G Charlton (author) here.

    The original blog posting missed the main point of what I was saying. Here is the Abstract:

    ***

    Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science. High general intelligence (IQ) is required for revolutionary science. But educational attainment depends on a combination of intelligence and the personality trait of Conscientiousness; and these attributes do not correlate closely. Therefore elite scientific institutions seeking potential revolutionary scientists need to use IQ tests as well as examination results to pick-out high IQ ‘under-achievers’. As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.

    ***

    A major point was that revolutionary science needs creativity (as well as high intelligence), and from what we know about creativity it seems to be _inversely_ correlated with Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

    Furthermore, high Conscientiousness entails being able to work hard and meticulously at subjects which do NOT interest you and which are NOT rewarding.

    Of course the best scientists need to work hard and be meticulous – but to work at the subject which interests them most in the whole world – i.e. their own work, their chosen problem. To work very hard at something which *fascinates* you does _not_ require very high Conscientiousness.

    Indeed, if a scientist is very highly Conscientious, they are more likely to work on something which does not fascinate them; and therefore to do mediocre science.

    In a way, the only-moderate conscientiousness of creative scientists ensures that they work only on subjects which fascinate them: this is the view of James Watson:

    “…Never do anything that bores you. My experience in science is that someone is always telling you to do things that leave you flat. Bad idea. I’m not good enough to do well something I dislike. In fact, I find it hard enough to do well something that I like.” J. Watson, Succeeding in science: some rules of thumb, Science 261 (1993), p. 1812.

    Watson _could not_ do something which bored him, and instead thought very hard about the problem which did fascinate him and co-solved it.

    But mainstream modern scientists can and do work at problems which bore them, with predictably dull results…

  32. #32 CCPhysicist
    June 25, 2009

    The main problem is that the article is based on the false premise that LEADING scientists are all dull, boring people and that this is a new situation.

    Or, I should say, in my experience it is false and the author does not present any data to the contrary. In some respects, that article is worse than the theoretical particle physics you decried the other day! I think the author is confusing the great masses of industrial science with the creative people who bring about change.

    I can’t imagine that any physicist would argue that Dirac was not a creative and imaginative LEADING scientist in his day, nor can I imagine that most who met him would find him anything other than ordinary. Contrariwise, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that Feynman was dull.

    How about back in the day: was Gregor Mendel a man about town or a boring “stamp collector”?

    But I will venture that the “science” in that article was both dull and boring.

  33. #33 Kaleberg
    June 28, 2009

    How are so many of us familiar with the likes of Dirac, Feynmann, Watson, Mendel, Tesla and so on? That’s easy. Someone told us about them.

    Our perception of how interesting or how dull scientists is greatly mediated by the press, authors, and raconteurs. Most of us do not get to have social relationships with large numbers of successful scientists as to generalize about their geniality or lack thereof.

    Are modern scientists duller than in days of yore? I seriously doubt it. Look at all the fascinating glimpses that one gets from reading science blogs. Of course, these bloggers, like most scientists, haven’t won a Nobel prize, founded an industry or revolutionized their fields, at least not yet.

    When Chad Orzel collects his Nobel, has his startup go public and is honored at the 25th Orzel Conference, we’ll all know what a great guy he was having followed his blog all these years.

  34. #34 Kaleberg
    June 28, 2009

    How are so many of us familiar with the likes of Dirac, Feynmann, Watson, Mendel, Tesla and so on? That’s easy. Someone told us about them.

    Our perception of how interesting or how dull scientists is greatly mediated by the press, authors, and raconteurs. Most of us do not get to have social relationships with large numbers of successful scientists as to generalize about their geniality or lack thereof.

    Are modern scientists duller than in days of yore? I seriously doubt it. Look at all the fascinating glimpses that one gets from reading science blogs. Of course, these bloggers, like most scientists, haven’t won a Nobel prize, founded an industry or revolutionized their fields, at least not yet.

    When Chad Orzel collects his Nobel, has his startup go public and is honored at the 25th Orzel Conference, we’ll all know what a great guy he was having followed his blog all these years.

  35. #35 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 29, 2009

    “… the likes of Dirac, Feynmann, Watson, Mendel, Tesla and so on? That’s easy. Someone told us about them….”

    With all due respect, some of us knew, worked with, and were friends with Feynman.

    Chad doesn’t like me to name drop gratuitiously. In this case, I’m defending Feynman as being a contemporary human being, not a mere legend, known only by second-hand anecdotes.

    Leaders have never been dull.

    Some leaders were abrasive. Among those I knew, I’d mention Fritz Zwicky. But you’d be abrasive too if you took 1% of the abuse that he, and contributed 1% as much.

    I never knew Dirac, but he was far more complex a person that suggested in these comments, and a recent biography of him sheds more light on a wildly misunderstood genius. By the way, if he was as strange and antisocial as his detractors said, how then did he have a long and happy marriage?

    The latest xkcd gives the myth of nerds versus cools a little more poignancy. But it’s still a myth. A divisive, prejudicial, and damaging myth.

  36. #36 Bee
    July 1, 2009

    Graydon: I think we have a misunderstanding and a very common one in addition. What I mean has nothing to do with not wanting to cooperate with other people. I mean people who aren’t too keen on hanging out with those guys in the pub all night and might make endless smalltalk with every visitor. It’s the besides-work stuff that I am talking about that’s beneficial for success but doesn’t actually tell about a person’s scientific promise.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.