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Is the age of scientific genius over?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Stock photo of Einstein (Wikipedia Commons)

There’s a short rumination in this week’s Nature in which Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist from the University of California, Davis asks a question that often surfaces: Is the age of scientific genius over? Will we see another Einstein, Darwin or Newton or is the idea of the lone genius assiduously scribbling at his desk and making a breakthrough a relic of the past?

There’s really two issues at stake here; one is whether geniuses still exist and the second is whether, even if they do, whether they can make the kind of discoveries that were the hallmark of the last five centuries of groundbreaking science. It seems easier to agree on the second count, at least in some contexts. Some things can be done only once. Physics is a good example. For instance nobody thinks that we will have fundamental advances in atomic physics of the kind that marked the discoveries of the proton, neutron and electron. The discovery of the expanding universe, the cosmic microwave background radiation and superconductivity are also one-time events that aren’t happening again. The same applies to other disciplines; evolution by natural selection can be discovered only once, so can the fact that chemical bonds form by the sharing of electrons.

Simonton argues against the future existence of geniuses by recourse to two things; discipline creation and revolution, both of which he thinks will be increasingly scarce in the future. On the first count, he may be right when he says that no new basic disciplines are probably going to be founded in the coming few decades. Most of the research that took place in the last few decades was an offshoot of the basic disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. This is true even if the latter half of the twentieth century was a phenomenal time for scientific development. In the future we will continue to see interdisciplinary hybrids of these fields. Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, biophysics and neuroscience will continue to make great advances, but none of them will constitute the invention of a new fundamental field.

The second point made in the piece is that new revolutions even in existing fields may be scarce. To some extent he is right; much of the work done even in the arguably revolutionary field of genomics, including the human genome project, has been the extension of existing knowledge to create new domains of application rather than the wholesale creation of new paradigms. And speaking of paradigms, Simonton also talks about Thomas Kuhn. One of Kuhn’s central thesis was that new paradigms are created when existing ones enter a crisis. Quantum theory was created when blackbody radiation and other atomic anomalies posed a challenge to existing theories. Relativity was created when discrepancies like the error in the perihelion of mercury revealed gaps in Newtonian physics.

Simonton thinks that – with the exception of physics – we don’t face crisis in current science that would trigger new revolutions. With this I tend to disagree, partly because as I mentioned in a recent post, revolutions can be Galisonian as well as Kuhnian. But more importantly I think this line of thinking ignores the hierarchy of scientific phenomena. Biology and especially neuroscience are good examples. We now know what the different components of the brain are and we have a fair idea of their interconnections but we have no overriding theory that provides an integrated view of the various hierarchical levels of the brain, from neurons to modules to those parts of the brain that interface with the outside world. Part of what Simonton is missing in my opinion is the existence of emergent phenomena. We may have understood biology at a molecular level by way of chemistry, and we may have understood physics at the atomic level, but we still don’t understand how these levels relate to each other. The noted biologist Sydney Brenner has said that the next revolution will occur when we have a unified theory of biology that connects the molecular workings of the cell through the workings of collections of cells and organ systems all the way to the workings of human behavior, and I agree with him. The revolution after that might connect biology to social sciences like psychology. Where I tend to disagree with Simonton is in thinking that revolutions can occur only at fundamental levels. I think that science keeps building up, and when it gets to a stage when it understands one level of the workings of the natural world, the time is ripe for a revolution that connects that particular level to all the others. It’s a revolution even if it doesn’t discover something that’s all the way down.

What about the principal question posed by the essay? Even assuming that there are revolutions to be made, what’s the possibility that they will be made by single individuals? This is the well-known “low hanging fruit” theory, with the added axiom that low hanging fruit can be plucked by lone individuals. Simonton is not discounting intellect here; in fact he says that today’s scientists are probably smarter than older scientists by the time they get into serious research. There’s also no doubt that discoveries were made much more cheaply in the past, and for that reason alone they could be harder for single individuals.

It’s far easier to see that lone scientists will find it increasingly harder to make discoveries in experimental fields. We are almost certainly past the romantic age when lawyers, clergymen, tax officials and doctors could tinker around in their laboratories in their spare time to discover the inner workings of life and matter. The sheer cost and scope of implementing projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the Human Genome Project is such that it’s beyond the scope of individuals, no matter how smart they are. So I think that Simonton’s main premise may sadly be true. In theoretical fields the question is more ambiguous in my opinion. A brilliant individual possessing all the knowledge uncovered by a massive experimental collaboration could still put the pieces of the puzzle together and come up with a new, revolutionary explanation. In fact one might argue that Darwin did something similar.

More importantly though, while individual genius may be scarce, collective genius may still thrive, and in fact the evidence indicates that it does. When it comes to collective intelligence, projects like FoldIt and others documented in Michael Nielsen’s “Reinventing Science” are clearly demonstrating that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Collective intelligence as applied to hard scientific problems is still a new development but it shows much promise in fields ranging from astronomy to biology. We should not underestimate the value of this kind of genius even as we may be acknowledging the scarcity of individual genius. Because when it comes to making new, revolutionary discoveries, human beings constitute as much emergence as the different hierarchical levels of science described above. Individual genius may be past its prime, but the wisdom of crowds is alive and well.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. David Marjanović 9:07 am 02/4/2013

    There’s really two issues at stake here; one is whether geniuses still exist and the second is whether, even if they do, whether they can make the kind of discoveries that were the hallmark of the last five centuries of groundbreaking science.

    As you go on to explain near the end of your post, there’s a third issue: whether geniuses are likely to publish alone, as opposed to sharing their Nobel Prize with 5 or 10 or 50 coauthors.

    A brilliant individual possessing all the knowledge uncovered by a massive experimental collaboration could still put the pieces of the puzzle together and come up with a new, revolutionary explanation. In fact one might argue that Darwin did something similar.

    I agree, and I think this still occasionally happens – at smaller scales – in fields like theoretical physics or historical linguistics, where knowledge, brainpower and time are all you really need. At the other end there are the LHC, the IPCC, and every single genome sequencing ever.

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  2. 2. oghaki 10:20 am 02/4/2013

    “We are almost certainly past the romantic age when lawyers, clergymen, tax officials and doctors could tinker around in their laboratories in their spare time to discover the inner workings of life and matter.”

    I think it is worth noting that a lot of these men were not hobbyists but polymaths (e.g. Kant, Newton, Gauss, Leibniz, Russell, Poincare, or Hilbert). I believe their insight came from their broad and varied interests, not in spite of them. Today, having a strong background in multiple fields is becoming much less common, and I feel like this is the product of modern academia pushing students into specialization. It is rare to meet a contemporary scientist with a background in number theory or logic, and especially rare to meet one with a background in philosophy. This is especially apparent when, rather than discussing the subject matter within his field of study, he discusses the implications, significance, or meaning of his field of study. Also, it is common to see a failure to appreciate the inductive nature of scientific results. Compare Whitehead’s treatment of this in ‘Science and the Modern World’ with Dawkin’s arguments in ‘The God Delusion’. When talking ABOUT a field of science, he is no longer practicing within that science, but entering the realm of natural philosophy.

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  3. 3. rloldershaw 11:30 am 02/4/2013

    I think an important question is: if someone discovered a new way of understanding nature, would main stream physicists pay any attention, or would they ignore the discovery because they are too heavily invested in the status quo?

    Another important question is: given the glut of quack theories (coming from both inside and outside academia), would the new paradigm be distinguishable from the rubbish, given that new ideas always sound weird?

    I think some major empirical development, like the discovery of the true nature of the dark matter, will be required for meaningful change. Only the theory that correctly predicts the true nature of the dark matter will be left standing (if physics is still an honest game).

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

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  4. 4. rshoff 12:45 pm 02/4/2013

    Ugh. “Does genius really exist?” Of course it does! Unfortunately, individuals in our consumer driven society are not only rewarded for consumption but required to participate for survival. As a consequence, any genius is redirected from the maths and sciences to crap like celebrity and wealth. Consumerism and the societal decay that it brings is the undoing of the exploration of science.

    From a more politically correct perspective, I think things are getting too complex for a single person do demonstrate ‘genius’ to the extent that people like Einstein were able to. I would look for genius today in teams and shared knowledge.

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  5. 5. curiouswavefunction 3:28 pm 02/4/2013

    oghaki: I agree with the emphasis on broad and varied interests that you pointed out, and in fact this could be a topic for a separate post. What’s interesting is that today’s scientists are ostensibly quite broadly educated since a lot of their research is highly interdisciplinary. But in a strange sense they are still highly specialized since they are bringing narrow technical expertise to bear on a problem. What you need is an expansive, almost fuzzy kind of thinking that draws on general principles and questions from various disciplines, and that seems to be missing.

    roldershaw: I think you have a good point. A lot of new discoveries in physics may seem alien to older practitioners who are grounded in a strictly reductionist mindset. Of course that happens all the time when a new and startling discovery is made, but I do agree that we need to be vigilant for out of the box thinking and developments.

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  6. 6. rloldershaw 11:33 pm 02/4/2013


    So if a theory presented in scores of papers published in scientific journals could offer the following, you might think it would at least be “on the radar screen”.

    Think again!

    1. Natural Planck mass ( ~ 0.7 times the proton mass); Planck scale M, L and T are all closely associated with the proton.

    2. Resolution of the vacuum energy density crisis.

    3. Explains enigmatic physical meaning of the fine structure constant.

    4. Explains physical meaning of Planck’s constant – its numerical value and physics.

    5. Definitive predictions for the dark matter mass spectrum: planetary-mass and stellar-mass ultracompact objects like quasi-singularities, black holes and neutron stars.

    6. Offers a promising path to the unification of GR and QM.

    7. Retrodicts masses of baryons, leptons and mesons at the >99% level.

    8.Successfully predicted pulsar-planets systems before their discovery.

    9. Successfully predicted the exoplanet abundance anomaly for the lowest mass red dwarf stars.

    10. Successfully predicted the peak mass of the exoplanet mass spectrum.

    11. Successfully predicted billions of unbound planetary-mass “nomad” objects in MWG.

    12. Makes over 35 successful retrodictions of fundamental physical parameters for systems ranging from subatomic particles to atoms, to stars, and to galaxies.

    All this has been completely ignored by physicists and the media for 35 years! They are too busy with trendy rubbish like string theory, supersymmetry, multiverse fantasies, etc. Nature has shown its opinion of their hermetic complexities at the LHC. But that has done little to open their minds to entirely new ways of thinking about the geometry and dynamics of nature.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

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  7. 7. dadster 4:27 am 02/5/2013

    Science has the same beginning as man . But in the last four hundred years it has tremendous growth. But 400 years is a small time period . We have hardly touched upon even a small , very small portion of the ways in which nature works . Unfortunately for us , we think even now we know too much ,if not,started thinking that we know everythingnthat there is to know .

    We feel that there are only the three fields of science viz, physics, chemistry and, biology and that everythingnthat we know and going to now in science can be fitted within the limits of these disciplines is known on philodhy as ” hubris” .

    The current scientists in these fields try to channelized research grants into thrill respective field of interest .and, they squash any otter field coming up! Particle physicists , for example, want to explain the whole of cosmos in terms of digitalized, discretized , discontinuities only. Even the inherent properties of space-time continuum, like gravity , they try to discretize as gravitons. The limited success they obtained by digitalizing continuous waves of light as photons encouraged them more .

    But they met their Waterloo when particles cannot superimpose themselves one over the other as waves do to create new effects like ” quantum entanglement” , dark energy which cannot be explained by particle science.

    Then they try to relegate “bio-life” as an emergent phenomena , emergent from the effects of particle physics, although try however they might, to create a living cell in the lab from raw inorganic chemicals, notwithstanding the fact that nature produces life so prolifically every second without much ado.How does nature do that and why is man not able to do that yet ?

    We have to a long long way to learn something abbot nature .human problem is that webare not happy enjoying nature’s lavish spread , rich food- laden table , man wants to know how it’s all cooked ,too.

    Explanations , man was always after. That purpose was served by myths, quacks, witches and druids . Then came organized religion to explain how things worked . Everything worled as GOD willed perfectly. Then came rationale thought , called philosophy that asked questions and tried to answer .

    Rational thought gave place to science where events and phenomena were observed and measured with appropriate units of measurements assigned Physical science consumed everything . It’s raging even now.

    But quantum science started encountering entities that cannot be measured. Nor fen proper units of measurement assigned example, quantum entanglements, advance or pilot waves,and , units of bio- life. Questioned even what i
    objective measurement was and was forced to come up with the fat that there are none; all measurements are subjective and the ” intention” of the observer plays the most dominant roll.

    With all these findings, the field of causative science is slowly giving away concepts of classical science like,( a) energy cannot be detroued nor condumed
    The” future can influence and shape the present”. Now what do you call that thought process that has arrived to replace science as wknow it today?

    Quantum energies in quantum vacuum can create and destroy energies . Even whole universes like that of ours can spontaneously ( ie, without having to have any cause or reason ) pop at random out of nothingness . New mathematics or something like that might have to be invented to express precisely what relationships these quantum entities from the regions of probability shape the macro universe of comapritive stability and certainties. The rest of the energies that cannot be fitted in our universe might have to be given existence in many other equally probable worlds .

    Such non- material world popping out of hard core material world itself is a fact of science .the new path of way to nature is yet to be given a name . In mediveal times the word chemistry wasn’t existing ( say. When alchemy was raging ) ; the word Astronomy wasn’t existing when astrology was ruling the roost .

    So, to hold the view that humans are stuck with physics , chemistry and biology without a way out of these limitations would be too presumptuous .

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  8. 8. bongobimbo 8:34 am 02/5/2013

    This is worth not much more than a smile. The article reminded me of the scientist (can’t recall whom) in the 19th century who, after the laws of Thermodynamics were determined, wrote sadly that all important scientific knowledge was already known, and they might as well close up shop! About the same time a mathematician proved that heavier-than-air flight could never succeed! My point is that we can’t know anything about important new departures still to be made, since they haven’t been made. The future is always ruled by bifurcations and is a tabula rasa of constant surprises–which is why I’m glad I’ve been alive. I’ve been reading sci-fi for 60+ years and it’s a standing joke that while a few predictions were made that have come to pass, many other predictions, like personal time travel, teleportation and private airplanes in every suburban garage, have not. Almost no writer foresaw many that have become common, or if someone did, s/he envisioned it in the 23rd century, like cell phones on Star Trek! The fun is to try to predict what we can. Biological evolution was foreseen as early as the 9th century AD (John Scotus Eriugena) and certainly by the early 19th century (Erasmus Darwin, Walt Whitman) and Charles Darwin & Alfred Wallace stood on the shoulders of others. I give Octavia Butler honors for writing a novel in the early 90s predicting the social and economic destruction of U.S. from global climate change (PARABLE OF THE SOWER and its sequel). Others might have, but nobody else realized how important is was. If fusion power can be achieved it will require several revolutions in applied science, and will change our lives. Read this article again, and smile. Or giggle.

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  9. 9. Wynn Ray 10:26 am 02/5/2013

    good article except: Plasmonics and optical computing (not to be confused with digital computers)

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  10. 10. peter jackson 8:24 am 02/8/2013

    I believe the real cause has been missed.
    In the current age of information overload peer reviewed journals now no longer accept papers from individuals, who invariably are not in academia or affiliated.
    I believe the individual genius is still clearly out there, unfortunately the system itself has now removed the opportunity for it to flower.

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