A recent meme in the intellectual blogosphere is The Great Stagnation: that we are in a period of falling innovation and the world is suffering as a consequence. People love to ask, why is it so hard to be truly innovative? And now Nature is getting in on the action!
I have devoted more than three decades to studying scientific genius, the highest level of scientific creativity. The creative scientist contributes ideas that are original and useful. The scientific genius, however, offers ideas that are original, useful and surprising. Such momentous leaps — be they theories, discoveries or inventions — are not just extensions of already-established, domain-specific expertise: the scientific genius conceives of a novel expertise.
…Geniuses have played a decisive part in science in two main ways. First, they have founded new scientific disciplines, such as Galileo’s creation of telescopic astronomy. Second, geniuses have revolutionized established disciplines. Charles Darwin, for instance, proposed that species evolve by natural selection at a time when many biologists believed that life forms were fixed from the moment of Biblical creation.
…Yet, in my view, neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists…The days when a doctoral student could be the sole author of four revolutionary papers while working full time as an assistant examiner at a patent office — as Einstein did in 1905 — are probably long gone. Natural sciences have become so big, and the knowledge base so complex and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors.
Can we all see how many things are just bafflingly wrong about this? Let’s get the Einstein scapegoat out of the way first. Einstein was a theoretical physicist. This meant the entire resources required of him were pen, paper, and mind. He never did an experiment in his life (okay, he kind of did one); why would he need to work in a large, well-funded collaborative team? The “cutting-edge work” that happens in these teams is experimental in origin and gives rise to data. Fortunately, there are still theoreticians whiling away their hours to create theoretical frameworks for that data (even in biology)! The capital equipment required for contemporary numerical simulations is relatively cheap and getting cheaper. Even the cheapest computer these days is mind-bogglingly powerful, and if you need it access to a cluster or cloud can be cheaply subcontracted out to Amazon. I’m sure we can list the geniuses that came after Einstein: Feynman and Hawking in physics, surely, and I’d count Hodgkin and Huxley in neuroscience for sure. Do Turing and Von Neumann count? I’m guessing every field has their geniuses that get passed by unnoticed by the rest of us.
And then we have geniuses like Darwin. How do we compare him to someone like the cruelly-neglected Alfred Russel Wallace? Ideas come in bursts because the world is prepared for them. Inventions like the telegraph and radio were invented simultaneously across the world. Much of relativity was presaged by the work of Poincare.
The problem is not that geniuses don’t exist, it’s that revolutionary ideas are taken in, repackaged, and improved upon with unprecedented speed. Channelrhodopsin was invented just years ago, and now it’s almost a standard technique; the idea has been extended to thermal activation of neurons in flies, and the world is ready to move on to the next big thing (clarity?). Revolution has been forgotten as revolutionary, genius left behind in a trail of papers.