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What do you guys think


Mosquito---Slayer

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Tesla was an important guy, and they named the SI unit of magnetic field strength after him. A 1-Tesla magnetic field is an awfully strong one. This is not a minor, unimportant unit. It's almost up there with the Newton.

 

He was not, however, quite everything that his boosters love to claim. In spite of undoubtedly being a genius, and creating several important inventions, he was simultaneously quite a crackpot. He had his own unique theory of electromagnetism, which was fundamentally wrong. He did not understand the definitive work of Clark Maxwell, even though it was decades old by his own time.

 

There were a lot of things that Tesla thought should be possible, based on his own crazy theories. The way he thought they could be done did not work, and could never have worked, because his theory was wrong. In a lot of cases, though, similar things to what Tesla predicted did, in fact, turn out to be possible. Not the way he said they would be possible, but in quite other ways. Electromagnetism doesn't work quite the way Tesla thought it did, but it is a complex and amazing phenomenon, and it can do an awful lot of different things. Giving Tesla credit for all of the later electromagnetic inventions is in some cases a bit like giving a medieval fantasist credit for the moonshots, because he wrote about flying to the moon in a chair pulled by geese.

 

The other point is that Tesla was by no means the only person messing around with electricity. Scientific giants like Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz and Helmholtz had been doing lots of basic things for decades. Marconi did not and does not get any credit for first thinking of sending information with electromagnetic waves. Neither should Tesla. The experimental proofs of principle had all been done years before, by Hertz and others. Marconi was the first to make practical radios, and Tesla wasn't. And I think some of the other things that Tesla fans crow about are similar. Tesla said some stuff before someone else made the things actually work, but other people said that stuff even before Tesla.

 

Tesla is not an unsung hero. He deserves to be sung fairly loud, and he is. He doesn't deserve much more acclaim than he has. The greater irony is probably that people who champion Tesla as some kind of geek icon seem themselves to be lacking the basic geek credibility of understanding electricity well enough to know that much of what Tesla said about it was nonsense.

 

TLDR version: The Oatmeal is a webcomic, not the National Academy of Science.

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Are we dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants?

Or are we giants standing on the shoulders of other giants?

 

I tend to hold the second view. It's a remarkable view from the top, even if we're so high up that our vision gets obscured.

The view is great whether you're huge or tiny as long as your stack of giants is big enough.

 

—Alorael, who takes the view that most people aren't giants. Fortunately, you don't need to be; every generations has its scientific titans to stack higher and give you a hand up to see farther. Or you can wait for more ordinary-scale scientists and thinkers to clamber up over each other. The pile may be messier and involve more small pieces but you can still get a great view. Just keep up with the literature.

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On the other hand, the rate of really great scientific advances clearly does not scale with the rate of production of literature. In physics, at least, the whole universe changed several times within the first half of the 20th century, when the number of physicists and their rate of publication were far lower than they are today. Just subjectively, I seem to see a lot of papers that aren't really very interesting in fundamental terms, but claim prominence because they advance a current hot topic, which is itself mainly hot just because a lot of papers are trying to advance it. A little less subjectively, I've had several conversations with colleagues in recent Octobers, in which we admit that we have no idea who should win the year's Nobel prize in physics, because all the people on our personal lists of those who really deserve it have already won it. The prize has to be given out each year, and it always goes to outstanding people, but lately the line about dwarfs upon giants has acquired a certain wistful tone.

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That's what my comments were about, really. Physics has stalled somewhat since World War 2. There are still advances, but none are those immense paradigm shifts of the first half of the 20th century. I am not a physicist, but those that I know regularly bemoan the lack of any really interesting new knowledge coming out of the field. There's research, and it produces results, but none of it really matters outside of the of the academic ivory towers.

 

Biology, on the other hand, is in the process of exploding. Not in paradigm shifts, exactly, but in sheer amount of material available. Imaging resolution is getting better and better. Sequencing is more and more common. Genetic manipulation has become more and more sophisticated, technically achievable, and commonplace. Many of the promised practical breakthroughs, mostly in medicine, remain years away like they have been indefinitely, but those years are probably becoming less indefinite. And there aren't really giants involved there either, just a lot of work in a lot of directions.

 

—Alorael, who is pretty sure that the way academia works has just made the rate of paper production go up steadily. But that's why you have to keep up now: there are far fewer single killer publications that open up new vistas of scientific understanding. Part of that is just the nature of how science works now, though; it's becoming increasing bizarre to award Nobel Prizes to just a small handful of scientists when the work may be the result of collaboration among many more researchers. And the statistician never gets the credit.

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I'm not sure physics has really stalled all that badly, in absolute terms. Quantum electrodynamics, semiconductors and superconductors, and the laser, were worked out in the 50s and 60s. The electroweak unification was pinned down in the early 1980s, which was pretty decent for fundamental stuff. There has also been quite interesting stuff since then in basic quantum mechanics, and cosmology has made big strides. The overall rate of progress in the last thirty years can't really compete with the best decades ever, but it hasn't been any worse than some earlier comparative lulls that were in between those.

 

It's just that while the delivery of great physics has stagnated at best, the production of merely excellent physics has grown quite incommensurately. I'm beginning to think this reflects a form of Parkinson's Law, according to which bureaucracies tend to grow at rates independent of the amount of administrative work to be done, because bureaucrats make work for other bureaucrats. Excellence in physics is splendid stuff because it's quite easy to recognize. Excellence always is. Whoever can shoot tiddlywinks closest to the cup from ten meters is the world's most excellent tiddlywinker. Unfortunately it's not clear that we should really be rewarding excellence in tiddlywinking, or physics, as much as we are.

 

The value of great physics is incontestable, but the merely excellent stuff is not actually so great. We pay big superstar premiums to get tomorrow's breakthroughs by late tonight, and thereby we train generations of humanity's brightest minds to be brilliant apple-polishers, adept at making their excellent work look as great as possible. The law of diminishing returns is not mocked.

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It's not obviously true that there's any way to provide economic incentives for greatness; at some level it's a quirk of genetics and upbringing that produces extraordinary people. Excellence, though, can be bought. And it may well be worth buying. You've said before that we're paying exorbitantly for tomorrow's science today. There's truth to that: the more we pay, the more scientists we probably get and the more work they can do, and the faster the work comes. With less money, the fewer scientists would be slower and we'd get the same results. But it doesn't follow that it's better to pay less for slower science. Over enough days the difference becomes noticeable.

 

—Alorael, who sees the other problem as inherent to great breakthroughs. You can't see a paradigm shift coming; it is, by definition, outside the current paradigm. You can't pay only for big stuff because it's never obvious where or when it will happen. You can only hope that if you recruit enough excellent talent one of them will turn out to be one of those rare people who can really push the field beyond its limits.

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I think that's all quite right, except that I'd like to add a third category below greatness and excellence, and call it 'quality'. To some degree I'm just trying to give all three positive-sounding names, and up to a point I'll accept that my 'quality' category is a lot like 'mediocrity'. But I don't really mean that in a bad way. I mean stuff that is sound and solid and meaningful, just not as flashy as the stuff that counts as excellent. I kind of have the idea that excellence = quality + polish, and greatness = quality + luck.

 

To get any greatness we need to have some excellence, if only so we'll be ready to really polish up the greatness when we get it. A lot of the great breakthroughs were pretty clunky in their initial forms. But we need more plain quality, because to some extent excellence actively inhibits greatness, by emphasizing the existing standards by which excellence can be judged. Mainly, though, just because you can get more people cheaper, hence more chances for luck to strike, if you don't pay the premium for excellence. I'm getting a bit worried that we've been excusing under-investment in quality with over-investment in excellence, and that as a strategy for achieving greatness, that's not so great.

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