Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Newton and IP

I'm reading a great book, Einstein's Mistakes (google version), by Hans Ohanian. Extremely intelligent physicist and fun writer--very opinionated and spins great narratives of Galileo and Newton as a prelude to discussing Einstein. The book is about all the mistakes Einstein made in his discoveries and papers, how he made his great insights sometimes despite the mistakes, and even sometimes because of them.

Ohanian acknowledges Isaac Newton as "the greatest physicist of all times" and "the greatest genius the world has ever known", albeit a "mad scientist" and "the most awesome and the most aful physicist of all times." I was struck by this fascinating account of Newton's views on credit for scientific discoveries (pp. 62-63):

Newton held the odd notion that whenever he discovered some new result in physics or mathematics, it became his personal property, which he was entitled to keep as a secret for as long as he chose, without any need to publish it to establish his priority. If another scientists later made the same discovery independently and published it first, Newton regarded this as trespass and as theft, and he would indignantly refuse to allow such a scientist any share of the credit. ... In Newton's days, the criterion for credit for a discovery was not yet rigidly established. Claims for unpublished discoveries were sometimes accepted, especially if the scientist had the vociferous support of influential friends and patrons--sometimes the early bird got the worm, and sometimes the squeaky wheel got the grease.

Newton's secretiveness about his discoveries led him into many silly but savage disputes with other scientists about what they knew and when they knew it. Driven by his intense paranoia about his scientific accomplishments, he accused Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, and other scientists and mathematicians of stealing ideas from him. In his treatment of these scientists he was vicious and vindictive. Hooke was a talented scientist, best known for his investigations with microscopes, but he was a dwarfish man, with a stooped back. When Hooke asked for an acknowledgment that he had anticipated some of Newton's investigations of the colors in sunlight, Newton wrote a sarcastic refusal, in which he made an oblique reference to Hooke's diminutive size: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

The German mathematician and philosopher Leibniz discovered the calculus independently, and, in contrast to Newton, he published his discoveries--by the modern criterion, Leibniz would have had full credit for the calculus and Newton none. But when Leibniz asked a committee of the Royal Society to prepare an impartial report judging his share in the invention of the calculus, Newton not only packed the committee with his cronies, but he also wrote the report himself, and then wrote a favorable anonymous review of the report. In his private journal he gleefully recorded that he had bested Leibniz and "broke his heart."

As can be seen from these remarks, Ohanian is delightfully opinionated. For other examples, see his snarky coments on Aristotle (pp. 39-40), where he says that Aristotle was popular because middle ages scholars confused quantity with quality--he ridicules Aristotle's misconceptions about the animal kingdom, and his assertions about the speed of falling bodies being proportional to their weight, without ever simply dropping two different weight objects from his hands to test out this theory. On p. xii, he acerbically criticizes botched translations of Einstein's German writings; on p. xi, he refers to the mistakes "misguided souls imagine they perceive in [Einstein's] theories of special and general relativity"; on p. 9 and elsewhere he skewers Creationists as adherents of "delusional pseudoscientific theories"; and on p. 59 he refers offhandedly to "the usual eccentricities of Englishmen."

And I love this comment about Galileo: according to Ohanian, "Galileo had a talent for making enemies--as Koestler said, he provoked 'the cold, unrelenting hostility which genius plus arrogance minus humility creates among mediocrities.'" (p. 40)


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