Scientists You Should Know

I fall somewhere in the middle of the camp that looks at the progress of science as a series of spikes precipitated by Great Men (and a few Great Women), and the camp that sees new discoveries as inevitable given the pressing questions of the day and the level of instrumentation available. Most of the time someone was going to discover or explain a given phenomenon anyway, and the horse race included some very smart also-rans who would have arrived at the same conclusions if the front runner were removed from the picture.

However, certain intellects can paint a coherent picture of Nature in a way that most mortals canít, and when those intellects come along, study hard, and are allowed to apply themselves to what amounts to a metastable collection of old knowledge, the progress of science leaps much further ahead in a much shorter time than if a bunch of less motivated, mediocre intellects were slowly plugging away at the same problems. There are plenty of instances in history where a given civilization had all the tools and observations at hand to discover or explain something, and for some reason just didnít. The Chinese should have invented and perfected cannons long before the West. They didnít, and a lot of that has to do with the freeing of individual intellects caused by competition between European states, as opposed to the push to maintain the social and technological status quo in Imperial China.

Ultimately, I think that the people who most vociferously champion the social progress model of scientific change do so out of a post-modernist knee-jerk reaction against praising individual effort, an inferiority complex born of math envy, as well as out of a lack of understanding of metastable states, and how long they can last when peopleís blinders are on.

A metastable state is an avalanche waiting to happen: the snow is packed – any little sound could trigger a deluge Ė but so far nothing has. The world waits for a pebble, or a discoverer, and the longer it takes for the discoverer to arrive, the further forward in time we push the fruits of that discovery. Hey you! Yeah you, the post-modernist sitting there, reading this on the Net. The material comforts you enjoy today are yours, and not your childrenís, to enjoy because some hardworking lab rat decided that he was going to understand this or that phenomenon right now, rather than getting around to it later. And then that understanding led to more understanding, until the doctor sending your bloodwork out can just about tell more from that simple battery of tests than every specialist in the world alive in 1900 could tell about you after weeks of using every trick they knew. Stick that in your ďsocial progressĒ pipe and smoke it.

I do not think that scientists get enough credit and publicity in any modern society. Iím sure thatís surprising coming from a Chemist, right? But is does strike me as a bit ungrateful on the part of society at large. And there are few greater sins in my book than that of being an ingrate. Robert Heinlein said something pertinent to this topic once:

Most people can’t think, most of the remainder won’t think, the small fraction who do think mostly can’t do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion- in the long run these are the only people who count…

Or, as J.B.S. Haldane put the same sentiment:

Einstein ó the greatest Jew since Jesus. I have no doubt that Einstein’s name will still be remembered and revered when Lloyd George, Foch and William Hohenzollern share with Charlie Chaplin that uneluctable oblivion which awaits the uncreative mind.”

But creative minds are often only rewarded posthumously. Itís true. We owe more to the guys who invented and then imported the horse collar for the plow than we do to any individual general from Charlemagneís day, yet Roland is a name we remember Ė some dude so stupid he fell into a Basque ambush, while we donít know the name of the guy who imported the horse collar to Germany from China (probably during Charlemagneís reign), or the name of the Chinese genius who invented it. How many people know the name of Nicolas FranÁois Appert? (I didnít offhand, either, I had to look it up Ė but I did know he was 18th / 19th century French). Yet with out his invention of canning (or bottling, in the early days of using champagne bottles), Napoleonís Army would probably not have attempted the Russian campaign. Ultimately the C Rats of WWII would have been invented by someone else, but Napoleonís army would have withdrawn its reach quite a bit waiting for some future inventor to set the world on the path towards Meals Ready to Excrete.*

Iíve been planning a series of posts for a while on the unsung heroes of science. What I want to do with this Scientists You Should Know series of essays is to research people who have shaped our world, but didnít work in the splashy God Does Not Play Dice fields. Everyone knows E=mc2, but how many people know ∂C/∂t = D∂2C/∂x2 ? Fickís Laws of Diffusion impact your life in a hell of a lot more ways than relativity. In this series, Iím going do some digging to bring up a lot of people of whom I am only peripherally aware, or perhaps even ignorant. Because I hate being an ingrate.

* Actually the new MREs are a lot better than they were in my college days Ė they are now so good that you actually want to eat them.

[UPDATE: it seems that not having eaten an MRE in a few years has kept me out of the loop. From my blog-buddy CW:

“MREs are not quite as good as they used to be, I think. They seem to have sort of peaked out.

I just got back from a mercifully short all-expense-paid vacation that involved eating them twice a day (which I really don’t recommend), and while edible – unlike the pre-Desert Storm-versions – they haven’t improved in a while and some of my favourite selections are gone. Meanwhile the perennial losers, like “Country Captain Chicken” and the “Ham Slice” are still around. “]

7 thoughts on “Scientists You Should Know”

  1. We remember the name Roland because of the genius of the poet, who made Roland (actually named something like Hruodland) into the embodiment of the virtues that were prized in those days. We know pretty much nothing about the real Roland, other than he was killed in the passes of the Pyranees. He may or may not have been stupid. He obviously made an impression on his contemporaries. That poet’s name, like the guy who invented the horse-collar, is also unknown.

  2. I’d submit that the poet would have ignored Roland if not for the patronage of Charlemagne and others in power. I’m bineg a little unfir because Charlemagne did emphasize education for his people, and that climate may have been the necessary one favorable for innovation that made the importer pick up the horse collar. That, more than any military campaign, may have been Charlemagne’s greatest contribution to Western Civ. But until relatively modern times, the creative mind has not been rewarded, or indeed remembered.

  3. We also often forget what scientists actually do. Ask the typical person what formula Einstein got his Nobel Prize for and they will say “E=M*C-squared” when he actually got it for “E=H*nu” (the formula that describes how much energy can be imparted to an electron from an incoming photon.)

    And because of this, we have a vast majority of Americans believing that useful solar panels are only “a little more research away” when in reality the only way to improve on current cells is to change Planc’s constant.

  4. And Einstein’s other major contribution was to settle the debate about the material existence of atoms via his work on Brownian motion. Even fewer people know about that one.

  5. Actually, the Chanson de Roland seems to have grown out of popular folk poetry, not from Charlemagne’s patronage. See this. There is no saying why this or that tale catches the public imagination.

    I think you are probably right that scientists and their contributions are undervalued and too little known. I think you may be overstating it to say that creative minds have not been rewarded until modern times. Rulers have sought out skilled people to carry out tasks for them for as long as we have records. But it is true that their names are often unknown.

  6. Well, Peter the Gret sought out a lot of skilled people to drag Russia kicking and screaming into the 18th century. I know hardly any of their names. I know plenty of the names of his court and Boyar enemies. That had changed by the time Euler was recruited to found the St. Petersburg school, though.

    But point taken – people in general tend to romaticize certain professions, not just elite patrons. Perhaps I don’t mean to say “rewarded”, perhaps I mean to say “rewarded commensurate with their contribution”.

  7. I think we tend to romanticize professions based on the ease in which the work of the profession can be depicted in a story. Soldiers and police, for example, make good subjects because violence is the easiest of stories to tell.

    If I had to chose one profession that never gets romanticize I would chose accounting. Accounting is very hard to depict in a story because it all about excruciating detail. Indeed, accounts we depict accountants as the very archetype of boring. Its considered absolutely hilarious if someone pretends to try to make accounting exciting.

    Yet, accounting and related professions are easily as important as science to our civilization. Indeed, I think that it was the development of accounting, finance and business management that truly distinguished northern Europe from the rest of the world. At the start of the enlightenment a lot of cultures had science and technology the equal of Europe but none of the had the joint-stock company, the bank or a naval board.

    If aliens kidnapped all our scientist it would cause us problems eventually but if they kidnapped all our accountants or civilization would slammed to a halt in a matter of days. Its something to think about.

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