A Great Person’s Curse

In the middle of a thermodynamics tutorial, my old college professor said “some people feel the course of science was been set back 200 years by Newton”. This was a startling assertion, surely he meant it had been advanced? No, set back it was.

The problem was that Newton was too great. Nobody could challenge anything he said, even when he got it wrong. After his death, for many years it remained inconceivable to oppose his words.

It seems the destiny of great people to be turned into idols. Invariably, their contribution suffers as a result. Their experiments ossify into dogma, their opinions turn to articles of faith.

Robert Millikan and his oil drop apparatus to measure electron charge

Richard Feynman narrated a story about the electron’s charge. The first person to determine this was Robert Millikan who won the Nobel prize for this in 1923. He devised an experiment where the charge of the electron could be measured if you knew it’s mass. Unfortunately, the value of the electron’s mass used by Millikan was too small, hence his value he got for the charge was also wrong.

It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that…


Ludwig Van Beethoven

Beethoven dug the grave of western classical music. Many young composers were disheartened when faced with the colossus of his work. Even Franz Schubert remarked, “Who can do anything after Beethoven?” His work gave shape to what we call western classical music today. Unsurprisingly, it is dominated by Beethoven and those who preceded him. Gradually, dead composers crowded out the living.

… the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph: in Leipzig, the percentage of works by deceased composers went from eleven per cent in 1782 to seventy-six per cent in 1870. Weber sees an 1807 Leipzig performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the titanic, turbulent “Eroica,” as a turning point . . .

Aristotle cast a shadow so long that it took almost 2000 years and a man of Galileo’s genius to rid physics of his mistakes.

Aristotle                                                    Galileo

It was not till Mao had died that Xioping dared liberalize China. In India, it took over 25 years and the threat of imminent financial collapse for Manmohan Singh to dismantle the fetters of Nehruvian regulation in 1991. The graph below shows the result on India’s GDP.


It takes a courage to be the child who says that the emperor had no clothes. But progress needs curious young minds as much as grand old ones.


  1. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/deus-ex-musica
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijHKu6iXiRk
  3. http://www.azquotes.com/quote/691357

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