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View Full Version : Uncommon genius and punctuated equilibrium



absael
2005-Sep-15, 10:42 PM
Does it occur to anyone else that scientific progress plods along until a single person makes a discovery that propels civilization into a new era? Where would we be without Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Salk... it seems that a handful of people have shaped our destiny. These discoveries would have been made eventually, of course, but there were a few who were so far ahead of their time that our lives would be different without them. I guess it just strikes me as odd that, with so many extremely intelligent people working on the tough problems in physics, medicine etc., so many of the discoveries that have changed our lives were made by so few people.

Enzp
2005-Sep-16, 04:26 AM
That is not a fair summary. Those folks made great contributions, but there were other people thinking in similar ways. Salk comes up with a vaccine ahead of all the others who were also working on a vaccine. He stood on the shoulders of others who had been doing vaccine research for years. These innovators were not working in a vacuum. There are many stories of some inventor beating another inventor to the patent office by a day - with essentially the same thing.

many times two independent researchers discover each other because they ar both working along the same lines. They then collaborate and we gain even more for it.

We associate Lindbergh with crossing the Atlantic solo, but without him, someone else would have done it. I take nothing away from the people you mention, but it is not an all or nothing thing.

publiusr
2005-Sep-16, 05:12 PM
That depends. Let me give you a for instance. There is a new way in which to mathematically predict the failure of welds--called Verity.

This was the product of a Chinese man who worked in the fields 12 hrs, and whose two prized books (one on math, the other physics) were pretty much what he brought with him.

I must say that I am very glad he was NOT born in the USA, for he would have been a Nintendo/Tolkien addict who would have contributed very little to society. The alt.space generation lack the iron will the Gulag provided to the Fathers of the R-7.

I am of the opinion that--if we had to start the study of math all over again--we would never see anyone with the discipline to reproduce Newton's Principia.

He was a product of his age--no electronic distractions, servants allowing for deep thought. But the principia only came along once.

If only I had a time machine to go back to the Library at Alexandria.

Who knows what one-offs we lost there.

Yes we all have the same capacity for thought (comforting) but at the same time--you have to have the right mind come along at the right time.

Someone may discover a sneak formula that Fermat discovered as a proof to his last theorum that really was to big to fit in the margin. But Wiles proof means more--a 20th Century proof. But who knows--perhaps a way of reducing modular elliptical curves as a variable was discovered by a stroke of genius in some relationship between objects.

If so, it is just as well it wasn't found, so as not to prevent Wiles Tour de force.

If the sneak proof were uncovered now--no damage is done.

Taks
2005-Sep-16, 08:46 PM
keep in mind, too, that even einstein's works were based on ideas from many other physicists. he just got the final puzzle together for all to see, and even then there was much work to be done (still is).

often times the "greats" of society just happen to be those that are in the right place at the right time. how many people even know who invented the integrated circuit, arguably the most important "discovery" of the 20th century? (answer: jack kilby, recently deceased). he got a nobel in 1997, but nowhere near the "guy who changed the world" status as some of those mentioned in this thread. in fact, he was not alone, either, in his discoveries.

tak

Swift
2005-Sep-16, 10:31 PM
In another thread, several people pointed out that Quantum Mechanics is a great example of a field where there wasn't a single "Einstein", but a lot of contributors. I would say that QM has shaped our era as much as Relativity.

Disinfo Agent
2005-Sep-16, 10:44 PM
Before the 19th century, there wasn't really much investment in science, and so it took monomaniacal geniuses, often financially backed up by eccentric aristocrats, to come up with a breakthrough, and those were few and far between. I think the Industrial Revolution finally convinced governments and private corporations that intellectual research was something worth supporting. More and more countries began to do that, and now there is a world wide legion of researchers working on all sorts of problems. Since there are more people attacking the big issues bit by bit, genius has become less crucial, and progress more gradual.

$0.02

cfgauss
2005-Sep-17, 05:58 AM
Thousands of people have worked on, for example, computers. Making and refining various components and software. From the people who design processors to optimize efficiency, to the people who write assembly code so the components can communicate with each other and with higher level code, and the people who write operating system components, and programs that run on the computers, and programs that communicate with other computers... Our entire economy depends on these thousands of people! Don't forget about them! There're also plenty of people who work on other important things, too. Like the people who work on mapping the human genome, etc, etc.

HenrikOlsen
2005-Sep-17, 08:23 AM
Before the 19th century, there wasn't really much investment in science, and so it took monomaniacal geniuses, often financially backed up by eccentric aristocrats, to come up with a breakthrough, ...
A few of many exceptions to your idea that govenment sponsored research is new:
Tycho Brahe who for a period had more that 1% of Denmark's income for funding, which resulted in measurements that where precise enough for Kepler to find his laws of motion.
Ole Roemer, discovered that light has a finite speed. Was royal mathematician for a long time and standardised the Danish measurements.
Maximillian Hell who had his journey in 1769 to northern Norway to observe the Venus transit paid for by the Danish King.

Disinfo Agent
2005-Sep-17, 03:30 PM
A few of many exceptions to your idea that govenment sponsored research is new:I wasn't denying that government sponsored research existed before the Industrial Revolution. I just don't think it was as strong or as deliberate a policy as it became afterwards.

hhEb09'1
2005-Sep-18, 04:51 PM
I wasn't denying that government sponsored research existed before the Industrial Revolution. I just don't think it was as strong or as deliberate a policy as it became afterwards.Things are differrent today, but not completely different. Catherine, Peter the Great's wife, founded the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1725 and the sciences were well supported later by Catherine the Great--and Napolean's science teams are legendary. We just don't have emporors and empresses nowadays. :)

publiusr
2005-Sep-21, 05:17 PM
Before the 19th century, there wasn't really much investment in science, and so it took monomaniacal geniuses, often financially backed up by eccentric aristocrats, to come up with a breakthrough, and those were few and far between. I think the Industrial Revolution finally convinced governments and private corporations that intellectual research was something worth supporting. More and more countries began to do that, and now there is a world wide legion of researchers working on all sorts of problems. Since there are more people attacking the big issues bit by bit, genius has become less crucial, and progress more gradual.

$0.02

I have to disagree. I see a retreat of science/space spending looming as the "free-trade solves everything" types try to undermine research.

Disinfo Agent
2005-Sep-22, 10:27 AM
I didn't say the trend can't be reversed... ;)

JohnD
2005-Sep-22, 12:42 PM
Another point against the 'key genius' proposition is that there are examples of people who did make a great discovery, but who lacked the character or means to pursue and publish it.
Eg Fleming and penicillin - Chain and Florey shared the Nobel with him, but did Fleming deserve his share? He looked on the drug as merely a means of discriminating resistant bacteria on the plate.
Mendel, a shy monk, was long dead before his ideas were 'discovered' by biology.

And of simultaneous discovery - Darwin was only prompted to publish when Alfred Wallace sent him a copy of his own paper on natural selection. Darwin was lucky, in his personal and professional siutaion, while Wallace was unlucky - it could so easily have been the other way. If it had, we would be defending "Wallaceism"!

Lastly, that Newton was magnificent is undoubted, but he was a thoroughly unpleasant man, whose pursuit of Liebniz for the credit of discovering the calculus was despicable. But for that personality trait, Leibniz could have the honour today.
It has been said above that most discoveries are the culmination of the work of many, a thought encapsulated in Newton's words that he stood merely, "on the shoulders of giants". In fact, when he said that he was just mocking Hooke's short height. Not a nice man!

John

HenrikOlsen
2005-Sep-22, 12:48 PM
Which one was it who said he'd gotten where he was because he stood on the shoulders of dwarfs?

Fram
2005-Sep-22, 01:15 PM
Which one was it who said he'd gotten where he was because he stood on the shoulders of dwarfs?

Umberto Eco uses it in 'The name of the Rose', and it is also part of the title of a book by Ingrid De Smet, but you probably mean John Faulkner, although it has also been attributed to Alain de Lille. Hmm, another of those quote origin searches...

The original (with giants instead of dwarfs) is Newton of course.

PeterFab
2005-Sep-22, 04:14 PM
Which one was it who said he'd gotten where he was because he stood on the shoulders of dwarfs?

It was Murray Gell-Mann.
At least according to Timothy Ferris in 'Coming of Age in the Milky Way'

I only have the danish translation 'Mælkevejens Krønike'. Here the quote is on p 268-269 in Chapter 16.

Taks
2005-Sep-22, 04:37 PM
I have to disagree. I see a retreat of science/space spending looming as the "free-trade solves everything" types try to undermine research.that's patently false. while government spending is important, more research is done in the name of free-trade profits than will ever be accomplished by gov't funding. much more. corporate research is much cheaper due to capitalist efficiencies.

remember the $700 toilet seat? the seat didn't cost that much, but the fact that labor bills out to hundreds of dollars an hour (i'm billed at about $200/hr before fee of 20% or so), and several people have to touch the seat before installation (plus a half hour installation), suddenly you have a toilet seat that costs that much (actually, more today then when people first started griping about such things). commercial endeavors do not suffer from such things...

sorry bud, but you're off the mark on this one.

taks

publiusr
2005-Sep-22, 05:01 PM
TVA says I'm not. You might have apoint with genome research--but CERN and other types of Big Science do in fact need Gov't support that the Ayn Rand woo-woos threaten.

Gillianren
2005-Sep-22, 08:09 PM
If it had, we would be defending "Wallaceism"!

which is hard to say. or at least not as mellifluous as "Darwinism." wonder what effect that would've had on the debate . . . .

publiusr
2005-Sep-23, 07:27 PM
which is hard to say. or at least not as mellifluous as "Darwinism." wonder what effect that would've had on the debate . . . .

Just some quips about standing in the school-house door of science or something.

Darwinism just sounds spot on--maybe because we are familiar with the word--but it almost sounds like his name was meant to be remembered...