Does physics rely on a few individuals or are discoveries inevitable?

  • Thread starter fletch-j
  • Start date
  • #1
17
0
I'd be interested to know what you guys think of this.

Do you think that physics, physical discoveries and developments in our general understanding of the universe relies on the work of a few brilliant individuals (Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein etc.) or do you think that, without them, we would still come up with the same ideas, theories and conclusions?

I guess the same question can also be posed in relation to mathematics (Gauss, Euler etc.) and, well, science in general.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
1,188
512
That would be a good question if the question were that direct, which it seems like it should be. I think that there's a statistical inevitability that, with thousands of researchers and billions of dollars, you could get a zoo of monkeys (figuratively speaking) to model a quantum harmonic oscillator and the standard model, along with the engineering capacity to model a conduction band/valence band configuration in order to produce a transistor/integrated circuit. It takes an Einstein, though, to make a stipulation that lightspeed is the universal constant, not time, and that gravity is actually geometry.

In other words, traditional research will inevitably narrow down the parameters of workable and unworkable models of the physical universe as experimental techniques become more and more refined. This process does not take any tremendous inspiration, just a lot or perspiration. It takes a genius, though, to tell us what it all means, which typically also advances the state of the art a few decades at the same time. There's likely tremendous beauty, simplicity and elegance lurking somewhere behind the present ugliness of quantum weirdness and the unaesthetic standard model, there just hasn't been an Einstein to come along yet to show us what it is.
 
  • Like
Likes 1 person
  • #3
Office_Shredder
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Gold Member
3,899
172
It's a catch-22 because anytime someone makes a breakthrough discovery they are labeled as one of the "few individuals". If just an average joe so to speak happened to get lucky and was the one to compile all the disparate attempts at unification and come out with a theory of everything, how would we ever know? It's not even clear that people can be categorized based on anything other than their actual accomplishments

I think the question is less meaningful than it first appears
 
  • #4
6,265
1,280
It's a catch-22 because anytime someone makes a breakthrough discovery they are labeled as one of the "few individuals".
It's not a catch-22 because they are one of the few. Presumably, 40,000 other individuals looked at the same information or phenomenon and didn't see anything new or interesting in it. Galileo is the clearest case. For 2000 years everyone looked at Aristotle's analysis of physics and assumed it was fine. Galileo was the first one to mount a major, sustained attack on Aristotle.

A lesser example would be Brownian motion. The microscope was full fledged in the 1670's but it wasn't until 1827 that Robert Brown described the motion of particles that is named after him. In the meantime everyone else was ignoring it.
 
  • #5
376
1
Yes, physics does rely on a few individuals like me.
 
  • #6
atyy
Science Advisor
14,042
2,333
I think all of Einstein's discoveries would have been made, though GR would have come later. SR was well on its way without Einstein. There were two important SR developments after Einstein. The first was the correct law of motion found by Planck, who corrected Einstein's erroneous proposal. Einstein also initially failed to understand Minkowski's contribution to SR, which was key for GR. The first relativistic theory of gravity was not Einstein's, but Nordstrom's, which is a flat spacetime theory of gravity. GR can also be cast as a flat spacetime theory, so I suspect we would have GR without Einstein.

I would place Kenneth Wilson's originality above Einstein's. Wilson's work still seems to me very original, even given the long history of renormalization in quantum field theory, Kadanoff's insight, and the beginning attempts to apply renormalization to critical phenomena by Di Castro and Jona-Lasinio.

A lesser example would be Brownian motion. The microscope was full fledged in the 1670's but it wasn't until 1827 that Robert Brown described the motion of particles that is named after him. In the meantime everyone else was ignoring it.
How about Jan Ingenhousz, mentioned by Wikipedia?
 
Last edited:
  • #7
It's not a catch-22 because they are one of the few. Presumably, 40,000 other individuals looked at the same information or phenomenon and didn't see anything new or interesting in it. Galileo is the clearest case. For 2000 years everyone looked at Aristotle's analysis of physics and assumed it was fine. Galileo was the first one to mount a major, sustained attack on Aristotle.
Wrong. Galileo was the LAST to mount a major sustained attack on Aristotle. Have you ever heard of Copernicus?

In my opinion, that's the way it goes. Without Copernicus, there would be no Galileo. If there was no Galileo, there would be no Newton.

The root of the question is "how does information and technology evolve?" The answer is that it's a linear dependent system. Future discoveries are dependent upon past discoveries. And yes, it takes the right person doing the right thing to make these discoveries.

And since there are a limited number of discoveries to be made, there will be a limited number of noteworthy scientists.
 
  • #8
OmCheeto
Gold Member
2,130
2,577
This reminds me of an earlier thread, where I mentioned Feynman's "o-ring lecture" after the first shuttle disaster. Someone corrected me, informing us that engineers had fed him the information.

But today, in hindsight, I wonder if anyone else on the panel, would have listened to those engineers.

This last Thursday, a 20 year acquaintance of mine, mentioned someone named Lemelson. I'd never heard the name before, but my friend insisted I google it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MZEbTb6C0w​
 
  • #9
OmCheeto
Gold Member
2,130
2,577
The root of the question is "how does information and technology evolve?" The answer is that it's a linear dependent system.
bolding mine

Wrong! There is nothing linear about any of this. Watch and LISTEN to the video I just posted.

Poly-dimensional thought processes create these novel ideas.

---------------------------
ps. "Linear" is a swear word in my vocabulary. It is the closest thing to mindlessness that I can comprehend.
 
  • #10
bolding mine

Wrong! There is nothing linear about any of this. Watch and LISTEN to the video I just posted.

Poly-dimensional thought processes create these novel ideas.
This is where we get into semantics.

You said that it is a poly-dimensional THOUGHT process. You're right. It is definitely a poly-dimensional THOUGHT process behind these discoveries.

But what I'm talking about is the physical process of discovery, and that is very much a linear dependent model. Copernicus to Galileo to Newton. Each man's greatness is dependent on the discoveries of the previous man. Linear dependency. That's how technology evolves.

Next question.
 
  • #11
1,188
512
But what I'm talking about is the physical process of discovery, and that is very much a linear dependent model. Copernicus to Galileo to Newton. Each man's greatness is dependent on the discoveries of the previous man. Linear dependency. That's how technology evolves.
That sounds more like non-linear punctuated equilibria...

Next question.
Doesn't it?
 
  • #12
That sounds more like non-linear punctuated equilibria...
No, because that's more related to social interaction. What I'm talking about is a physical process that is rooted in concepts like, "you can't discover quarks until you discover protons, and you can't discover protons until you discover an atom." That's NOT a nonlinear punctuated equalibria.

The social interaction between humans is merely a component of the overall discovery process. The poly-dimensional thinking of the discoverer is merely a component of the overall discovery process. But the overall process is linear, and extraordinarily dependent upon previous discoveries.

But hey, you sounded pretty smart there for a second there, dude! Good job, keep it up!!! Maybe someday you'll get there.
 
  • #13
256bits
Gold Member
3,233
1,254
Yes, physics does rely on a few individuals like me.
I hear ya! a few years back I wrote in the margin of a book the equation of the unified theory of the universe, and now I can't find the book. Oh well, maybe 200 years from now someone reading an ancient textbook will come across it and my name name will go into history as the genius behind that theory and I will be famous. Unless of course someone else discovers the theory before that and gets the recognition. drats.
 
  • #14
1,188
512
No, because that's more related to social interaction.
What are you talking about? Punctuated equilibria is a termed coined by Steven Jay Gould and it relates to evolutionary biology, not sociology. I was using it as a metaphor for scientific progress. Obviously you didn't catch that, and I'm not going to spend any time explaining it to "thechosen1", as obviously the chosen one can't be wrong, so what's the point? DiracPool don't play that, "dude". Good luck to you:smile:
 
Last edited:
  • #15
376
1
I hear ya! a few years back I wrote in the margin of a book the equation of the unified theory of the universe, and now I can't find the book. Oh well, maybe 200 years from now someone reading an ancient textbook will come across it and my name name will go into history as the genius behind that theory and I will be famous. Unless of course someone else discovers the theory before that and gets the recognition. drats.
That's Nothing. I made the universe obey the unified theory.
 
  • #16
What are you talking about? Punctuated equilibria is a termed coined by Steven Jay Gould and it relates to evolutionary biology, not sociology. I was using it as a metaphor for scientific progress. Obviously you didn't catch that, and I'm not going to spend any time explaining it to "thechosen1", as obviously the chosen one can't be wrong, so what's the point? DiracPool don't play that, "dude". Good luck to you:smile:
You're right. I don't study evolutionary biology, so I've never heard the term. But I've heard of nonlinear equilibria being applied to society (checking wikipedia...here you go http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_equilibrium) which is all about society finding balance between it's independent parts. That's what I thought you were talking about.

Now, let me look at this punctuated equilibria...

"...a hypothesis in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis."

Let me see if I understand your analogy:

Most discoveries remain in an extended state called "stasis" until they are discovered? "Technology" is a species (in the analogy), and exhibits little net evolutionary change for most if it's geological history?

Well, I worked in the semiconductor industry for a while, and I can tell you that this analogy doesn't fit that model at all. Not even a little bit. In fact, the evolution of semiconductor technology is a prime example of a linear dependency model.

First, they made a crude semiconductor, but it was more efficient than a vacuum tube, so machines made with semiconductors made better semiconductors. Those better semiconductors were then put into machines that made even better semiconductors. The only way to get to the next level is by applying previous technology.

Please explain to me how the evolution of semiconductor technology is a punctuated equalibria.
 
  • #17
Ryan_m_b
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
5,844
711
Across every technical field it is very, very rare to find an example of a researcher who caused a de novo revolution. The vast majority of the time the person labeled as the genius is the one who read and studied everyone else's work and contributed the last piece of the puzzle.

This is less true the further back you go because the low hanging fruit of researh hadn't been picked but it generally applies.
 
  • Like
Likes 1 person
  • #18
6,265
1,280
Wrong. Galileo was the LAST to mount a major sustained attack on Aristotle. Have you ever heard of Copernicus?
Copernicus mounted NO attack. He was afraid to publish his book:

wiki said:
About 1532 Copernicus had basically completed his work on the manuscript of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium; but despite urging by his closest friends, he resisted openly publishing his views, not wishing—as he confessed—to risk the scorn "to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses."[64]

In 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome outlining Copernicus' theory. Pope Clement VII and several Catholic cardinals heard the lectures and were interested in the theory. On 1 November 1536, Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, Archbishop of Capua, wrote to Copernicus from Rome:

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject ...[71]
By then Copernicus' work was nearing its definitive form, and rumors about his theory had reached educated people all over Europe. Despite urgings from many quarters, Copernicus delayed publication of his book, perhaps from fear of criticism—a fear delicately expressed in the subsequent dedication of his masterpiece to Pope Paul III. Scholars disagree on whether Copernicus' concern was limited to possible astronomical and philosophical objections, or whether he was also concerned about religious objections.[72]
It was Galileo who championed Copernicus' ideas in Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Along the way he also included biting attacks on Aristotle's ideas concerning motion and established what later came to be Newton's First Law (on a perfectly horizontal plane a ball set in motion would roll forever). There was no major attack on Aristotle before Galileo. Copernicus sat on his ideas until he was almost dead.
 
  • #19
6,265
1,280
How about Jan Ingenhousz, mentioned by Wikipedia?
Also one of the few. It's probably too hard to say "Ingenhouszian Motion".

What interests me is that van Leeuwenhoek communicated his findings about microscopes directly to the Royal Society, so all the top minds of the day were examining things through microscopes, including all the later contemporaries of Newton and probably Newton Himself. None of them seems to have noticed this phenomenon.
 
  • #20
There was no major attack on Aristotle before Galileo. Copernicus sat on his ideas until he was almost dead.
Yet, in your quote...

Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome outlining Copernicus' theory. Pope Clement VII and several Catholic cardinals heard the lectures and were interested in the theory.
And this isn't a "major attack"? Copernicus "led" the charge by writing the book. His friends got an audience with the Pope and his buddies, and they were interested in the theory. That's a pretty significant attack on Aristotle. That's why Copernicus is credited the way he is; he actually did do something important that cannot be ignored. And you completely blew him off.

Galileo pretty much picked up where they left off. Pretty much. Or so is my understanding (I haven't read the story in a while). His biggest mistake wasn't that the Church opposed his ideas, the problem that they had was that Galileo said that he could use his science to decipher the prophesies. The church called that heresy, and Galileo went on house arrest.

And, of course, the theory wasn't proven until, like, sometime in the 1800's when technology advanced to the point where stellar parallax could be observed (or so is my understanding, I'm not a physics student, so this is just trivia to me).
 
  • #21
1,188
512
Let me see if I understand your analogy:

Most discoveries remain in an extended state called "stasis" until they are discovered?
Ummmm, No... "Things" and "relationships" are discovered, not discoveries themselves. That's naïve circular reasoning. I think you may have meant to post that comment in the medical marijuana forum you mentioned you just joined? Just trying to help :)

To begin, I actually must say that I kind of like the confrontative approach you take here. That really is my style of scientific argument. However, when I tried that early on in my tenure at PF, all that got me was infractions and bans. So these days I'm trying hard "just to keep it to the facts, maam." That's why I said "good luck to you" in the last post, I didn't expect you to last long. Seeing as you're still here, I'm guessing that you may have immuned yourself from prosecution with that clever "New member introduction" thread that threw everyone sideways. Nice move. I'm gonna remember that one :smile:

In any case, we'll see what happens. In the meantime, I will respond to your last post even though I said I wouldn't. Sorry gang, I can't resist:tongue:

"Technology" is a species (in the analogy), and exhibits little net evolutionary change for most if it's geological history?

Not so much technology (as an analogy to a species) as general zeitgeists relating to our advancing knowledge of the physical world that surrounds us. The progression of physical science (as I see it) is one of a drip drip drip of accumulated empirical data that the "body science" assimilates into its existing physical models, in the manner in which Jean Piaget uses the concept of "assimilation." This process is analogous to the "exhibits little net evolutionary change for most if it's geological history" portion of your comment above.

At some point the accumulation of this empirical data hits a threshold, a critical mass, whereby the zeitgeist of our perception of the universe bifurcates into a new one (like Einsteins relativity revolution). This is kind of like how incrementally or "linearly," as you like to say, adding heat to a pot of water doesn't seem to do much until the whole system bifurcates (phase changes) into a boiling state. Or, to use another analogy, how snow incrementally building on a ledge doesn't seem to do much until it bifurcates into an avalanche. In biology the increments are found in phenomena such as the gradual morphing of a fish fin into a crawling implement that takes some individuals out of the local lake whereby now they can only breed with each other on land. This bifurcation in biology is called "speciation," and it is what punctuated equlibria refers to.

But what I'm talking about is the physical process of discovery, and that is very much a linear dependent model. Copernicus to Galileo to Newton. Each man's greatness is dependent on the discoveries of the previous man. Linear dependency. That's how technology evolves.
That statement may be regarded as accurate on its face, but it's oversimplistic. Of course, new discoveries rely on older discoveries, but the very fact that we have iconic names in the vernacular of science implies that these are the individuals that gave us discontinuous advances in in the state of the art of the science.

Please explain to me how the evolution of semiconductor technology is a punctuated equalibria.
Again, the OP's question didn't concern technology per se, so I'm not going to discuss it in length, especially since you brought it up as an ad hoc example. The progression of technological advancement is more an engineering issue than it is a basic science issue, so they are not directly comparable. If they were, then we wouldn't be laughing about Michio Kaku's warp drives and time machines :smile:

Hope that answers your questions.
 
  • #22
6,265
1,280
And this isn't a "major attack"? Copernicus "led" the charge by writing the book. His friends got an audience with the Pope and his buddies, and they were interested in the theory. That's a pretty significant attack on Aristotle. That's why Copernicus is credited the way he is; he actually did do something important that cannot be ignored. And you completely blew him off.
Copernicus timidly, hesitantly proffered a contradiction of Aristotle that he would have buried forever at the first sign of trouble, and which he put off publishing till he was on his deathbed. That is certainly not an attack. The idea has to be credited to Copernicus, but the attack on geocentrism was launched and lead by Galileo.

Galileo pretty much picked up where they left off. Pretty much. Or so is my understanding (I haven't read the story in a while). His biggest mistake wasn't that the Church opposed his ideas, the problem that they had was that Galileo said that he could use his science to decipher the prophesies. The church called that heresy, and Galileo went on house arrest.
No, there was no promise of deciphering of prophesies.

The church was allied with the Aristotelian philosophers, and they are the ones who began agitating against Galileo when it became clear Galileo was out to completely overturn Aristotle. Not just his view of the heavens but his whole body of speculations on physics. The Aristotelians hunted up passages in scripture that asserted, indirectly and directly, that the earth was fixed and immovable, and that the sun revolved around the earth, and spun Galileo to various cardinals as, therefore, holding opinions that were contrary to scripture. The cardinals, in turn, pressured the pope to act.

Here is the actual final sentence:

http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/galileo/condemnation.html

Note that Galileo was not convicted of heresy, but of the lesser charge of rendering himself strongly suspected of heresy:

"We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of the matters adduced in trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy..."
"From which we are content that you be absolved, provided that, first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, you abjure, curse, and detest before us the aforesaid errors and heresies and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church in the form to be prescribed by us for you."

This was a great leniency. Outright heresy could have meant torture and death.

In any event, the book, Two Chief World Systems, is by no means only about Geocentrism vs Heliocentrism. Galileo picks Aristotle completely apart. It's written as a dialog between three people. He names the character who represents the Aristotelian philosophers Simplicio, and makes him look like a complete fool. The passage where he pulls apart the notion that heavier objects fall faster than light objects is particularly scathing to Simplicio.
 
  • #23
34,800
10,960
I think the original question is very similar to "are there discoveries/inventions which were possible for a long time before they were made?" This was certainly true in the past, but it is getting harder today, with more and more scientists in the various fields. Just check current publications - in many fields, nearly all have references to other publications less than 10 or even 5 years old.

The do-it-yourself method to produce graphene with adhesive tape looks like an exception, but there is another problem: what about accidental discoveries? Thousands of scientists make irregular things in their lab every day (together with a lot of regular work, of course :p), if one of those accidents of a scientist lead to something interesting, was that specific scientist a genius, and other others were not?
 
  • #24
BobG
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
185
80
But what I'm talking about is the physical process of discovery, and that is very much a linear dependent model. Copernicus to Galileo to Newton. Each man's greatness is dependent on the discoveries of the previous man. Linear dependency. That's how technology evolves.

Next question.
Sequential might be a better word than linear. Generally speaking, the greatness of a discovery depends on turning the key that results in a lot of further discoveries and/or developments being made very rapidly.

The main reason for things historically happening in spurts has been communication limitations. The discoveries are inevitable. Having them happen in the right environment for them to be meaningful is probably also inevitable in the long term, but a lot more of a random looking pattern during eras of limited communications.
 
  • #25
27
0
Progress in science is inevitable. Each generation there are hundreds of thousands of curious minds which take what is known one step further. But other forces are at work to unlearn what was once known (like how to grow enough food for the winter). Lose the knowledge and society has to start again. The great minds in our history were not only bright, they were persistent. They were not alone, better theory grows out of scientific debate.
 

Related Threads on Does physics rely on a few individuals or are discoveries inevitable?

Replies
1
Views
2K
  • Last Post
4
Replies
75
Views
9K
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
2K
Replies
4
Views
2K
Replies
18
Views
1K
Replies
16
Views
4K
Replies
7
Views
4K
Replies
34
Views
7K
Replies
1
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
12
Views
1K
Top