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Free Rein

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I listen to a few podcasts, radio shows, and other media sources on the subject of the history of science. History has never been much of a priority for me but as I listen to more it has become quite interesting: not just the history of science but of everything else as well.

One of the best history podcasts is produced by the BBC and is called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It uses objects from the British Museum to explain various periods from history and how the object relates to the politics, religion, science, art, and culture of the period. Another podcast which I have just started listening to is also from the BBC (most of the best podcasts do seem to come from them) and is called “A Brief History of Mathematics”.

The second episode of this podcast dealt with the famous (actually legendary would be closer) mathematician Leonard Euler. He was a real mathematical genius and contributed to so many areas of maths that it’s almost impossible to believe. I can remember when I did computer science we used Euler diagrams which were a method he created to solve a particular type of problem. But even this, which has become a really important technique in modern science, was just an amusement to him at the time: something he created to solve a popular puzzle at the time called the “Konigsberg Bridge Problem”.

He moved to a university and changed departments without anyone really noticing. He worked on various theoretical problems without having to justify a practical outcome. He turned practical problems into theoretical, mathematical ones (not always successfully). In other words, he just followed whatever whim seemed appropriate to him at the time. There was no accountability. There was no guidance from management. There was no requirement to justify his own existence. And he created modern maths, the most useful tool the human race has ever invented.

I work in a university and I see the vast amount of meaningless bureaucracy, the unnecessary accounting requirements, and the worthless trivia that researchers have to cope with. I’m not saying that every researcher would turn into a genius and become another Euler if they were given free rein to pursue whatever type of research they wanted but I do believe that the repressive accountability is entirely counter-productive.

Accountants, managers, and lawyers seem to see things in entirely negative terms. They seem to be good at making things not happen, at finding reasons why something isn’t possible (usually for administrative or financial reasons). If people like Euler had been held back by this inconsequential trivialities then the world would not have progressed in the way it has.

I’m not saying that all accountants, managers, and lawyers should be dispensed with (although a mass execution of that segment of society has some merit) but they should be kept away from people doing worthwhile things. Let them add up their meaningless numbers, have their silly meetings, or argue about their frivolous laws, but go and do it somewhere where it won’t get in the way of those making real progress!

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