29 May 2013

Frankenstein and Galileo, revisited: are they the same story?

I’ve been following the story of Eric Weinstein with some interest, since his work was promoted in the Guardian last week (here and here). I was thinking about why it has attracted so much attention. I thought back to an earlier post of mine, in which I claimed there are two extremely popular science narratives that we tell over and over and over again. One is Frankenstein (science leads to tragedy) and one is Galileo (science triumphs!).

The initial Weinstein articles very much set the tone, raising the possibility that Weinstein might be one of these Galileo type figures: the plucky, lone outsider taking on the establishment. Jha writes (my emphasis):

He may have an impressive CV, but Weinstein is in no way part of the academic physics community. ...

David Kaplan, a particle theorist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has seen and discussed some of Weinstein's ideas with him. On the plus side, Kaplan says it is "phenomenal" that someone coming from outside academia could put together something so coherent. "There are many people who come from the outside with crazy theories, but they are not serious. Eric is serious."

In response, established jobbing scientists in academia stepped into their proscribed role as stuffed shirt party poopers (my emphasis).

That is not to say he doesn't have anything to contribute, but he will have to go through the proper channels. Physicists are inherently conservative. New claims, especially bold ones, face stiff resistance. That's for a good reason: faster-than-light neutrinos, anyone? ...

Grand claims like Weinstein's would – in the normal course of science – be accompanied by a technical paper explaining their foundations. We could then take a deep breath and puzzle over whether they're consistent with the vast knowledge of nature arising from centuries of experiment and observation.

Jennifer Oulette’s post also fits that mold. Oulette is a smart enough storyteller to recognize the importance of the way the story has been framed as a potential a Galileo-style triumph in giving this story “legs”:

Admittedly, it’s a very seductive narrative. Who doesn’t thrill to the idea of an obscure unknown genius toiling away in the shadows, snubbed by the stuffy, closed-minded academic establishment, who defies the odds and manages to achieve what all those brilliant scholars failed to do, thereby ensuring his or her scientific immortality?

The story is important. In thinking about Weinstein’s lecture being framed as a Galileo-style story, it occurred to me that Frankenstein and Galileo are not two stories; they are one story.

Pride goes before a fall.

Frankenstein and Galileo are both stories of pride going before a fall, and then getting knocked down a peg. The only difference is in who has the pride. In Frankenstein, it’s the scientist. In Galileo, it’s the establishment.

This is perhaps nor surprising, given the nature of science. Science is about determining the nature of reality. And reality always wins. A story that is truly about science will always have anyone who wants to live with their wishes, or deny the facts, or think they can trump the natural world losing in the end.

I am still looking for the shapes of other scientific stories. It seems to me that the most common one in reality makes an uninteresting one in narrative: “Work very hard for a long time, and maybe you can to make a few small dents in our ignorance.”

Additional: I made a few comments about this on Andrea Kuszewski’s post on G+.

Related posts

Frankenstein and Galileo

External links

Roll over Einstein: meet Weinstein
Eric Weinstein may have found the answer to physics' biggest problems
Weinstein's theory of everything is probably nothing
Dear Guardian: you’ve been played
An Outsider’s Theory of Everything
A tale of two Oxford talks
David Nutt and science’s Galileo complex

1 comment:

Jennifer Ouellette said...

This is an excellent insight. I hadn't considered the parallels between the two narratives before now. Quite possibly two of the most powerful framing narratives we have in terms of communicating the all-too-human endeavor of science to a broader audience.