Friday, February 25, 2005

The Money Train | by Jay

If you've ever wandered through a grade school science fair, and seen the twenty different potato batteries and thirty-odd baking-soda-volcanoes, you're probably familiar with a phenomenon called simultaneous discovery.

In simultaneous (or "multiple") discovery, scientists or inventors in the same society arrive at the same innovation independently of each other at approximately the same time. For example, Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone simultaneously. Bell submitted a patent application on the same day, February 14, 1876, that Gray filed a caveat (or statement of intent to perfect) for a device to transmit voice.

Or take the telescope, as another case. Commonly attributed to Dutch lens-maker Hans Lippershey in 1608, a different telescope was invented by Galileo in 1609 (even though he had never seen an original) and similar models were created by other inventors. Evidently, there was something about that year that made scientists want to develop instruments to satisfy their curiosity about the heavens, resulting in at least five independent inventions of the same instrument.

Sociologists of science have proposed two explanatory theories for the origin of scientific and technological discoveries. Either the discovery is a function of the social context (the deterministic view) or it is due to the qualities of the individual making the discovery (the inventive genius theory). According to the deterministic theory of invention, the telephone and the telescope emerged when the time was ripe and the individual making the invention was of little importance. Given the appropriate context, someone would eventually have made the discovery.

Last night I experienced a bit of simultaneous discovery myself (and I would like to chalk it up to the inventive genius theory). I was thinking about the proposed expansion to a 12-game football schedule by the NCAA when reader Jeff sent us this bit of opinion, and an audible 'ding' was heard coming from my brain:
You should slam the NCAA for wanting to add 58+ games to the football schedule (the result of going to a 12-game season) while never considering a true national championship playoff system.
Jeff makes an incisive point. It was only a couple of years ago when "serious" debate about a college football championship tournament dominated the NCAA roundtables, and college presidents like Graham Spanier of Penn State poured cold water on the idea:
"I'm skeptical a national champion could be determined in a playoff without infringing on a student athlete's welfare."
Yet in comparison to the latest proposal, as Jeff points out, a playoff system would have tremendously less impact on scholarly pursuits than the 12th game proposal. If you're already willing to go an extra week, an 8-game playoff then becomes quite feasible: using the BCS bowls as a first round, an 8-game playoff would add exactly 3 games across all of college football. Two teams would play one extra game, and two more teams would play two extra games (the last for the national championship). Contrast that to 58+ extra games, multiplied by however many players and student managers per team, and the football footprint takes on Shaquillean proportions. You're not just "infringing" on the academic "welfare" of a handful of teams anymore; you've just affected all of Division I.

But that's only a concern if you were really serious about the kids' homework in the first place. As reported, major football-playing schools stand to gain a potential $1 million or better windfall for that extra game. Notre Dame obviously falls into this category, and for selfish reasons alone, I like the idea. Even lesser football schools will reap some filthy lucre, and they won't have to battle into the BCS bowls to do so. It's no wonder this is a popular idea.

Still, the NCAA just undermined its own chief argument against a playoff system, and although Jeff and I and others were all contemplating this at roughly the same time, it looks like the NCAA doesn't share in the same cosmic consciousness. Money's important ("if only for financial reasons", as Woody Allen once said) but it can muck up some perfectly good creative thinking, and if you're the NCAA, even make you renege on your purported principles.