Was a terminal degree ~necessary for inventing Boyle's desiderata?

by AllAmericanBreakfast4 min read10th Jul 202018 comments


RationalityWorld Modeling
My composition teacher in college told me that in some pottery schools, the teacher holds up your pot, examines it, comments on it, and then smashes it on the floor. They do this for your first 100 pots.

In that spirit, this post's epistemic status is SMASH THIS POT.

Is an MD/PhD practically ~necessary for groundbreaking scientific work of the 20th century?

I went into this project believing that an MD/PhD is ~necessary on a practical level to do groundbreaking STEM work. My model was this:

"These degrees come with credibility; access to expensive equipment, funding, and data; access to mentors and collaborators. A smart person who sets out to do groundbreaking STEM work will have a much lower chance of success if they don't acquire an MD/PhD. Massive, sustained social coordination is ~necessary to do groundbreaking research, and the MD/PhD pipeline is a core feature of how we do that. Without that degree, grant writers won't make grants. Collaborators won't want to invest in the relationship. It will be extremely difficult to convince anybody to let someone without a terminal degree run a research program."

Ideally, we'd answer this question with an RCT. Perhaps we'd take a pool of 100,000 successful biology PhD applicants, deny half of them the opportunity to enroll in a PhD or MD for the rest of their lives, and find some way to compare the two groups for their scientific accomplishments.

Nobody's going to let me run that experiment. So I tried looking at the proportion of recent STEM Nobel Prize winners who hold terminal degrees.

Of the 2018-2019 winners of the Nobel Prize in biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, and economics, all of them have a PhD. I also peeked at the 2018 Fields Medal winners. 3/4 have a PhD and the last one completed at least several years of PhD work. The most recent 3 individuals listed for an OpenPhil grant (7/9/2020) in Human Health and Wellbeing (a category I chose arbitrarily) all have PhDs.

Do credentials determine who gets the awards for groundbreaking work?

Zvi asks whether these awards might be mainly just reflections of the credentials of the applicants. Are these awards cherry-picking from among the set of all possible groundbreaking discoveries or projects the ones that are invented or headed by terminal degree-holders? If so, then these awards and grants might be severely under-representing groundbreaking STEM discoveries made by scientists and inventors who don't hold a terminal degree.

An alternative approach is to look at historical lists of inventions-yet-to-be-made and see who invented them. Did they have a terminal degree?

For fun, let's evaluate Robert Boyle's desiderata. I'm not sure when he wrote it, but he lived from 1627-1691.

"It's 1673! Where's my Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing?"

Some of these can't be readily disambiguated, so we'll either ignore them (strikethrough) or choose a few inventions that fit the bill. Becoming a doctor only required a 4-year degree starting in around 1930, and I think it's reasonable to limit ourselves to inventions of the last 100 years (1920-2020).

  • The Prolongation of Life (can you really call this living?)
  • The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth (cosmetic surgery was mostly pioneered prior to the 1920s).
  • The Art of Flying (first manned flight and airplane prior to 1920)
  • The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there (SCUBA and submarines invented prior to 1920)
  • The Cure of Wounds at a Distance. Robotic surgery? The first example, the Arthrobot, was invented in 1985 primarily by "biomedical engineer James McEwen, Geof Auchinleck, a UBC engineering physics grad, and Dr. Brian Day as well as a team of engineering students." McEwen has a PhD, Auchinleck has a BASc, and Day has an MD. Who knows about the engineering students?
  • The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation. The first kidney transplant was performed in 1954 by a team of MDs led by Joeseph E. Murray.
  • The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions (do you even lift, Boyle?)
  • The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only (ummm...)
  • The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed. Norman Borlaug, who led the Green Revolution, had a PhD.
  • The Transmutation of Metalls (conversion of radioactive thorium to radium was discovered prior to 1920)
  • The makeing of Glass Malleable (clear plastic was invented prior to 1920).
  • The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables. The first transgenic animal was created by a team led by Thomas Wagner and Peter C. Hoppe, both PhDs holders.
  • The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums (ambiguous)
  • The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses (invented prior to 1920)
  • The making Armor light and extremely hard (first commercially sold bulletproof vest invented prior to 1920)
  • The practibable and certain way of finding Longitudes (invented prior to 1920)
  • The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches (invented prior to 1920)
  • Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc. Anesthetics were pioneered before the 1920s. Let's go with LSD and antidepressants. LSD was invented by Albert Hoffman, who had a PhD. The first antidepressant was invented by Irving Selikoff and Edward H. Robizek, both of whom were post-1930s American MDs.
  • A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk (invented prior to 1920/never invented, unless you count the Titanic)
  • Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men. Modafinil, I guess? Michel Jouvet invented it, and had a PhD.
  • Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify'd by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author (If MDMA counts, it was synthesized prior to 1920)
  • Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons. They already had powerful domesticated animals and machines to harness wind and water, so Boyle was probably thinking of a combination of great strength with a guiding intelligence, like a robot. George Devol, inventor of the first robot, had no higher education.
  • A perpetuall Light (the lightbulb was invented prior to the 20s, but mine still burns out, and I hear that entropy is always increasing...)
  • Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing. Uh, saving the best for last, Boyle? Gale Matson was a 3M chemist, inventor of the technology underlying scratch and sniff in the 1960s, and he had a PhD.


Full disclosure: most of the inventions from prior to 1920 were created by people without terminal degrees, ranging from the tailor who created the first bulletproof vest to the Wright brothers, who didn't have high school diplomas.

I also knew that Borlaug and Hoffman had PhDs before I made this list. They both seemed like the most obvious 20th century choices for the categories in Boyle's list, but still, you could accuse me of cherry-picking. But my process in general was to choose an invention that seemed to fit the bill, and only then look up the inventor.

I also revised this post when I realized that Soddy and Rutherford discovered nuclear transmutation in 1901, which is outside of the domain of this analysis. This changes the analysis.

Of the 15 named scientists who headed up the 9 groundbreaking inventions on this list, 2 didn't have terminal degrees (Auchinleck and Devol).

It's hard to say which, if either, of the following two arguments the existence of post-1920 non-PhD/MD STEM Nobel Prize winners supports:

a) The fact that STEM Nobel Prizes do sometimes get awarded to non-PhD/MDs confirms that they're awarded on merit, not credentials. Thus, the fact that the overwhelming majority do have PhDs/MDs suggests that terminal degrees really are ~necessary.

b) The fact that STEM Nobel Prizes do sometimes get awarded to non-PhD/MDs confirms that you don't need one to do groundbreaking work. Perhaps innovative people just tend to get PhDs/MDs, but they would still have found a way to make their groundbreaking inventions without those degrees.


It's a small sample, but overall, I'm surprised that 13% of these inventors didn't have PhDs/MDs. That's a point against my original argument.

It's interesting that both of them worked in robotics. I'm hesitant to generalize, but if I did this with other historical lists, I wonder what the proportion of non-credentialed groundbreaking inventors would be, and what fields they worked in. That might be a way of getting at the fields or types of important inventions most tractable for a smart, motivated outsider.