the crazies

Stephen Barr has an amusing post about scientific crackpots over at the First Things blog.
Over the years, I suppose I have talked to, or been sent material by, dozens of would-be scientific revolutionaries. Much of the blame for this kind of thing lies with the Einstein myth. We have all heard that Einstein flunked math in school. We have all heard that Einstein was a nobody, an outsider working alone in a patent office who was, by the force of his untutored genius, able to sweep away all that went before. All nonsense, of course. Einstein did very well in subjects like math and physics in school. (He did poorly in French, though, because he hated it and didn’t study.) Einstein obtained a doctorate in physics. He had a profound and detailed knowledge of the cutting-edge physics of his day. His theory of relativity did not sweep away all that went before but was an entirely logical outgrowth of earlier physics.

It is not just the crackpots who are victims of the Einstein myth. Some graduate students suffer from Einstein complexes, too. They don’t want to work on anything that does not have the possibility of radically revising our view of the universe. Anything less than that is too pedestrian. Not for them the patient step-by-step progress of science. That was not Einstein’s attitude. One of his most important contributions—the one for which he won the Nobel Prize, in fact—came from thinking carefully about a rather dry, technical, and mundane-seeming phenomenon called the photo-electric effect.

The Einstein myth is part of the larger Romantic myth of the genius as rebel: Beethoven shaking his fist at the heavens. Nothing is great unless it’s “transgressive.” Fortunately, science is not much affected by this idiocy. Partly this is because experimental data serves as a reality principle. Partly it is because science is so technical that the crackpot is simply weeded out when he proves unable to acquire the necessary technical skills. It seems that the humanities are not in so fortunate a condition.

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