The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Are physicists individualists or collectivists?


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.

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

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