Open Essay

Root for the Outlier

A Damodaran is a faculty member at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
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In search of an alternative management paradigm

This year marks the centenary of one of history’s greatest restatements on space and time: Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Like it or not, Einstein is alive and well in our deeply interconnected lives on this planet. Every aspect of daily life—be it Androids, offices or shopping complexes— is under an Einstein shadow. Theoretical physicists like Lee Smolin have for long argued that the frontiers of knowledge have not moved beyond the point where Einstein left it.

That assertion, however, could be contested particularly since it’s made by Smolin, an Einstein fan who has positioned himself as an iconoclast academic and intellectual soothsayer with teaching stints at Yale, Syracuse University and Pennsylvania State University. Famous for his shrill, fiction-style books on the pressing problems of science, this Harvard alumnus mercilessly yanks down ‘the gods of contemporary physics’ and employs tell-tale anecdotes (some of them of questionable veracity) to establish his point. In one of his controversial books, The Trouble with Physics, he had the courage to declare the ‘in-fashion’ string theory in physics as a grand failure. Smolin is currently a professor at Canada’s Perimeter Institute. A peculiar name for a research centre in theoretical physics, Perimeter has a ‘volcanic’ mission—to seek a ‘collision of intellect, imagination and inspiration’. As a responsible member of Perimeter’s faculty, Smolin is left with no alternative but to be on a collision course with his own fraternity.

In his recent essay in Logos, titled ‘Einstein’s Legacy: Where Are the “Einsteinians?”’, Smolin makes the following revelation, ‘Physicists I’ve met who knew Einstein told me they found his thinking slow compared to the stars of the day. While he was competent enough with the basic mathematical tools of physics, many other physicists surrounding him in Berlin and Princeton were better at it. So what accounted for his genius? In retrospect, I believe what allowed Einstein to achieve so much was primarily a moral quality. He simply cared far more than most of his colleagues that the laws of physics have to explain everything in nature coherently and consistently. As a result he was acutely sensitive to flaws and contradictions in the logical structure of physical theories.’

Smolin is not exaggerating. Einstein defied all standard norms of excellence. As one of his more recent biographers Walter Isaacson notes, the great physicist graduated from Zurich Polytechnic almost at the bottom of the class and was left with no option but to join the Swiss Patent Office in Berne as a ‘third division patent clerk’ in 1902. Even this job came to him courtesy his close friend Marcel Grossman. Einstein, who never attended classes while in college, leaned heavily on Grossman’s math notebooks to get through his exams. Later on, thanks to Grossman, Einstein was able to grasp the metric tensors that contributed to the development of his General Theory of Relativity.

Einstein’s irreverence for accepted wisdom did not endear him to his teachers at the Zurich Polytechnic. Nor did he offer a good account of himself as a teacher. As a lecturer, he rambled and drifted endlessly. After failing to secure a tenured faculty position at the University of Berne, the would-be ‘maestro of physics’ tried to get himself a job as a geometry teacher at a high school in Zurich, again without success. Having fallen into the rut of the patent office, Einstein had to fight a tough battle for recognition, as nobody would accept ideas flowing from the ‘pen of a patent clerk’—more so since it questioned a major ‘ article of faith’ (Newton’s Laws).

It almost took 10 years for Einstein to emerge from clerkdom. This was despite a series of superlative papers in 1905, now considered his annus mirabilis . His contributions during this miracle year included a seminal paper on ‘special theory of relativity’ that sent Isaac Newton’s gospel on ‘space’ and ‘time’ tottering on its foundations. Another noteworthy contribution of his during the magic year was on the ‘photoelectric effect’, which was to get him his Nobel prize 15 years later.

Finally, with tonnes of help from his well-wisher, Professor Alfred Kleiner, Einstein won his PhD. After a small detour through Prague (where he interacted with Franz Kafka and the novelist’s biographer Max Brod), Einstein was back again at his alma mater, the Zurich Polytechnic, in 1912, this time as a professor. By then, the polytechnic had been renamed Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).

In 1913, two physicists of the Prussian scientific establishment, Walther Nernst and Max Planck, boarded a southward bound train from Berlin. They were on a special assignment on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, to bring back Germany’s estranged son to his country of birth. Both scientists were stars in their field but were diametrically different personalities. Nernst, an electrochemist par excellence, established the celebrated Third Law of Thermodynamics. He did one better on Thomas Alva Edison by inventing the more advanced ‘Nernst Lamp’. Nernst went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1920, a year before Einstein received it. But, strangely, the man’s greatest dream was to goosestep like a Prussian soldier and serve the Kaiser’s army. By contrast, Max Planck was brilliant, pious and less quirky. Planck, the architect of Quantum Theory in physics, won the Nobel Prize in 1918. He was a great patriot, but would not stick his neck out or identify himself with the military establishment like Nernst did.

Both Planck and Nernst openly admired Einstein’s work and were in touch with him even when Einstein was languishing as a patent clerk in Berne. But this time, they met Germany’s brilliant son with an offer—to join as a distinguished member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Sciences and head the Society’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin. Einstein accepted the twin offers and moved to Berlin in 1914.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Sciences was named after the vainglorious German Emperor whose singular mission in life was to outdo his cousin, King George V, the overlord of the United Kingdom and British dominions. Interestingly, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was not a state enterprise. It was financed and managed by a group of leading German industrialists and bankers, who in return were given the title of ‘Senators’ and granted the privilege of attending an occasional breakfast with the Emperor in their ceremonial gowns. The Kaiser was certainly responsible for the infamous World War I. He dragged his country to disaster. But to his credit, it may be said that, prior to the War, he was on a mission to get the best brains of his country under his wings. His aim was to secure for his country a quantum jump over Britain in manufacturing, aeronautics and defence.

Despite Einstein’s discomfort with Germany’s growing militarism, his shift to Berlin did him wonders. He finally succeeded in cracking the field equations that would firmly establish his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. Then followed a torrent of contributions, each adding to the onward march of theoretical physics. By 1925, Einstein appears to have peaked and was leaning on other bright co-scientists like Satyen Bose (his joint work with the Indian scientist was referred to as the Bose- Einstein condensate and not the other way around) to carry on. The ‘Einstein Refrigerator’ won the genius his first patent in 1930. But then, this invention was considerably enabled by his student Leo Szilard.

Einstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 to join the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. From then onwards, apart from his cautious flirtations with Zionism and world peace causes, Einstein was preoccupied with work on the grand uniform field theory in physics—an exercise he could not complete during his lifetime. Even today, physicists have not been able to crack the uniform theory riddle.

While Einstein was languishing in the Swiss Patent Office, back in India, a young man from the then province of Madras arrived in Calcutta in 1907 to become an assistant accountant general. CV Raman was an unusual addition to the British babudom. Even as a Master’s student of the Madras Presidency College, Raman had successfully published a scientific paper on ‘Unsymmetrical diffraction bands’ in the prestigious Philosophical Magazine. Unlike Einstein, Raman had a good academic record. He took pride in saying that he topped every examination, including the Account Service examination. Also, unlike Einstein, Raman’s first job was as an ‘officer’, and it would have been considered a notch or two below the elite Indian Civil Service (ICS).

Thanks to a ‘good’ but ‘unused’ lab attached to Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) on Bow Bazaar Street, the young assistant accountant general kept his passion for physics alive. Raman, with the help of Ashutosh De, a hard working lab attendant, kept the research place alive with interesting experiments in physics. During this phase, Raman went on to write some great papers on the acoustics of India’s musical instruments—the tambura, mridanagam and tabla—and capped it all with his celebrated paper on the vibrations of the ‘bowed strings of the violin’.

However, as was the case with Einstein, Raman also took 10 years to break out of the shackles of babudom. His big break came thanks to the foresight of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, who, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, appointed Raman—a babu with neither an enlightened ‘overseas education’ nor a PhD—the Palit Professor of Physics at the university. Raman, in turn, made a big sacrifice by resigning from a well- paid government job to accept a poorly paid physics chair at the university.

Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee was an outlier seeker. In this, he was helped by the industry captains and philanthropists of Calcutta who came forward to fund research chairs at the university to attract the best talent. Raman’s biographer G Venkataraman, who penned the scientist’s story in his book Journey into Light, describes how Raman’s stature as a researcher and teacher advanced after he took over the Palit Chair. Raman’s first overseas trip in 1921 , his studies on the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea on his return journey, the subsequent discovery of the ‘Raman Effect’ and his Nobel Prize in 1930 were the big results of his academic career. Indeed, Raman’s stint in Calcutta would count as the best part of his life as a scientist, notwithstanding the unfortunate row he had with Meghnad Saha and Syamaprasad Mookerjee towards the end of his tenure in the city. (The latter, Ashutosh Mukherjee’s son, was Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University in the 1930s and later the founder president of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh.)

Raman left Calcutta for Bangalore in 1933 (the same year Einstein left Germany for the US) to take over as the first Indian director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). By the time Raman retired as a professor from IISc in 1948, he had conducted experimental and theoretical studies on crystallography and the physiology of vision, though he appears to have reached his high point in publications by 1942.

Einstein and Raman were outliers in the classical sense of the term. Unlike Werner Heisenberg, James Maxwell, Max Planck, Bertrand Russell and Henri Poincaré, who were of elite backgrounds, the two of them had middle-class moorings. Raman, though a Brahmin in his country, felt that he was treated as a colonial subject in international forums, while Einstein was constantly reminded of his Jewish status. As a matter of fact, the ‘Aryan Science movement’ of the Nazi period arraigned his theory of relativity as ‘Jewish science’. Both entered academia late, after leading a schizophrenic existence for some years—clerks by day and scientists after dusk. Some of the best ideas and discoveries in theoretical physics came from this unusually mixed up life. The dual existence might have given them refreshing ways of looking at established theories. However, such perverse advantages could not have gone on endlessly, given the immense mental strain such an existence would have imposed. Also, their theories could only have been tested for validity in an academic setting.

Both scientists were smart when it came to claiming ownership of their intellectual property. They outsmarted regular academics in the publication game. Einstein was quick to publish his findings of 1905 in Annales and other good journals, while the alacrity with which Raman published his ‘Raman Effect’ paper was astonishing. Despite ‘discovering the phenomenon marginally later’, Raman beat Leonid Mandelstam and Grigory Landsberg in the Nobel Prize game by publishing the paper ahead of the two Russian scientists.

The third-century philosopher Plotinus once observed that ‘illumination’ went with ‘intuition’. Einstein had an unusual ability to question accepted wisdom and a rare instinct for visualising things put in prose or mathematical form. Raman, by contrast, had a sharp sense of observation, which was backed by an uncanny instinct to identify the ideal method of experimentation that would deliver results. Both were blessed with loads of intuition, which would trigger substantive thought even while functioning in non-academic environments. For the two scientists, entry to academia was important to help them test and validate their intuition. As they peaked as experimental and empirical researchers, they started forming partnerships with top-class co-scientists to maintain their flow. Towards the latter part of his life, Einstein appears to have decided to get back to his ‘intuition game’ by pursuing research on the uniform field theory. Raman continued with experimental research even as his age advanced, though his old spark was missing. From Venkataraman’s account, it appears that institution building activities connected with the Raman Research Institute drained much of the scientist’s energy.

Academic establishments have changed radically since Raman and Einstein left the world. Today, it is practically impossible for a brilliant student to publish a paper in a leading international journal (as Raman did in 1906) without an overseas academic lending his or her name to the work. All major journals controlled by big publishing houses are insensitive to research that does not fall in the data-centric category. There are very few high-quality journals that provide space for intuitive writing. In an environment where knowledge generation is parametrised, there is very little scope for outliers to enter an academic establishment. Academic advancements then get to be too structured, predictable and incremental, whereas the whole point of ‘outlier’ generated knowledge is that it is unpredictable and driven by intuition. Such knowledge tends to have greater impact. It may come as a surprise to some that today’s technological marvel of the Global Positioning System (GPS) is rooted in Einstein’s relativity theory. It is equally noteworthy that Raman spectroscopy finds sustained application in the most advanced forensic and drug discovery technologies of today.

It is highly likely that the ‘next big Einstein like idea’ in science will come from scholars who are outliers in the field. For this to happen, it is important to identify and nurture talent lodged in non-conventional environments and ensure that the resultant innovations are managed well to yield the best results. In this sense, the next big idea in physical and natural sciences cannot be of use unless management science rises to the occasion to bridge the gap between science and technology.

Today, robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are changing the face of companies that operate in such sectors as aviation, railways, automobiles and defence manufacturing (which incidentally form the focus of the ‘Make in India’ mission). Robotics and AI have the power to shrink the capital base of enterprises in these advanced sectors. This raises serious questions about the continuing relevance of most management practices today. We are in need of an alternative management paradigm. A major, outlier-oriented rethink is in order, one that will call for a proactive search for creative researchers with an unusual past. True, management education in India is currently undergoing an ambitious makeover. The IIMs are on the verge of a major structural change in governance. As with other institutes of higher learning in theoretical physics, the larger challenge for India’s management institutes is to bring in governance structures that can catalyse the ‘next big management idea’