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

  1. May 26, 2013 #1
    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.
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  3. May 26, 2013 #2
    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.
  4. May 26, 2013 #3


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    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
  5. May 26, 2013 #4
    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.
  6. May 26, 2013 #5
    Yes, physics does rely on a few individuals like me.
  7. May 26, 2013 #6


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    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.

    How about Jan Ingenhousz, mentioned by Wikipedia?
    Last edited: May 26, 2013
  8. May 26, 2013 #7
    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.
  9. May 26, 2013 #8


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    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 ​
  10. May 26, 2013 #9


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    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.
  11. May 26, 2013 #10
    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.
  12. May 26, 2013 #11
    That sounds more like non-linear punctuated equilibria...

    Doesn't it?
  13. May 26, 2013 #12
    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.
  14. May 26, 2013 #13
    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.
  15. May 27, 2013 #14
    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: May 27, 2013
  16. May 27, 2013 #15
    That's Nothing. I made the universe obey the unified theory.
  17. May 27, 2013 #16
    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.
  18. May 27, 2013 #17


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    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.
  19. May 27, 2013 #18
    Copernicus mounted NO attack. He was afraid to publish his book:

    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.
  20. May 27, 2013 #19
    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.
  21. May 27, 2013 #20
    Yet, in your quote...

    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).
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