Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What Gell-Mann wish someone told him when he was 20?

Earlier this year there was a conference in Singapore celebrating the 8oth birthday of Murray Gell-Mann. He gave an interesting talk, Some Lessons from Sixty Years of Theorizing, which is a good read. Here are just a couple of extracts:

things I wish someone had explained to me around 60 years ago....
The one I should like to emphasize particularly has to do with the frequently encountered need to go against certain received ideas. Sometimes these ideas are taken for granted all over the world and sometimes they prevail only in some broad region or in certain institutions. Often they have a negative character and they amount to prohibitions of thinking along certain lines. Now we know that most challenges to scientific orthodoxy are wrong and many are crank. Now and then, however, the only way to make progress is to defy one of those prohibitions that are uncritically accepted without good reason....
He goes on to give some good historical examples, e.g., opposition to continental drift at Caltech...
doubt and messiness are inevitable. We should tolerate them, even embrace them......
I suffered for many decades from the belief that when hesitating between alter- natives I had to choose the correct one. Lyova Okun once quoted to me advice he had received from an older colleague: “Publish your idea along with the objections to it.” I would now add “Publish the two contradictory ideas along with their consequences and choose later.” Apparently the messiness of the process is inevitable. Instead of suffering while trying to make it perfectly clean and neat, why not embrace the messiness and enjoy it?
The last point is an indirect endorsement of the method of multiple alternative hypotheses.

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