The following comments are not final unalterable statements. They are merely opinions based on our observations. We decided to present them here, because they partly explain the ‘screwed up’ philosophy of this blog.
Over the years, we have observed three traits among very good scientists -
(i) they always push the boundaries of their own limits,
(ii) they do not stay constrained by the amount of funding, and often invent an way around to solve the puzzle they are after,
(iii) they rarely ‘worship’ people.
If your observations differ from ours, please share them in the comment section.
Let us elaborate on (i-iii).
Pushing boundaries of own limit
We do not expect a very intelligent biologist to understand string theory right off the bat. However, we do not give him minus points, even if he does not get it after ten elaborate lectures. How open the person is to ‘crazy ideas’ sitting right at the border of his comfort zone is a better measure.
Here is an example from physics. By early 1930s, mathematical theories of quantum mechanics were formulated. At that time, a scientist named Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was working on his Ph. D. thesis on stars at Cambridge, and he decided to apply equations of quantum theory on stellar system to see what happened. Mathematically there was nothing complicated given Chandrasekhar worked extensively on modeling stars, and he could learn quantum mechanics from Dirac sitting next door. Still it was a crazy idea to apply the equations of very tiny things to very large objects like stars.
Chandrasekhar made some startling discoveries for which he was publicly ridiculed by Sir Arthur Eddington, a famous astrophysicist at the university. He was so embarrassed that he decided to leave UK to join scientific backwaters of USA. The rest is history.
Innovating way out of lack of funding
This trait about talented scientists is well accepted by others, and does not need further explanation. We would like to instead spend time on the third point.
Worshiping science, not people
We have generally observed that bad/mediocre scientists tend to settle arguments saying ‘you are in disagreement with Professor so and so, who is a Nobel laureate’. It happens more frequently, when the discussion is outside the area of expertise of the scientist. Disagreement with Krugman on economics, for example, is considered sacrilege. Good scientists, on the other hand, are more receptive to unusual ideas.
In some way, the three mentioned traits are inter-related. For doing things with less money means the scientists need to be receptive to crazy ideas. Those crazy ideas may not come from higher up, because those with hands dirty are more likely to find nice short cuts.
In our opinion, US scientific culture of present time is experiencing two opposing forces.
1. Breeding mediocrity: The regular organizational structure of academic institutions breeds mediocrity, and mediocrity is creeping up given that the above structure has been pursued for many years. By their structure, US academic institutions promote researchers getting them more grants. Grants are reviewed by panels likely dominated by mediocre scientists (out of five panelists, one looking for unusual ideas gets opposed by four looking for conformity and brand-names). Even an excellent scientist may be forced to play by the rules of mediocrity within the above structure. If he does not get grants, he cannot attract good students, or send his papers out or go to conferences.
2. Revolt of excellent: As we argued, good scientists invent their way around problems posed to them. Internet has taken the role of disruptive technology to break the barrier posed by 1. We will elaborate on this point in a different commentary.
Here is a quick comment about our blog. We do not know whether we are good scientists, but at least we like to adhere to good practice of worshiping ideas, not people. When we write the commentaries, we try to remain as anonymous as possible so that each commentary gets accepted/rejected for its content, not for the person(s) writing it. For that reason, we do not have any ‘about us’ link on the sidebar. We expect ‘about us’ to be reflected in hundreds of posted commentaries.
Please feel free to comment on any part of the above discussion you do not agree with.