Monday, June 20, 2005

Searching for Einstein

This being the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's miraculous year, there's a lot of focus on this singular genius, and many questions about why he remains so unique. Lee Smolin writes an interesting opinion piece in the June Physics Today on why no new Einsteins have emerged.

Many of Einstein's contemporaries testified that he was not unusually talented mathematically. Instead, what enabled him to make such tremendous advances was a driving need to understand the logic of nature, tied to a breathtaking creativity and a fierce intellectual independence. But Einstein does not stand alone. One can cite many examples showing that big advances in physics come when unusually creative and intellectually independent individuals ask new questions and forge new directions.

Isn't it ironic that science needs maverick thinkers, but meanwhile the insiders are doing everything they can to stifle any questioning of Darwinism? This materialist orthdoxy is not restricted to biology: physicists like Lawrence Kraus have been vocal defenders of fortress Darwin, as has Physics Today.

The question that Smolin engages is how our society can better promote Einstein-caliber creativity. I am rather doubtful that physics as it now stands can accomodate such a change. As Smolin himself notes:

It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing.

To give the advantage to people who are unusually creative and independent, we should change the measures we use to judge quality and promise.

Despite the fact that physics shuns qualities to concentrate exclusively on quantity, its practitioners may well retain enough humanity to evaluate papers qualitatively. On the other hand, to admit that qualities are not simply subjective but have a real existence in the world cuts across the grain not only of physics, but also the culture it has left us. In a society as litigious as our own, it is difficult to see how such a practice could fail to inspire lawsuits for "unfairness." Qualities have no numbers to hide behind.

Smolin mentions institutional paths of other countries:

Some other countries seem to be better at making room for the independent thinkers. The UK, through the Royal Society Fellowships, is able to pick very bright mavericks who would not be hired in the US, and give their careers good starts. France picks a small number of very talented young scientists and gives them permanent positions; that security immunizes them to some extent from sociological pressures. Canada has opened the Perimeter Institute, whose specific mandate is to be a home for independent foundational thinkers, and other such projects are in planning stages around the world.

Shifts in funding such as Smolin proposes might be helpful, but I think it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, for an Einstein to be government funded.1 Government funding is a great thing, but—let's admit it—compromises academic freedom. Government funding has to be justified to keep free-loaders from sponging off public funds. The liberality of pure research has a difficult time justifying itself, especially without a consensus. A government program can't crank out scientific geniuses any more than a computer can create great literature.2

But government funds can through their symbolic significance at least indirectly influence the intellectual climate. I think Smolin's more cultural suggestions are more directly helpful.

When a group of researchers aggressively pursues a research program but has little interaction with either experiment or outsiders, the group tends to overinterpret results, undervalue risks, and complacently postpone facing up to hard questions and negative results. This is groupthink—a well-documented phenomenon in government, intelligence agencies, and business. When it happens in an academic specialty, the fault is not with a scientist who aggressively promotes his or her program. The whole scientific community makes the rules that allow consensus to be established without sufficient evidence.

Most of his suggestions seek to rectify groupthink3 by opening communities of consensus to rival points of view.

Additionally we have a tougher time here in America, since our society is no great promoter of intellectual independence. Smolin notes,

It is ironic that the US, which rightly encourages racial and gender diversity, worries less about ensuring the creative and intellectual diversity on which the health of science depends.

Actually, it's only ironic if you've never read Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Our egalitarianism society ("democracy") shuns intellectual diversity.

But suppose American society weren't so intellectually uniform and suppose physicists were able to institute Smolin's recommendations. I wonder how effective any change would be in producing geniuses. Could Einstein have so effectively questioned the status quo if he hadn't suffered as an outsider? Notice that his later years at the cush Institute for Advanced Science (in Princeton) were his least productive. (The IAS has a reputation as an elephant graveyard.) Even in principle, an inside outsider is a paradox, if not a contradiction in terms. Perhaps the solution is better conceptualized as an expansion of the realm of the "reasonable": some rival ideas, no matter how meritorious, will always be excluded.

1. There are limits (most of them reasonable) to how truly revolutionary one can be. For example, what kind of response would most scientists give to an investigation of qualities?

2. Cf. the Lucas-Penrose argument that the human mind cannot be a computer program (see Barr's Modern Physics and Ancient Faith).

3. See post on groupthink: Smart People Don't Know Everything

Lee Smolin, "Why No 'New Einstein'?", Physics Today 58:6 (June 2005), 56-57. (subscription required: some of his points reprinted here)

Thanks to the SciScoop article: Why No "New Einstein"?

Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 213-215.

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