Questions and answers with Gary G. Tibbetts

An industrial physicist illustrates the scientific method with historical examples.

Gary G. Tibbetts

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Gary Tibbetts got his academic start in physics at Caltech, from which he graduated in 1961 with a bachelor's degree. He then earned his master's and PhD degrees from the University of Illinois, where he studied electron ejection from metallic surfaces. Beginning in 1967 he spent two years studying frozen noble gases as a guest scientist at the Technical University of Munich.

When he returned to the US, he joined the physics department of the General Motors Research Labs in suburban Detroit, Michigan. There, he studied a wide variety of topics, from metallic photoemission to carbon nanotubes and nanofibers to hydrogen-storage materials for fuel-cell vehicles. Tibbetts retired from General Motors in 2002 and accepted a position as chief scientist at Applied Sciences, a company that was developing nanofibers for composite materials and other applications. He worked there into 2009.

In his retirement, Tibbetts has taken up writing. Physics Today recently caught up with him to discuss his first book, How the Great Scientists Reasoned: The Scientific Method in Action(Elsevier, 2013).

PT: What motivated you to write about the scientific method?

Tibbetts: For many years I have enjoyed reading biographies of scientists. It was escape literature for me. But the portrayal of scientific endeavor in these biographies was frequently shallow, off base, and technically flawed. I came to believe that more people who had actually done research should write biography.

As I was contemplating retirement from Applied Sciences in 2008, a colleague asked me to write an introductory chapter, ultimately titled "History of Carbon Nanomaterials," for the Polymer Nanocomposites Handbook (CRC Press, 2009). I found it a very satisfying experience to trace for readers the intellectual development of this field. I got hooked.

So I began to study biographies and to assemble a book on how great scientists solved knotty problems, with a strong emphasis on dramatizing the "eureka moment" of discovery. My working title until the book was nearly finished was Thinking Straight, but my daughters, more politically savvy than I, prevailed on me to change it. I did more reading and beefed up chapter 2, "Elements of Scientific Thinking," so that it treated the more philosophical issues associated with the scientific method. Then I felt justified in changing the title to How the Great Scientists Reasoned: The Scientific Method in Action.

PT: How did your background and professional experiences factor into the framing and writing of the book, and what resources did you draw on in your research?

Tibbetts: In grad school at Illinois and for the first half of my career, I was a solid-state physicist. Then at General Motors, as so frequently happens, an accidental discovery caused me to refocus my energies … [on] carbon nanofilaments and other nanostructures. Ultimately this change retooled me as a physicist–chemical engineer. I hope this has given me a broader view of science and technology.

As for source materials, the scientists I chose were born over a century ago, so both original publications and biographies were available, although Wikipedia and other internet sources were useful also.

PT: How did you end up with the scientists you chose?

Tibbetts: [Among] experimentalists, Michael Faraday still must rank as the king. Wilhelm Röntgen's discovery of x rays is an inspiration to every scientist who enters a laboratory. The dawn of modern chemistry, represented by the competition between Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley, is a ripping good yarn. [And] Christopher Columbus's destructive struggles to retain his flawed hypothesis about reaching Asia are a cautionary tale to every scientist.

When I had finished those early chapters, I realized that the volume could be a disappointment to someone who wanted to learn something about modern physics. I had hoped to write a book accessible to the lay public or even an eager high school student, and much of modern physics suffers greatly when translated from advanced mathematics into words. I settled on including chapters about Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr to offer a conceptual understanding of key elements of modern physics. Since so much has been written about Einstein, I took the unusual approach of concentrating on his contributions to atomic theory—showing that matter is comprised of atoms. My editor wanted me to avoid calculus, so I reworked Einstein's derivation of the Brownian motion to use [finite deltas] instead of derivatives. I hope I didn't sacrifice too much.

PT: What other scientists would you have included if you had the space?

Tibbetts: Had I included just one more scientist, it would have been Marie Curie. She would have been my poster child for tenacity and devotion to the ideals of science. I wanted to do a chapter on Ptolemy and Copernicus. I read some biographies of Copernicus and went to his original work in The Great Books, but I found that understanding his geometrical constructs was too demanding of my time: I suspect that very few people have read and understood On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies. For me, Einstein's original papers are far more accessible. I also wanted to do a chapter on Pasteur, because his experimental work was magnificent. However, with my lack of experience in biology I had to conclude that I couldn't contribute incisive perspective on his work.

PT: Do you see any differences between how the scientific method is practiced now and in prior centuries?

Tibbetts: A cursory comparison of papers published in Physical Review in the 1930s and now might convince you that our modern work is less complete and less thoroughly finished before publication. We moderns are merely responding rationally to a more competitive age and an expectation to publish more papers. This results in introducing new ideas while they are still in the half-baked stage. In fact, it looks as though publication in the internet age will drift towards being a productive multi-party conversation. So there are superficial differences, but the scientific method is still robustly practiced in our time. I am confident about the future of physics.

PT: What books are you currently reading?

Tibbetts: Taking a break from the arduous duty of writing nonfiction, I am now composing a novel about life in 2045. Two of the most stimulating background books for this project are The Next Hundred Years (Anchor Books, 2009), by George Friedman, which uses geopolitics to project probable world conflicts in the next century; and The Singularity Is Near (Penguin Books, 2006), by Ray Kurzweil, which harnesses Moore's law and advances in brain science to make some exciting predictions of future technologies.


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Scitation: Questions and answers with Gary G. Tibbetts