The Sciences

Galileo vs. Newton

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollAug 18, 2009 2:04 PM

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I didn't get a chance to hear last year's Caltech commencement speech by Robert Krulwich, and apparently I missed something good. This I gather from Chad Orzel's Worldcon speech, which includes a great comparison due to Krulwich. I can't really do any better than blatantly stealing three slides from Chad's talk (although the whole thing is worth checking out). The point of the comparison is to contrast two competing modes of scientific communication, as embodied by our two heroes. Here would be Sir Isaac:

Previously, back in Italy, Galileo had tried a different tack:

With, of course, notably different results:

Admittedly, this stretches the historical narrative a bit in the service of making a point. The divergence between Newton's and Galileo's career's can't be credited solely to their differences in publication styles. Galileo was a troublemaker by nature, while Newton was a good company man. (Although perhaps there is some correlation there with writing styles?) But the punchline remains valid: Newtonian publication remains better for your career. And, implicitly, this hierarchy creates problems for the public understanding/acceptance of science. I would add that there's certainly nothing wrong, all by itself, with scientific publications that are highly technical and inaccessible to a wider audience; those are always going to be a big part of the way science gets done. It's not a moral failing to write jargon-filled manuscripts that are aimed at other scientists rather than at the general reader; in many cases, that's simply the appropriate style for the work at hand. The failing is when that is the only kind of writing that is respected and rewarded. Encouraging a diverse portfolio of scientists and scientific publication would both increase the vibrancy of the field and lower the barriers between science and the rest of society. Also, I would like a pony.

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