Accolades for renegades

My department will welcome a prestigious visitor this year: a person who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011. I looked back at the Nobel laureates for that year, and realized something remarkable — the physical sciences appreciate renegades.

Let’s face it, we’re all resistant to having our cherished ideas upended. But that’s what makes the physical sciences so remarkable — they are dynamic and willing to go where the data lead.

It was only a decade and a half ago that physicists believed the expansion of the universe might be slowing down. They tested that idea, and when evidence was found to the contrary, the physics community went where the data led. Physicists also had enough faith in their own laws and theories to largely accept the implication — an unknown force must be driving the accelerated expansion of the universe. A decade and half after overturning what seemed to be the obvious, the discoverers — Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, and Saul Perlmutter — received the highest accolade possible in the physical sciences.

(It was only fifty years ago that many in the physics community believed the universe was eternal. Yet a relatively short time after the discovery by Penzias and Wilson of the “echo” of the big bang, physicists largely accepted the conclusion that the universe had a beginning in time. The big bang, once derided by some of the greatest minds in science, quickly became the prevailing paradigm for all of physics.)

In the 1980s, chemist Dan Schechtman made the startling discovery that atoms in solids could arrange themselves in a peculiar way not thought possible given the known laws of nature. He was criticized, ridiculed, and shunned by his colleagues. He persevered under these conditions, and within three decades experienced a complete reversal. He was the recipient of the greatest honor there is for a scientist when he received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2011. His discovery of quasicrystals, once derided by some of the greatest minds in science, led the International Union of Crystallography to change the definition of a crystal to incorporate Schechtman’s discovery.

Physics and chemistry are dynamic fields, willing to adopt new paradigms. There may be some initial resistance — which is actually necessary rigor — but they eventually go where the data and logic lead them. And the renegades are rewarded. I can think of few other fields of human study that are like that.


8 thoughts on “Accolades for renegades

  1. “once derided by some of the greatest minds in science”

    Maybe the great minds should shut up, stick to their specialties, and let the pursuit of the truth lead where it will.

    “And the renegades are rewarded. I can think of few other fields of human study that are like that.”

    I agree.

    Reality has a way of shaking out the bad ideas from the good, and rewarding those that will pursue her despite social pressures. And renegades in the physical sciences have reality in their corner.

    What I find impressive is how often those in the physical sciences will toss out cherished beliefs when new data arises, if those beliefs are in conflict with our new understanding of physical science. It’s hard for humans to admit to being wrong and the other guy is right.

  2. Maybe the great minds should shut up, stick to their specialties, and let the pursuit of the truth lead where it will.

    Except sometimes the criticism comes from those in the same field, and even the same research group. From the Wikipedia article on Schechtman:

    From the day Shechtman published his findings on quasicrystals in 1984 to the day Linus Pauling died (1994), Shechtman experienced hostility from him toward the non-periodic interpretation. “For a long time it was me against the world,” he said. “I was a subject of ridicule and lectures about the basics of crystallography. The leader of the opposition to my findings was the two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, the idol of the American Chemical Society and one of the most famous scientists in the world. For years, ’til his last day, he fought against quasi-periodicity in crystals. He was wrong, and after a while, I enjoyed every moment of this scientific battle, knowing that he was wrong.”

    Linus Pauling is noted saying “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Pauling was apparently unaware of a paper in 1981 by H. Kleinert and K. Maki which had pointed out the possibility of a non-periodic Icosahedral Phase in quasicrystals (see the historical notes). The head of Shechtman’s research group told him to “go back and read the textbook” and a couple of days later “asked him to leave for ‘bringing disgrace’ on the team.” Shechtman felt dejected. On publication of his paper, other scientists began to confirm and accept empirical findings of the existence of quasicrystals.

    Schechtman deserves another medal just for persevering. A true renegade.

  3. “Except sometimes the criticism comes from those in the same field, and even the same research group.”

    Heh, well, the moral of this story is humans are going to human :)

    “Schechtman deserves another medal just for persevering. A true renegade.”

    Standing up in the face of direct peer pressure, despite tremendous criticism and disappointment, I think so, too. A true hero for his moral courage in sticking by the truth, no matter how much heat was poured on him.

  4. This sort of brings up a slightly off topic question I wanted to ask you. Whenever I see an article or something meant for the general public’s consumption about Dark Matter or Dark Energy, it’s always implied or insinuated that it’s “out there” somewhere in the distance. My question is: How do we know that we’re not swimming in it? Are staunch materialists really hanging there hat on only 4% of what the universe is actually comprised of?

  5. We are swimming in the dark stuff. It’s just that the effects are more discernible on large scales.

    I’m writing a booklet about the dark side of the universe and Genesis that is intended as a companion for a future Brainstorm session. It’ll cover the science to an extent that hopefully people will have a much better grasp of what the dark stuff is and why we believe it exists.

  6. Sara,
    The scientific community should appreciate and support the renegades as they help move science forward. I gave a mini-lecture at one of our RTB meetings in the summer of 2013 titled “Why Science Sometimes Gets it Wrong.” The theme of the presentation was that scientific orthodoxy sometimes delays our progress of knowledge. One example I gave was in medical research by Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who discovered in the 1980’s that H. pylori bacteria was a major cause of gastric ulcers and could be treated effectively with antibiotics. The prevailing wisdom among the medical community was that ‘stress’ was the main cause of these ulcers. Dr. Marshall finally convinced them of the validity of his discovery by infecting himself with H. pylori, getting an ulcer, and treating it with antibiotics. Now that’s being a renegade! Both Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2005. See a link here.–pylori-researchers-win-Nobel/

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