Thursday, February 16, 2012

Is it More Important to Speak the Truth or to Flatter Idiots?

Fritz Zwicky, the Father of Dark Matter, was one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century but you probably have never heard of him--and if you have heard of him it is more likely that you are familiar with the outbursts he directed toward his colleagues than with his scientific theories, even though Zwicky proposed many seemingly outlandish concepts that are now widely accepted, including dark matter, gravitational lensing and supernovas. Zwicky also developed a problem solving technique known as general morphological analysis, which Zwicky described as "simply an ordered way of looking at things."

Zwicky's daughter Barbarina has long been engaged in a one woman campaign to both restore her father's personal reputation and to ensure that he receives the credit he deserves as an accomplished scientist and theoretician. She once declared, "My father’s theories are now being verified as scientific fact so many years after his death. The unbelievable incompetence and ineptitude of his colleagues and their subsequent rage [have] resulted in rabid attempts using literary assault against a decedent" and she has described her father as "a scientific prophet and the sacrificial lamb for the provincial judgment of his colleagues."

Fritz Zwicky had no patience or toleration for people who had an unprofessional attitude and/or were simply incompetent. In the Discover article cited above, Richard Panek describes the blunt rebukes Zwicky directed toward many prominent figures:

Later on, he vowed to write an autobiography, to which he had already given a title: Operation Lone Wolf. Instead, in 1971 he self-published a Catalogue of Selected Compact Galaxies and of Post-Eruptive Galaxies. He might have found an academic press willing to publish it—his previous six-volume catalog of galaxies was indispensable—if not for the introduction. In 23 score-settling pages, Zwicky called his colleagues "scatterbrains," "sycophants and plain thieves" who "have no love for any of the lone wolves who are not fawners and apple polishers," who "doctor their observational data to hide their shortcomings and to make the majority of the astronomers accept and believe in some of their most prejudicial and erroneous presentations and interpretations of facts," and who therefore publish "useless trash in the bulging astronomical journals."

Zwicky reportedly called various astronomers "spherical bastards" because "they are bastards every way I look at them." Barbarina Zwicky insists that some of the tales of her father's outbursts are exaggerated and that the real story is "Mediocrities felt very uncomfortable around him because they knew that they couldn't meet that standard. It's like in the light of God—man can’t stand in the light of God, almost. It's not quite that. Obviously he wasn’t a God figure."

Zwicky's trenchant attitude and comments remind me of the Edgar Allan Poe quote that I chose as one of four epigraphs for each of my three websites: "The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks." Poe did not hesitate to call out the various fools who populated the writing profession during his time and after he died one of the fools who he eviscerated tried--with some success--to smear Poe's reputation as both a man and a writer. Ultimately, though, truth won out: Poe is widely recognized as a great literary figure, while his antagonist's name is deservedly forgotten.

I have run into more than my share of the "toadies" and "quacks" that Poe described; Zwicky's "spherical bastards" phrase is certainly an apt description of the rogues gallery of fools I have encountered during my writing career:

Ming Wong

Henry Abbott, Kelly Dwyer, Basketbawful, John Krolik

Kellex (this bonehead--Kellen Barranger is apparently his real name, though he understandably is reluctant to sign his real name to his work--totally botched his transcription of a Pat Croce conference call and then went nuts when I tried to help him out, spewing insults at me)

Mike Kurylo

The Slam/SlamOnline crew

Brett Ballantini

Neil Paine

Kevin Pelton

It is easy to be "successful" in the writing business; all you have to do is, as Poe put it, be a "toady" and kiss up to various influential people: actual writing talent and critical thinking skills are not required or, in many cases, even desirable. However, I think that this kind of "success" is ultimately fleeting and meaningless; the only true, lasting success is to be an artist and a craftsman, someone who creates work of enduring quality.


I would be remiss if I did not mention the names of several talented people of integrity who I have had the pleasure of working with in this field, including Sam Amico, Roland Lazenby, Tariq Ali, Jorge Sierra, Roland Beech and Jonathan Hilton.

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