AFFIRMING THE CONSEQUENT

Posted in Rants on April 12th, 2016 by Ed

It's OK if you've never heard of Fritz Zwicky. He was an astronomer and physicist, a contemporary and colleague of people like Robert Oppenheimer. Zwicky was unquestionably brilliant; he was the first person to conceptualize and explain supernovas. He theorized dark matter decades before anyone else. He discovered neutron stars. He invented some of the earliest practical jet engines. Despite all this is little known and not well respected today. The problem with Fritz Zwicky is that he was an asshole. An asshole of generational talent, a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy laying claim to the coveted title of Worst Person on Earth. Nobody could stand this guy. The only person who did, his gentle co-author Walter Baade, refused to be alone with Zwicky because he was so violent, aggressive, and unpredictable. Oh, and he regularly made death threats to Baade. And that guy was his friend.

Oppenheimer hated him so much that despite having an office just down the hall, he cited Zwicky's undeniably groundbreaking neutron star work when he published his own papers on that subject. Zwicky insulted, irritated, and generally made himself loathsome to everyone he encountered throughout his career. Yet universities and, no matter how much they complained, other scientists grudgingly tolerated, even demanded, his presence. This was so because Zwicky was brilliant. In academia, and particularly in science, and even more particularly (it seems) in physics, where some concepts are so bizarre that only a lunatic could devise them, if you are sufficiently brilliant people will put up with the fact that you are insufferable. You will be suffered.

Zwicky is far from the only example of this phenomenon. No less a figure than Isaac Newton could be maddeningly difficult to interact with, and the legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul ErdÅ‘s seemed to do little else besides publish prolifically, cram amphetamines into his body in legitimately alarming quantities, and devise new ways to be weird. The problem this image – the "mad scientist" or the brilliant eccentric – has created in academia is clear to most of us who are in it. Too many people associate brilliance with eccentricity, being a total asshole, or both. And they make a crucial but basic logical error; they assume "if A then B, so, if B then A." If being brilliant means that a horrible personality will be tolerated, they figure that acting like a dick will somehow affirm and provide evidence of their brilliance.

Tenure is not what most non-academics think it is, but it is indeed part of the problem in this specific case. You can be fired for cause, but being so annoying or rude that people scramble into bathrooms to avoid you in the hallway is not cause. Unfortunately in this line of work and many others, you have the right to be extremely irritating if you don't mind the high probability that everyone is going to hate you. And it's truly remarkable how many academics do not seem to mind this at all.

The decent, friendly people in my field outnumber the assholes and the weirdos considerably. At a recent professional conference, nearly every person I met – friends, old colleagues, acquaintances, new faces I'd never previously met – left me feeling better than I had felt before getting to share their company. "How can I help?" was the most common response when I explained professional difficulties and obstacles that worry me at present. That said, there are still some remarkably awful people in the field. Many of them are tolerated because they have or had strokes of brilliance, or because they have been commendably productive in our perilous publication process (being prolific is a suitable substitute for being a genius). I, like everyone else, put up with some people because it is worth knowing them and their success gives them extra leeway for personality shortcomings. But the people who skip the success / brilliance / productivity parts and go straight to being dicks…they are quite another story. Like actors who demand "star treatment" in the hope that this will make them a star somehow, people who think that being a dick will somehow confer upon themselves the insight of a Fritz Zwicky is one of the more powerfully annoying realities of this profession.

Oh, and for god's sake buy some new clothes once every 10 years. Dressing like a 1940s used book merchant doesn't make you any smarter either.