Speculation on why our modern era is not producing profound science, like that of Darwin, Maxwell and Einstein. 

I wrote this essay as an afterthought, after reviewing the delightful book “Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field.

This era does not seem to be generating great scientists such as were evident in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. The names Rutherford and Einstein were on everybody’s lips in the 1950s. There is not a contemporary scientists whom most people could name.

Moreover, the best-known of the contemporary scientists, people like Trivers, Pinker, Kahneman, E.O. Wilson and others are all older men. There does not appear to be a rising generation coming to replace them.

So why is this? I believe that there are several factors.

The nineteenth century England population of 20 million produced more noted scientists than any country before or since: naturalists Charles Darwin and the Huxleys, Spearman and Fisher who founded the field of statistics, Faraday and Maxwell in physics and Davy in chemistry.  Other European countries also did quite well.

Reading their biographies, one is impressed at their varied backgrounds. People came into science not as a career, but as a calling. Faraday came from a blacksmith’s background. Gauss the mathematician from a ditch digger’s family. Lomonosov, the Russian polymath, who rode a sledge filled with fish down from the frozen north to Moscow. These men were not looking for comfortable salaried positions. Quite the contrary, they were driven by a desire to find things out.

Nineteenth century education was much less formal than today’s.  Families did what they could to educate their own children.  They hired tutors if they could afford them, sent kids to one-room schoolhouses in communities that had them, or gave them to schoolmasters who charged what the market would bear to provide an elementary education to neighborhood kids.  It was uneven, sometimes unfair – and by many accounts more effective than the highly regimented government schools that dominate today.  Judging from book sales and library usage in those times, literacy was quite high.

Smart kids in those simple days appear to have had more freedom to pursue their own interests.  They were generally not under pressure to “get an education” to make them employable.  If they came from wealthy families, society would find a place.  No education was necessary for working class jobs.  Gentlemen like Darwin and Huxley were free to dabble in science, and well-positioned mentors were attracted to the demonstrated genius of men like Faraday and Lomonosov.

Children were generally expected to work.  Most families worked on the farm.  In the cities, they might sell newspapers or work as apprentices here or there.  Most kids learned how to work with their hands, and it was not uncommon for a youngster to be exposed to several trades.  Children who did not want to be in school could more easily be somewhere else – helping support the family.  There were no school guidance counsellors working on behalf of parents to push bored kids into choosing some kind of a profession.  Nineteenth century scientists did it because they wanted to, because they were curious, not for the money, and not to satisfy their parents.

There have always been a few excellent schools where smart kids could rub shoulders with one another.  The most famous in the United States are the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in New York City and New Trier in Chicago.  My own El Cerrito High School, in the shadow of UC Berkeley, wasn’t bad.  The New York schools especially, with their high concentration of second-generation Jewish kids, were great incubators of scientific genius.  Sadly, since those times, the schools have increasingly focused their energies on raising slow kids to average rather than helping smart kids excel.  Smart people just aren’t having as many kids, and concentrations of smart kids such as the Jews in New York City have dissipated.  The intellectual climate which incubated scientific curiosity has vanished.

Some of this curiosity was evident in the 20th century. Richard Feynman (of New York City) entitled his book, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” But more and more, science has become a career. There is a virtual dragnet conducted among junior high and high school students to identify the most promising. Whatever their natural inclinations, people with the talent to do so are herded into the sciences with promises from their mothers that they can make a good career. And so they go to the university, where they are measured by professors who are already making a good career out of science. So they join the existing herd, and they may indeed make a good living.

What they often lack is this fundamental curiosity that drove earlier generations of scientists. As well, they lack the practical knowledge that many early scientists brought to the field. I think it was the physicist Rutherford who said that the ability to envision mechanical systems, the experience that came from having worked with one’s hands, was absolutely essential to his intuition. Young people entering science today generally do not have the experience of having worked with their hands. Moreover, they do not have the breadth of experience of having worked for a living doing other things, such as farm work, blacksmithing or whatever. They are on a single track which leads to science. As a consequence, there are fewer polymaths than there used to be. It is increasingly rare for a person to make contributions in more than one field.

A lot of science today is funded by the government. It could not be otherwise. Whereas Faraday and Maxwell were able to put together experiments in their own homes to discover the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism, today it takes a nuclear collider, such as the large hadron collider in Switzerland, to conduct fundamental research. The costs mount into the billions of dollars.

Since an individual scientist cannot hope to fund his own research, he is dependant on the favor of others. That favor is of course dispensed through political mechanisms, although the politics may take place in the realm of science. As a case in point, Fahrenholt and Lüning write that Henrik Svensmark  needed access the CERN nuclear collider in order to research a theory of cloud formation due to solar radiation. Unfortunately, the implications of that theory would have undermined some of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control’s theories. It appears that access to the collider was withheld to prevent science which would have conflicted with the political interests of the well-established and well-funded IPCC.

Government funding distorts science. A great deal of money went into the war on cancer outlined by Richard Nixon. Since the war on cancer was where careers were to be made, that’s what young scientists decided to pursue. That’s where the money was. It resulted in a malinvestment of government money in the attempt to find a cure for cancer. In particular, a great deal of money went to looking for viral causes of cancer, when in fact only a few cancers such as that of the stomach may be caused by viruses.  Dr. Peter Duesberg discovered a chicken sarcoma which was indeed caused by a virus, winning awards and setting off a well-funded but fruitless search.

In his book “Inventing the AIDS Virus” Duesberg says that the same has happened with AIDS. There was a large financial interest supporting the proposition that AIDS is caused by a virus. Therefore, the correlation between the occurrence of AIDS and the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus was taken to be causation, Duesberg claims that the causation has never been proven. Robert Koch’s four principals for determining that a pathogen is the cause of the disease have never been satisfied despite 30 years of research. However, there was a drive to make the association, because it was highly beneficial to the virus researchers – the above-named people who had been unable to find a viral cause for cancer – and the drug companies which had a large interest in fighting viruses. They know how to fight viruses – they don’t know how to cure cancer.

Currently there is a lot of effort being put into attempts to find a biological basis for homosexuality. The science is being marshaled to support political views. Not unsurprisingly, they are finding what they’re looking for.  It is not pure science.  Pure science should be trying to find the truth, without a political agenda.  Since the gay community wants to promote the belief that their sexuality is inborn, the funding tends to flow (in this instance) to scientists who line up on the side of nature vs. nurture.

The same phenomenon appears to be at work again in intelligence research, this time shunning nature in favor of nurture. Researchers were relatively free to investigate human intelligence up until the 1960s, but Arthur Jensen infamously published a an article in the Harvard Education Review in 1969 suggesting that there were limits to the potential effect of programs such as Head Start intended to increase the intelligence of black children. He suggested that there were inherent limitations to what could be done. Since that time the whole field of intelligence research has been widely discredited.

Economics is not really a science.  It is interesting, however, to notice the significant divergence between the opinions of government paid experts on the economy, who tend to believe that everything is just fine, and a widening circle of nongovernmental observers believe that the economy is heading for a crash. Simply stated, it is wise not to bite the hand that feeds you, and a great many economists are fed by the hand of government.

As the above examples show, it is clear that government funding does not lead to unbiased science. There may be some interesting science done by with government money, but it is often in spite of the government.

Looking at the areas where science has been done in the past half-century, and finds it is mostly in areas in which, like physics in the 19th century, individual researchers are able to pursue their own ideas without much interference from anybody. One such area has been the emergence of sociobiology. E. O Wilson, Robert Travers, Sarah Hrdy, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others were able to start a new science, uniting observations about biology with physiology, and behavior with heredity. They broke new ground, and they have set the standard, or rather, laid the foundation for modern thinking in the area.

It is telling that the resistance to sociobiology has been largely political. Marxist academics such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould did not like the implications of sociobiology, and fought it on ideological rather than scientific grounds.

Another interesting area of research has been what one might call irrationality studies. This is an off shoot of sociobiology, Robert Trivers observations that people do not always behave in what one might call rational ways. The major thinkers in this area have been Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, and Dan Ariely. Working within a university setting, without much in the way of sponsorship, they broke new ground.

The same can be said for the DNA researchers, the field of genetics. The initial researchers, Crick and Watson, were working in small laboratory is pretty much on their own. They did not have government funding. And they make quite a bit of progress. Interestingly, there was a kind of a race between the government funded Human Genome Project, and Craig Venter’s Celera, in the private sector.  The latter, much less generously funded, actually led the way.  They were free to be innovative, and it worked.

With government funding come constraints, among them the constraint of political correctness. It is illustrative that a lot of the most interesting research on the human genome has moved to China. Specifically, the Beijing Institute of Genomics is mining huge databases of DNA for correlations. Among the associations that they are investigating are between high intelligence and specific gene combinations. There is a high likelihood that they will find the same thing that researchers have found for the last century, which is that high intelligence is associated with gene sequences which are themselves associated with ethnicity, or race. For this reason such research could not be done in the United States, because it might well reveal things that contradict the equality dogmas put forth by the United States government.  The Chinese are blissfully unconcerned with such things, and it is Americans as well as Chinese, who are funding this billion-dollar enterprise.

Computer science does not fit the definition of a real science: it restricts itself to artifacts of human intelligence.  Nonetheless, discoveries in the realm of computing, among them public key cryptography, relational data base tecnology, and algorithms to rapidly manipulate matrices and resolve complex equations have been very valuable.  Most major discoveries were, and are being made by individuals.  Even a desktop computer has all of the power needed for most types of discovery.  Massive government funding of organizations like the NSA has made it possible to apply computer analysis to massive amounts of data, but it hasn’t resulted in many strokes of genius that are widely recognized as such within the world of computer professionals.

Even within the physical sciences there appear to be areas that could be investigated with only a modest amount of laboratory equipment if only the researcher were free to think “outside the box.”  The work in material science, such as carbon nanostructures, theories of crystal formation and the properties of alloys (thanks, Bill Struve), and work at the frontier of organic and inorganic chemistry would seem (to this novice) to be open to exploration.

The message young scientists receive is that there are careers to be made getting on the government payroll, researching questions that governments want researched, wedded to the proposition that the answers will fall within the realm of government approved explanations.

On the other hand, there may well be frontiers of science of which the government is not yet aware, in which significant discoveries can be more easily made.  These are probably the best realms in which to search for a Nobel Prize, although not the best for those in search of a comfortable living and a well-paid retirement. So there may be areas which are open to science, but they are not the areas which will be found by following the direction of guidance counselors at the high school or college or even postgraduate levels. As always, the new areas of science are likely to be the ones which have not received official notice, are not on many people’s approved lists, and are still not terribly well funded. This seems to be the kind of realm in each individual genius can flourish.

As therefore hope that some individual geniuses escape the clutches of Wall Street, where money is to be made, and feel compelled simply to follow Feynman’s dictate, and research things for the pleasure of finding things out. There may still be hope, but it is for that offbeat minority of scientists who are not in it for the money, not seeking a career, but simply satisfying their curiosity.  The evidence is that they are few in number.  I can’t name as many prominent scientists in this era as I could in my childhood, and those I can name are of my own generation.  This does not bode well for science.

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4 thoughts on “Speculation on why our modern era is not producing profound science, like that of Darwin, Maxwell and Einstein. 

  1. Great article.
    Like the scientists, I love discovery and the fruits of science, the technology. But our ” 21st century” science is impeded by 19th century people. I’m not being elitest here, I know just because we have hew technology, or more educated people, human nature doesn’t change much. It’s been said, there is nothing new under the sun. People trump science every time. Besides the current political example in Moscow, one thing that is puzzeling to me is that cities are increasing in size and are becoming less livable. Science sometimes creates more problems then solves them. I just spent some time in a mall and a traffic jamb, first time in a long while. Modern consumersim is just insane. It seems that science for most people is just to have more things.

  2. My next door neighbor is a supervisor at NASA. He says half the engineers NASA hires these days are women or minorities. He says you have to be very careful around the women, or they will claim sexual discrimination or harassment. He says they complain a lot more than the men.

    • There is the question of whether women and minorities enter the field of engineering, working for the government, for “the pleasure of finding things out” or just a paycheck. I have my suspicions. Fortunately, we have already been to the moon.

  3. Pingback: a perspective on privatized science | Oceans of Opportunity

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