Alexander wept and science triumphed
-Hans Gruber, Die Hard (1988) (Yes, really.)
This recent editorial in Nature (subscription required) complains that truly groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting scientists like Newton and Einstein can no longer exist in the current world of science. The author, Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis’s Department of Psychology, laments that there are no entirely new fields of science to be founded, nor great breakthroughs to be had from relative laymen. This is not a new argument, but understanding the culture underlying it is critical to knowing one’s context in the larger body of human knowledge.
I want to take a moment to discuss the idea, and the portions with which I sympathize (the ability of an individual to accomplish something enormous) and the portions I find preposterous (a profound nostalgia.) Ultimately, though, the article helps to elucidate something very important: the great scientific achievements of the past millennium were almost entirely accomplished by people who would, by current standards, still be graduate students or (at most) postdocs. The ever-increasing times before young scientists become independent faculty mean that the current scientific establishment is taking on the structure of a pyramid scheme.
To discuss the issue, I will first dispatch with the crippling nostalgia that burdens the article. (An aspect that that author appears to be at least partly aware of.) Every historical event can seem the epic result of a single genius’s work, but this is rarely the reality. Einstein’s brilliant work on relativity is noted by Simonton as a case of incredible work by a single genius, but the reality of the development of modern physics does not flow so smoothly. The image at the beginning of this article is of the Solvay Conference in 1927. Though Einstein attended this conference, so too did Ehrenfest, Schrödinger, Pauli, Heisenberg, Brillouin, Debye, Knudsen, Bragg, Dirac, Compton, de Broglie, Bohr, Langmuir, Planck, Curie, Lorentz, and Langevin. Every scientist I just listed has an element or scientific law named for them. Modern physics was not the creation of a single genius, but rather of a group of talented people working in the right field at the right time.
It is easy to view events through the lens of history in a way that makes Newton or Einstein seem like isolated geniuses, but no work is ever accomplished in a vacuum. The work being accomplished now is not the work of many people because there are no singular geniuses around to stand apart from them; rather, we live in a time of many truly brilliant minds. Though any one could revolutionize a field, they accomplish more in collaboration than they could individually.
Perhaps more frustrating is Simonton’s complaint that there have been no truly new fields of science has been pioneered in “more than a century.” (He claims that the only new fields are combinations of old ones: biochemistry, astrophysics, etc.) To me, this is akin to a cartographer complaining that they won’t be able to map a new continent because they have all been discovered. A quick overview of the faculty at Berkeley quickly reveals that scientific research is shoehorned into fields with comfortable names as a way to give some context to the work. That we have developed a set of fields that comfortably characterize reality does not mean that all questions have been answered, but rather that we have produced a framework with which to answer those questions. This is something to celebrate, not lament.
But I want to separate my complaints from a more fundamental issue that the article does an excellent job isolating. Newton had discovered calculus around the time that he was 25. Einstein had produced his groundbreaking works on relativity before he was 26. Feynman produced much of his work on path integrals at age 31. By the modern standards of the academic community, the majority of the major scientific breakthroughs of human history would have occurred while their discoverers were graduate students or, at most, postdocs. Their work would not have been their own; credit would have instead gone to their advisors.
This is the fundamental poison at the heart of the academic system: a pyramid scheme in which the most inventive, ingenious, and productive years of a scientist’s life are lost in service to the glory of their advisor. The promise implicit in this scheme is that these scientists will, someday, similarly benefit from the youthful creativity of their own students. In exchange for the inventiveness of their students, advisors effectively sponsor the funding of their students; the modern structure of funding agencies is difficult environment to navigate without an extensive publication history.
So perhaps this is for the best. As the average human lifespan increases, it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect the best work to come in the first quarter of a scientist’s life. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve entered into a Faustian bargain, trading youthful inspiration for safety and funding. The modern Alexander should be weeping not for a lack of new fields to explore, but a lack of independence with which to explore them.