AFFIRMING THE CONSEQUENT

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 Erdős 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.

Be Sociable, Share!

42 Responses to “AFFIRMING THE CONSEQUENT”

  1. Nerd Says:

    The towns south of San Francisco are all partially populated by a number of software-adjacent people who act like tremendous assholes and slave-drivers out of a misguided attempt at cargo-culting whichever mogul they've latched on to — Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Thiel, Musk…

    It's exactly for the reason you describe: emulating a surface characteristic of a chosen hero without regard for that person's luck, advantages, or years of grinding work. But in the graspy world of consumer software, I suspect there's an additional angle: this asshole, in his heart, believes he is innately as talented or chosen or deserving or whatever as the ascended names in the pantheon. To this person, being an asshole is a conscious stance, justified by an inner greatness the world just has to wait to see.

    It's sadder when I consider how many aren't using their insufferable-but-talented selves to make useful things like new physics or jet engines. It's even sadder still when I think of all the ones who act like this, and aren't talented at all.

  2. Berkeley '74 Says:

    Overheard in the lunch line today, students at Univ. California, discussing how professors achieve high ratings on Rate My Professor dot com. Since anything the prof has to offer is more readily available via google search, the kids figure they get their money's worth only if the prof is entertaining in class. No entertainment, poor ratings. Lots of jokes and funny stories, high rating. Content of class, meh.

  3. HoosierPoli Says:

    Berkeley: Enjoying your professor is a sine qua non of learning. Not everyone who is entertaining is a good instructor, but if you can't grab your students' attention and affection, they will do anything other than listen to you or care about the material. They'll sleep, they'll text, they'll stare at the wall and think about ANYTHING just to stop thinking about whatever you're trying to teach them. Students understand this implicitly, even if they can't express it. Hence the ratings.

  4. Talisker Says:

    @HoosierPoli: Just so. The physics professors I learned the most from were also the most entertaining. The ones who read from their notes in a monotone… I'm sure they had an excellent understanding of physics, but they were failing to convey it to the students. You might as well stay home and read the textbook.

    Twenty years on, I still remember the professor who said, "I am about to use two colours of chalk. This, I believe, is what they call multimedia." Or the one who talked about the physics of violin strings in the last lecture of term, then got out his violin and played us "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".

  5. define and redefine Says:

    Replace "physicist" with "physician," and you have one of the major problems with healthcare these days…

  6. Jimcat Says:

    "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. "

    I'm not seeing the connection here. If you hate someone, wouldn't that make you *less* likely to cite their papers?

  7. Talisker Says:

    @Jimcat: If two guys just down the hall from each other are working on the same subject, it would be more usual for them to collaborate on a paper and publish it together. Unless one of them hates the other's guts.

  8. Katydid Says:

    My primary customer has a branch that does nothing but training. I worked a 3-year contract for those assholes, and wow, was that eye-opening. Somehow I'd managed to get through undergrad and grad school without encountering any real idiots; I had out-and-out affection for many of the professors I had or dealt with*, and tolerance for the others. Some were downright entertaining and fascinating, and others not so much, but their love of the subject shone through and made it worth the time to go to class.

    These folks? Believed themselves to be academics, and acted like the very worst stereotypes of the academic. The prima-donna-ism and the backstabbing and the pouting and the whining and the demanding outrageous things…I left work exhausted every day of that contract, and I won't go back voluntarily.

    * my on-campus undergrad jobs included being a female computer lab rat in–the early 1980s!–,handling the audio-visual equipment (vcr's, sound equipment and videocameras mostly), and other random on-campus jobs. I am one of the rare women in tech who has absolutely zero bad things to say about my experience in school. I was treated just like my male counterparts by the professors and the other students. The real world was quite a shock after schooling.

  9. H.M.S. Blankenship Says:

    Fritz Zwicky's name comes up a lot in popular articles about astronomy or cosmology these days, because the conjectural 'dark matter' is such a hot topic, but I had never read anything about his personal qualities. Thanks for another informative post.

  10. Katydid Says:

    The whole gimmick behind the tv show "House" was that Dr. House was so brilliant that his bad behavior was tolerated. I think you see that in a lot of industries, particularly for men.

  11. ronzie Says:

    Just read the first few paragraphs of the DiscoveryMagazine.com article, and it seems that Zwicky's daughter is one of those assholes who thinks that using obscure words is a sign of high intelligence.

  12. Major Kong Says:

    I've often believed that there is a very fine line between genius and insanity.

  13. Donald Trumpet Says:

    "It's OK if you've never heard of Fritz Zwicky."

    Whew.

  14. Hazy Davy Says:

    Many academics should note the relative success of the author of this book (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0670026557/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pd_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=19WW5PX0DU34D&coliid=I2Q6A8UX2NUDOF ) .

    And then, if they see a causal relationship, maybe they should emulate his social behavior, and the geniuses' productivity.

  15. SeaTea1967 Says:

    Yup. Worked in academia for 26 years and met any number of these people. In fact, one of my first long-term jobs was working as a personal secretary to a notoriously difficult professor whom just about everyone loathed. He was reasonably nice to me for a few years, but ended up turning on me in the end just like he did everyone else. He was just one of MANY such infamous assholes that everyone in the University community knew and avoided.

  16. ninja3000 Says:

    Gotta tell ya, I've worked in entertainment for a long time, and I find that if you've had one hit, just one lousy hit, you're entitled to act like an asshole forever…

  17. John Danley Says:

    All pomp and no circumstance; formerly known as hitting homeruns in the Cluster B ballpark (DSM-IV style).

  18. Robert Says:

    Ronzie – I read it too. Those are obscure words?! From what you said, I was expecting something much different.

  19. Leslee Says:

    It should be noted that the "mad scientist" stereotype only works if you're male.

    When's the last time you saw a highly intelligent but horribly unpleasant woman being tolerated specifically because of her brilliance in academia or science?

  20. Ruviana Says:

    When I first started reading this I thought it was going to be about Ted Cruz!

  21. other bill Says:

    Some of these types of folks are just HFA. Not excusing the lot of "intelligent assholes," but there are occasions where people with little-to-no social awareness are in highly social positions.

  22. Scout Says:

    Ruviana @ 10:33 – I did too! Apparently Cruz is pretty smart, but everyone who has ever interacted with him thinks he's a total jerk. It's actually hilarious watching the GOP attempting to humanize him since he's all they have left to stop TRump.

  23. Heaventree Says:

    Another stellar (!) post, Ed. Apart from Zwicky's scientific accomplishments, he'd be worth remembering for the phrase (which he embodied perhaps more than anyone else) "spherical bastards," i.e., “Astronomers are spherical bastards. No matter how you look at them they are just bastards.”

  24. jimbo Says:

    Erdős proved that you could be eccentric and not be an asshole. Who doesn't want a dude to show up at your house all zazzed up on amphetamines and say "Let's math, motherfucker."

  25. askew2 Says:

    Nerd —

    I have seen the "conscious stance" you describe, and sometimes thought that it should be considered "cargo cult genius" by analogy with the famous description of "cargo cult science" by Feynman.

    "If I'm the right KIND of asshole, I must be a genius…"

    But I never bought that causation, and having had lunch with several Fields Medal winners…I saw quite clearly that, sadly, I was not one of those who could justify being an asshole.

  26. Carter Says:

    Autism has a somewhat similar relationship to mathematics and physics as bipolar does to more verbally and visually creative endeavors. Bipolar doesn't guarantee creativity, and it doesn't guarantee crippling substance abuse but there is a correlation. Autism doesn't guarantee mathematical aptitude nor does it guarantee fundamental social ineptitude but again, there is a correlation.

  27. D.N. Nation Says:

    Leslee-

    "When's the last time you saw a highly intelligent but horribly unpleasant woman being tolerated specifically because of her brilliance in academia or science?"

    When I got a history degree. My 20th Century French History prof might be one of the most unpleasant people I've ever willingly spent time around.

    But she was widely respected in the department for her deep knowledge of the subject. That I couldn't deny. Sucked as a human being, though.

  28. Gzt Says:

    Erdos however was a prolific collaborator who also worked extensively with young mathematicians.

  29. democommie Says:

    Ed:

    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart..I always knew that I was an asshole, but a genius, TOO?

  30. Major Kong Says:

    Why do people hate Ted Cruz the first time they meet him?

    Saves time.

  31. Leading Edge Boomer Says:

    Two observations. First, I've interacted with researchers in several STEM disciplines, and physicists are, as a group, supreme assholes. "For me to win, someone must lose" seems to be a common attitude. Many believe in their misplaced superiority to be able to do pretty-much anything better than specialists in other fields.

    Second, in my discipline, it's the second-tier researchers, men and women, who may be assholes. I chalk it up to insecurity on their parts. The premier researchers (fellows of major societies, major award winners, etc.) are just the opposite. They are generous with their time to younger researchers, they volunteer excessively to help organize conferences and contribute to professional societies, and their evaluations of research paper submissions are totally unbiased based on my editorial stints.

    Just my $0.02.

  32. mago Says:

    said this before, but between the the artist, the art and the person there is often a vast gap. assholes are assholes wherever they may reside and (mal)function.

  33. Talisker Says:

    My own field of software development has plenty of socially inept people, and plenty of assholes. While there is some overlap, they are not one and the same thing.

    Highly intelligent people, by definition, are able to learn rules and follow them. That's not to say they will ever be good at making small talk, but simple rules like "don't call your colleagues stupid" or "don't display bikini pictures in the office" are easy to follow. However, this only works if it is made clear what the rules are, and that there are consequences for breaking them.

    Relevant blog post: http://blog.iainroberts.com/2014/12/pinups-and-teaching-to-code.html

  34. Katydid Says:

    @Talisker; I'm a s/w developer, too, and my field certainly has the prima donnas who have to be humored to get any work out of them…but we also have insane users. This week we got an irate call from a woman who was actually screaming at us because we deleted a website that she uses every day, and she was going to see us all fired for malicious incompetence (I think that was a bit of projection on her part). Upon investigating, I discovered that the site she accesses "every day" lives on a server…that was decommissioned…in 2006. Which was a decade ago. Which was also before any of us present now were on the team, but the standard practice is to notify users that the server holding their data will be decommissioned and ask them if they still need it, and if yes, tell them where it will reside so they can update their bookmarks.

    When that was pointed out to her, she slunk away still muttering about *my team's* incompetence and how she was going to report us.

    Moral of the story; people can be assholes. For some reason, my customer's strategy is to pacify them instead of kicking them in the ass and telling them to sit down and shut up until they can interact civilly.

  35. seniorscrub Says:

    From a review of the series JUSTIFIED:
    "…Olyphant's Deputy Givens has the most fun with it (attention to how real people talk). When he brings in a friend to pose as an especially imposing bomb specialist to intimidate a crooked, small town Sheriff, he lets the man's silence do the talking.

    "Agent Masters is one of the best," says Givens, pointing to his hulking cohort.

    The sheriff glares, and looks the large man up and down nervously.

    "Is that why he doesn't talk?" he asks Givens. "Doesn't smile? Just stands in my doorway like a big, hot steaming pile?"

    Givens smiles, and looks down at the floor.

    "Social awkwardness," he replies simply, "is often the curse of genius."…"

  36. Matt Says:

    See also: the way that bands that are totally non-famous treat sound engineers at live shows. I've seen more dickishness and crappy behavior from no-name ten-miles-outside-of-BFE metal bands than damn near anything else.

    Most bands that have actually gotten a little popular are a delight to work with; they've been-there-done-that and know how to act professional and work *with* the crew to get the show on. But the noobs? They read once in "Metal Dickweed" that some guy in Metallica spends three hours sound-checking each string on his guitar, and they're gonna whine like hell if they aren't given the same treatment – even if they're the openers and only have 20 minutes to play.

    To be sure, the *really* big names can get equally shitty – I remember one headlining band that loaded a giant welded-steel base for their drum kit on stage during soundcheck, taking up about 70% of the available space. We asked them, "hey, how are you going to load that on before your set?". They said "fuck you, we're not moving it" and so we had to squeeze the 4 opening acts drums/amps/etc into the 4'x10' space left.

    But at least *that* gig paid well. "Asshole tax", if you will.

  37. mothra Says:

    Oh, try the legal field if you want to see a multitude of examples of the Zwicky effect. Worst part of it all is that assholery is not just tolerated, but celebrated as a mark of a really effective attorney. No wonder so many psychopaths go into this business.

    And…."spherical bastard" is a term I will use over and over and over again. Thanks, Heaventree.

  38. Brian M Says:

    mothra: Read somewhere that Il Douche de Troomp learned his joyful fascist techniques from attorney Ray Cohn, a truly vile, yet celebrated attorney.

  39. BubbaDave Says:

    @ninja3000 @Matt — Yeah, my company does corporate events, which means we deal a lot with bands who had one hit back in 1983 and get booked today because a company's 50-year-old CEO danced to that song at his prom. Looking at many of their riders you'd think these bands were selling out football stadiums every night instead of playing one set a week in the ballroom of a random hotel in Orlando.

  40. Kaleberg Says:

    Finance is full of assholes. It is usually tolerated because people have no choice. The assholes run the company. Of course these assholes often are suck ups to the even greater assholes who have or control the money or companies involved. There's sort of hierarchy of assholes.

    Please don't bad mouth Erdos. He was a bit weird, but he was beloved in the math community. He could be a good friend too. When Ulam was recovering from brain surgery, Erdos grilled him on a variety of topics. He then pronounced Ulam to be in good shape. His thinking hadn't been affected. Siegel, another mathematician was famous for inviting people over and cooking dinner for them. One woman math student was surprised when he asked her to bring in the box on the table. It was full of frogs. She was taken aback, but after a bit realized he was just treating her like any other of his students.

    A lot of scientists are oddballs, and a lot of them aren't known for making small talk, but only a handful are true assholes who abound in every field.

  41. Townsend Harris Says:

    @Brian

    Roy Cohn, sometimes misspelled Ray, sometimes misspelled Cohen, and one of Tailgunner Joe's young hatchetmen in the 1950s. You don't have to see "Angels in America" to learn about this (closeted) asshole. There's a book of 1970s photographs of Studio 54, and Cohn is the older gent studying the younger man's crotch at http://assets.alldayeveryday.com/production/images/54f7272ce9bf0d18a600001e/attachments/original-28b15045317a4c94cfd275533bbb2a42.jpg

  42. Interrobang Says:

    When's the last time you saw a highly intelligent but horribly unpleasant woman being tolerated specifically because of her brilliance in academia or science?

    I understand Temple Grandin isn't easy to work with or around unless you're a cow, although she has the most legitimate of legitimate excuses to be that way. Most of the major pains in the ass you're liable to run into in a lifetime don't have that.