Category Archives: Sociology

On Scientific Inevitability

If one looks through the history of human evolution, it is surprising to see that humanity has on several independent occasions, in several different locations, figured how to produce food, make pottery, write, invent the wheel, domesticate animals, build complex political societies, etc. It is almost as if these discoveries and inventions were an inevitable part of the evolution of humans. More controversially, one may extend such arguments to include the development of science, mathematics, medicine and many other branches of knowledge (more on this point below).

The interesting part about these ancient inventions is that because they originated in different parts of the world, the specifics varied geographically. For instance, native South Americans domesticated llamas, while cultures in Southwest Asia (today’s Middle East) domesticated sheep, cows, and horses, while the Ancient Chinese were able to domesticate chickens among other animals. The reason that different cultures domesticated different animals was because these animals were by and large native to the regions where they were domesticated.

Now, there are also many instances in human history where inventions were not made independently, but diffused geographically. For instance, writing was developed independently in at least a couple locations (Mesoamerica and Southwest Asia), but likely diffused from Southwest Asia into Europe and other neighboring geographic locations. While the peoples in these other places would have likely discovered writing on their own in due time, the diffusion from Southwest Asia made this unnecessary. These points are well-made in the excellent book by Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs and Steel.

If you've ever been to the US post-office, you'll realize very quickly that it's not the product of intelligent design.

At this point, you are probably wondering what I am trying to get at here, and it is no more than the following musing. Consider the following thought experiment: if two different civilizations were geographically isolated without any contact for thousands of years, would they both have developed a similar form of scientific inquiry? Perhaps the questions asked and the answers obtained would have been slightly different, but my naive guess is that given enough time, both would have developed a process that we would recognize today as genuinely scientific. Obviously, this thought experiment is not possible, and this fact makes it difficult to answer to what extent the development of science was inevitable, but I would consider it plausible and likely.

Because what we would call “modern science” was devised after the invention of the printing press, the process of scientific inquiry likely “diffused” rather than being invented independently in many places. The printing press accelerated the pace of information transfer and did not allow geographically separated areas to “invent” science on their own.

Today, we can communicate globally almost instantly and information transfer across large geographic distances is easy. Scientific communication therefore works through a similar diffusive process, through the writing of papers in journals, where scientists from anywhere in the world can submit papers and access them online. Looking at science in this way, as an almost inevitable evolutionary process, downplays the role of individuals and suggests that despite the contribution of any individual scientist, humankind would have likely reached that destination ultimately anyhow. The timescale to reach a particular scientific conclusion may have been slightly different, but those conclusions would have been made nonetheless.

There are some scientists out there who have contributed massively to the advancement of science and their absence may have slowed progress, but it is hard to imagine that progress would have slowed very significantly. In today’s world, where the idea of individual genius is romanticized in the media and further so by prizes such as the Nobel, it is important to remember that no scientist is indispensable, no matter how great. There were often competing scientists simultaneously working on the biggest discoveries of the 20th century, such as the theories of general relativity, the structure of DNA, and others. It is likely that had Einstein or Watson, Crick and Franklin not solved those problems, others would have.

So while the work of this year’s scientific Nobel winners is without a doubt praise-worthy and the recipients deserving, it is interesting to think about such prizes in this slightly different and less romanticized light.


Diversity in and of Physics

When someone refers to a physicist from the early twentieth century, what kind of person do you imagine? Most people will think of an Einstein-like figure, but most likely, one will think of a white male from western Europe or the US.

Today, however, things have changed considerably; physics, both as a discipline and in the people that represent it, has become more diverse. This correlation is probably not an accident. In my mind, the increased diversity is an excellent development, but as with everything, it can be further improved. There are a couple excellent podcasts I listened to recently that have championed diversity in different contexts.

The first podcast was an episode of Reply All entitled Raising the Bar (which you should really start listening to at 11:52 after the rather cringe-worthy Yes-Yes-No segment!). The episode focuses on the lack of diversity in many companies in Silicon Valley. In doing so, they interview an African-American man named Leslie Miley who was a security guard at Apple and went on to work as a software developer and manager at Twitter, Apple, and Google among other companies (i.e. he possessed a completely unorthodox background by Silicon Valley standards). He makes an interesting statement about companies in general (while referring specifically to Twitter) saying:

If you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds building your product, you’re going to get a very narrowly focused product.

He also goes onto say that including people from different backgrounds is not just appropriate from a moral standpoint, but also that:

Diverse teams have better outcomes.

There is plenty of research to support this viewpoint. In particular, Scott Page from the Santa Fe institute and University of Michigan – Ann Arbor is interviewed in the episode and suggests that when teams of people are selected and asked to perform a task, teams of “good people” from diverse backgrounds generally outperform many “excellent people”/experts from similar backgrounds (i.e. the same Ivy League schools, socio-economic status, age etc.).

There is a caveat that is presented in this episode, however. They suggest that it may take longer for a diverse team to gel and to communicate and understand each other. But again, the outcomes in the long-term are generally better.

There is an excellent episode of Hidden Brain that also covers similar topics, but focuses on building a better workplace. The host of the podcast, Shankar Vendantam, interviews the (then) head of human resources at Google, Laszlo Bock, to gain some insight into how Google has been able to build their talent pool. Of specific interest to physicists was how much Google borrows from places like Bell Labs to build a creative workplace environment. Again, Bock stresses the importance of diversity among the employees at Google in order for the company to be successful.

In physics departments across the country, I think it is necessary to take a similar approach. Departments should strive to be diverse and hire people from different backgrounds, schools, genders, and countries. Not only that, graduate students with unorthodox backgrounds should also be welcomed. This again, is not just important for the health of the department, but for the health of the discipline in general.

I strongly suspect that Michael Faraday was one of the greatest experimental physicists in the past few hundred years not in spite of his lack of mathematical acuity, but probably because of it. His mathematical ability famously did not extend much beyond basic algebra and not even as far as trigonometry.