Atlas Shrugged: Publish or Perish

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter I

The last few industrialists of Colorado are disappearing, and the John Galt Line has been reduced to mostly-empty trains pulled by rickety, coal-burning locomotives. Having run out of leads in her quest for the magic motor, Dagny has finally resorted to contacting Robert Stadler. He comes to New York to see her, and she tells him about her discovery and gives him the incomplete papers she found in the factory:

She watched him as he read. She saw the professional assurance in the swift, scanning motion of his eyes, at first, then the pause, then the growing intentness, then a movement of his lips which, from another man, would have been a whistle or a gasp…

“The pages where he writes about his converter – you can see what premise he’s speaking from. He arrived at some new concept of energy… Do you know what that means? Do you realize what a feat of pure, abstract science he had to perform before he could make his motor? …Did you say you found this in the research laboratory of a plain, commercial motor factory?”

“Yes.”

“That’s odd. What was he doing in such a place?”

“Designing a motor.”

“That’s what I mean. A man with the genius of a great scientist, who chose to be a commercial inventor? I find it outrageous. He wanted a motor, and he quietly performed a major revolution in the science of energy, just as a means to an end, and he didn’t bother to publish his findings, but went right on making his motor. Why did he want to waste his mind on practical appliances?”

“Perhaps because he liked living on this earth,” she said involuntarily.

She asks if he knows of any young scientists who were working in this field about ten years ago, anyone who could be the inventor, and Stadler says he doesn’t. “And that’s odd,” he muses, “because an ability of this kind couldn’t have passed unnoticed anywhere… somebody would have called him to my attention.”

He asks to see the motor itself, which Dagny is keeping in a basement of the Taggart building:

When they stood in the granite vault, over a glass case containing a shape of broken metal, he took off his hat with a slow, absent movement – and she could not tell whether it was the routine gesture of remembering that he was in a room with a lady, or the gesture of baring one’s head over a coffin.

…”It’s so wonderful,” said Dr. Stadler, his voice low. “It’s so wonderful to see a great, new, crucial idea which is not mine!”

…”Miss Taggart,” he said, his eyes lowered, looking at the glass case, “I know a man who might be able to undertake the reconstruction of that motor. He would not work for me – so he is probably the kind of man you want… Apparently, the young man had no desire to work for the good of society or the welfare of science. He told me that he would not take a government job. I presume he wanted the bigger salary he could hope to obtain from a private employer.”

He turned away, not to see the look that was fading from her face, not to let himself know its meaning. “Yes,” she said, her voice hard, “he is probably the kind of man I want.”

Stadler’s fall from grace is nearly complete now. But why? Only because he’s doing what any good scientist should – he’s arguing for openness!

As always, Rand stacks the deck in her favor. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, all great inventions are dreamed up by solitary geniuses toiling in isolation, who come up with ideas that are utterly new and original and take them from concept to commercialization in a single step. If progress normally happened like that, then Stadler’s bitterness would be explicable as the jealousy of a second-rater capable only of what Rand calls “abstract science“.

But in this world, science is a collaborative, communal process. Even the greatest flash of inspiration rarely, if ever, leads to an immediate commercial application. Far more often, it takes the input of many people to improve on the original idea, to scale up the effect, to make it more efficient or more reliable, to vary it in ways its creator didn’t think of. Even as great a mind as Isaac Newton famously said that he stood on the shoulders of giants.

A perfect example is graphene, a wonder material made of a single layer of carbon atoms bonded in a lattice like molecular chicken wire. Graphene is one of the strongest materials known to humanity, flexible, transparent, and an excellent conductor of electricity and heat. The potential uses are limitless. And it was invented almost by accident – literally, by two physicists playing with Scotch tape, an achievement for which they won a Nobel prize. Yet these scientists didn’t burst on the scene with a cellphone that can be rolled up and put in a pocket, or the blueprint for a space elevator woven of graphene cable. Even when a great discovery is made, that’s just the first step in a long process of evolution and refinement.

This is why the lifeblood of science is openness, the free sharing of ideas and data. Treating knowledge as a possession to be hoarded does nothing except impede scientific progress and impoverish everyone. It’s this understanding that led to something Rand would likely find inconceivable, the Public Library of Science: an open-access publishing project whose mission is to disseminate scientific research for free.

PLOS began as an academic revolt against publishing companies like Elsevier that charged jaw-dropping prices – in some cases, as much as $90,000 a year – for subscriptions to scientific journals. This naturally made Elsevier very profitable, which makes them Good according to the only code of values Rand claims to respect. But there’s a contradiction in her philosophy she overlooks: if you “like living on this earth”, then shouldn’t you want the knowledge that enables scientific progress to be spread to everyone who might make use of it? If you lock up that information behind paywalls, you boost the profits of publishing houses, but at the potential cost of scientific breakthroughs that will never happen because the people who might have made them couldn’t afford to see the research that might have given them the crucial inspiration.

The Objectivist reply, I’m sure, is that if science isn’t run as a profit-making business first and foremost, then scientists won’t have any incentive to accomplish anything. But this assumes that the only thing which could ever motivate someone is money. In science, an at least equally important motivation is prestige – the race to be the first one to discover something, to put your name on a crucial new discovery, to win the acclaim and respect of your peers in the scientific community. As a matter of historical fact, the pressure to publish has been driving scientific research progress for decades, even when large sums of money aren’t involved. Anyone who argues that human beings don’t think or act this way is being consciously ahistorical.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • nfq

    Yay graphene! … To add a tiny bit to that story: there are papers from the 1950s-1970s talking about “thin graphite coatings” on metals and how they form. Searching Google Scholar just now I found a patent from 1941 for “coating metal with graphitic carbon” which reads like an ancestor of the most popular method for growing large-area graphene right now (chemical vapor deposition onto metal foils). It just wasn’t seen as that big a deal at the time, and in some situations the question was actually more like, “How do we get rid of all this thin graphite crap all over our metal?” But then as things started to get rediscovered as people got interested in “thin graphite” again, we could go back to the old literature and piece together more of the puzzle.

    Geim and Novoselov made a breakthrough in relatively simple/straightforward graphene exfoliation, and they (and their group of researchers) contributed a clever technique for finding single-layer graphene flakes using optical microscopy. Not to diminish that — they’ve certainly gone on to make lots more great contributions to the field since then, and it’s only been a few years — but you can certainly step back to take the broad view, and see that what they did was a small step in a larger process of science, even if your “broad” view is restricted just to the history of graphite/graphene.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    The step by step progress continues: April 2014
    ‘Miracle material’ graphene one step closer to commercial use

    The Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology last week announced it had developed “a breakthrough synthesis method” of producing graphene, and the hopes are that this will pave the way for the commercialization of the material. The results were published in the journal Science.

    Wafer-Scale Growth of Single-Crystal Monolayer Graphene on Reusable Hydrogen-Terminated Germanium

    Lee, et al. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1252268

  • SmogMonster

    Rand discounts both the power of curiosity and the power of public acclaim. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that people can be totally motivated (for decades!) by an almost obsessive desire to *know the answer*. How does something as profoundly unaerodynamic as a bumblebee stay in the air? What really is down there at the bottom of the sea? What on earth do these hieroglyphics mean?

    Scientists are rewarded, in the current system, only secondarily by money. Mostly they are rewarded by status amongst their peers: “*My* team discovered this. *We* figured out how it works. I was first. That’s my name on it right there.” Seems to work though. The Nobel Prize is like $60,000 but that’s not why people want one.

    Oh, as an afterthought: UC Berkeley boasts a number of Nobel-winning economics professors. For some time there was a problem (from the university’s point of view) with them leaving for greener pastures after winning their Nobel. The university asked a bunch of them what it would take for them to stay: salary increase? fewer teaching requirements? tenure reviewed less often? Here’s what they wanted: Parking spaces with their names on them. And that’s what they got. It’s the only way to get a named parking space on campus now.

  • decathelite

    “..because an ability of this kind couldn’t have passed unnoticed anywhere… somebody would have called him to my attention.”

    If Stadler is such a genius, why does he hire people who fail to show the most basic sense of curiosity and attention to detail?

    He’s like a super villain that hires incompetent and bumbling henchmen.

  • Shawn

    One of my college math professors was absolutely brilliant – tons of publications on combinatorics and graph theory, good teacher – but the department had to make him move out of his office, because he was living in there. Just had a cot in there, took showers in the gym. So he moved into a nearby extended-stay hotel, which he said was okay since they washed the sheets for him. He also just owned a bicycle, one set of clothes for each day of the week, a laptop, and a bunch of textbooks. Said that possessions were an illusion. I’m pretty sure he just donated most of his salary to charity. He really just wanted to do math all day, every day, his whole life, and had little interest in anything else.
    Although I am not really interested in that sort of ascetic lifestyle, I have to respect his dedication to his craft. There are some people who just have different motivations from others – you’d think Rand would approve of someone who had this level of desire to be the best at something, but somehow I don’t think she would think that this guy was admirable.

  • eyelessgame

    Wow. I knew Rand was no fan of science, but … I don’t know if there’s any way to express the amount of wrongness in this passage… the degree to which Rand simply does not understand progress, or ideas, or science, or collaboration, or people – it’s just …

    I will let a far better philosopher give the only commentary I can imagine giving on what Ayn Rand says here.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrjwaqZfjIY

  • Wilson Whiting

    I don’t think she’s damning him for openness, for free dissemination of ideas, but because his idealism isn’t connected to reality, consequently he has let himself ignorantly become the pawn of collectivists. That was my read on Stadler’s whole arc. Stadler thinks that ideas should be pursued without respect to reality or practical application, meanwhile he will let collectivists entrap him in their system and steal the fruits of his mind.

    Ayn Rand is still wrong if my interpretation is correct, pure science without any end goal in mind is crucial and government sponsored science is valuable, I just think that you might be disagreeing with Rand for the wrong reason.

  • sealiagh

    Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” is an excellent, reality-based corrective for Rand’s fantasy world views about how inventions/progress/science work.

  • g

    The monetary component of the Nobel Prize is on the order of $1M or so. It’s a lot more than $60k.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    They all do that, don’t they?

  • X. Randroid

    Actually, I think you and Adam are both right.

    Stadler’s primary purpose in the book is to demonstrate the evil that ensues from what Rand elsewhere called the theory/practice dichotomy, another variant of the mind/body dichotomy. By focusing entirely on theory and not practice, he makes a series of errors that will eventually doom him.

    More generally, Rand was an opponent of “pure science” or the notion of knowledge for its own sake, both of which she labeled as “Platonic” (i.e., bad). So yes, she is definitely damning him for that.

    But I think Adam is right that Rand also had a problem with free dissemination of scientific discoveries. In Part III, Stadler’s discoveries about cosmic rays, which he freely disseminated some years before the story opened, will be credited with enabling “a few third-raters” to build a weapon of mass destruction. One could read into this a condemnation of Stadler for freely publishing his theoretical research without considering its practical implications, a reading that I suspect Rand fully intended.

  • X. Randroid

    Of course. Competent henchmen would quickly rise and become super villains in their own right, and no super villain wants the competition ….

  • X. Randroid

    … you’d think Rand would approve of someone who had this level of desire to be the best at something, but somehow I don’t think she would think that this guy was admirable.

    In fairness to Rand, she apparently did have the ability to admire those who are totally focused on work they are passionate about, even if that work is not particularly lucrative. One of the better parts of her message, somewhat obscured in Atlas Shrugged by the presence of so many C-suite types among the heroes, is that it is good to support yourself by doing work that you love; it doesn’t have to be running a business. Ragnar, for instance, wants to be a philosophy professor, and that’s considered perfectly respectable. Acting and composing are also represented among the minor strikers as “rational” occupations.

    But your professor would lose Rand’s admiration because he commits two “crimes” against Objectivism. One is just wanting to do abstract math (no practical application); the other is believing “possessions were an illusion.” These put him in the same camp as Stadler: embracing theory/mind over practice/body.

  • SmogMonster

    Aww, I knew I should have googled that. Still: considering the costs involved in things like physics experiments and medical studies, $1million doesn’t go as far as you’d think.

  • http://gophergold.wordpress.com/ Dave Lerner

    Because those are the only people willing to work for the government. Anybody competent goes into business for himself. Stacked deck much?

  • eyelessgame

    Well, in the conceit of most stories with supervillains, the supervillain’s plan is generally insane, and/or to the detriment of everyone, or at least everyone but himself – hence the only people who would follow a supervillain would be too stupid to realize this.

    If you can’t accomplish your plans because you can’t seem to hire good help, maybe you need to rethink your plans.:)

  • unbound55

    There was an excellent series a long time ago called “Connections” (late 1970s). Each episode (I think there was only 10 of them) followed a series (sometimes concurrent) of events from the plow all the way to a modern invention. The historian (James Burke) was making a few points with the series…one of which is that inventions and innovations are nearly always incremental, not massive; and another being that many people in our world help move us along. It was a rather eye-opening series for me, and puts to rest the nonsense that Ayn Rand tries to promote that there are a few select individuals that make everything happen.

  • Jason K.

    Connections was an awesome show! One of the best science programs ever made, in my opinion.

  • Alex SL

    In science, an at least equally important motivation is prestige

    That, and we scientists simply enjoy what we are doing. Given the job situation and the pay-off, surely nobody in their right mind would go into science because they are interested in acquiring riches or power. But most of us are privileged to be doing work that we consider fascinating instead of merely a means of breadwinning, and therefore accept the trade-off of not earning as much money as an equally talented person can in some other areas.

    an open-access publishing project whose mission is to disseminate scientific research for free

    That, however, is an odd way of putting it. There is no way of disseminating quality-controlled research for free because running such an operation simply costs money. In reality, there are two unrelated questions to be answered: First, should science publishing be run by private companies for profit or instead by public non-profit organisations? Second, should the costs that will accrue even under a non-profit system be paid by the reader (in practice tax-funded university libraries etc. and pay-per-view) or by the author (i.e. from tax-funded research budgets and grants)?

    At least in part the open access movement weirdly reacts to being unhappy with the first solution to the first question by promoting the second solution to the second question. But companies like Elsevier have absolutely no problem with open access as such because they can still profit from the publication fees paid by the authors.

    My major problem with open access is that it leads to perverse incentives. Under a reader pays system a scientific journal earns the more money the higher quality its articles are, but it will only dilute its brand and lose subscribers if it accepts crap. Under an author pays system, the same journal would earn the more money the more articles it accepts even if they are plagiarised, fraudulent or pseudoscience. And we see that happening.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Yeah, but there’s an expectation that the winners will donate the money to a worthy (usually science-related) cause. So even with a pretty substantial purse, you’re not supposed to do it for the money.

    I wish Rand were still alive so that this could drive her nuts.

  • 8DX

    Ha! It’s still selfishness! =P (thanks for the link to the graphene discoverers, I’ve read some about it, but this seems to have slipped my radar)

  • Alex SL

    You know, that is actually an interesting point. Either we are already always motivated by selfishness because that is the true human nature (even when we are altruistic we merely behave like that because it makes us happier), in which case Objectivism as a moral “philosophy” is superfluous; or all of us except a few enlightened Objectivists are life-hating unselfish altruists, in which case the ideology has the problem of denying and trying to twist the true human nature, kind of like some forms of communism.

    Sadly at this point it is not even clear to me which of the two is the official Objectivist position.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Either we are already always motivated by selfishness because that is the true human nature… or all of us except a few enlightened Objectivists are life-hating unselfish altruists.

    It’s the latter. Like other cults which say that only the cult members will be saved out of all the human beings on Earth, Rand is quite clear that anyone who doesn’t follow her philosophy in every particular is “anti-life”, and secretly wants to die as long as they can take some heroic capitalists with them. This comes up near the end of the book as a useful justification for why her heroes can kill the looters without compunction.

  • Alex SL

    I get that in practice it is an elitist cult, yes, but I am more concerned about the internal consistency of the world view. (Silly, I know.)

    On the one hand, objectivism seems to demand that we follow our own interests instead of living for others, on the other hand it seems that only those interests are permissible that Ayn Rand herself would have happened to considered legitimate.

    I am supposed to be selfish, but if I was born utterly incompetent then my selfishness could best be expressed by leeching off the productivity of others; catch-22. I am supposed to take pride in my work but if my work is the protection of nature for future generations then it doesn’t count, somehow.

    The problem with this ideology is only partly that it gets human nature wrong. It does not even clear the minimal hurdle of making sense on its own terms, it collapses from a lack of internal logic.

  • James Schumacher

    The quoted comments from Stadler are downright weird. They make no sense at all.

    He starts out well:

    …Did you say you found this in the research laboratory of a plain, commercial motor factory?”

    “Yes.”

    “That’s odd. What was he doing in such a place?”

    “Designing a motor.”

    That’s a perfectly reasonable question, and Dagny’s answer is downright pithy. When you learn that the High School Janitor has been ironing out the kinks in string theory in their spare time, it’s perfectly human to wonder about that superposition of traits (which perhaps explains why pod-person protagonist Dagney doesn’t give it a second thought). What was The Magical Pixie-Powered Ultramotor Engineer doing working for some small, failing production-line factory?

    The human response from Stadler at this point is is “You know what I mean. Why wasn’t he working somewhere else, with better funding and equipment? With a mind like that, he could have had any job he wanted!” But instead, he starts digging his way to bizzarro world:

    “That’s what I mean. A man with the genius of a great scientist, who chose to be a commercial inventor? I find it outrageous.”

    Seriously? I mean… just… seriously?

    He chose to be a commercial inventor because money. Every person old enough to have pocket money understands the idea of cash as a motivator, why doesn’t Stadler? He even goes on to admit that the private sector pay’s better.

    He wanted a motor, and he quietly performed a major revolution in the science of energy, just as a means to an end, and he didn’t bother to publish his findings, but went right on making his motor.

    For frigs sake, Stadler. There are several reasons Pixie Engineer might have done this, but the blatantly-obvious one is simply that he was testing his theory. He came up with a design for a perpetual motion machine and he works in a lab/factory combo: do you seriously think he wouldn’t want to build a prototype to test his theory? Heck, it’s starting to sound like Pixie Engineer is the only one who had doubts that he’d found the actual holy grail of Free Energy.

    Of course, doubts and humility and awareness-of-ones-fallibility are not the nature of the Prophet Of Rand who actually designed the Motor. He Knew with a capital K that his motor design would work, so his actual reason for not publishing has to be something else. Paranoia, that someone else would build his motor first, steal the patent, and hog the personal glory? Another plausible and justifiable explanation, and not the one Rand is so obviously shooting for.

    No, it’s obviously because Pixie Engineer loathes the idea of society benefiting in any way from his invention, so kept it to himself out of selfishness. Which Is A Good Thing.

    ”It’s so wonderful,” said Dr. Stadler, his voice low. “It’s so wonderful to see a great, new, crucial idea which is not mine!”

    Huh. I’m really not sure what to make of this. Despite the awkward wording, this really is a perfect moment of character building: childlike glee at another’s idea makes him feel sympathetic and naive, with the “which is not mine” adding a touch of justifiable arrogance. He’s a Pure Scientist, in it solely discovery and learning new things. Maybe that’s why he’s having such trouble here: Rand is trying to fit an inherently inoffensive, likable stock character into a philosophy that forces him into a bad-guy role.

    …”Miss Taggart,” he said, his eyes lowered, looking at the glass case, “I know a man who might be able to undertake the reconstruction of that motor. He would not work for me – so he is probably the kind of man you want… Apparently, the young man had no desire to work for the good of society or the welfare of science. He told me that he would not take a government job. I presume he wanted the bigger salary he could hope to obtain from a private employer.”

    And we’re back to the weirdness.

    At least this shows Stadler is genre savvy enough to spot a Randian Ubermensh when they refuse his job offer. I suspect he also gave Stadler a wedgie and kicked him down the stairs, because that’s what Ubermenches do when offered a job with the government. But with teams of presumably brilliant scientists under him, why would Stadler offer Dagny the number of someone who turned him down?

    Actually, I’m putting this entire exchange down to genre savvyness. Stadler knows the universe is stacked against him and knows Dagny won’t let him or his teams work with the Pixie Motor, but he’s not one to hold up scientific progress by being spiteful, so he puts her onto someone he knows she’ll accept even though he personally finds the man distasteful.

  • Science Avenger

    “Rand discounts both the power of curiosity and the power of public acclaim. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that people can be totally motivated (for decades!) by an almost obsessive desire to *know the answer*… Scientists are rewarded, in the current system, only secondarily by money.”

    You see this lack of understanding in many climate change denialist arguments, as well as much of the rhetoric coming from the GOP. There, scientists are depicted as being more interested in grant money than actually doing anything with it, and of course, if you give poor people enough money so they don’t have to work to keep from starving, they’ll just lay around all day, and increasing the marginal tax rates will dramatically reduce work incentives…

  • Science Avenger

    “In fairness to Rand, she apparently did have the ability to admire those who are totally focused on work they are passionate about, even if that work is not particularly lucrative. ”

    This makes up a major part of The Fountainhead, where Howard Roark frequently finds himself having to choose between commercially lucrative work and that which stays true to his principles of building. He always chooses the latter, with Rand’s approval.

  • KennethJohnTaylor

    James Burke’s video essays are compulsory viewing for anyone interested in the history of science and technology. To my knowledge, he is the only scholar who tackles history from that angle — how all our stuff became our stuff, from the very first bronze-coated arrowheads to the plastic containers in your kitchen pantry.

    And he illuminates something very poignant about technological achievement: That historically speaking, innovation in science and technology is usually an arbitrary result of blind ambition mixed with luck, timing, and happenstance. And it is almost completely divorced from any sort of economic or profit incentive. Sure, affluent societies will spearhead more technological development because they can afford to support a larger portion of their leisure classes to pursue these matters, but by and large, money/capitalism/economics does not drive technological progress. Never has. Capitalism is never the inventor — it is the exploiter of the invention.

    This is yet another thing in the appallingly long list of things Ayn Rand doesn’t understand.

  • Alex Harman

    The insanely large amounts of money that investment banks and stock brokerages offered to mathematically talented “quants” over the last couple of decades, in addition to resulting in the creation of overly complex financial instruments the risks of which nobody fully understood (collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps) and which precipitated the economic crash of 2008, also siphoned a great deal of talent away from science and engineering fields where it might have been employed constructively instead of destructively.

  • 8DX

    Heh, good discussion on this point – but I’ve yet to have seen a major ideology that collapses from lack of internal logic. The human capacity for cognitive dissonance seems to trump that in almost all cases.


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