November 12, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

A Tale of Two Mavericks

In science, consensus has a lot of power.  It takes courage to stand alone against the majority.  Scientists should remember that sometimes the loner has turned out to be right.  Two men who recently died are now being honored for their willingness to have stood up to the majority and advanced views that were unpopular at the time.  Though not involved in the creation-evolution controversy, they illustrate that courage to follow the evidence still has value in science, whether or not the academic crowd follows along immediately.

John Huchra

Nature just published an obituary about John Huchra, astronomer, who “mapped the structure of the universe.”1  A champion of observational astronomy, Huchra spent countless hours at the eyepiece of large telescopes, amassing a record in observing time and measuring redshifts of tens of thousands of galaxies.  His findings flew in the face of theoreticians.  “Huchra and his colleagues were not cowed by senior observers who advocated much lower values for the Hubble constant – or by theorists who believed that the Universe must be decelerating, which would make the age discrepancy even worse,” Robert Kirshner wrote in the tribute.  “They just reported what they found.

In addition, working with Margaret Geller at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Huchra also proposed a radically different texture for the universe: “a foamy structure of voids, sheets and walls” – an “extraordinary picture” that came about through a “confluence of insightful planning, new detector technology, creative analysis techniques and an ample dose of hard work at the telescope, much of which was supplied by Huchra.”  Born into a poor family, he maintained his values of hard work and humility learned early in life.  “Nobody worked harder at his craft, gave more of himself to his colleagues and students, and was less puffed-up by his considerable achievements than John,” Kirshner said.  “He was happiest in the observatory, with the controls of the telescope in his hands.”


Benoit Mandelbrot

Got fractals?  If so, you got them after 1982, because that’s when Benoit Mandelbrot invented the word.  The achievement of this great mathematician illustrates that entire new landscapes of knowledge can emerge in the minds of independent thinkers.  If you thought science had everything figured out by the 1980s, look at what Heinz-Otto Peitgen said about Mandelbrot in Science:2  “He fundamentally and irrevocably changed our view of the world and left us a tool that will continue to unveil nature’s most peculiar commonalities that might otherwise be left aside as insignificant.”

That tribute itself is highly significant.  How did the world get along without fractal geometry before 1982?  The “Mandelbrot set” is now common knowledge for many; it is the basis of incredibly beautiful and intricate patterns that, due to the principles of “self-similarity” and iteration can be explored to infinity (see example on YouTube, some 3-D art constructed with the Mandelbrot set; search for many, many, more).  But it’s not just art that has been revolutionized by Mandelbrot’s fractals.  Peitgen said, “his footprints are left in the theory of finance, linguistics, biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, earth science, cosmology, computer science, astronomy, many of the engineering disciplines, and of course, mathematics.”  It is phenomenal that such a pervasive principle could emerge in our time.

To reach that achievement, Mandelbrot had to go against the flow.  All the other mathematicians were telling him that geometry was old hat, stuff for school children; algebraic and abstract representations were the modern ways to do mathematics.  His teachers tried to force him into that mold.  But Mandelbrot was not satisfied with the consensus; he trusted his eyes, and he knew that nature was not like that.  “Fortunately, Mandelbrot’s advocacy for geometry was without compromise,” so he struck out on his own:

Some describe Mandelbrot as one who chose the role of a maverick in the mainstream sciences.  Quite to the contrary, his uncompromising devotion to analyze and understand the “rough” reality of nature isolated him from the mainstream.  In his view, the common “smooth” representations of natural processes were entirely inappropriate and far from the essence of nature: “Clouds are not spheres and mountains are not cones.”  Alone, he shaped a program of geometry based on fractals, a term he coined to refer to mathematical shapes with irregular contours, just as seen in nature.

Peitgen emphasized again and again that lesson of this man’s life was the courage to work outside the mainstream.  “The Mandelbrot set provides perhaps the most striking example of a mathematical object whose properties would remain undiscovered without the guiding power of the human eye used by an able mathematician.”  This part of the tribute should be taken soberly by all scientists, especially those who feel obligated to make a good showing among their colleagues:

Now that Mandelbrot’s work can be considered to belong to mainstream mathematics and the sciences, it is important to remember that there was once strong resistance and skepticism.  I have often asked myself where Mandelbrot found the source of his strength, determination, and endurance in those decades when he was practically isolated in his own mathematical world.  He used to claim that his geometrical view and associated gifts guided him and that he did not feel isolated at all.  I would add that his pristine character as someone who sought the truth in life and nature led him as well.  Moreover, I remember Beno�t as a universal scientist and very conscious citizen of the world, knowledgeable and sharp in all branches of the sciences and beyond: the arts, politics, and history.  It will take further generations to grasp the full significance and impact of his insight far beyond the borders of mathematics.

Perhaps Mandelbrot learned some of these lessons from his childhood.  Having to escape Nazism in Warsaw, Poland, in 1936, “He chose to remain forever suspicious toward any form of establishment and mainstream.

Update 11/17/2010: Ralph Gomory wrote about the father of fractals in Nature,2 adding that Mandelbrot narrowly escaped deportation and death during the Nazi occupation.  He coined the term fractal in 1975, Gomory clarified, prior to the publication of his epochal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature in 1982.  Gomory agreed with the assessment that the great mathematician worked outside the mainstream: “Mandelbrot’s remarkable conclusions often directly contradicted the accepted view,’ he said; “Inevitably, this slowed their acceptance, but he always persisted with an intellectual courage that I greatly admired.”  He didn’t receive worldwide acclaim till after he was 60 years old: “In 1974 he became an IBM Fellow, IBM’s highest technical distinction, but outside recognition came more slowly….. Finally in 1985 [age 61] he received the Barnard Medal, awarded by the US National Academy of Sciences, and after that came a flood of recognition, honorary degrees, elections to prestigious academies, prizes and the Legion of Honour.”

1.  Robert Kirshner, “John Huchra (1948-2010),” Nature 468, p. 174, 11 November 2010), doi:10.1038/468174a.
2.  Heinz-Otto Peitgen, “Benoit B. Mandelbrot (1924-2010),” Science, 12 November 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6006, p. 926, DOI: 10.1126/science.1199471.

The best way to learn the virtues of good science is to study the lives of its best practitioners.  That’s why we keep an extensive set of online biographies at this site (see Table of Contents).  While Mandelbrot and Huchra do not fit into the intelligent design or creation category, their lives illustrate several virtues that all scientists should emulate:

  • Respect for what nature is, not for what the consensus believes it should be.
  • Valuing empiricism over theory.
  • Willingness to follow the evidence where it leads.
  • Honesty.
  • Humility.
  • A well-rounded education.
  • Altruism.
  • Independent thinking.
  • Hard work.
  • Courage to stand alone.

Huchra and Mandelbrot were not complete mavericks, of course, since they both were well connected and were honored within their lifetimes.  Mandelbrot drew on insights from two earlier French mathematicians.  Huchra did not question big bang cosmology, but challenged some of its assumptions, preferring to believe his eyes more than theory.  But at crucial points in their work, they did have to decide whether to fall in line with the consensus or follow their own path.  Notice that Mandelbrot was not trying to be a maverick.  He did not have a martyr complex or anything like it.  The consensus isolated him, to their shame and disgrace.

If there were more biologists with these virtues, there would be fewer Darwinists.  Notice that the list of virtues does not evolve, and was not produced by a blind, impersonal process.  You can’t be a consistent evolutionist and believe in virtue as a real quality, referencing eternal values.  Moreover, few in the evolution camp exhibit all of these virtues.  The easiest thing in the world for them is to remain bosom buddies with the creationist-haters and ID-attackers, not to think independently and critically evaluate evolutionary theory.

The bounty on mavericks in biology is high.  Outlaws in Darwin’s corrupt township are expelled with irrational hatred.  Even materialist evolutionists who try to question Darwin’s mechanism, as the eminent Darwinist atheist Stephen Jay Gould and the Altenberg 16 (12/28/2009) found out, face the wrath of the funDOmentalists (see 11/10/2010 commentary for definition; also Gould’s term “Darwinian fundamentalism” in 05/31/2004).  Michael Rampino should fear for his career (11/11/2010).

Steven Shapin reminded us that science is “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority” (11/02/2010).  The cultural climates in astronomy and mathematics may be a little more tolerant of mavericks than in biological circles, but consider: in any endeavor, if you want to be remembered for your life and achievements, dare to be a Daniel; dare to stand alone.

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