Three posts in one day. And all of such high quality. You lucky people.

Pascal has a go at explaining the std.nutters. Some of it is the usual correct stuff, but some of it is wrong: What you need, over and above all that, is constant social interaction with other practising scientists. Oral tradition and daily exposure to other scientists’ everyday decisions are indispensable. That sounds fairly plausible, doesn’t it? Until you think of Newton. Or indeed, of Einstein.

Comments

  1. #1 Rolf Andreassen
    2010/01/28

    Nu. For any given ‘you’, with very high probability, you are not Einstein. Nor, indeed, are you Newton. Proclaiming a rule for ordinary mortals does not prevent you recognising the occasional genius. And anyway, neither Newton nor Einstein worked in complete isolation from the academia of their day.

    [not-complete-isolation is a very long way from constant-daily-contact. In fact, might we not pause to think for a moment? Two of the very best did indeed work in considerably more isolation than is normal. Perhaps it is good for truely outstanding work. No, I don't think it is a model for workaday science -W]

  2. #2 Andy Wickert
    2010/01/28

    Isolation is OK for those who are grounded in reality. But for nutters on an ego-trip, it’s a chance to remove all the standard negative feedbacks to their revolutionizering.

  3. #3 Russell
    2010/01/28

    Are you suggesting Einstein was an exception to this? Because I don’t think that is the case.

  4. #4 bob koepp
    2010/01/28

    Andy – Newton grounded in reality? Maybe as he worked on the Principiia and Optiks, but apart from that he could be taken as the model of a nutter on an ego trip.

  5. #5 carrot eater
    2010/01/28

    Didn’t Newton spend a lot of time on alchemy? Of course, it’s unfair to judge people of yesteryear by what we understand today.

    What a huge output from WMC today. Pretty soon he’ll be cranking out volume like Joe Romm.

    Anyway, I think the basic idea has some merit. Much of the confusion I see out there is due to people just being unfamiliar with how science and scientists work.

  6. #6 Robert Grumbine
    2010/01/28

    Einstein is definitely not a good example. He had recently graduated from his university, where he was in touch with leading figures of his time and place. And though ‘patent office’ gets mentioned a lot, even after taking that day job, he was still in contact with many of the same crowd. This saw him through to his 1905 publications — the photoelectric effect (which won his Nobel prize), the special theory of relativity, and (a continuation of his graduate work) the proof of the existence of atoms. Once he published those, he was besieged with connections. In doing his most incredible work, the General Theory of Relativity, he was in regular contact with the leading people in the area. Actually, so much so that David Hilbert (who was one of those) considered Einstein to have poached on Hilbert’s priority. A concern that I’m in no position to have an opinion; but the letter from Einstein I recently saw about it suggests that it was not a slam dunk that Einstein was sure he’d done all the important parts himself.

    Newton is an iffier case, not least because the practice of science 300+ years ago was a different matter than today. Still, he’d been actively involved in the intellectual community in Cambridge prior to the Plague and going home to write the Principia. Granted most of that involvement seems to have been to sit back and marvel at how stupid everyone else was. But, then, Newton was also an obnoxious fellow.

    I’ll grant a tentative and tenuous agreement on Newton — 300 years ago. Einstein, just 100 years ago, is a definite counterexample to your point.

    But, since it also is not 1905 any more, see what examples you can find from your former field, or my current ones, that are less than, say, 40 years old — recent enough that you or I could actually work with such a person.

    Digressing massively, or maybe not, I’ll mention that there is (or at least was) a site devoted to the lineage of all mathematics PhDs. That is, take any modern person with a PhD in mathematics. It lists that person’s doctoral advisor. And then the advisor’s advisor, and so on back to the dawn of time, or at least of records. Some lineages I checked extend to the 1600s. It’d be amusing to see what it looked like for my fields. In that vein, Kirk Bryan is my thesis grandfather.

  7. #7 JBL
    2010/01/28

    That’d be the math genealogy website:
    http://www.genealogy.ams.org/

  8. #8 Andy Wickert
    2010/01/29

    OK – good points. I wasn’t suggesting anything about Einstein or Newton, more grumbling about my time dealing with “alternate theories” on Wikipedia (I was once angrily told that conservation of mass was a red herring!). The main idea was that unless people have consistent practical experience, and often unless they look at what other scientists have done, they get lost in their hypotheses that are increasingly built on insufficient data. For Newton and Einstein, I defer to your better judgment :-).

  9. #9 csrster
    2010/01/29

    Conservation of Mass might very well be a red herring if the subject under discussion had nothing to do with it :-)

  10. #10 Adam
    2010/01/29

    “Conservation of Mass might very well be a red herring if the subject under discussion had nothing to do with it :-)”

    You mean, like say, a discussion of church attendances? No, wait…

  11. #11 Robert P.
    2010/01/30

    Better examples might be Cavendish and Gibbs. For Gibbs working alone was a matter of necessity – he simply had no peers on his side of the atlantic. (He was not entirely isolated, though – he corresponded with Maxwell and others). Cavendish was a genuine loner.

  12. #12 Bud
    2010/01/31

    “Conservation of Mass might very well be a red herring if the subject under discussion had nothing to do with it :-)”.

    Certainly. I’d say it’s a red herring unless the subject under discussion is chemistry, physics or red herrings.

  13. #13 The Seeker
    2010/02/01

    I heard not too long ago that Newton took a very scientific approach to alchemy, attempting to figure out how it worked. (Although the mercury vapors didn’t help.) And if scientists need to be in frequent contact with their peers, who were the peers of Newton and Einstein? (I am sure someone will identify them, and the frequency of contact, thus reinforcing the original point.)

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