False Modesty and the Progress of Science (or Lack Thereof)

In a talk given in 1999, Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, proclaimed the stature of James Clerk Maxwell in the history of science, positioning him at the rank of Newton and Einstein. Maxwell’s 1865 theory explaining and unifying the phenomena of electricity and magnetism turned out to be, according to Dyson (1999),

“the prototype for all the great triumphs of twentieth-century physics…the prototype for Einstein’s theories of relativity, for quantum mechanics, for the Yang-Mills theory of generalised gauge invariance, and for the unified theory of fields and particles that is known as the Standard Model of particle physics.”

Maxwell was a leading figure in British science in the period from 1856 until his death at 48 in 1879. He was an academic department head at 25, elected to the Royal Society at 30, was president of the section on mathematical and physical sciences of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at 35, and at 40 became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge, personally overseeing the building of the Cavendish Laboratory.

In addition to his intelligence and imagination, Maxwell had a wry sense of humor, and a rich spiritual life. But in 1870, giving an overview of recent advances in his presidential address to the British Association, he downplayed the importance of what we now know as his landmark 1865 paper on electromagnetism. He instead spoke enthusiastically about William Thomson’s work in electrical theory. Perhaps he did not want to take on the double challenge of trying to explain the new and complex mathematics of his own theory to the physicists, and the physical application of the equations, to the mathematicians. Maybe he thought it would be unfair to take advantage of his position to showcase his own work. But Dyson thinks Maxwell’s colleagues could have been motivated to overcome the difficulties experienced in interpreting the published work if only Maxwell had encouraged them to.

Dyson contends that, in being so “absurdly and infuriatingly modest,” Maxwell set back progress in physics by 20 years, just as Mendel’s monkish isolation held back biology by 50. Referring to his own work toward the end of his address, Maxwell began by saying, “Another theory of electricity which I prefer…”.  He then briefly described his work without taking credit for it.

But what if, as Dyson asks, Maxwell had instead had the confidence of Newton, who, at the start of the third volume of his Principia Mathematica, announced, “I now demonstrate the frame of the system of the world.” What if Maxwell had directly stated the truth with some panache, saying something to the effect of, “I now demonstrate the structure of the models integrating mathematics and physical phenomena that will dominate physics for the foreseeable future, and that will lead to revolutionary advances”? Even if he had not been so grandiose, if someone of his stature in the scientific community, known for his humility and personable nature, had spoken straightforwardly about what he believed to be true, people would have listened, and Freeman Dyson would not have been talking about 20-year delays in the advancement of science brought about by one of its most illustrious contributors.

It would seem that Maxwell’s legacy of self-deprecating modesty might have been inherited by one of his intellectual heirs, Georg Rasch, and the vast majority of those who have adopted Rasch’s measurement models in their research. Rasch explicitly based the mathematics of his approach to psychological measurement on Maxwell’s mathematics (see my previous postings here for more). Rasch accomplished for psychology the same integration of mathematics with substance that Maxwell accomplished for physics. Rasch’s students, Wright, Andrich, Andersen, and Fischer among them, poured passion and insight into developments in models, theory, estimation, software, fit statistics, applications, students, publications, and professional associations for decades. But you would never know that from reading most of the research using his models over the last 30 years, or from taking courses with most of the university professors who purport to apply Rasch’s ideas.

So, all that just to say that there are reasons and purposes motivating these blog postings that may not be readily apparent, but which have their historical precedents and future potentials. There is no more worthy challenge for me, personally, than following Rasch’s lead in figuring out how to demonstrate the frame of the system of the world of social relationships and intangible assets. After all, if no one does this, how many additional decades might be lost before researchers gain the thorough understandings of Rasch’s models that will lead the way to whole new classes of human, scientific, and economic triumphs?

Dyson, F. (1999, July). Why is Maxwell’s theory so hard to understand? In Fourth International Congress Industrial and Applied Mathematics (http://www.clerkmaxwellfoundation.org/DysonFreemanArticle.pdf). Edinburgh, Scotland.

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