Reinventing the wheel

by John Q on May 19, 2005

Eszter’s post on physicists doing social network theory raises the issue of ‘reinventing the wheel’. In this case, the physicists are breathlessly announcing results that sociologists have known about for years.

That’s obviously silly, but I don’t think reinventing the wheel is entirely a bad thing. Whenever I start on a new research topic, I like to spend a bit of time thinking about the issues on the basis of first principles, before I start reading the literature to see what others have done. The benefit of this is not that you’re likely to discover anything fundamentally new, but that it makes it easier to see what is central to the literature and what’s merely the accidental result of its development history (Professor X, the founder of the field, stressed assumption A, so all subsequent writers pay homage to it, and so on). Of course, this is only useful if you can subsequently engage with the existing literature.

My short summary “By all means have a go at reinventing the wheel, but don’t try to patent it[1]”

fn1. Apart from anything else, this guy has already done it

Update As James Farrell reminds me over at my blog, I’m reinventing my own wheel here.



bob 05.20.05 at 10:30 am

A number of years ago Stephen Jay Gould commented that he had had lunch with Feynman, who proceded to tell him a number of results that he had derived in theoretical evolutionary biology. Some of Feynman’s results were quite important, others rather minor, but all of them were already well-known to biologists. Feynman never liked to read what other people had done, he always liked (like John Quiggin, or Fermi for that matter) to derive things from first principles for himself. But he would not have published his results without checking first — in this case with Gould — to see if they were worth publishing!


anonymous 05.20.05 at 11:36 am

Isn’t it odd, though, that no important physics results are ever produced (or perhaps even reproduced) by amateurs from biology or social science? The asymmetry is striking.

Feynman apparently obtained an important *experimental* result in molecular biology while on “vacation” (sabbatical) in a lab across campus at Caltech. He was also the father of quantum computing and made contributions to parallel computing as a consultant to Thinking Machines.

Wally Gilbert, trained as a theoretical physicist, won the Nobel prize for work in molecular biology and co-founded Biogen. Eric Lander, whose PhD is in math, is head of the Whitehead at MIT and played a leading role in the human genome project. Andrew Yao (PhD, theoretical physics) won the Turing prize in CS. Donald Knuth (of TeX and Art of Computer Programming fame, also a Turing winner) was a Caltech PhD in math, with undergrad degree in physics. There are too many examples of this kind to list…

Some fields attract far more human capital than can be readily deployed. Physics and math are two examples. (A lot of really smart kids want to be the next Einstein or Feynman…) Other disciplines generally benefit from the talent and insights of migrating physicists and mathematicians. Despite the grumbling of insular locals, the benefits to science are unquestionable.


bob 05.20.05 at 3:51 pm

However, chemists have made major contributions to physics: Lars Onsager, for example, or Richard C. Tolman (who switched over completely to cosmology and general relativity; allegedly, having worked on the reaction kinetics of nitrogen oxides — a very messy field — he said that “chemistry is too hard”).


luci phyrr 05.20.05 at 4:27 pm

Yeah, but I’d like to see the average physicist try to complete a standard MBA program!

Seriously though, I once dated a physicist, and was his brain ever HUGE! And boy did he know how to use it!


bob 05.21.05 at 8:35 am

By the way, it is never a good idea to claim that “no important results are ever produced…” by whomever — some historian may just come up with a counterexample! Not quite a counterexample, but the introduction of probability theory into the kinetic theory of gases came by way of the social sciences: Maxwell introduced the “theory of errors” into the kinetic theory of gases, and thus into statistical mechanics, as a direct result of having read John Herschel’s review of Quetelet.

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