Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Opinion on How Science Works

I've always thought that there are really two types of people in the
productive physics community. There is a very very very small set of people who generate 95% of all the really meaningful progress. Then the rest of us are trying to pick up the pieces and help the leaders make progress by pushing here or there on some ideas that really come from the leaders anyway -- maybe extending this or examining that. It is not that we are being useless, in fact some of the stuff the rest of us do is pretty cool also, but we are more like support staff helping the truly brilliant.

In a bicycle racing team there are riders called "domestiques" who ride only for the sake of the overall team – they do nothing but keep up with the pack so they can cut the wind in front of the team leader and hand him water when he needs it. Their entire job in life is to assist the real leader - who then breaks away to win at the end. I think the vast majority of the theory community are more like domestiques. (Anyone who knows more about cycling can clarify.)

I tried out this analogy on Eva Silverstein, an official genius by the auspices of the MacArthur committee (Her typically modest comment on winning a MacArthur was “the whole thing was kind of ridiculous”). Anyway, Eva said, "yes, but…" as compared to biking the final result is not scripted. There is always a chance that you will be the one to make the next really big breakthrough. I guess that is what keeps it exciting for all of us.


Peter Armitage said...

I'd say your analogy is pretty spot on. Bike racing domestiques are, by any absolute measure, fantastically talented athletes who may go on someday to win big bike races themselves. This may either be by chance, or they may surprise themselves and others finding legs they didn't know they had. Or they may never win a big race, preferring to forgo that stress and limelight and instead to do a great job toiling behind the scenes to set the stage for someone else's success.

T. J. Babson said...

This seems to me a rather theory-centric view and not representative of science in general, unless you want to argue that experimenters are actually domestiques as well (which would come as a big surprise to them!).

Anonymous said...

So in other words it is more like tennis.