Freeman Dyson on invention and PhDs
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.