Atlas Shrugged: Publish or Perish

Atlas Shrugged: Publish or Perish April 18, 2014

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?”


“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.

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