Sunday, February 24, 2013

Where have all the geniuses gone?

Nernst, Einstein, Planck, Millikan and Laue in 1931. From Wikimedia commons.

Is scientific genius gone for good? No more Darwin or Einstein on the horizon? That’s the intriguing and slightly provocative question recently raised by UC Davis psychologist Dean Keith Simonton in the comment section of the journal Nature. Simonton has extensively written on the topic of science creativity in books and articles, and here’s how he sums up the problematic:

“Geniuses have played a decisive part in science in two main ways. First, they have founded new scientific disciplines […]. Second, geniuses have revolutionized established disciplines. […] Yet, in my view, neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists.”

Simonton seems to trace back the last genius to Einstein. After him, a door was closed... For a century, suggests Simonton, no real new discipline has emerged. He writes:

“Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge. […] Natural sciences have become so big, and the knowledge base so complex and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors.”

Simonton, however, provides us with a few disclaimers. Scientific progress is not at an end, he says. Knowledge will continue to increase. But progress will be made of smaller and smaller increments, just as today’s athletes break records by thousandths of a second. Simonton also refuses the possibility that modern scientists are less clever than their colleagues from the past. In other words, the source of the change is not to be found in the people, but in the whole scientific frame of our era. Simonton concludes:

“I am not asserting that brilliant scientists can no longer attempt to introduce new paradigms, or even to devise original disciplines. It is just that such innovations seem less likely to catch on.”

So, what to do with Simonton’s claims? No more new scientific disciplines, no more revolutionary ideas to turn our knowledge upside down, really? Simonton is right to say that the emergence of new discipline is less and less likely to happen. This is because scientific discovery does not operate in the void, but rather lies on the accumulated knowledge: after three centuries of modern science, we have made a lot of progress, and the unknown is shrinking. This is, of course, good news, even if it means less striking discoveries in the future. 

I’d argue, however, that in his analysis of the past century Simonton is oblivious of at least one new major discipline: molecular biology. According to Simonton this wouldn’t count as a bona fide new discipline, since you can decompose it into preexisting disciplines (say, biology, chemistry and physics). But this analysis considerably plays down the revolutionary impact of molecular biology on our understanding of life, including its crucial philosophical consequences (these discoveries, initiated more than fifty years ago, were an almost fatal blow to the doctrine of vitalism). 

In addition, I’d argue that the researchers who led this revolution (for instance Watson & Crick, Monod & Jacob) were geniuses in their own right! Closer to us, the application of molecular biology (under the form of DNA sequences) to evolutionary biology by Carl Woese has led another scientific revolution, even though its impact still lacks a true recognition by the public. So I think that, in his analysis of the recent past, Simonton is a little too prompt at deeming some advances as non-revolutionary.

Now what about what lies ahead of us? “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, as Niels Bohr said (or maybe it was Yogi Berra?). Simonton is quite aware of that, and he wittily concludes his piece: “It takes only one new scientific genius to prove me wrong.” Actually, many comments on the Nature website pointed this weakness out. On that topic I’d like to quote another scientific genius, François Jacob, from his very nice book “Of flies, mice and men” (1998), p. 12:

“Yet science is also unpredictable. Research is an endless process; we can never say how it will evolve. Unpredictability is part of the very nature of the scientific enterprise. If what we are going to find out is truly new, then it is by definition something we cannot know in advance. There is no way to say where a given field of research will lead. This is why we cannot choose certain aspects of science and reject others.”

This said, I think Simonton is right to emphasize that today’s science is different from that of Einstein at the beginning of the twentieth century. We live in the era of ‘Big Science’, which favors large science projects that have carefully planned timetables and outputs (the Large Hadron Collider is a paramount example). In this type of projects, little is left to unknown and risky fields. Most national research agencies, however, are aware of this and fortunately still provide funding for more exploratory science. So I agree that the situation is unique to our time. Nevertheless, I’m tempted to say that science at any time is different from the science of the past. Look for instance at what Bertrand Russell wrote in his essential book “The Scientific Outlook” (1931), p. 38:

“The rate of progress in science nowadays is much too great for such works as Newton’s Principia, or Darwin’s Origin of Species. Before such a book could be completed, it would be out of date. In many ways this is regrettable, for the great books of the past possessed a certain beauty and magnificence which is absent from the fugitive papers of our time, but it is an inevitable consequence of the rapid increase of knowledge, and must therefore be accepted philosophically.”

In that sense, Einstein (Russell’s contemporary) was a very different genius from the likes of Darwin or Newton. For this reason, we should not wait for a new Einstein to come, but rather look forward to someone, or something, radically different.


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