Link to a nice article: yesterday, the Quanta Magazine published Mathematicians Chase Moonshine’s Shadow, with the subtitle "Researchers are on the trail of a mysterious connection between number theory, algebra and string theory", which covers the history and some recent events in the moonshine industry.The latest episode of The Big Bang Theory, "The Leftover Thermalization" (S08E18), was solving a much more serious sociological problem in science than what you would expect from a comedy watched by almost 20 million Americans. I start to see it was a great idea not to "abandon" the show just because of one silly episode where Sheldon was led to leave string theory for weird reasons.
First, let me begin with the non-essential background. Howard is told about a blackout that would ruin all the last food that his recently deceased mother left in the fridge. So he and Bernadette organize the "last supper". During the dinner, Leonard and Sheldon bitterly argue. Bernadette takes them to a different room and screams at them in a voice resembling the late Ms Wolowitz.
It's entertaining but I want to focus on the serious question: the reason why Sheldon and Leonard argued.
Just like constant CBS viewers, TRF readers know that one month ago, Sheldon and Leonard co-wrote a paper about the model of the vacuum as a superfluid. For relatively subtle reason, I think that this idea ultimately leads nowhere (and yes, similarly flawed ideas are hyped in real-world journals all the time these days) but let's assume that it does make sense.
Like in most similar situations, the contributions of different co-authors to the paper was rather asymmetric. In this case, Leonard found the key underlying, somewhat speculative idea. Sheldon played the role of analyzing and elaborating upon this idea to make sure that everything works at the mathematical level and may be presented as a solid result and not just a speculation.
The source of their bitterness was an article in a popular journal based on an interview with Sheldon. The problem with the resulting article was that it described the author list as Sheldon Cooper and his team. We learned that it was partly because Cooper was more well-known so this "omission of the details" may have been good to sell many copies of the journal.
Off-topic, a meritocratic not quite wife: the most widely read BBC story today tells us about a bride who sensibly cancelled the wedding when the bridegroom answered 17 to her "math problem" 15+6. Here in the West, men should be dumped if they can't calculate a simple one-loop diagram in string theory.Which journal is distorting the reality and rewriting the credits in this way? Even in this detail, the sitcom was extremely accurate. The journal that did this terrible thing was called... Scientific American. Indeed, it is not hard to find lots of stories in which Scientific American committed similarly serious blunders. In recent years, Scientific American has really sucked.
(At the end of the episode, we learn that Physics Today wrote a better semi-popular article about the technical paper where both names of Sheldon and Leonard were mentioned.)
Lots of discussions in the episode realistically focused on the rather important question – that has been discussed many times on this blog, in one way or another – whether it's the journalists or the scientists who are interviewed who should be blamed for the inaccuracies in a popular article about the scientific topic. And I think that the sitcom has conveyed the very realistic and honest picture that it's both.
You know, the journalist had his own reasons why only Sheldon was interviewed. He appeared on the first place in the alphabetical ordering (Cooper-Hofstadter); and Sheldon is more attractive from the viewpoint of the media. However, Sheldon was in no way innocent because, as we learn, he knew that the paper would be presented as "his" work (while the role of "his team" was secondary). He clearly failed to object – and I think that it's the case in most situations when the interviewed scientist is getting much more credit than he deserves or when his findings are overinterpreted.
So I would say that the truth about most of the similar situations resulting in a misleading article was pictured rather accurately. The screams of the scientists, "we are innocent", are misleading or downright untrue. Manipulative popular articles wouldn't be written if the work of the journalist were perfect; but some co-operation of the scientists on the "sin" is almost universally needed and actually occurs, too.
OK, that was one rather deep aspect of the argument. The other question is: Whose contribution was actually more important?
Sheldon cleverly asked Howard whether the idea or the execution was more important. Howard, an engineer, obviously answers that the execution is more important. That's what the engineers do. They turn speculative ideas that may be right or wrong into something tangible. Sheldon praises Howard for this answer. Leonard reminded Sheldon that up to recently, Sheldon has described Howard as an inferior mind who doesn't even have a PhD. However, Sheldon reminded Leonard that Howard's mother just died. And that's where Bernadette had to show her authority. ;-)
The question whether "the idea" or "the execution" is more important can't be answered universally. It depends how rare the idea is and how far its proponent has gotten before someone else had to help. Different authors may play different roles in the research but in some cases, the author of the early work has made a greater contribution; in other cases, it's the other way around; in many cases, it's hard to tell – but in most cases, physicists agree to share the results equally unless they disagree completely and start to hate each other.
I would say that the format of Sheldon's work may be similar to Witten's. It's a lot of amazing and mathematically accurate work that is going to lead to many followups but one may still have the feeling that the real "paradigm shifts" are mostly taking place elsewhere. So while Witten writes fundamental papers in the early stage - that are later followed by lots of other researchers – I would still say that there has almost always been a "paradigm shift" done by someone else before Witten wrote his important paper.
(In collaborations, one may usually see who is more of the "early contributor" and who is the "later technical worker". I believe that in various situations, I've played both roles but I don't want to go into that because I find it pathetic when someone tries to declare himself a "seer" in the ocean of "craftsmen".)
OK, when a breakthrough happens, it's something rare that isn't happening every day. The exceptional value of these results depends on
- scarcity and originality: sometimes one needs ideas that are really outside the box, that jump over the "business as usual" to an unknown realm, that overcome some widely believed prejudices and assumptions
- accuracy and precision in picking the right idea from possible wrong ones: there may be many "seemingly similar ideas" but the great scientist sometimes needs a special instinct – which may look like good luck but it's rarely explainable by pure chance – to select the right way to proceed
- advanced expertise: to do progress, one sometimes need to know a lot and have skills that almost no one has, even though the work is rather straightforward
- quantity: sometimes lots of work is needed and the sheer amount may make others scream "Wow"
Far-reaching speculative ideas may be viewed as very important but at the end, you may also look at them so that they look like cheap and omnipresent weeds. Millions of people love to speculate – offer ideas that go well beyond what can be demonstrated with rigor. But which of these speculations are valuable and which of them are not? "The execution" – some nontrivial work or lots of work – is often needed to decide.
What is important is that someone who produces tons of speculations that are mostly worthless is statistically guaranteed to sometimes say something that "resembles" some important truth, something that will be important in the future revolution of physics. But even broken clocks are right twice a day. One mustn't forget about this fact. If some seer's agreement with an idea underlying a paradigm shift is probably explainable as "being lucky" or "broken clocks' being right twice a day", we should simply not be impressed.
In science, we simply shouldn't celebrate scientists for something that is "purely good luck". And the more speculations someone produces, the "less luck" he actually needs for something to agree with the future scientific breakthroughs i.e. the "less impressive" such one agreement becomes.
On the other hand, the advances are not all about the execution. Sometimes an idea that the "executor" wouldn't otherwise have is completely essential for his (or her...) ability to make progress. This executor, Y, may depend on someone else, X, who made him look at the things from a new angle, to overcome some hurdles, to fill some gaps in the understanding, to learn something he should have known for a long time. If the insights that flew from X to Y were mundane and if X could have in principle been replaced by many other people, the essential contribution of X is a matter of a historical curiosity. He still helped to write the history of science but it could have been someone else, too.
Sometimes the idea flowing from X to Y is rare. Sometimes it's a way of thinking, a way of looking, and it may even be hard to describe it in words. Nevertheless, such contributions may be vital and these revolutionaries X are sometimes overlooked by our history textbooks of science.
I would have to read the full paper to reliably decide whether Sheldon or Leonard did a greater contribution to their paper about the superfluid vacuum theory (recall that I am assuming that the paper works even though this line of research doesn't seem to work). Whatever the answer is, I think that the behavior of Scientific American was despicable once again and Sheldon should be sort of ashamed for having helped in it, too.
And that's the memo.