Young Turks And Outsiders

Thomas Kuhn said that those "who achieve . . . fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change."5 The former are often known as young turks, the latter as outsiders. The history of science is full of examples of the vital role both play. Take geology: Alfred Wegener was an outsider—a meteorologist and polar explorer— who conceived the idea of continents floating through the mantle as he watched icebergs drift across the arctic seas. Although continents do not float in the mantle, in the largest sense he was right—they do move—but it took half a century for insiders to wake up to it. Luis Alvarez was a physicist without whose intrusion we might still be saying (if not really believing) that sea level changes killed off the resilient dinosaurs.

Outsiders can provide an indispensable point of view. With few exceptions, scientists work within the current paradigm, which permeates construction of their theories, even their approach to thinking about their subject. They know which old questions need not be asked again, and fail to see which new ones might fruitfully be raised. Their philosophy may prevent them from taking even the first small step on the journey to a paradigm shift. But newcomers— either young in age or new to the field—are unburdened by the weight of the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, the outsider often does not know enough to work within the paradigm even if he or she wanted to. Typically the outsider has neither the background nor the interest required to learn a new field from scratch. Why climb the mountain in one field, as Luis did, only to descend so that you can laboriously pack the gear of climbers who are scaling a new mountain? Better to leap from peak to peak.

Much of the interesting work in science, as the Alvarez theory shows so well, is done at the interface between disciplines. Progress is made when the techniques of one discipline are applied for the first time, or in novel ways, to the problems of another discipline, something that outsiders are in a good position to do. Nobelist Harold Urey brought his expertise as a chemist to bear on problems of the earth sciences and made many outstanding contributions. Outsiders are like bees carrying vital scientific pollen from one disciplinary flower to another.

Another facet of the case for the outsider is that the young are apt to be overly influenced by the stifling presence of the magister. Following the lead of their elders and their own self-interest, young scientists naturally pursue what they see as possible, which by definition usually lies within the current paradigm. But outsiders, particularly Nobelists such as Urey and Alvarez, whose respectability is not in question and who owe allegiance neither to the magisters of the field nor to the ruling paradigm, can step in with impunity. Indeed, it seems likely that nothing would have made Luis Alvarez happier than to break rank with Lyell and Hutton; had he been a 30-year-old geologist in his first position, however, it might have been different.

Seldom does a magister launch a paradigm shift within the field in which his or her eminence was achieved. To do so would mean casting off previous work and conclusions—tantamount to admitting error or poor judgment. But a magister who turns out to have been wrong may no longer deserve the title. Few have been able to walk the tightrope of maintaining eminence while correcting past errors of judgment.

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