Monday, March 5, 2012

Where Have All the Scientists Gone?

This post will be a little less rigorously founded than some of my others (partially because I lack the time at the moment to do the sort of rigorous study necessary for a more well-sourced post), but I think the subject matter can readily be seen. A classmate in the class for which I initiated this blog wrote last week about the conspicuous absence of big-name scientists today. She cited examples from biology and medicine like Pasteur and Salk, as well as Einstein from the field of physics. She then pointed out that there don't seem to be many parallels to these names today. Essentially, she discusses how lamentable it is that today's scientists are not in the public eye like those of the past, and she suggests that the attention of the public has turned away and that this is the main cause of the lack of focus on scientists in the media.

I have been aware of this lack of attention myself, and I have wondered about the cause. I'm afraid I must break with my classmate and suggest an alternative view of the situation. In the process I believe that it will be possible to abstract from it a more general rule about success in our society: our current culture discourages individual advancement in favor of group achievement.

If you take a look at the past winners of the Nobel Prize, it has much more often been awarded to groups than to individuals recently than it was in the early years of the prize. While in some fields individual names still pop up, there hasn't been a single individual winner of the prize in physics since 1992. This suggests that major scientific advances are more likely to arise from collaboration today than they have in the past. As a student of physics, I have observed some research  first- and second-hand and I state that this is apparent.

It may be the case that collaboration more often occurs because the science has become largely too difficult for an individual to work alone. One cannot observe the structure of a distant galaxy the way Kepler observed the structure of the Solar System, nor can one observe the behavior of a beta particle the way Newton observed the behavior of a projectile. New ingenuity is required to confront these challenges and it is rare that someone can put every piece of a complicated puzzle together without help.

Such isn't to say, however, that no scientist could work alone today. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that no scientist ought to when there is the easier path of collaboration. Were scientists doing it wrong before? At times, perhaps, but more likely they were encountering situations in which the individual mind was enough. Simpler problems may be better left to a single mind. With the more complex problems we hear of today, more brainstorming and new perspectives are needed to best advance humanity's collective knowledge. Hence, the most efficient route becomes group work.

Before breaking away from science I will acknowledge that there are other reasons why public attention has turned away from individual scientists, but one must admit that when many groups of three or more people are publishing new (and very minor) results that collectively become a major advancement of knowledge, it's no wonder that no single person's name is specifically mentioned. The few names we do hear these days are not so much even those who are known for advance science but those who are known for publicizing it (Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Michio Kaku, to name a few from my field).

So I believe that the days of the scientific hero are gone. Einsteins we ought not to expect to see in our age, simply because the community as a whole advances better if the individual contributes a small part rather than the whole. This is a compelling argument for open science.

Now, look at the world outside of science. I wrote earlier this year about the effect of saturation of the blogosphere, or in other words, what happens when everyone on the internet is publishing content. The conclusion was that an individual voice becomes lost in the whirlwind of information that the internet has become. However, I didn't point out that some voices are heard. Somehow, large movements and events can still take shape, but they differ from what may have been seen in the past. Remember the SOPA blackout? Can you name the single name behind that movement? I can think of groups, but not individuals.

Wikipedia is edited by hosts of users, not a single person. Ideas swirl and take shape in online forums in such a way that the originator of the idea may have done nothing other than state an opinion. I would certainly like to see more substantial proof of this claim, but it seems fairly clear that the individual cannot work alone to advance a cause or idea on the internet. That is the realm of groups, communities, and forums.

These are simply the musings of my mind on the subject, and you might agree that more proof and consideration of counterexamples is necessary. Whatever the case, I believe that the assertions I have made have at least some truth to them.

Now is it a bad thing that you can't be the next Einstein? That all depends, particularly on what standards define what is good. If you are bummed about not getting famous over science or anything else, however, I'll let you know this: Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, Salk – All these men did science for science. They didn't do it to be well known. If you want to excel in your field, excellence is determined by the quality of your work, not by how many people know your name.

No comments:

Post a Comment