Andrew Odlyzko’s article “Isaac Newton and the perils of the financial South Sea” (Physics Today, July 2020, page 30) is more than just a fascinating read about Newton and financial speculation of the time. It is also, perhaps unintentionally, a commentary on society’s assumptions about scientists.
Why would we expect Newton to excel in financial speculation? Because of his mastery of mathematics and complex natural systems and his work at the Royal Mint? Perhaps. Furthermore, as a culture we—and often scientists themselves—assume the portability of scientific wisdom: Because science is hard, scientists are considered to be qualified to master “less hard” nonscientific subjects. I have worked in communications at scientific and technical organizations for decades, and it is not uncommon to find PhDs who assume—and even say—“I could do your job better than you. I just don’t have time.” An exceptional few are good communicators to anyone outside their field; the vast majority are tolerable to dreadful despite their conviction otherwise.
Of course Newton would flunk the test. He had no financial models at the time, and even if he did, the motion of markets owes more to the unquantifiable forces of expectation and fear than to the quantifiable forces of nature that Newton knew so well.