Sunday, December 28, 2008

We are Einstein

A lot has been said and written in the last years about the promise of online connectivity and open access, about the potential of borderless communication, the power of crowdsourcing, Wikinomics, and the wisdom of the masses. What does that mean for science? I have been wondering, will this impact the way we do research? Will we see the rise of “Wikiscience” and changes to the scientific method as Kevin Kelly predicts? Will we see the end of the “lonely genius problem” as Jeff DeChambeau suggests in a remarkable reinterpretation of my writing [1]? And while I can not give you a definite answer, I want to share some thoughts with you.

Unused Potential

There is without doubt unused potential in badly connected or unordered knowledge. Progress often comes from connecting the right pieces, or the right people, in the right way. And though this takes the ability to recognize two pieces fit together, as well as knowing how to connect them, it also requires knowing of them in the first place.

The larger the body of knowledge grows that we are working with, the more important it thus becomes for scientists – as for everybody else – to not only have information available, but also have the tools to search, filter, and structure this information, and to direct it to where it is useful. Given this possibility, we could save a lot of time and effort by more efficiently sorting through available sources of information, by faster finding people with the right knowledge to complement our work, by outsourcing specialized tasks to those who have the best skills. And while the first of these points is readily under way with ever more powerful search tools, the latter two are only in the beginning and will need to bring changes in the way science is presently done.

Global collaborations have become more and more common over the last decades, as communication becomes easier. And as more and more people put information about their research interests and education online, it also becomes easier to find them. In my impression, there are today few scientists who actually use this opportunity, but I have little doubt online networking will become more common, simply because it is useful. If there is a guy in Australia who happens to have thought for three years about what you are currently scratching your head over, just go skype him and write a paper together. And if you have a problem, ask everyone.

The Trouble with Specialization

But connecting, ordering, and filtering information alone is not sufficient. Knowledge can also remain unused due to communication barriers. Especially in highly specialized communities this problem is prevalent. Two people who do not share the same basis of information must make an effort to come to common ground, to properly ‘decode’ each other. This effort however does often not pay off due to the incentive structure of the present academic system that dominantly rewards specialization: The fewer people can judge on your work and the more the few who can like you and your work, the better your career chances. Thus, a good strategy is to put your effort into creating a niche that is of interest to the relevant people, being nice to your peers, and connecting your name with a research agenda [2]. This tactic flourishes well in the incenstual environment of peer review in specialized expert communities, and comes to full fruition when watered with ignorance.

Specialization is an inevitable consequence of more education that is required to work at the edge of scientific research, so I certainly acknowledge its necessity and its relevance for progress. But it comes with the side-effect that links between research areas might go unnoticed and unexplored. There should thus be a balance between specialization and interdisciplinarity, and more attention be paid to communication between different fields. In my impression, this balance is presently off to the favor of specialization, and communication remains underappreciated, which hinders progress. (For more about the problems with the present academic system see We have only ourselves to judge on each other).

But also with regard to improving this communication between specialized communities I think we are making progress mostly because online connectivity has opened new ways to circumvent what Bora so aptly referred to as the scientists ‘Kabuki’ dance (I disagree with him on several points but it's worth reading it). Again, I think the major impact on science is yet to come, but it will come.

Taken together it seems while the trend towards specialization will certainly go on, we will see more effort going into communication and connection of experts, both driven probably by different groups of people (an example of what I referred to as a specialization in task).

Taken together we thus have four trends in different stages of development: 1) Better tools for archiving and searching available information, 2) An increased connectivity of the community’s network leading to easier ways for scientists to find each other, 3) More frequent outsourcing of tasks to experts possibly even outside the community, and 4) An improved communication among specialized groups. The only thing I presently see in the way of these changes is inertia that will not hold for long against the advantages in their adaptation. Now one can discuss whether I am too optimistic if I consider this the probable and pretty much inevitable development, but let us just boldly extrapolate these trends and see where it gets us: It gets us to a tightly connected network of scientists with a high interaction rate in which researchers will exploit the unused potential in the present knowledge.

All in all you're just another brick in the wall

It is very tempting then to compare the world wide web of scientists to neurons in a brain. No single neuron in your brain understands Special Relativity; it is only the whole together which can. Are we headed into a situation where no single scientist understands the theories we might be using, because this understanding is only emergent from all of their interactions? It is a likewise tempting and depressing future projection. It is tempting because it takes the pressure of ingenuity off the individual. On the other hand, it also takes away both the internal and the external driver of science: understanding and fame.

But aren’t we a long way towards this already?

Steve Fuller writes in his book ‘Knowledge Management Foundations’ about the “perceived lack of scientific genius in our time”:
“We are more impressed with such early 20th century physicists as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, for whom the chalkboard was the laboratory, than with the battery of physicists continuing these work on multibillion-dollar particle accelerators today. We even rank those seat-of-the-pants discoverers of DNA’s structure, Watson and Crick, over that well-financed and methodological mapper of the human genome, Craig Venter, even though the latter has enabled the promise of biotechnology to become a reality. […] In other words a “most bang for the buck” principle seems to rule our intuitive judgment for genius. Television producers know this all too well. It explains why viewers are more impressed by a John Doe who invents something that stumps experts than by a battalion of well-financed lab scientists who arrive at some equally counterintuitive and probably better grounded discovery.”

Considered this trend and my above bold extrapolation of present developments, Why no new Einstein? might just the wrong question to ask. It could simply be inappropriate for our times. We should not be looking for a new Einstein to bring progress, this suggests. Instead, we should be looking for networks of many stones [3], well connected, moving us forward together. We should be looking for well working communities of experts, and judge their knowledge production as a whole.

Will the future of science bring the end of personal genius?

Why no new ideas?

    “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.”

Thus, the trend seems to be going towards a tightly coupled global network of scientists, in which we can 24/7 bounce ideas off each other, e-meet in second life, and distribute our talks and papers in no time around the world. That might be some people’s paradise and other people’s hell. To me it mostly seems like a good environment for ideas grow, but is that where they are born?

Missing in this picture is the fact that all the connectivity in the world won’t help us to overcome the limits we are set in expressing our ideas in the first place. When it comes down to this, we are all alone in our heads, and left to our own devices. It takes time and effort to find a way to communicate a thought such that other people can follow it. Every genuinely new idea - one that does not connect pieces but creates a new piece - has to go through a prestage in which it can only badly be communicated. In his talk at our September conference, Eric Weinstein referred to this as the “valley” in which you don’t make sense [4].

Now bouncing ideas off your colleagues is a good way to make progress once you have something to build up upon. But on the other hand an environment with a very high interaction rate thermalizes quickly, and can be very destructive in the early stage of an idea's development. A highly connected community means we’ll have to watch out very carefully for sociological phenomena that might affect objectivity, and work towards premature consensus. We will have to watch out for fads that grow out of proportion, and we will have to find a way to protect the young ideas that “you have to ram down people's throats,” in Atkin's words, until people are ready to swallow them. There is no reason to assume scientists are immune to sociological effects.

Some People's Paradise is Other People's Hell

If you’d ask me what is the way to make progress in theoretical physics (and if you don’t I tell you anyway) I’d make the following suggestion: Pick 30 of the brightest physicists from all fields. Give them ten year contracts and put them on an island with no administrational duties, but all the necessary infrastructure (ie blackboards, chalk, coffee, and library access). In the first five years, they are not allowed to write papers or go to conferences. They can travel and invite collaborators, but are not allowed to give talks or schedule seminars. They are not allowed to teach, to mentor or to write proposals. That might be some people’s hell and other people’s paradise, but that’s how I think ideas are born.

We are Ein Stein - Or are we?

Over all the enthusiasm about our increasingly connected global scientific community, don't forget that scientists need time to think and room to breathe. Some developments happen naturally and by themselves because they are of individual advantage. These include increased connectivity, more social networking, and outsourcing, and are not the ones you should be worried about. You should be worried about these trends dominating styles of research and reducing a diversity of approaches towards knowledge discovery.

Related posts (hand generated):

[1] He is referring to the following sentences from this post:“This does not mean the times of the lonely genius are over […] I am very skeptic about the enthusiasm caused by wiki-like collaborative efforts (see e.g. Wikinomics). It is one thing to use existent resources - here, human knowledge - most efficiently, but something completely different to add new.” Notably, I never did and never intended to regard the “lonely genius” as a “problem” in need of a remedy, and certainly not one that starts with “wiki”.
[2] In
Sean Carroll’s unsolicited advice it sounds like this “While you’re in grad school, establish a track record of productivity by writing papers. Even better, write good papers — write about things that other people are interested in. What is it about your research or skill set that makes you useful to people hiring postdocs? Become the world’s expert in some hot topic, or the master of some novel technique, along with establishing your broad-based competence.” Emphasis mine.
[3] Excuse the pun. "Ein Stein" is German for "one stone".
[4] Yes, once again the same story with the mountain climbers and valley crossers.It is not so surprising this picture comes up again and again. It’s what it necessary to not get stuck in a local optimum. For more about this, read my post The Best of All Possible Worlds.


  1. "Instead, we should be looking for networks of many stones [3], well connected, moving us forward together."

    Well, my experience is that the few genuinely interesting papers I see on the arxiv are nearly always written by a single author.

    "Bouncing ideas off other people" is much over-rated. Either they will be too kind or polite to tell you that your stuff is crap, or they will ask you whether you really expect such nonsense to be taken seriously.

    In an ideal world, a researcher should have to satisfy only himself and a competent, sincere journal referee. He/she should not care what his/her colleagues think.

    Yes, I know the real world is different.

  2. Hi Dr. Who,

    Indeed. I think you missed the point of my writing. I only elaborated on the 'many stones' picture only to then tell you what I find missing in it, try again.

    I can't quite agree though that a researcher should totally not care what his/her colleagues think, but what should count are arguments, not personal preferences.



  3. I didn't say that *you* agreed with this statement I quoted. It was stated as a possible belief, and I addressed that possibility.

  4. Hi Bee!

    I think Garrett Lisi is an example of the sort of person you are talking about, the person who goes off by himself and thinks for years before publishing. Two other good examples (this time from mathematics) are Perelman (who proved the Poincare conjecture) and Wiles (who proved Fermat's Last Theorem).

    It is not the only way to do good physics (or mathematics, my field) in my opinion, but some of our greatest advances have come this way.

  5. Hi Bee,

    An interesting extension on your continuing theme and yet what it doesn’t address (not that it should or was intended) is the widening gulf between science itself and the public at large. The truth is many don’t have the slightest idea as to how wide that is and for me this shouldn’t be forgotten as being part of the overall challenge. So while we are contemplating ways to improve the progress and practice of science, shouldn’t at least a little thought be given to the understanding of it by those whom it is ultimately to serve as to benefit?

    My fear it’s more likely to be brought to a screeching halt by way of general ignorance, rather then failing to develop better methods for its continuance. Like as you have so often contended, more of the day to day decisions made by people should be based on the scientific method; yet how can they be expected to do this, when the vast majority haven’t a clue as to what this entails, let alone what utility it subsequently provides?



  6. Hi Dr Who,

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. I mistakenly thought it was a criticism addressed at me. Best,


  7. Hi Chip,

    Indeed, Garrett came into my mind while writing the above, and I have considerable respect for him holding on to this preference of his. Though it is a lifestyle that I wouldn't want myself - I'm not much of a nomad - I can relate to that. But he is not exactly making his life easier this way. It sometimes worries me considerable that the academic life is so much cluttered with duties and time pressure that people are constantly busy and jetting around the globe. How can that *not* affect the outcome? Best,


  8. What would Einstein and Bohr be working on today?

    Perhaps the appearance of scientific genius is more a function of the state of the problem space than of availability of brains.

    E.g., write an alternative history that realistically gets you from Newton's gravity to GR in the shortest possible time. Perhaps you discover in that exercise that there are a lot of steps that necessarily have to be completed between the two.

  9. let me go back and read some more

  10. Hi Bee,

    This article of yours got me to thinking. The one from Cosmic Variance got me to thinking as well.

    As I read back to your links( see how compiling them deliver a much more comprehensive viewing over time), is to find you remain consistent in your point of view. I believe the emphasis must be kept on keeping the contact open to the public, as well as the view points of the contributors.

    They helped me to see that such a relation demands an extraordinary amount of time and knowledge to participate. I continue to encourage scientists to maintain this contact. It is much as Phil saids, to encourage and by osmosis, find that the procedural avenues become part of those that invite this association. You can't help but be changed by it.

    Sure you are right based on the communications, there is this mathematics that does away with all the trappings that can cover using concept and metaphors, that actually might help people, but loose the "mathematical effect." Overall finding, that most have maintained communicating this work to the public.


  11. Dear Bee,

    you make my head spinning, once more, thanks for sharing these very interesting thoughts :-)

    Instead of contributing something reasonable, I just wonder: This funny photo with all these people wearing Einstein masks in front of the PI, was that some kind of joke? At a conference? It's quite bizarre, anyway ;-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  12. Hi Phil,

    Yes, that is of course an important issue. However, I have here only addressed the question of knowledge management inside the community, not its incorporation into our societies. It seems to me like a much more complicated problem. However, a big obstacle in this process that I presently see is the that not enough attention is paid to the issue to begin with. And that again, is an internal problem. Thus I would hope if the academic system would not stand in its own way, we could also better address the question for how to communicate knowledge. Best,


  13. Hi Plato,

    Science only brings progress when its knowledge is widely spread and incorporated in our daily lives. This step is as far as I am concerned of central importance. Imagine where we would get otherwise - scientists would become magicians for the broad public and be of limited use. People want to understand, and we are supposed to help with this understanding. Once again, this is a question of how to properly manage and organize knowledge so it is of maximal benefit. Best,


  14. Hi Stefan,

    The photo is from the "Einstein Fest" in 2005. It is bizzare indeed. I have no clue whose idea that was, but it fits perfectly to the post :-)



  15. Hi Bee,
    Yes and as from the outset in my initial comment I admitted that I wasn’t exactly directly addressing the primary focus of your concern. However, in the more general sense I think it does to some extent. This is most poignantly brought out in the post of Bora which you pointed to when he said:

    “Part of training in the academia is training in rhetoric. As you go up the ladder of academic science, you are evaluated not just by the quality of your research (or teaching, in some places), but also in how well you mastered the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language. The mastery of Scientese makes one part of the Inside club. It makes one identifiable as the Member of this club. The Barbarians at the Gate are recognizable by their lack of such mastery - or by refusal to use it. And it is essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside.”

    This being a Barbarian who can’t dance the kabuki forms to be even a greater obstacle to the general population then scientists of different specialties. Over the years I’ve been at times able to discern when I’m getting more kabuki then substance, yet often for most the whole thing seems to be nothing more then ritualized exclusion then sincerely attempting to lend precision or conciseness to their work.

    I then have a proposal in this regard which when someone submits a paper for publishing they be asked to write two versions. The first would be the normal full kabuki version and the second would be one in which the author is asked to explain their idea with as little dancing around as possible. The publishers then could publish two journal versions, one with and one without kabuki. This could serve to have several benefits.

    First, the insiders would still get all of it straight up as before and thereby not wasting time in staying current within their specialties. Second, the peer review process could be expanded somewhat. Third, science writers would be less likely or at least have less of an excuse or reason to misrepresent the material presented. Third a larger sector of the public could better directly access the material for themselves. Lastly and perhaps what may prove most beneficial is that authors themselves by the introspective nature of the process could better clarify their own ideas in terms of consistency and or significance. Also, on the odd occasion it might save a tree or two.



  16. Hi Stefan and Bee,

    Stefan said:
    “This funny photo with all these people wearing Einstein masks in front of the PI, was that some kind of joke?”

    Bee said:
    “It is bizzare indeed. I have no clue whose idea that was, but it fits perfectly to the post :-)”

    Yes and particularly relates to Bee’s subheading “All in all you're just another brick in the wall” for perhaps it’s simply to envision as to what they wish would constitute as being the bricks in their wall. However, like Pink Floyd also reminds one should be careful as to how that’s to be cultivated:-)



  17. Hi Arun,

    “What would Einstein and Bohr be working on today?”

    With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight you remind should also be considered, I would say hopefully that would be currently economics:-)



  18. Hi Phil,

    This is a very good post that you write.

    There is a artistic beauty in it's own way when someone can translate the mathematics and speak their mind in concepts that are describing the constants of nature( some mathematicians maybe quite playful.) Some, might find such beauty held to the mathematic alone, yet, it is explosive when moved to concept, when translated out here into society.

    The hindrance is not so much of adding to the brick wall, but of recognizing how these concepts are being translated "as they are." If you do not recognize them how could it lead you to recognize the mathematics? Some might have never thought of "the trail" that leads to the purity of mathematical expression.

    So by defining this method as you do, I see where this method that you explain, "should transpire" in the making of the axriv papers. One section purely mathematical(no breaks) and the subsequent expression, conceptual, under this heading.

    Such an editorial construct would not be such a bad thing?

    You have to use the "Money song of Pink Floyd" in order to appeal to the science of economics translated?:)


  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Hi Plato,

    To be honest and to have credit placed where it should, it’s Bee (and some other blog writers) who is most often the presenter and interpreter of ideas, which I and others then merely benefit from. To then have made available the facility to comment by which one then may gauge their own understanding forms for me to be what’s truly special and so unique of this media.

    What I would then wish for by way of the blogosphere, is that somehow there could be found ways to encourage more to dare test and sometimes share their understanding(s) by way of considered comment. I have often looked up the hit rates of blogs like this and others to discover that less then 1 % of those that visit ever leave a comment; even as to simply say how much it is appreciated. What’s also discerning for me is that of the few that do, the largest portion of these do so regularly (I wonder whom I could be describing here :-) ) This further suggests this is born as to be the nature of the person(s) themselves, rather then resultant of the opportunity made available.

    I think then what in future will serve to indicate, that not just scientific communications, yet the more common placed have improved, is when more become participants rather then strictly observers. Then again, that could be said as being symptomatic of the greater ill that plagues modern life in general; as so often I feel that I’m surrounded by others that only primarily observe as to never have experienced how one is expanded through participation in it all. So truly to put Bee’s question and contentions in the more general sense, is to ask how can this be accomplished or at least how do we start?



  21. Bee:Once again, this is a question of how to properly manage and organize knowledge so it is of maximal benefit.

    I agree with your other points as well.

    The compilation of data is apparent once you see the evolution of the work that has progressed over time. You compared the "neurological aspect of the brain" in this regard, and it should not be taken lightly that such connections have become apparent in one's own thinking. Connection of one post to another

    These are representative in the construct of this blog.

    Now with each subsequent day your/Stefan's view points become more apparent not only to yourself but to others as well. There is then a lot of data behind you. Many neurons connecting and leading to multiple pathways inside those brain. You want them "to fire all at once.":)

    You want them to fire within society too. Increasing the probability of insight development(stepping stones) means to reach a wider neuronal placement out there in society as well. I might call them "wifi points/library( not just gas stations or a starbucks), but this is the viability of moving "information further out into society" for the benefit of moving society forward.

    So you've opened your data based as an archive of discussion? This is Bee/Stefan.


  22. Phil:To be honest and to have credit placed where it should, it’s Bee (and some other blog writers) who is most often the presenter and interpreter of ideas, which I and others then merely benefit from. To then have made available the facility to comment by which one then may gauge their own understanding forms for me to be what’s truly special and so unique of this media.

    Most certainly one recognizes where one is at for sure. It goes without saying.

    Bee:Once again, this is a question of how to properly manage and organize knowledge so it is of maximal benefit.

    I "highlighted a point" that is the basis of my answer to Bee and to you previously. What "weight it carries for me or you" does not matter. It's been said, and passes to the archive of information and experience, then it's gone, until its "recalled" in the larger context of our presenters):)

    The structure I give is more then the emotive struggle that we can all find ourselves trapped in, but is the quest to move "further out" to see the "mental field of opportunity" is really a quest to find the basis of that finer substrate of the elements in the discussion and leads to mathematics.

    There has been a lot of talk about the arxiv in the past and in context of the comment by Bee and in this regard, I am saying that the referees should look at how this presentation is being revealed.

    It is consistent within the framework with which "comment is developed also" and according to that information, is being contributed to the knowledge base in expression.

    When I site a Witten or anyone who is so abstract in their mathematics, I do not say that they are "just thinking in the conceptual form"( can be very emotively tainted by memories) but "on reflection" are much closer to the "purity of the information" if it is mathematically described. The concepts when explained to the general public, "leads us too" the mathematics.

    Mathematicians and Physic theorists position themself, and are still in the everyday world, yet, by placing themself in a very receptive mode "to receive the mathematics," it will come to them. New invention. Genius.

    It has to "flow without interruption an dhow do they think so?" Then, explain your concept in the everyday language.

    Eventually such impetus from the emotive world of the inspire( teachers before us) sends a "motivational wave to transform mind" to see in context of this "expressive mode" that it is from a very internalize central point, which then manifests as the external world.

    What kind of "arrow of time" shall we call that?:)Clocking the mechanics of consciousness? Not so, "the Dark side of the sun," as helio-seismology takes care of that.


  23. Memory here, has become very public. All blogs are public. All blogs are....:)

    Memory is the personal journalism of the soul. Richard Schickel

  24. Hi Bee,

    I agree that there is unused potential when I see how little we scientists tend to actively interact with colleagues we don't know, and compare that to the existing technological possibilities. It seems to me that most of us are very happy about the existence of arXive and the indirect interactions it generates. ArXive certainly contributed to a democratization of science, and I believe that's a very good thing, helping to unlock the potential of many scientists all around the world. It also seems that most scientists are comfortable with that kind of interaction, but more hesitant to seek direct interactions with people they don't know, in order to, say, solve jointly a given problem or start a fullscale collaboration.

    In my opinion there are two main reasons for this: trust and credit, both, of course, related. Since a scientists' reputation is a precious commodity, she/he must be careful with whom to be associated. How to trust an anonymous stranger? Maybe trusted middle men (such as professional societies like APS) could help here by providing platforms where the users are NOT anonymous, but their identity and thus, to a certain extent, their previous credetentials and trust-worthiness are guaranteed. This seems to be the more important if we were to get to collaborations of so many contributors that indeed not a single one can understand/verify all contributions anymore (not that I would like that kind of science, I must say, but maybe some problems are meant to be solved that way?)

    As for the credit, the example of InnoCentive, demonstrates the malfunctioning: As the article says, "...many nonprofit organizations had difficulty dealing with intellectual property rights and related issues.
    InnoCentive deals with these issues, in part, by requiring winning solvers to transfer intellectual property rights to the seekers, whose identities are secret, before they can claim an award. "
    What a rip-off! Ok, so the guy who solved the oil freeze problem got a 20K$ prize, but in a fair deal he should probably have gotten millions. In any case, he should have kept his intellectual property. And I would think that the "difficulties dealing with" means really "difficulties accepting" - who would want to accept such a deal? Maybe Mr. Davis was happy with the prize, but it seems a typical situation of a powerful player (company) abusing his position relative to the single guy out there. This is probably possible only at the beginning of this kind of interactions. If companies like InnoCentive work and become more widespread, I am sure the pressure will be towards a more balanced share of the profits.

    Can we do better in science, where at least our research is not (fundamentally, at least) driven by money?


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