Posts

2019-04-11: Original memetic sin

2019-01-31: The theory of weight

2018-11-06: Origins of telephone network theory

2018-10-24: Modern thought

2018-09-10: Feeding a controversy

2018-06-11: Glow worm distribution

2018-04-23: Outlawing risk

2017-08-22: A rebuttal on the beauty in applying math

2017-04-22: Free googles book library

2016-11-02: In search of Theodore von Karman

2016-09-25: Amath Timeline

2016-02-24: Math errors and risk reporting

2016-02-20: Apple VS FBI

2016-02-19: More Zika may be better than less

2016-02-17: Dependent Non-Commuting Random Variable Systems

2016-01-14: Life at the multifurcation

2015-09-28: AI ain't that smart

2015-06-24: MathEpi citation tree

2015-03-31: Too much STEM is bad

2015-03-24: Dawn of the CRISPR age

2015-02-12: A Comment on How Biased Dispersal can Preclude Competitive Exclusion

2015-02-09: Hamilton's selfish-herd paradox

2015-02-08: Risks and values of microparasite research

2014-11-10: Vaccine mandates and bioethics

2014-10-18: Ebola, travel, president

2014-10-17: Ebola comments

2014-10-12: Ebola numbers

2014-09-23: More stochastic than?

2014-08-17: Feynman's missing method for third-orders?

2014-07-31: CIA spies even on congress

2014-07-16: Rehm on vaccines

2014-06-21: Kurtosis, 4th order diffusion, and wave speed

2014-06-20: Random dispersal speeds invasions

2014-05-06: Preservation of information asymetry in Academia

2014-04-16: Dual numbers are really just calculus infinitessimals

2014-04-14: More on fairer markets

2014-03-18: It's a mad mad mad mad prisoner's dilemma

2014-03-05: Integration techniques: Fourier--Laplace Commutation

2014-02-25: Fiber-bundles for root-polishing in two dimensions

2014-02-17: Is life a simulation or a dream?

2014-01-30: PSU should be infosocialist

2014-01-12: The dark house of math

2014-01-11: Inconsistencies hinder pylab adoption

2013-12-24: Cuvier and the birth of extinction

2013-12-17: Risk Resonance

2013-12-15: The cult of the Levy flight

2013-12-09: 2013 Flu Shots at PSU

2013-12-02: Amazon sucker-punches 60 minutes

2013-11-26: Zombies are REAL, Dr. Tyson!

2013-11-22: Crying wolf over synthetic biology?

2013-11-21: Tilting Drake's Equation

2013-11-18: Why $1^\infty != 1$

2013-11-15: Adobe leaks of PSU data + NSA success accounting

2013-11-14: 60 Minutes misreport on Benghazi

2013-11-11: Making fairer trading markets

2013-11-10: L'Hopital's Rule for Multidimensional Systems

2013-11-09: Using infinitessimals in vector calculus

2013-11-08: Functional Calculus

2013-11-03: Elementary mathematical theory of the health poverty trap

2013-11-02: Proof of the circle area formula using elementary methods

Original memetic sin

In preparing for lecture yesterday, I has having a hard time coming up with a concise summary of the story of Heaviside's telegraph equation theory. In broadest strokes, what happened was that Oliver Heaviside discovered a new way to operate a telegraph. His idea was dismissed and opposed by powerful engineers, and effectively suppressed until it was revived a decade later in the US for making long-distance telephone calls. The net effect for AT&T was to save atleast 100 million dollars in capital investment and operations costs.

The problem I was having was finding a concise metaphor to summarize how Heaviside's superior idea was suppressed for a decade. The closest I could come up with was a new phrase -- "original memetic sin". Hopefully, the name has some degree of self-explanation. Below, I'll give a definition, explain the motivation for the name, show how it applies to Heaviside's experience, and talk about how it relates to other idioms. Google doesn't seem to know about the name, but there's still a good established idiom out-there already, I'd love to know.

Definition: "Original memetic sin" is when an idea making sense of a certain set of facts spreads through a community, takes hold, and its presence in the minds of the community members makes them resist new, similar, but better ideas explaining the same facts. The name picked as is a variation on an idea original antigenic sin, in epidemiology and immunology, which in turn derives from the theological concept of original sin. The term "memetic" is used in place of "antigenic" to indicate that it is a cultural concept or meme that has been transmitted and is effecting the spread of competing ideas/memes. It is perhaps too heavy a lift on first pass, though, to explain the gritty details of immunology.

Heavside's story

Oliver Heaviside's story is an good illustrative example. In the 1850's, there was a major problem in the young field of electrical engineering. Telegraphs were a rapidly developing technology, but nobody knew how they actually work. Beyond a few basic rules, their design and operation was essentially a processes of trial and error. But for the first trans-atlantic cables, that wasn't good enough -- we actually needed a good working theory for sending messages. Enter William Thomson, one of the most influential physicists of the 1800's and soon to be annointed Lord Kelvin for his discoveries, including the Kelvin temperature scale. Thomson came up with a theory that worked pretty well, outperformed that of his competitors, and increased his fame. Thomson's theory became a meme that spread through the engineering community as the standard description of telegraph operation. The infrastructure of the British telegraph system then evolved according to the best practices of this system.

Several decades later, Oliver Heaviside realized that Thomson's theory had a small flaw, and that this small flow had large implications making better telegraphs. He wrote up his idea and tried to publish it. But Heaviside was not a person with high social standing, his methods shared allot with Thomson's theory, and because of the way the British telegraph service had evolved, it was hard to test Heaviside's idea to see if he was actually right.

The community of electrical engineers resisted Heaviside's idea. His publications where censored, his reputation impeached, and the results of his experiments were dismissed in favor of "practical experience" and the meme of Thomson's established idea. This was in spite of the ultimate factual superiority of Heaviside's theory. Only years later later in America did Heaviside's idea flower into it's full memetic potential.

Connections and analogies

Implications

One of the implications of original memetic sin is that bad ideas tend to get stuck in a culture, and can be hard to change (surprise-surprise). Institutions like universities can help combat this by providing a forum where ideas are diverse, fluid, and better ideas are always valued over worse ones. They can act as incubators for ideas, then, reducing the start-up costs for the spread of good ideas.