Lecturing birds how to fly

@nntaleb tweeted a table from his Antifragility book listing several instances of academics claiming ideas that actually originated in industry had an academic origin.

I'm curious about the Wiener/Cybernetics example - the dates don't seem to work. I'm also curious about examples and nonexamples of "lecturing birds how to fly", ie. cases where this misappropriation has happened and also places where there is the belief that ideas originated in industry but in fact came from academia.

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Happens a lot

Of course, you can't expect of industry to develop fundamental math or physics theorems (much). These days, with little low hanging fruit, the investment would just be too big; and I think employees are pressed harder to produce anyway.

Though Akkermann, yes that one, was a high school teacher who refused to accept an academic position, then you have Arthur Caley who produced over 200 pure mathematical papers as a lawyer, and of course Einstein who produced some of his most famous work as a clerk.

But, for instance, something like "network society" is a notion probably hundreds of thousands of people developed as a concept in tandem the first time they used email or social media. But still, because of the academic meritocracy, only a few academics will be attributed with coming up with the idea and be referenced. In a hundred years from now, these people will be remembered as the scientists who thought of it first.

To be honest, I have no idea whether Aristotle or Plato did any original work or just wrote down that what was known as contemporary knowledge, neither is there a manner to check it. They are attributed, that's it.

It's a fluid world where society, academia, and industry can't really be separated though I don't expect real hard math work from employees these days. But everything above that, locking schemes, OS schedulers, NoSql databases, UI principles, real-time algorithms, software development methods, yeah, you bet industry does as much or more than scientists. But employees don't get attributed, that's all.

(Anyway, it's actually likely industry does much more research than academia. Chip design? EDA verification? The list is endless.)

(For things like sociology, economy, or philosophy often, I really think almost all ideas are the result of people who write interacting with society. You have no idea where the ideas come from. Can be a book, a sentence in the news, a smart remark from a friend, a picture, etc. I personally believe many people - Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche - are the result of the societies they lived in, were the influenced, not the influences.)

Plato and Aristotle

To be honest, I have no idea whether Aristotle or Plato did any original work or just wrote down that what was known as contemporary knowledge, neither is there a manner to check it. They are attributed, that's it.

Well, seems one can read between the lines of history and get a broad sense of what was going on. One encounters claims various people shouldn't be credited with things because they were just the chairman of a committee so that their name went on the committee's work; John von Neumann's name on von Neumann architecture, and Thomas Aquinas's name on Thomist philosophy, come to mind. But from all I've seen I'm inclined to agree broadly with Morris Kline's view (cf. Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times section 3.3) that groups of scholars form around great leaders. The list of Alonzo Church's students says a lot about him regardless of his list of publications (e.g., S.C. Kleene, J. Barkley Rosser, Alan Turing, John Kemeny, Hartley Rogers, Jr., Dana Scott). Seems to me Plato and Aristotle were foci for scholarly activity.

[Of course, the same may be said for Nicolas Bourbaki.]


Leadership is a bit of an American term, though Church must have been a good mathematician and a great tutor. But with this list of successful students something more must have been going on; if it would be that simple Erdos would have produced many great number theorists.

Probably also has something to do with that good students must have been send to him, and a lot of the theoretical work of his students is about a single subject 'computation' during a time most other countries were simply destroyed. It probably took the rest of the world some time to catch up while they were rebuilding.

(Your not going to publish a lot while you're dead, or don't have a roof over your head.)

(Also. Byproduct of the American educational system? Americans concentrate their best professors and students in a few top universities. Other countries are smaller and more egalitarian.)

(Also, Americans are ultranationalists and competitive. Some rephrasing of research done by others (American, or not) is likely too, Everybody looks at the 'center', the center gobbles up all information from the periphery and spits it out again, and everybody keeps looking at the center.)

(Also, this is from a period where French researchers published in French, and German researchers published in German. Even if they did the same research, they didn't get noted.)

Are you sure?

I'm not sure "leader"

I'm not sure "leader" (Kline's choice) is the ideal word choice, but taken broadly enough there's a real phenomenon there. Church was a focus, a point in the historical academic network with much interesting activity in its neighborhood. I was reading somewhere that Turing, whose mathematical style was relatively intuitive, was driven up the wall by doing a dissertation under Church. I've studied Church's 1932/3 logic papers (that's the logic whose purely computational part was later called λ-calculus), and found they suggest someone brilliant with strong opinions and no natural instinct to avoid inscrutable notation; I expect I too would find it a challenge to work with him.

lecture styles

I've heard second-hand of a math professor who would write on the board every word he said; when the bell rang at the end of the lecture period he would stop speaking, even in the middle of a sentence, and walk out, and at the next lecture — a week later — continue from where he'd left off in the middle of that sentence.

Another striking case of mathematical lecturing style is Benjamin Peirce; most of what I know of him is from a 1925 collection of reminiscences and biographical sketch, which I see is available online (ain't the Internet grand), yonder.

I don't agree with some of

I don't agree with some of this list, but it's certainly true that many ideas originate in industry. However, they're typically domain-specific concepts that academia distills or generalizes so the concept is clearer, more robust or more widely applicable.

That not only adds value, the charge of "idea appropriation" now carries less weight, since identifying a term with its most general conception is perfectly reasonable.

For instance, I wouldn't consider "heuristics and secret guild recipes" to count as "architecture" or "civil engineering". There's a certain level of rigour/confidence in the result that's completely absent.

The flip side of generalized theories

The flip side of generalized theories is that they often don't perform in specific circumstances.

You can compare for instance CockroachDB to abstract mathematical approaches to Facebook's manner of dealing with databases.

Not sure who's doing the hard science or engineering these days.