Today, a very respected professor of ours, uttered a scattering reply that instilled within the hearts of my colleagues greasy distaste for him.

It all started when one colleague of mine, when the topic had dramatically went from discussing physics to discussing the potential of a 21st century physicist to imitate the work of Newton/Einstein, asked the question "Is it possible for a lone wolf to exist in today's era, a lone wolf who can give us revolutionary insight onto nature?", and suddenly as this question ended, another colleague could not maintain patience and asked in succession, "Are all of us capable of revolutionizing physics, just through hard work, creativity and extreme diligence? Or perhaps, is this ability rare and impossible to achieve?"

My professor smiled and said what would later lead us to contemplate the idea of reporting him to the department;

Einstein and Newton were godlike geniuses. They had it by birth, and it was something which cannot be obtained by practice. I am sure that there are many geniuses today, perhaps more than ever, but none of them is a godlike genius. You have Witten, Hawking, Hamed and many others, but I think they can be considered to be extraordinary geniuses perhaps, but not godlike. And regarding whether a single individual can revolutionize physics today, yes.

He continued;

That is possible but unlikely, just as it was possible but unlikely for somebody to revolutionize physics before Einstein published his papers in 1905. But for many reasons, I believe that if such a lone wolf would exist, he would not revolutionize physics within academia but rather outside it. Academia has too much noise for him to do so. And regarding the fact that physics is now too vast of a field to revolutionize single-handedly, I think this too is misplaced. Only 45% of it you need to revolutionize physics.

In fact, I believe it is impossible for one to turn physics upside down within academia. None of you will ever revolutionize physics, but do not be disheartened, for only one within a billion men are capable of doing so. But what you can do, what we can do, is that we can atleast contribute, however minor it may be, so that it may be a part of some other revolutionary work.

Yes, I agree it is extremely difficult, to a degree where it becomes almost possible, for "normal geniuses" like me and everybody else in academy today, to revolutionize physics single-handedly but this put off some students in the class, and it effected me too.

For example, he said that only "one in a trillion men" are capable of revolutionizing physics, excluding women, and there were 4 female students present who got very angry at the end of the class, saying things like "A sexist idiot!", "What does he know?!", "Women are as capable of doing good physics as men, what he says is nonsense."

The female students were mainly suggesting that we should report the "sexist" to the department, but not only them, many male students were too saying so. Almost all of the class is angry, which I believe only for the "You will never revolutionize physics." remark.

It could be true, perhaps it IS true, but what should be done about it? Should it be just pushed aside? Or should it be reported?

And I must also add here that the professor is very famous and respected and if you are in physics, you probably know him. We were all surprised to hear such a thing from him.

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    If such a claim is sufficient to make you angry, I suspect that you will all be rather disappointed by life... – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '15 at 6:49
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    Sounds to me like the professor is just explaining that you should not waste your time trying to create this super all-encompassing theory for everything, and instead contribute in small ways towards pushing forward worldwide knowledge. Which is quite good advice. I'm quite certain he did not mean to ignore women or offend anyone. – NoseKnowsAll Nov 5 '15 at 6:54
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    1) this all sounds like good advice and 2) even if it weren't, what are you going to report him for doing? Having an opinion that you don't agree with? – Corvus Nov 5 '15 at 7:39
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    Reporting for "you'll likely not revolutionize physics" will probably get you either a blank stare or hysterical laughter from whoever you report to. Reporting that the figure of speech "one in a million men" is sexist has a higher chance of being taken seriously, but frankly do you really believe that what the prof. wanted to say is that "for the men there is a tiny chance, for you girls the chance is 0" - as opposed to "for all of you the chance is tiny"? – xLeitix Nov 5 '15 at 8:49
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    From the quotes, it is also quite likely (at least not impossible) that your professor is including himself in the group of people that will never "revolutionize physics". – fileunderwater Nov 5 '15 at 9:15

Is it acceptable for a professor to claim that his students will never revolutionize the field?

Yes. He was clearly expressing his opinion. This is what we do in academia. If you are so soft and fragile that hearing one man's opinion that you disagree with causes you such extreme discomfort, I suggest that you go and find yourself an occupation where one does not encounter a diversity of opinions on a daily basis.

It could be true, perhaps it IS true, but what should be done about it? Should it be just pushed aside? Or should it be reported?

Who would you report it to? The thought police?

My suggestion: be the change you want to see in the world; go out there and prove him wrong! Revolutionize physics yourself, and then you'll laugh at this small and silly man who had no imagination. And if it turns out he was correct after all, then you will still have a lot of fun and discover some cool things. Not everyone needs to be a Newton or an Einstein.

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    +1 for ... ummm... well, I don't know what, but I just wanted to differ from the three commenters above :P – 299792458 Nov 5 '15 at 12:33
  • "None of you will ever revolutionize physics" his opinion was not explicitly stated as such so there is some ambiguity there (he only used the words "I believe" in the preceding sentence). – user109420 Jun 12 at 19:54

This is exactly why physicists today desperately need to incorporate the history and philosophy of science into their education. To claim that Newton and Einstien were 'godlike geniuses the likes of which only occur with a 1 in a billion likelihood' reveals an incredibly naive understanding of how science actually unfolds. These characters are romanticized long after their deaths and the portrayal of these men is one of a cult of personality.

The reality is that nobody revolutionizes physics by themselves. Period. Does that deny the existence of geniuses in the field? Hardly. But much more important is recognizing that a revolutionary idea is revolutionary only if it is incorporated into the main body of scientific knowledge. Any work that significantly deviates from the norm is usually rejected. Put another way, there are undoubtedly thousands of papers that could have completely 'revolutionized' physics had they been produced under different circumstances.

You should read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. And so should your prof. One of the main takeaways is that scientists continuously rewrite history to further the narratives of their textbooks. I'll end with one example. Everyone credits Boltzmann for having invented statistical mechanics and defended atomism (in physics!) long before anybody else. But this was a very minority view, and the exclusion that he felt from his peers contributed hugely to his suicide.


Is it acceptable for a professor to claim that his students will never revolutionize the field?

It all depends on the point of view. I really came to love the 'dent hypothesis'. You can make a difference only in a very small field which for you will be the world.

Human knowledge simply progressed over the point that you could just throw everything upside down but you can certainly advance a part of it. To you - to everybody else in that part - it will look like a big part of the world. I found it best visually described in this comic by Dr. Might - though you could discuss the actual size of the dent you can make and when exactly you can make it: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/

Reading between the lines of the question as a whole one could guess the overall motivation of those young students in this context would most likely be to go in for a career. This almost always fails since the intrinsics of that motivation will change as the person gets older. As the question now suggests, this hasn't been factored in. Please also see a very good example of this by Dr. Might in his follow-up post: http://matt.might.net/articles/tenure/

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