In the first chapter of Genesis and Genes, I described the decades-long conditioning that scientists are subject to as part of their training. Contrary to popular perception, scientists do not conduct research within a vacuum. They approach any particular question with a certain worldview that was nourished and cultivated throughout their lengthy period of training. I quoted the physicist and theologian Sir John Polkinghorne:
Scientists do not look at the world with a blank gaze; they view it from a chosen perspective and bring principles of interpretation and prior expectations… to bear upon what they observe. Scientists wear (theoretical) “spectacles behind the eyes”. [Science and Theology, John Polkinghorne, Fortress Press, 1998, page 10.]
In that context, I made the following comment:
Philosophers of science have long pointed out that great breakthroughs in science tend to be made by young men. Albert Einstein was all of twenty-five years old in 1905, his annus mirabilis, when he published three seminal papers that would revolutionise physics. Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac were in their mid-twenties when they made their fundamental contributions to the fledgling field of quantum mechanics. Kurt Gödel was in his mid-twenties when he produced his greatest work on the logical foundations of mathematics. One factor in the disproportionate success of young scientists in demolishing the accepted wisdom is that they have had less time to be conditioned by their older colleagues. They can see things differently.
I am currently reading Physics, the Human Adventure by Gerald Holton and Stephen Brush (Rutgers University Press, 2005). Holton is Professor of Physics and History of Science at Harvard; Brush is a Professor of the History of Science at the University of Maryland. Both authors are Fellows of the American Physical Society, and each has served as President of the History of Science Society. Due in part to their authorship of this book, Holton and Brush were awarded the Joseph Hazen Education Prize of the History of Science Society.
On page 447 of the book, I came across the following related insight:
It is a curious fact that radical conceptual changes in a science are often initiated by people who did not receive their initial professional training in that science. A person who first approaches the problems of a discipline with the mature perspective of an outsider, rather than having been indoctrinated previously with the established methods and attitudes of the discipline, can sometimes point to unorthodox, although (when seen in retrospect) remarkably simple solutions to those problems… for example, the generalized law of conservation of energy was introduced into physics from engineering, physiology, and philosophy, although its value was accepted eventually by physicists.
The authors then go on to describe the remarkable work done by Louis de Broglie (1892-1987), whose first degree was in history, but who later became a physicist and earned a Nobel Prize in physics in 1929 for his fundamental contributions regarding the wave nature of electrons.