The Heat to Light Index

By Bernard Wood

logo of a man and a chimpanzee under a tree, text reads CASHP
November 02, 2011

The Heat to Light Index (sometimes abbreviated to ‘H2L’ and computed as Heat/Light x 100) is a little known but valuable way of quantifying the contributions made by individual scientists.

The numerator is the sum of the units of heat generated from all sources during an individual’s professional life. Heat can be measured in terms of the volume of hot air they have generated or the heat that results from friction. Friction can result from unnecessarily confrontational rhetoric. It may also be generated by the way an individual conducts themselves with junior colleagues or with people whose interpretations differ from their own. Brow-beating, deliberate intellectual intimidation and unnecessarily aggressive referee’s reports are particularly potent sources of frictional heat with respect to the H2L. Deliberately seeking out the limelight is also a potential source of heat generation (note to self: blogging is probably by its nature a heat-generating activity).

The denominator is the sum of the units of light an individual has shed during their career. Under the terms of the H2L, light can come from a variety of sources. It can come from the generation of new data, from offering new insights about existing data or simply by offering quiet encouragement to others at critical stages in their career. Under the rules of the H2L Index, every unit of reflected light counts exactly twice that generated by the same amount of direct light.

As you might have guessed the aim should be to generate as low an H2L Index value has possible; very little heat and a great deal of illumination is what we should all be aiming for. The H2L Index is particularly useful because time is the same in the numerator and the denominator, so the index can be used to compare individuals at very different stages in their career.

Here are some examples of individuals in our field with very low scores.

One of the lowest scores thus far was recorded by Morris Goodman. This much-missed individual did more that any other to resolve Man’s place in nature yet he generated almost no heat during a professional career that lasted more than 50 years.

Three other low-scorers that come to mind are Richard (Dick) Hay, C.K. (Bob) Brain and Glynn Isaac. Dick Hay managed to work away under the radar on the geology of Olduvai Gorge and in doing so established much of the interpretative framework that is used at fossil sites elsewhere. Likewise, Bob Brain’s sustained work at Swartkrans helped develop our understanding of the complex geology of the southern African cave sites and his actualistic studies did much to make taphonomy what it is today. Glynn Isaac was as much an evolutionary biologist as an archeologist and he did more than anyone during his tragically foreshortened career to make archeology a tool to understand the evolution of human behavior rather than an end in itself. Yet in spite of their considerable achievements, all three generated little or no heat. Many will vouch for their intellectual generosity and thankfully Bob Brain’s benign influence can still be felt in person.

I have reached my self-imposed word limit so I am unable to give several examples of H2L scores of >80, but maybe you now know enough about this revealing index to make your own list. It is never too late to adjust behavior, but for my generation is too late to influence our index score in any meaningful way. But those at the beginning of their careers can.