Future discoveries are more likely to be made by
scientists sharing ideas than a lone genius, writes Athene
Donald, for The Observer.
The Large Hadron Collider is an example of a collaborative
effort and scientific advance on a giant scale. Photo
It's a brave man who claims ''genius in science has become
extinct''. But that's exactly what psychologist Dean Keith
Simonton declared in a recent issue of Nature magazine.
By this, he meant that neither the creation of a totally new
discipline nor a revolution in scientific thought was likely
to be forthcoming as the result of the work of a future lone
If such radical developments were to occur, they would emerge
from the work of large teams, he argued. Thus the world was
unlikely to produce a further Newton, Einstein or Darwin and
he saw this as a tragic failing.
I tend to agree with his analysis of how discoveries will be
made, with the possible exception of purely theoretical
challenges: think of Andrew Wiles and his proof of Fermat's
last theorem as one exception that proves the rule.
But for experimental sciences, a lone researcher transforming
the world is harder to imagine. No individual can sit down at
a bench and nail down the existence of the Higgs boson; the
Large Hadron Collider is needed with its concomitant
community of researchers.
Even the theory predicting the existence of the Higgs boson
was not done solely by Peter Higgs. Although his alone was
the name attached to the putative particle, several others
had similar ideas at around the same time.
But does this matter? I don't think it does. The heroic
genius was always something of a myth, convenient shorthand
to make it easier to make a narrative out of the act of
discovery; an exciting tale, but not a very accurate
depiction of how science and scientists operate.
Newton wrote: ''If I have seen a little further it is by
standing on the shoulders of giants'', recognising that his
discoveries did not come about in isolation. Why should
discovery need to be the work of a single mind to make it
It will be just as important whether it is the product of one
brain or one thousand.
Concentrating on the brilliance of an individual is to
falsify the nature of most scientific research and mislead
the aspiring scientist as to how discoveries are usually
Why should it be attractive to the young to believe they need
to be solitary workers - the white-coated, wild-haired boffin
of too many films - if they are to succeed?
Some scientists might fit that picture, but far fewer than
you'd believe from their media portrayals and it's an image
likely to be off-putting to many.
Science progresses because people become expert in what is
already known and then debate, argue, try something out and
then something else when the first doesn't fit.
It progresses because people rejector refine hypotheses as
they learn about colleagues' and rivals' work and because
people both share ideas and compete. Out of such endeavours
novel ideas emerge and new fields develop.
Perhaps there will be more geniuses in the future, perhaps
not. Science will always attract people with astonishing
minds. But these will never be as important as the broader
social structures of science, let alone as important as they
think they are.
Fundamentally, what matters is that, as a society, we
continue to push at the boundaries of scientific knowledge in
whatever way is appropriate for the challenge in hand. -
Guardian News & Media
Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the
University of Cambridge.