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Freeman Dyson on invention and PhDs

by Michael Nielsen on June 6, 2008

Another interesting bit from the Stewart Brand interview of Freeman Dyson that I quoted from earlier. (Hat tip to Danielle Fong).

Brand: One of the things I got from Infinite in All Directions – it was a delight to me, and I’ve been quoting it ever since – is that you honor inventors as much as scientists.

Dyson: It’s as great a part of the human adventure to invent things as to understand them. John Randall wasn’t a great scientist, but he was a great inventor. There’s been lots more like him, and it’s a shame they don’t get Nobel Prizes.

Brand: Is it the scientists who are putting them down?

Dyson: Yes. There is this snobbism among scientists, especially the academic types.

Brand: Are there other kinds?

Dyson: There are scientists in industry who are a bit more broad minded. The academics look down on them, too.

Brand: Is that a weird British hangover?

Dyson: It’s even worse in Germany. Intellectual snobbery is a worldwide disease. It certainly was very bad in China and probably held back development there by 2,000 years.

Brand: How would you stop this intellectual snobbery?

Dyson: I would abolish the PhD system. The PhD system is the real root of the evil of academic snobbery. People who have PhDs consider themselves a priesthood, and inventors generally don’t have PhDs.

The class lines drawn between people who create new ideas (intellectuals), new things-for-a-purpose (engineers and designers), and things-without-a-purpose (artists) are perpetually fascinating. At some level the three activities are hard to tell apart, yet in practice the three groups can act as thought they are quite distinct. One thing I find striking is that each group has standard stories, endorsed by many but not all members, for why that group’s activities are more inherently worthwhile than the other two groups.

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18 Comments
  1. I don’t completely agree on the abolishing part. I learnt a lot during my PhD and would be in a different, less interesting place without it. But I completely agree on the snobbery part. It is not as bad in the US, but esp the part about industry resonates. Lee Hood will also tell you similar stories about his time at Caltech and sequencers

    Another point I’d like to add. Few scientists are inventors and most are more interested in asking why, and without the why, those inventions would probably never happen, so in promoting inventors (a good thing), lets not forget about the importance of science.

  2. Following on from your last point, Deepak, one of the things I find interesting about the best inventions is that they combine art, science, engineering and design all in one package; they ask why, and show how, both done beautifully. Someone like, say, Danny Hillis epitomizes this for me.

  3. I agree. But there are only a few who can do that, e.g. Danny. In most cases, it requires a nice collaboration or two :).

  4. By the way, Deepak, your last comment was number 1000 on my blog! I should buy you a beer if we ever meet in real life. (BioBarCamp, I guess).

  5. Sean Barrett permalink

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with Dyson’s assessment of this. I can think of plenty of examples of scientists who’ve worked on new things-for-a-purpose, and received ample credit from their peers for their work. Obvious examples include transistors, atomic clocks, integrated circuits, frequency combs and magnetic resonance imaging, all of which have, rightly, received Nobel prizes. Turing designed computers, Einstein invented domestic fridges and hearing aids, and some of Feynman’s most celebrated contributions were things-for-a-purpose.

  6. I don’t think Dyson was saying scientists don’t invent stuff. He was saying that people in Universities look down on it, especially at the time (not later, when they can point to successes as justifications for increasing their own funding). And to some extent, he’s right.

    transistors – developed in industry

    atomic clock – developed at the US National Bureau of Standards (i.e., not a University)

    integrated circuits – industry

    frequency combs – NIST (not a University)

    MRI – I won’t try to sort this out, the story of MRI is such a mess.

    Einstein’s role in invention was pretty minimal, the later exaggerations of physicists notwithstanding.

    Turing’s contribution was of a useful mathematical model of computing. Other people (mostly outside academia) actually built the computers.

    Not sure what Feynman built, other than helping with the bomb.

    There are loads of other examples to illustrate this. Academics like to recall von Neumann as one of the fathers of computing. What they don’t usually recall was that at the time, the IAS fought von Neumann to keep computers out.

    Physicists are keen on the example of CERN and the web, conveniently forgetting that Berners-Lee was mostly ignored or opposed. He hawked the idea around for two years (!) with no result, before his boss suggested that if he wanted to work on the idea on his own time, that’d be okay. What great visionaries the higher ups at CERN must have been.

    Of course, physicists now are happy to point to this as a benefit of having places like CERN. But they certainly don’t want to tolerate the required process themselves. It’s almost entirely an accident that the web came out of CERN. Berners-Lee credits people like Bill Atkinson and Ted Nelson (i.e., non-academics) as the main people behind the ideas that led to the web. His contribution was to hook existing hypertext systems up to the network. Certainly, academics don’t look with much respect at people like Marc Andreessen, who turned the web into something everyone could use.

    My own opinion is that university academics are happy to take the credit for successful inventions after the fact, especially when they can be pointed to in grant proposals. But at the time, in most places they’ve got very little interest in the actual process of invention. This has changed some with the Bayh-Dole act, but is still mostly true.

    Edit: On rereading the above, I think I’ve gone a bit too far. All I’m really trying to say, and I think all Dyson is trying to say, is that the process of successful invention (going from idea to a product distributed around the world, not just the prototype) is a process University academics don’t, on average, have much respect for.

  7. Sean Barrett permalink

    Hi Michael,

    My understanding (I may be wrong) was that Turing also worked on implementing computers, both at Bletchley Park and the University of Manchester.

    Feynman: I was thinking of his essay “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” and also his work on quantum computing. Feynman’s real influence on both these areas is of course a matter for debate.

    In any case, I wouldn’t tend to draw too big a distinction between scientists who work in universities, and scientists who work in large government funded labs, or indeed scientists who work in large industrial labs like Bell (which are also frequently government funded to a large extent). The culture is not too dissimilar, and indeed many of the personnel switch between the two or have joint affiliations (e.g. Ted Hansch).

    “the process of successful invention (going from idea to a product distributed around the world, not just the prototype) is a process University academics don’t, on average, have much respect for.”

    Yes – perhaps. I can’t speak for other peoples motivations, but for myself, I’ve no interest in attracting capital, setting up factories and distribution, marketing, worrying about intellectual property, cash flow and so on. But (speaking for myself) I don’t see this as snobbery or a lack of respect, just a recognition of my own limitations.

  8. The Feynman example is illustrative of what I’m talking about. I’m told (I don’t know how reliably) that many of the people thought his “There’s Plenty of Room…” talk was a joke. And quantum computing was certainly regarded as a weirdness for more than ten years after Feynman’s discovery.

    I misspoke about Turing. He certainly wasn’t the dominant force behind the invention of computers, however.

  9. Hi Michael,

    I must say that I don’t agree with you are Dyson on this, and I am inclined to agree with Sean on the culture in government labs and industry. This may of course just be the intellectual snob in me rising to the surface.

    If we stick with the quantum computing example, can we really say there is a significant difference between the research being done in industry (DWave aside, so IBM, Microsoft etc.) vs government labs(e.g. NIST) vs academia? There is a lot of movement of personnel between all three groups.

    I think Dyson’s comments about inventors generally not having PhDs (“inventors generally don’t have PhDs”) is fundamentally misguided. Historically this may not have been the case, up to the mid 20th century. Since then, however, many of the major new inventions exploit quite advanced physics, and so PhDs have become far more important. The examples Sean gave are a very good example of this. It seems to me, at least, that it was no accident that Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley all had PhDs.

    To me it seems that much of the progress in inventing new technologies these days is driven by PhDs, simply because we have become so technologically advanced that further advance requires significant specialist knowledge. I would be extremely surprised if there had been a significant technological advance in recent years that has not heavily exploited research by scientists with PhDs.

  10. Joe – Just to distinguish between my point of view and Dyson’s, I don’t especially agree with Dyson about PhDs, in part for the reasons you outline. Of course, to a large extent, I suspect he’s really thinking about the PhD as it was decades ago, whereas we’re thinking about it more as it is today.

    Where I am in some sympathy is with his general comments about the relationship between intellectuals / research scientists and engineers / inventors / designers. I’ve heard the phrase “it’s just engineering” hundreds or thousands of times from scientists, as though engineering were somehow an inferior art. The epitomy of the attitude was that the IAS wanted to kick von Neumann’s computer out of the IAS. (I suspect Dyson may have this kind of example in mind, too, as he was at the IAS at the time.)

  11. That’s certainly a fair point. It does however still seem that these criticisms apply to the academia of several decades past, and not to the current situation.

  12. Of course I realise this discussion is tainted by the fact that everyone involved has a PhD, so any debates of the merits is likely to be somewhat biased.

  13. The phrase (and attitude) “it’s just engineering” is not at all a thing of the past. Indeed, I left academia after tenure, for reasons that are closely related.

    (By the way: I believe Dyson doesn’t have a PhD!)

  14. I admit that the “it’s only engineering” attitude does exist, but I think that’s in some sense unique to physics (though I could be wrong), and isn’t really to do with academic research. I think it’s probably simply that many physicists (particularly theorists) look down on other fields, both inside and outside academia. Not that this is particularly justifiable, but I think that it is the real root of the problem, not anything specifically to do with PhDs.

    If anything, Dyson’s lack of a PhD is a perfect illustration of this. I doubt many physicists would change their opinion of him with or without a doctorate.

    I’ve been reading “A Mathematician’s Apology” lately, and it’s pretty clear that Hardy did not think much of the mathematics engineers of his day were using, though he whole-heartedly embraced quantum mechanics and relativity.

    In a way I think physicists are using PhDs as a proxy for having done something of some minimum level of intellectual merit. You can achieve the same status by other routes, but this is far more troublesome, as it often involves some far greater achievement unless you want to go around handing out CVs to everyone you meet.

    So, I am not unsympathetic to your point, and I can see that there certainly are some problems within the community, but I don’t necessarily agree with you on either the cause or the exact nature of the problem.

  15. Joe – you’re arguing a point (about PhDs) that I’m not trying to make, although, of course, Dyson IS trying to make that point. I largely agree with you on the PhDs, as I said in an earlier comment. But what interested me about Dyson’s comment had nothing to do with PhDs. It’s the point he’s making about the strange way scientists often look down on makers of things: engineers and designers.

  16. It seems then that we’ve been talking at cross purposes. I wasn’t entirely clear that you were disagreeing with Dyson on the PhD point, but that it is probably a result of not reading what you had said carefully enough. Sorry!

  17. Joe – yes, I think we’ve been talking at cross purposes! Oh well, happens.

  18. Will permalink

    I agree with Dyson’s assessment that the Ph.D system is deeply flawed (especially in Europe and to a lesser extent, the U.S. When I went through the Ph.D program in chemical sciences I learned a lot my first year of intense coursework. But that is the purpose of graduate education…to extend one’s knowledge in a particular field. What I absolutely found assinine was the level of laboratory work and nebulous goals set by an adviser as to when “you’ve done enough for a Ph.D.” The formulation and implementation of a committee of external scientists to oversee Ph.D students is completely wasted by the fact that many of these induviduals simply concur with and reiterate the adviser’s opinions, especially when said adviser is “a bigger name” than any of the members on a student’s committee. The focus on education and fundamental understanding of one’s subject matter has unfortunately become eclipsed by rote brute force and man hours spent in the laboratory that may or may not ultimately advance our understanding of anything (the so-called “toil syndrome.”)

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