World Moving Towards Mediocrity?

May 9, 2006 at 3:01 pm (Science, Society)

The greats posing for a photographThis 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. But, do we still produce such greats in our era?

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.



  1. Tommy said,

    The analysis is too simplistic, as it ignores the fact that today’s technological universe is much more complicated than in years past.

    Take physics, for example. Quantum theory was developed only after years confusion about certain radiation phenomena, and centuries after Newton’s Principia, which itself emerged only centuries after Aristotle. The point is that great discoveries take centuries to foment, and are led up to by a series of smaller discoveries. Having talent or genius is not enough. There also need to be fertile ground it to blossom. There is an old Chinese saying: “The times make the heros.” Paul Dirac once commented about physics in the early 20th century, saying, to the effect, that “physics today is so rich with opportunities that even second-rate physicists can do first-rate work.”

    To lament that we no longer have great minds of the stature of Einstein and Edison is somewhat misguided, I believe. Today there are many many more professional physicists and other scientists and engineers than before, and it’s getting harder and harder for one great mind to distinguish itself from another. To get the forefront of physics research, say string theory, one needs to know a lot more mathematics than Einstein ever had to learn.

    It’s a very different world now.

  2. Laszlo Kish said,

    The problem is valid and getting progressively more serious however it is not new. Don’t forget that Einstein did his greatest breakthroughs as a patent officer while many mediocre physicists had juicy professor positions in physics departments. He was not able to get even a highscholl teaching position. His photon (1905) had not been accapted by the world for 17 years until Compton discovered the Compton effect (1922).

    Einstein is a good “test object”. Suppose, we move him here from 1905. Would he get a faculty position now? No way. Would he be able to publish his 4 revolutionary papers in the top leading journal of physics? No way.

    The Western culture is in the decaying phase of the Roman culture. Remember Cicero (surface and style instead of depth and real value), Roman rights (lawyers), highly organized army and structure; and murdering Archimedes while forgetting the Greek science.

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