Monday, June 11, 2012

Pressures on Swiss patent clerks

This is today's xkcd comic.

A. Einstein is the only man to get a Nobel Prize in the sciences for work done in his spare time, while working some other day job. That is part of his mystique. Ever since, he is used in all sorts of arguments about human potential, sponsored research, and paradigm shifts.

The myth is exaggerated, of course. Einstein was not some disconnected dilettante. He studied physics at top European universities, and received the equivalent of a PhD in physics. His famous 1905 papers were based on work he did as a student, and he discussed them with professors. One of his 1905 papers was a polished version of his dissertation. The details are in his biographies. He worked as a clerk because he could not find an academic job. His relativity paper gets the most credit, but it was not really so original.

It would be nice to see a true example of physics being advanced by someone outside the meanstream establishment. It ought to be possible, since all the leading knowledge is published. I just don't know of any good examples.


  1. Surely you can't be serious. You're the first person I've ever heard argue the point that the era of significant contributions by laymen ended with Faraday. ("f/ Wiki: "Although Faraday received little formal education and knew little of higher mathematics such as calculus, he was one of the most influential scientists in history.") IMHO, grad student science is a lot like being an acolyte in a religious monastery -- the ones I've known always worked under a specific advisor, worked only on approaches which are in line with their advisor's work, in some cases following their advisor to different environs if the prof relocated. A contribution from a laymen, by definition, would be from someone who did not receive the benefit (some would say did not receive the detriment) of such apprenticeship.

    Which engenders more questions, of course. How likely is a layman's work to get refereed? How would you feel, Rog, if someone like me asked you to drop what you're doing, put all your other reading on hold, and check out 500 pages I churned out on nonlinear control theory? BTW, you'll also have to read my underlying works first, just to get the lay of the land, and of course the coda I'm writing (in progress).

    I love the idea. I love the fact that I once wrote in my memoirs, regarding a fib I'd told to a schoolteacher, about "the electrical moment of the lie" -- and then wondering later, hmm, "could that phrase be used to advance Physics?" I enjoyed scribbling out eight pages of thoughts, equations and diagrams about how to solve the asteroid-Earth collision problem, and sending them to a Physics colleague ... but sadly, no Prix Nobel in the offing. Lost Cause.

  2. I would love to see some good examples of big contributions being made by amateur scientists.