Of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s sayings, the most famous is “Clarke’s third law”, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Almost as famous, though, is his first law:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Recently Michael Atiyah, an extremely distinguished but also rather elderly mathematician, claimed that something was possible: specifically, he claimed it was possible that he had proved the Riemann hypothesis, one of the longest-standing and most difficult puzzles in mathematics. I won’t go into the details here, but people are, well, skeptical.
This post isn’t really about Atiyah. I’m not close enough to that situation to comment. Instead, it’s about a more general problem.
See, the public seems to mostly agree with Clarke’s law. They trust distinguished, elderly scientists, at least when they’re saying something optimistic. Other scientists know better. We know that scientists are human, that humans age…and that sometimes scientific minds don’t age gracefully.
Some of the time, that means Alzheimer’s, or another form of dementia. Other times, it’s nothing so extreme, just a mind slowing down with age, opinions calcifying and logic getting just a bit more fuzzy.
And the thing is, watching from the sidelines, you aren’t going to know the details. Other scientists in the field will, but this kind of thing is almost never discussed with the wider public. Even here, though specific physicists come to mind as I write this, I’m not going to name them. It feels rude, to point out that kind of all-too-human weakness in someone who accomplished so much. But I think it’s important for the public to keep in mind that these people exist. When an elderly Nobelist claims to have solved a problem that baffles mainstream science, the news won’t tell you they’re mentally ill. All you can do is keep your eyes open, and watch for warning signs:
Be wary of scientists who isolate themselves. Scientists who still actively collaborate and mentor almost never have this kind of problem. There’s a nasty feedback loop when those contacts start to diminish. Being regularly challenged is crucial to test scientific ideas, but it’s also important for mental health, especially in the elderly. As a scientist thinks less clearly, they won’t be able to keep up with their collaborators as much, worsening the situation.
Similarly, beware those famous enough to surround themselves with yes-men. With Nobel prizewinners in particular, many of the worst cases involve someone treated with so much reverence that they forget to question their own ideas. This is especially risky when commenting on an unfamiliar field: often, the Nobelist’s contacts in the new field have a vested interest in holding on to their big-name support, and ignoring signs of mental illness.
Finally, as always, bigger claims require better evidence. If everything someone works on is supposed to revolutionize science as we know it, then likely none of it will. The signs that indicate crackpots apply here as well: heavily invoking historical scientists, emphasis on notation over content, a lack of engagement with the existing literature. Be especially wary if the argument seems easy, deep problems are rarely so simple to solve.
Keep this in mind, and the next time a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, don’t trust them blindly. Ultimately, we’re still humans beings. We don’t last forever.