Science

Science is an Infinite-Sum Game

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It is commonly thought that an efficient way to get to the bottom of a scientific truth is to have two groups that distrust each other compete on the related discovery space. Is this really the case?

An example that comes to mind is the debate on the value of the Hubble constant—the expansion rate of the universe. For decades, Allan Sandage and G. A. Tammann deduced a value of 50 kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/s/Mpc) based on their observational data while Gérard de Vaucouleurs argued for a significantly different value of 100 km/s/Mpc (both of these were much smaller than Edwin Hubble’s original 1929 estimate of 500 km/s/Mpc, as a result of his systematic errors in the distances to a class of stars known as Cepheid variables). In his 1972 book Gravitation and Cosmology, Steven Weinberg had the brilliant insight of averaging the two claims; his estimate ended up being much closer to the actual value measured today of approximately 70 km/s/Mpc. In this case, the competition made each camp dig in their heels with the wrong value, whereas the truth lies at a compromise value in between.

Another example involves the first detection of the 21-centimeter line from the Milky Way galaxy. After the hyperfine transition of hydrogen was predicted theoretically by the Dutch astronomer H. C. Van de Hulst in 1945, Edward (Ed) Purcell decided to search for its signal in the sky. He installed together with his graduate student Harold (Doc) Ewen, a horn antenna through the window of an office in the Lyman Laboratory of the Harvard physics department and employed a frequency switching technique to successfully detect the expected Milky Way signal.

At the same time, a Dutch group led by Jan Oort was attempting to measure the same signal but without success. Ed, who did not know about the Dutch experiment, learned that Van de Hulst was coincidentally spending a sabbatical year at the Harvard College Observatory and sent Doc to tell him about their 21-cm discovery shortly after it was made. As a result, they found out about the competing experiment.

In a subsequent conversation with Jan Oort, Doc Ewen described the switch frequency technique which was essential for the discovery. After adopting this same method, the Dutch group succeeded in reproducing the detection of the 21-cm signal. The American and Dutch results were published back-to-back in volume 168 of Nature magazine in 1951. A subsequent confirmation of the detection by Australian radio astronomers was published later. In this example, the truth was identified as a result of a respectful cooperation between competing teams.

The above two examples imply that science may thrive as a result of cooperation rather than hostile competition. Contrary to capitalistic instincts, kindness and generosity might be the best traits for advancing scientific knowledge. The underlying rationale is simple. Scientific research is not a zero-sum game. In fact, it is an endeavor in which all players gain from the success of any one player, because past knowledge propels our ability to pursue additional knowledge.

The scientific endeavor might be adequately described as an infinite-sum game. Science resembles an island of knowledge in an infinite ocean of ignorance. Our horizon of opportunities is boundless, as we expand the surface of this precious island of knowledge that we inhabit.

If so, why are some bad practices still prevalent in science today despite the appeal inherent in cooperation? This shortfall is partly because some scientists are driven by ego to promote their status and not by the pursuit of truth, or because some had been frustrated by past experiences. Although limited resources tend to drive competition, they could also be used to encourage cooperation and sharing of information if managed appropriately.

Inspiring leadership can improve scientific practices and make future scientific progress more efficient. There is no doubt that scientific collaboration, like any other precious interaction in life, gives back in return more than you put into it.

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