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Are We Wasting Our Brightest Minds?

Written By : John Hawkins
March 24, 2011

The most disturbing passage in “Physics of the Future” doesn’t concern the future; it’s about the present. In that passage, Mr. Kaku recounts a lunchtime conversation with physicist Freeman Dyson at Princeton. Mr. Dyson described growing up in the late days of the British Empire and seeing that most of his smartest classmates were not—as prior generations had been—interested in developing new forms of electrical and chemical plants, but rather in massaging and managing other people’s money. The result was a loss of England’s science and engineering base.

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Now, Mr. Dyson said, he was seeing the phenomenon for the second time in his life, in America. Mr. Kaku, summarizing the scientist’s message: “The brightest minds at Princeton were no longer tackling the difficult problems in physics and mathematics but were being drawn into careers like investment banking. Again, he thought, this might be a sign of decay, when the leaders of a society can no longer support the inventions and technology that made their society great.” — Glenn Reynolds

Have you ever talked to someone in politics who has an IQ of 180? I have — at least twice. Both times, know what I thought? Why aren’t you working on nano-technology or trying to cure cancer instead of working in politics?

We’ve become such a segmented society that the most intelligent people can get siphoned off into all sorts of different niches. This is not necessarily a bad thing, well, unless so much talent is lost into peripheral fields that it dramatically slows down our scientific advancement.

Is some of that happening? Definitely. If you look at the scientific advances that humankind made from say, the late 1800s – the 1960s and then look at the last fifty years, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve stagnated a bit as a society.

Of course, there’s also the “Idiocracy Effect,” which I do think is happening, although it’s hard to prove. In other words, the smartest people aren’t having as many kids as the less intelligent people. So demographically, we may actually be getting dumber as a society.

Are these easy problems to fix? Not at all. But, being aware of the potential existence of a problem is the first step towards measuring it and combatting it.

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