Friday, May 05, 2006

World moving toward mediocrity

This is one topic that is troubling me for the last few years. Is the world moving towards mediocrity? Every era had its share of great persons in every field and the process of producing the greats kept on getting accelerated ever since 15th century. People like da Vinci, Newton, Keppler, Bismark, Adam Smith, Shakesphere... kept on arising in various fields and created various fields and revolutionized the entire society.

By the dawn of 20th century the process was in extreme speed. The world was seeing doyens like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Neils Bohr, Alan M. Turing, Richard Feynman, Marie Curie, Max Plank, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Swami Vivekananda, Wright Brothers, Marconi, Edison, von Neumann and Claude Shannon.

But, can you name any living person now or any person born in our era (after 1930) who could belong to this hall of fame, of the world greats?

The world during the period of 1870 to 1930 saw so many inventions and breakthroughs. Extrordinary breakthroughs in Physics came in the form of Quantum theory, Electromagnetic theory, electricity, radio transimission, Semiconductors, Superconductivity, Radioactivity and Relativity (... I cant recount every great thing) and great inventions came in the form of telephone, radio, x-rays, electric motors, automobiles, airplanes, microwaves, movies.... How many great things have we invented in our era?

Where do we get to see physists like Einstein, Bohr, Marie Curie, Linus Pauling, Nichol Tesla, Feynmann and Mathematicians like Kurt Godel, Ramanujam, David Hilbert, Max Plank, Turing, Claude Shannon, in the current era? Where do we get the great economists like Keynes and Fisher or psychologists like Freud? Can you name atleast one great inventor of current time, whose work could be compared with Edison or Bell or Wright Brothers or Neumann? Why didnt we have such great persons in our era? Why the flame of the greats got almost extinguished by the 1960's? If we ask a person in 1940 about the list of top 10 all-time great physists, the list would countain atleast half from their own time. But, what about now? Can you name atleast one current physist who could be placed in the all-time list?

How many great breakthroughs in Computer Science are brought after its first 20 years? We are using almost the same model of Turing and most of the concepts (right from databases to algorithms to networks) are just refined, polished and engineered, but nothing revolutionarily new is produced that is comparable to the works of the first 20 years. Why didnt we do much in space sciences after 1960's and why didnt we produce any great airplane in the last 40 years?

In the previous era, world saw extrordinary leaders in the form of Winston Churchill, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Nehru, Mao, Hilter and Stalin (the last two are criminals against humanity) who commanded uncomparable control over their regions. There were extraordinary literary persons like Emerson, Mark Twain, Ayn Rand and Bernard Shaw.... There were these uncomparable aggressive businessmen like Herny Ford, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Alfred P. Sloan (the man who broughtup General Motors) . Where are their successors?

While we should expect the process of producing great things should have accelerated in the last 70 years, with the revolutions in communication and transportaion and globalization, it is dissapointingly low. I suspect that there is something that is fundamentally wrong. The great instituitions like MIT, Princeton, Cornell and Stanford are no longer producing great things that can change humanity. The papers are more of engineering improvements than revolutionizing things. The professors produce more of good works than extraordinary breakthroughs.

Fundamentally, there is an enormous pressure to perform. Students have to worry about careers, PhD candidates have to worry about graduating, professors have to worry about tenures and later a decent publication career. And this produces the fear that acts against the guts to produce something new. If a physics student proposes for something like a work of general theory of relativity or if a computer science student produces a new computing model, it will most probably be rejected and the admission committee or later the professor might advice the guy to work towards more ahievable goals. And the student might not have guts to go further and work against all odds and might even quit researching.

Thus, we are caught in a circle of mediocrity and we need great force to break this cycle. For this to happen, the current era people have to realize that history would call us the era of mediocrity and to avoid that we need to do something revolutionary.


Aaron said...

With respect to your comment about computer science, the notion of completeness (Think NP complete problems), which has become one of the most important notions in theoretical computer science, was developed in the 70s. Theoretical Cryptography, a huge breakthrough, was the 80s. One of the most important developments in complexity theory was the PCP theorem, in the 90s.

Part of the issue is that you can't tell what is going to become great as it happens -- you need historical perspective to see which new discoveries are later built upon and turn out to stand up to the test of time.

Balaji said...

I accept that many of implications of the findings can be seen only at a much later age. But, still people like Einstein, Edison, Curie or Ford were immediately recognized by their contemporaries and most of the inventions of that era were materialized in the same era.

Regarding the advances in theoratical computer science that you had mentioned, I believed that someone would point out that NP-completeness was proposed as late as in 1970s. But, still it was a continuation of the great works of the 1960s. Moreover, I doubt whether we can call that fundamentally revolutionizing in the same way as we call the Babbage's concept of an analytical machine or Neumann's concept of stored programs and Turing's (and some extent Godel) concepts of Computability.

While developments in cryptography and theoratical comp sci are great works, they are still older (atleast by 20-30 years) and still few and is not more revolutionizing than the concpets from 1930s till 1960s.

Seshu Karthick Tanveer said...

Good post... well said.

Speech is Golden said...

I don't completely accept ur theory on mediocrity. firstly ur assumption tht breakthrough inventions = hall of fame doesn't sit too well with me. secondly i feel we do have our great achievers but we r less inclined to put them up on pedestals (which is a good thing). quoting from kaniyanpoongunranar "We would not be amazed bt the great in their glory, and We would even less despise the petty"

p.s. saw ur forum on Tamil Iyers. Valid point. didn't have the patience to read thro all posts. wats the verdict?

Sahil said...

Balaji I will repeat to you something which my guide told me a few days ago.

There is something called an invention and there is something called an innovation. There have always been few inventions and a large no. of innovations. This is the rule nature follows( in evolution atleast. I study protein evolution and this is what we see both in species and in macromolecular evolution).

1) Now, you say that we haven't had scientists like Einstein, Bohr, Marie curie etc in the past 70 years. I think that is partly because of the fact that as science and technology developed, the level of complexity required to make a breakthrough too increased. So, while Edison slogged it out alone in the railway wagon for years before he made the first light bulb, inventions today require so much complexity that slogging it out for a much greater time with internet and more technological advances too will not create a big difference.

Thus, most of the breakthroughs in the past 70 years have been collective efforts. Which mean that individual brilliance gets overshadowed and the need for the same has decreased too.

So, what we have more innovations and less inventions.

Of course there have been great inventions in the last few years as well. There is Internet and e-mail. I view Tim berners Lee as great as Alexander Graham bell. Now, Bell is great because (a) he made something which nobody thought of.(b) his invention was useful to so many people. So, why not LEE?

Another reason is that a no. of inventions that we see today are a result of World War 2. The governments of UK, USA, Russia and Germany were putting in a lot of money to find novel ways to beat the enemy. So, from nuclear weapons to submarines(world war 1 actually) to better aircraft( a consequence of world war 2) to computers, many modern inventions are a result of World war 2.

Lets take up computers. After the hole-punching looms to the vaccum tubes to transistors and then ICs. All this happened in the past 100 years. Wasn't Transistor such a great invention. I think the man who made a breadboard or a PCB is a brilliant man too. Its just that the level of complexity to make smaller and faster computers is too high.

Lets take up nuclear research. After the dual nature of light had been demonstrated quite early in the century, it satisfied most of the physical phenomenon. The refinement of the theory requires enormous mathematical skills( which weren't require in propitiating the theory in the first place). I know there are computers now. so with mathematical simulations and super computing it should have been easier. But again, being a great mathematician and a great physicist and also a great computer scientist is asking too much from one man. Hence the need for a team and thus the credit is distributed.

As for great leaders. Now, lets pick up one by one. Many leaders are great because they got an oppurtunity to demonstrate their greatness. That oppurtunity was provided in World WAr 2 and the subsequent cold war. Churchill, Hitler and Stalin are a few examples.

Nations in that time were too isolated that it was possible for a man to come up with his 'great' ideas and demonstrate his 'greatness'. Nobody interfered if a dictator wanted to kill his people, or a monarch patronised art by making the best painters of his land paint his ceilings. Gandhi is considered great coz he provided a novel way of rebelling- satyagraha. His ideas of non-cooperation and civil disobedience had a chance to be implemented.

Today, even if somebody comes up with a great idea, it would be difficult to implement it because of the way communities, societies and nations are inter-dependent on each other. There is the UNO and there is USA interfering. Democracy has been established in most of the countries. People are more informed.

During renaissance, the great philosophers Socrates, Aristotle and Plato were patronised by the kings themselves. This means that any other philospophy was looked down upon. There were centres of philosophy in athens where the best minds of the country came.

Today everybody has the freedom of expression, and the freedom of choice. So, every philosophy, every theory, every idea has its takers and its buyers. There is little chance for the idea to establish itself globally as long as people who dislike it have got a voice. So, this means that we cannot have a Gandhi, Hitler, Stalin, MAo, stalin or nebody who commands enormous control over his regions.

Wright brothers are great coz they made the aeroplane. so the invention was great because nobody could fly before. But aren't they great who improvised on that aeroplane to make the modern jets that we have today?? Are inventions the only criterion to measure greatness??

Globalisation means that the world is getting intertwined in a way that has never been seen before. All sci-fi movies, and fiction show that in the future..there is just one government(the planetary or the inter-galactic government). Thanks to globalisation, breakthrough inventions are rare and only those affecting/protecting either the "community's' interests are encouraged.

I think it is too immaturish to say that the world is moving towards mediocrity. Maybe we should give this world some more time before we pass our judgement.

The Attitude Guy said...

Its a very interesting observation. I totally agree with the point that the world hasn't seen a gifted Physist, Chemist or any men of sciences born after 1930s or 40s

But the reason according to me is not that the world is getting mediocre. Its actually the changed state of affairs. Economics has started ruling the roost nowdays. So instead of Academic Institutions the best minds are moving into the industry. "Those who can't do, Teach" has never been more true.

The best minds are now found as CIO (Chief Innovation Officers) or Research Directors of major companies instead of say as a Scietist or a Professor in a college.

And this shift has brought a few very important changes. Its not the person but a Company who gets the credit now. The private sector giants now are Microsoft, Google and so on and so forth. Companies founded before 1930s have been left far behind. The modern day geniuses are Bill Gates, Lary Page & Sergey Brin, Micheal Dell instead of Einstien or Bohr.

Also, its economically a better practice to work as a big team in these institutions. So innovations nowdays are no longer a lone-man-hand. So the credit is dissolved and so is the attention.

Also, the companies don't always make the innovations or discoveries public due to economic reasons. So there might have been breakthroughs which haven't yet been made public.

In deed i am very sure that the world is getting smarter every day. A good example are the test scores. Its getting more difficult everyday to get into a good college. Thats because if u r smart there are many people smarter than you.

So let us be reassured that indeed we are collectively the smartest people who have ever set foot on this planet ;)

Balaji said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Balaji said...

Pretty nice and interesting comments, guys. The general feeling is that the world is reaching a saturation where innovation is the key instead of invention. It makes economic sense too, as it would take a man much more risk and intellect to go for an innovation instead of invention.

I could earn much more by writing some software rather than pondering on why Turing model is the only computing model to be considered or does P=NP?

In the end of 19th century, people thought that everything that is to be invented has already been invented and physists have not much of a room to bring breakthroughs. Probably they wouldnt have forseen that theories of Relativity, radioactivity, wireless communication and non-violent end of colonialism are possible. When great minds like Einstein and Curie and Gandhi are born, world would automaticaly produce new areas and new spheres altogether and they will show what a real invention is (shaming all those people who claim that only innovation and not much invention is possible).

Why these comments are to be accepted is because we dont have those daring minds to disprove these theories on innovation and economic sense? We need great minds to show that we need to discover, invent and learn too many more things in this universe.

The retrogressive commentators of 19th century were disproved by the titans of the 20th century described in the original post.

Will 21st century produce such titans is the million dollar question.