Thursday, March 5, 2009

The thin line between inspiration and plagiarism

Remember the big hoo-haa about a 19-year old author, Kaavya Vishwanathan, accused of plagiarism.

Turns out that best-selling authors get 'inspired' by each other all the time. I recently finished reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, categorized under economics by Penguin. And I am now reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. This is categorized as Popular Science by Penguin.

Read the following passages and tell me what you think of it.

This is from The Black Swan

I've had plenty of cups of coffee in my life (it's my principal addiction). I have never seen a cup of coffee jump two feet from my desk, nor has coffee spilled spontaneously on this on this manuscript without intervention (even in Russia). Indeed, it will take more than a mild coffee addiction to witness such an event; it would require more lifetimes than is perhaps conceivable - the odds are so small, one in so many zeros, that it would be impossible for me to write them down in my free time.

Yet the physical reality makes it possible for my cup to jump - very unlikely but possible. Particles jump around all the time. How come the coffee cup, itself composed of jumping particles, does not? The reason is simply, that for the cup to jump would require that all the particles jump in the same direction, and do so in lockstep several times in a row.

And this is from The Blind Watchmaker

In the case of the marble statue, molecules in solid marble are continuously jostling against one another in random directions. The jostlings of the different molecules cancel one another out, so the whole hand of the statue stays still. But if, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules just happen to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for the marble statue to wave at us. It could happen. The odds against such a coincidence is unimaginably great but they are not incalculably great. The number is so large that the entire age of the universe so far is too short a time to write out all the noughts!

Coincidence! I don't think so. I started reading The Blind Watchmaker because it was referenced in The Black Swan (not in context of the above paragraphs though!)

Picture courtesy: Jaylopez

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Anonymous said...

Both Taleb and Dawkins have made a serious mistake in not understanding the second law of thermodynamics. While the air molecules do move around, the statistical mechanics of the cup of tea or the statue forbid them from behaving in illogical manners they use as their premise for discussion.
Both are examples of poor or no understanding of the laws of physics, then applying those poor or no understanding to their primary thesis and wanting us readers to believ they have discovered some new understanding.
This is called BAD SCIENCE.

Pushkar said...

Amitabh i think its neither inspiration nor plagiarism because the matter that is being discussed in question is based on the law of thermodynamics.
Even if you say that author provides the reference (Last para - Coincidence, dont think so....) still, the laws of physics are not subject to copyright. Reference may well be due to different reasons.

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