9/17/2007

09-17-07 - 4

The "Big Man" myth of history certainly dominates, for various reasons; it's the idea that heroic figures (or villains) like Churchill, Lincoln, or Hitler really shaped the course of history with their individual actions. 1. it's used to create a national heroic myth and identity, 2. it's just easier for historians to report and easier for people to understand, as opposed to the actions of hundreds of beaurocrats and populations, 3. it's more exciting for people to read about, so of course those are the books they will write because they sell, 4. it's really what people want to hear and want to believe, we don't want to think that the world is made by folks just like us, we want these superhero daddy figures to rule us.

Anyway, not only has this myth dominated history, it dominates popular reportage of science, and it's equally wrong in both cases. Especially in the modern world, any time somebody invents or discovers something, it's usually a tiny incremental step based on the work of hundreds of people before them. Furthermore, there are usually scores of people on the same trail who are right behind them, and if they didn't rush to publish first someone else would've gotten there a few months later. In the modern world saying that so-and-so is the inventor of this or that really doesn't mean that much. Often it just means they happened to be in the right field at the right time when the whole field was making exciting advances. For example, if you worked in computer graphics in the early 90's, how could you not invent something?

There are people in physics with Nobel prizes who just happened to be first of hundreds in the field to make the next step. If they hadn't done it someone else would have. Of course there are exceptions where someone really makes a leap or works ina field where no one else is working, but that's very very rare, especially nowadays with so many researchers.

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