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Are physicists individualists or collectivists?

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

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Richard Feynman was probably one of the very few true individualists in the history of physics (Image: Telegraph)

Ricardo Heras has a well-written and thought provoking essay in Physics Today in which he asks whether physicists should be individualists or collectivists. He draws from the history of science and largely concludes that individualism is necessary for bold, creative ideas. In response Chad Orzel points out that many of the individualistic physicists that Ricardo noted were actually collectivists to some degree, even though the nature of their collaborations has not been well acknowledged.

I prefer to tread a middle path in looking at these possibilities. There is no doubt that individualism – best exemplified by Feynman and Dirac in physics – can lead one to novel insights. But there’s no dearth of cases where it has also led to misleading ideas, even ones which are regarded as downright loopy. A good example is that of amateur physicist Jim Carter whose quest for an alternative fundamental theory of physics has been documented by Margaret Wertheim in her book “Physics on the Fringe“. Another individualist was Ernst Mach who refused to believe in the reality of atoms until his death. There is no doubt that many great physicists succeeded from their individualistic and independent attitude in physics, but it’s also true that we tend to register hits much more than misses when it comes to attributing success in science to specific traits.

The other thing to keep in mind is the distinction between theorists and experimentalists. All of the physicists pointed out by Ricardo as individualists - except the reliable outlier Fermi - are dyed-in-the-wool theorists. It is obvious that since the only equipment necessary for a theoretical breakthrough is pen and paper (and these days perhaps a computer), lone theorists are much more likely to be individualists compared to lone experimentalists. However this also depends on the period and on whether a science is young or old. For instance if we go back two hundred or three hundred years we find scientists like Cavendish, Priestley and Faraday who were spectacularly successful individualistic experimenters. They could succeed in this endeavor because their science was young and even a lone experimentalist could perform the cheap and relatively easy (although highly skillful) experiments necessary for breakthroughs like finding the value of the gravitational constant or demonstrating electromagnetic induction. The same trend applies to nuclear physics and its successor, particle physics. At the turn of the nineteenth century a lone J. J. Thompson could discover the electron; at the turn of the twentieth it took a team of thousands to discover the Higgs boson.

When a science is young and cheap it is easy for both experimental and theoretical scientists to be individualists. As a science becomes complex it is much more important for both groups to remain tightly coupled. There are still opportunities for individualistic experimenters in new fields of physics; a noteworthy example is the discovery of graphene which was carried out cheaply by mainly two scientists using scotch tape. And I am hopeful that individualism in experiment will prevail for a long time in the fledgling fields of biology and neuroscience.

Do I agree with Ricardo’s thesis that collectivism can squelch bold creativity? To some extent, but it need not be so. In the era of Big Science the trick is to start with the collectivism necessary to get important scientific projects off the ground but then encourage individualism throughout the course of the projects. The Manhattan Project which might be regarded as an exemplar of collectivism provides an unusual example. It was the ultimate centralized and bureaucratic endeavor, a system under tight control by the military whose success would have been impossible without the input of thousands of scientists and other personnel. Yet Robert Oppenheimer who was the director of the project gave his scientists considerable freedom to initiate and pursue their independent ideas. Perhaps the most important scientific idea about the bomb – that of implosion – came from a few individuals who Oppenheimer encouraged to pursue their own little side projects and tread the path less traveled. Oppenheimer’s ability to get the best out of individualistic thinkers while still keeping the project on a unified collective front was what was responsible for making it a remarkable success. Today’s science administrators could learn a thing or two from his flexible blend of individualism and collectivism.

Will the twenty-first century be the century of individualists or collectivists? I am not saying that I can predict which breed of scientist will be dominant; what I am saying is that the history of physics proves that both individualists and collectivists are important for the growth of science. As I mentioned earlier, individualists still have a lot of opportunities in new fields of physics like materials science and biophysics where the low hanging fruit can still be cheaply picked by lone explorers. In addition small teams like the one that discovered graphene can chart a middle ground; they can preserve independent streaks of individualism while consolidating resources which enable collectivism. The trend toward Big Science projects in areas like particle physics and astrophysics certainly seems to demand more collectivists, and yet it should not be forgotten that there will always be gems of ideas scattered among the minds of the individualists comprising this collective exercise. It is only by identifying and extracting these nuggets that we can nurture the flights of innovation that Ricardo cherishes.

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. M Tucker 5:43 pm 11/1/2013

    This is a fun discussion. I think it is necessary to look for the origination of that “spark of a new idea” and keep that separate from the resultant work, theory or fabrication of a new device that proves or illustrates that idea is valid.

    Nuclear chain reaction to atomic bomb and quantum nature of energy to quantum theory, lasers, masers and transistors are just two examples. The history of science is full of them.

    The laser/maser story is a fun one. Einstein’s 1917 paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation” to Bohr and Rabi claiming it couldn’t work because it violated Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for three intrepid researchers who wouldn’t be dissuaded by the ravings of the forefathers of quantum theory.

    In science I think it is always possible to discover a previous influence to a unique and revolutionary idea if the researcher is persistent. Einstein celebrated those who influenced him so that he was able to arrive at unique new ideas. On his wall in Princeton he had pictures of Newton, Faraday and Maxwell.

    I am not too bothered by multiple authors on papers. I do not think that represents a lack of individual thinking. As for being dependent on teachers and advisors, well, even Einstein had them too. What is an advisor to do if not offer advice? Is it possible for a PhD candidate’s paper to have more than one author?

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  2. 2. David Cummings 6:32 pm 11/1/2013

    If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. — Newton

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  3. 3. rouvakim 11:41 pm 11/1/2013

    Thanks for a nice post! I would like to remind that there is still a plenty of room for individualists in physics. Gravity, Dark Matter, Dark Energy, usage of antimatter and even Standard Model need individualists who give new insight and broaden our knowledge.

    Problem today is serious group thinking. Every major scientific platform (like String Theory) ignores outside thinking no matter how beneficial it would be. Sad but true.

    Yep, I’m individualist ;-)

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  4. 4. Venze Chern 11:04 pm 11/3/2013

    100 billion galaxies, each consists of 100 billion stars and many more planets, the result must be a mind blowing number. It would be most difficult to imagine all these come from the Big Bang singularity.
    Big Bang would have happened, but there might be countless similar ones. The universe could have existed long in the infinite past before the Big Bang, permeated with dark energy, with infinite space. Big Bangs occurred at different corners of the universe and different epochs billions of years apart and tens of billions of years ago, triggering the transformations of part of dark energy everywhere to visible matters that then coagulated to form stars and galaxies.
    As methods of detecting and observing distant galaxies get better, more galaxies are found (visible or otherwise), moving further and further away into the infinite darkness of space. The universe seems to expand into itself.
    Dark energy is there in space, it was, and it shall always be. (tanboontee, vzc1943)

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 6:35 am 11/4/2013

    I think it’s interesting that the global population 100 years ago was less that 2 billion people, while no there are 7 going on 10. While I have no data on the subject, I suspect that the number of people publishing papers in scientific journals now, compared to 100 years ago, has increased exponentially, not to mention those who have degrees in fields of science who are not professionally engaged.
    In this environment, it seems implausible that more than a tiny few could successfully work independent of large, competitively funded science institutions and private companies who direct their employees’ work. Those that do may find it impossible to gain appropriate recognition for their contributions.
    Meanwhile, my favorite scientific pet peeve – dark matter, is essentially protected by the enormous institutionalized professional investment in its existence. Briefly, its establishment was justified decades ago by its inference from galaxy rotation analyses that merely presumed that (independent) orbital velocities should diminish as a function of their radial distance from a collective center of gravitational potential – just like planetary systems. The simple consideration that hundreds of billions of disk stars (and other local masses) gravitationally interact over distances spanning more than 100,000 light years, invalidating implicitly centralized gravitational evaluations, is only allowed by scientific journals when very quietly hinted…
    Spiral galaxies are not concentric spherical shells of stars – but they can be considered as such when enveloped by a dominating elliptical cloud of imaginary matter… I’m merely a retired information systems analyst, but please see my brief, informal essay and, more importantly its references: “Inappropriate Application of Kepler’s Empirical Laws of Planetary Motion to Spiral Galaxies…”

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  6. 6. rkipling 3:04 pm 11/4/2013


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  7. 7. Satya Narayan Tiwary 6:14 am 11/5/2013

    I am an individualist but sometimes I feel it would be better to be collectivist. Seminal idea comes from individualism.
    S. N. Tiwary
    Former-Head, Dean, Acting VC.

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