Sunday, July 10, 2011

In Praise of the Outsider

I think the problem is not to find the best or most efficient method to proceed to a discovery, but to find any method at all. Physical reasoning does help some people to generate suggestions as to how the unknown may be related to the known. Theories of the known, which are described by different physical ideas may be equivalent in all their predictions and are hence scientifically indistinguishable. However, they are not psychologically identical when trying to move from that base into the unknown. For different views suggest different kinds of modifications which might be made and hence are not equivalent in the hypotheses one generates from them in one's attempt to understand what is not yet understood. I, therefore, think that a good theoretical physicist today might find it useful to have a wide range of physical viewpoints and mathematical expressions of the same theory (for example, of quantum electrodynamics) available to him. This may be asking too much of one man. Then new students should as a class have this. If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction—a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory—who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unusual point of view; one that he may have to invent for himself. I say sacrificed himself because he most likely will get nothing from it, because the truth may lie in another direction, perhaps even the fashionable one.

But, if my own experience is any guide, the sacrifice is really not great because if the peculiar viewpoint taken is truly experimentally equivalent to the usual in the realm of the known there is always a range of applications and problems in this realm for which the special viewpoint gives one a special power and clarity of thought, which is valuable in itself. Furthermore, in the search for new laws, you always have the psychological excitement of feeling that possibly nobody has yet thought of the crazy possibility you are looking at right now.

— Richard P. Feynman, The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 1965

Tim Harford wrote a worrying piece in the Financial Times this weekend, entitled "Why there will never be another Da Vinci." His premise, which he finds plenty of data to support, is that human knowledge is becoming so vast and deep that it is likely impossible for any one human being to have a broad, multidisciplinary understanding of any of it. Breadth implies shallowness, and depth requires a level of specialization heretofore unseen in human history. Scientific literature is now produced by teams of researchers, all of whom are older and have had to study longer and deeper to contribute important work than their predecessors. Barring another Dark Age, he writes, "there will never be another Da Vinci."

He believes we can solve the problem of continued innovation via proper attention to organization, funding the big, expensive projects under government supervision and encouraging more radical innovation under the aegis of for-profit venture capital. But this scheme omits the important objective of funding ongoing fundamental research outside the mainstream of accepted science, which is something neither big scientific bureaucracies nor financially motivated enterprises are particularly good at doing. Perhaps this can be done via hands-off funding of truly independent basic research efforts by government—subject to the normal risks such potentially disruptive, politically unsponsored efforts face in any society—or via private foundations. Certainly one should take some measure of comfort that major research universities have, to date, fostered just this sort of independent foundational research. Let us hope they can preserve this deeply uneconomic—yet profoundly important—activity in an age when more and more people within and without academia question the value and purpose of its mission.

* * *

On the one hand, one can worry that the industrialization of science—like factory workers on an assembly line—raises the serious risk that no-one involved will have the knowledge or the wisdom to challenge the premises upon which the science factory works. For never forget that the fundamental mission of science is to question. The less an individual scientist knows about the factory or the materials and tools she is working with, the less she will be able to challenge what she is doing and how. Notwithstanding their stated missions, it is well known that—organizationally at least—bureaucracies exist primarily to defend, expand, and replicate themselves. Bureaucratizing existing scientific paradigms—like the tens of billions being spent at CERN to test the Standard Model of particle physics—only tends to ensure they are that much more difficult to challenge and overthrow. If it is to fulfill its social function, science cannot afford to become sclerotic. If science does not carry an institutional mandate to both allow and encourage challenging it at the root, it is no longer science. It is engineering, or product development.

On the other hand, however, one can see an upside to the dwindling breadth of knowledge of individual scientists. For ignorance of what is "known for a fact," and "how things are done" can be extremely liberating for an independent thinker. Richard Feynman accomplished as much as he did in large part because he refused to stand upon the shoulders of his predecessors and colleagues. He learned for himself, and developed truly innovative ways of thinking about difficult problems because he started from first principles. Of course, Richard Feynmann was a bloody genius, and he had the mental tools to build from scratch what 99.8% of his colleagues could only begin to take on faith and precedent.

But let's not kid ourselves. The great leaps of scientific discovery and innovation have almost always sprung from the fevered brow of some Prometheus. The rest of us—smart as we may objectively be—are simply ants in the anthill, building, foraging, fighting, dying. Our passage, if we are lucky, is marked by small improvements to the existing structure of human knowledge and society. It takes the fundamentally alien intelligence of a genius to see things we cannot see, to kick over the anthill we have devoted our lives to because it is in the wrong place.

So I cannot bemoan, with Mr. Harford, that "Wall Street and the City find it so easy to recruit disaffected young physicists." The ones who trade careers as workers in the scientific anthill for more lucrative and less demanding ones programming Gaussian copulas in the financial one will not be missed. Nor will the ones who decamp to Silicon Valley to design virtual farm animals.

Factory workers are a dime a dozen, and genius is not a numbers game.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

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