How do we support today’s Einsteins?

April 1, 2009,

Is today's academic and corporate culture stifling science’s risk-takers and stopping disruptive, revolutionary science from coming to the fore? In April’s Physics World the science writer Mark Buchanan looks at those who have shifted scientific paradigms and asks what we can do to make sure that those who have the potential to change our outlook on the world also have the opportunity to do so.

When Max Planck accidentally discovered , he kick-started the most significant scientific revolution of the 20th century; his colleague, Wilhelm Röntgen’s experiments with cathode rays led inadvertently to the discovery of X-rays, which ultimately revolutionised modern medical practice; and US physicists at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, detected cosmic wave background radiation -- the echo of the Big Bang -- when trying to get rid of the annoying noise being picked up by their microwave receiver.

Would today’s physicists, plagued by the publish-or-perish ethic, have the same freedom to explore their findings?

Buchanan offers a selection of different perspectives in the article. He looks, for example, at suggestions that scientists themselves could take a financial risk in speculative research depending on whether they do or do not think it will pay off, as well as proposals - through, say, 10-year fellowships - that allow scientists to pursue really "hard", long-standing problems without the pressure for rapid results.

A second article in this month’s edition of World explores the emergence of “econophysics”, which originally stemmed from research at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico - one of few centres dedicated to innovative, high-risk and often inter-disciplinary research. In the article, Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, head of research at Capital Fund Management, explains how “Econophysics” seeks to construct a much more complete picture of the economy through power-laws and “toy” models inspired by physics. Going beyond our flawed classical understanding of economics, which assumes that the markets act rationally, it is an example of truly innovative, inter-disciplinary physics that could change the way we view our world.

As Buchanan writes, “The price to pay for not moving to re-establish [scientific] independence will lie in a failure to realise the huge and unpredictable discoveries that move science forward most in the long term - discoveries made possible only when individuals leap out of what is comfortable and accepted, and wander out into spaces unknown.”

Provided by Institute of Physics (news : web)

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1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2009
I know personally that there is a lot of opposition to great minds.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2009
The older I get the more I appreciate that sage old advice that it's more who you know, vs. what you know, that determines success. Even in school if your profs like you, you get a better shot at grad school. More generally, if you have a revolutionary new product, expect more conservative (i.e. more likely gainfully employed) folks to downplay it- just ask A. G. Bell about the response he got to his then new invention (the telephone) from bankers and other bureacratic types (i.e. it has no marketable value).

I see the same fear or reluctance to accept and embrace change holds in many policy makers and leaders today, despite pervasive ongoing rhetorical support. When push comes to shove support for developing truly innovative game-changing options dies on the vine simply because established vested interests hold the line for the status quo and people are generally reluctant to make waves, especially when the seas are already pretty rough, lest they get clipped and discarded.

This is a very interesting line of enquiry and I hope to hear of more such studies.
not rated yet Apr 07, 2009
I was hoping my comments might generate a bit of a response which could then be interpreted as a rough poll of how this community stands on the subject. Agreement might indicate a certain cynicism, disagreement more idealist. Ah well
not rated yet Apr 07, 2009
I know personally that there is a lot of opposition to great minds.

This is the closest I've seen you get to being modest Farbstain.
But I'm sure that as the inventor of butt-glue, your name is the first that comes to many people when they think of "great minds".

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