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.