How Consensus Killed the Genius

I’ve got another question for you: What have the pioneers of quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD) to do with climate science?

The answer is: Perhaps more than they should.

In one case, the connection exists because the gentleman concerned, Freeman Dyson, chose to make public his sceptical views – largely to his personal disadvantage. Furthermore, one of the fathers of QCD, Murray Gell-Mann, also threw his hat into the ring before he died. Perhaps the most famous amongst this group, Richard Feynman, remained silent on the subject, but even he has been posthumously roped into the debate (and what he would have thought of that is purely a matter for speculation). The point is, whether dead or alive (and I’m afraid ‘dead’ is the more appropriate adjective for all of the above) these are giants of science who everyone wants on their side. If an appeal to authority means anything, it means a whole lot more when a Nobel Laureate is involved.

But, actually, I’m not here to enroll any of the above onto my fantasy debating team. It is not my intention to convince you that Feynman’s famous proclamations on the nature of science sound the death knell for climate-science-by-consensus. Nor do I aspire towards persuading you that if someone such as Freeman Dyson distrusted the reliability of climate models then so should you. I’m certainly not here to endorse Murray Gell-Mann’s view that the physics behind climate change is so well-understood that it beggars belief that anyone could remain sceptical. No, my intention is to discuss another mighty stalwart of physics who, despite being one of the two who shared the Nobel Prize with Richard Feynman, is far less well known outside of physics. His name is Julian Seymour Schwinger and, as is the case with Richard Feynman, it isn’t his views on climate change as such that make him relevant to this story; in his case it is the process by which his fame faded.

The Lost Artisan

Despite matching achievements in physics, it is not Julian but Dickie who we all remember as the charismatic genius to whom we turn when we want a juicy scientific quote. It is Dickie who has the reputation as the man with the gift for explanation, despite the fact that even he had to concede that Schwinger delivered the better lectures [1]. Feynman would run a mile rather than take on a postgrad student, but Schwinger tutored 70 in his day, four of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize. And yet it is Feynman who we think of as the great educator.

Feynman’s greater reputation in the public eye can be largely explained as the result of his charismatic personality and his penchant for self-publicity. However, this does not explain why the American Physical Society (APS), saw fit to publish a poster containing a portrait of Feynman, accompanied by:

“Together with American colleagues, and Japanese physicists who had worked along similar lines while they were out of touch with the West during the war, Feynman solved the problem by creating Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).”

The APS understood as well as anyone that, working independently, Schwinger was the first to develop a theory of QED and he had been jointly allocated the Nobel Prize for it. So why the snub? Surely, that cannot be explained by Feynman’s charm. Indeed not – a much darker explanation is available.

The Real Deal

At Feynman’s funeral, Schwinger delivered a eulogy in which he famously referred to him as ‘dancing to the beat of a different drum’ [2]. In fact, if this could be said to refer to anyone, it would be to Schwinger himself. Firstly, there was his refusal to attend lectures as a student, despite knowing that graduation depended critically upon attendance records. Either he didn’t understand that knowing everything already wasn’t an acceptable excuse, or he was simply determined not to dance to that particular beat. Then there was his strange habit of only doing work at nighttime, when all of his colleagues were tucked up in bed; this was hardly calculated to ensure his membership of the brotherhood of physicists. However, it was his independence of thinking on the subject of quantum field theory that really sowed the seeds that ultimately resulted in his estrangement. Having initially been the forerunner in the development of QED he then turned his back on it, preferring to develop his own ‘source theory’. Although this was subsequently developed into a modern ‘effective field theory’ none of his contemporaries had been particularly impressed with this work. In fact, it was criticisms from his Harvard colleagues that led him to leave the faculty in 1972 for a job at UCLA. It was the start of a slippery slope, in which independence of thought and an open mind were leading him further and further away from the respectability that comes with adherence to the mainstream of thinking. Finally, he took seriously the prospects of cold fusion, and for many this was the last straw. A once great man was now reduced to engaging in ‘pathological science’ [3].

It’s funny how past brilliance quickly counts for nothing once one steps outside the cosy society of consensus thinkers. Suddenly, a Nobel Laureate couldn’t get his work published for love nor money. He wrote:

„The pressure for conformity is enormous. I have experienced it in editors‘ rejection of submitted papers, based on venomous criticism of anonymous referees. The replacement of impartial reviewing by censorship will be the death of science.“

In protest, Schwinger resigned from the American Physical Society and the rest is, as they say, re-written history. As far as the APS was concerned, Julian Seymour Schwinger was now to be known as ‘American colleagues’.

The Nature of the ‘Crime’

Schwinger’s sin had been to suggest that the major objection usually made regarding the posited existence of cold fusion may not stand up to close scrutiny. He felt that he had a possible explanation for the absence of the by-products normally associated with fusion. He may or may not have had a valid point – I am not qualified to say [4]. However, I am qualified to agree with Schwinger that adjudication by anonymous referees who are not willing to allow a hypothesis made by a former Nobel Prize winner to see the light of day is hardly healthy. After all, Schwinger was only suggesting a possibility that was worthy of experimental investigation. As he put it:

„’Cold Fusion: A Hypothesis’ was written to suggest several critical experiments, which is the function of hypothesis. The masked reviewers, to a person, ignored that, and complained that I had not proved the underlying assumptions. Has the knowledge that physics is an experimental science been totally lost?”

In fact, anonymous censorship should play no role in science, as I’m sure Feynman would agree. Or maybe he was one of the ‘masked reviewers’. We will never know. And that is the shame of it.

Pancreatic cancer killed the man in 1994, but I’d hasten to suggest that the genius was killed some years earlier – and the killer was consensus science. Science is not meant to be a popularity contest with secret adjudication, but for Feynman and Schwinger that is exactly what it turned out to be. Today, we can take on board that warning by listening to the ever-popular Feynman’s words. But we get to see the reality of it by observing the demise of his fellow Nobel Prize winner and undoubted equal: Julian Seymour Schwinger.

Postscript:

During the writing of this essay I had occasion to browse Amazon looking for a good text on atmospheric physics. One book that appeared to be attracting considerable approval was titled ‘Physics of the Atmosphere and Climate’, written by Murry L. Salby. One review read as follows. You can take of it what you will:

“I acquired this textbook because it seemed to be the best of its kind. Another reviewer says: ‘… it is unequalled in breadth, depth and lucidity. It is the single volume that I recommend to every one of my students in atmospheric science…’

Salby has done the worst of all possible things, in the mind of anti-climate-skeptics. His very expertise as a climate scientist has led him to become an apostate to the party line. He believes that the rise in carbon dioxide can be explained in purely natural terms, invoking Henry’s Law. For this apostasy, he was hounded out of his top teaching and research post – life was made unbearable.

Check the evidence on all sides, as per Scientific Method.

Marcel Leroux also wrote first-rate textbooks on Climate Science – but because he became a climate skeptic, his Wikipedia page was deleted. Marcel Leroux, Zbigniew Jaworowski, Nils-Axel Morner, and many more have had their work and reputations trashed, and been chased into oblivion, for the crime of having been good scientists with integrity whose findings led them to skepticism of manmade global warming.”

Notes:

[1] “The beauty of one of his lectures. He comes in, with his head a little bit to one side. He comes in like a bull to a ring and puts his notebook down and begins. And the beautiful, organized way of putting one idea after another. Everything very clear from the beginning to the end…I was supposed to be a good lecturer according to some people, but this was really a masterpiece.” Richard Feynman at a 60th birthday presentation for Julian Schwinger.

[2] This phrase was used as the title for a Richard Feynman biography written by one of his colleagues, Jagdish Mehra. I can recommend it if you are prepared for some pretty advanced physics. No prisoners are taken.

[3] A fair summary of cold fusion can be found in Wikipedia. However, if you just want a laugh, try listening to Bill Nye the Science Guy fumbling his way through.

[4] The presentation, given on Shin’ichiro Tomonaga’s centennial birthday provides an overview of Schwinger’s hypothesis in his own words.

— Climate Scepticism

%d bloggers like this:
Skip to toolbar