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The End of Individual Genius? 364

An anonymous reader writes "A recent study suggests the downfall of individual researchers, who are being rapidly replaced by enormous research groups. Quoting: '... in recent decades — especially since the Soviet success in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 — the trend has been to create massive institutions that foster more collaboration and garner big chunks of funding. And it is harder now to achieve scientific greatness. A study of Nobel Prize winners in 2005 found that the accumulation of knowledge over time has forced great minds to toil longer before they can make breakthroughs. The age at which thinkers produce significant innovations increased about six years during the 20th century.'"
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The End of Individual Genius?

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  • In elemental news (Score:4, Insightful)

    by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:33AM (#26110333) Homepage Journal
    The molecule claims to trump the atom.
    • by Gerzel ( 240421 ) <> on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:57AM (#26110997) Journal

      Please. It has pretty much always been like this. The more brains you have on a project generally means the faster it gets done(note I did say Generally).

      Even many of our great inventors are often given credit as individuals when really they were working as heads of larger teams. Edison comes to mind. And while we contribute relativity to Einstein it was large teams of people that actually got nuclear power working and confirmed his ideas. Darwin nearly got scooped by another man for natural selection(or natural preservation as he(Darwin) would have preferred), even if the other guy hadn't done his work nearly as throughly.

      In the end while there are often genius individuals none of them work in a vacuum and there are often many people around them working towards similar ends.

      • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @12:51PM (#26111297) Journal

        When the education system institutionalizes you for 30 years and tells you what the world looks like, how the hell are you supposed to actually see it when you're finally released?

        Geniuses need to see the world for themselves.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)


          You learn as much as you can, from as many places you can.

          You never let anyone tell you who you are.

          Putting those two things together does not mean limiting your intake of knowledge to the things that only reaffirm existing views. It means you don't fear new ideas and new *sources* of ideas. Because you know yourself well enough that you can be sure nobody's capable of brainwashing you.

      • by marco.antonio.costa ( 937534 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @03:08PM (#26112181)

        Thinking 'generally' might lead you to false conclusions. In my opinion the optimal 'head count' varies from venture to venture, there is no general panacea. More people can help, more people can get in the way.

        Large groups of people confirmed Einstein's ideas, granted. What confirmed ideas or reactors would there be today if not for that one unique man? Zip.

        Nikola Tesla comes to my mind when you speak of Edison, incidentally, which was truly a scientific and creative genius while Edison, while far from a simpleton, don't get me wrong, was more of a gifted entrepreneur and obstinate tinkerer.

        Anyway, if individual genius is dead it is because we are killing it. Society seems to me to be heading more and more in path of collectivism and thus less and less incentive for individual achievement. Damn shame if you ask me. :(

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Erm which of Einstein's ideas specifically do you think nobody else could have come up with?
          He posed that the speed of light was constant because, others had ALREADY failed to measured the speed of earth through the aether. While assuming that the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference was a jump, it was just a matter of time until somebody applied Lorentz transformations to produce special relativity, even if they did it without the physical insight.

          And i cant think of anything he did post 1

      • by Mutatis Mutandis ( 921530 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @03:53PM (#26112447)

        The more brains you have on a project generally means the faster it gets done(note I did say Generally).

        This is the concept that an IT consultant once described as "using nine women to produce a baby in one month." Beyond a certain critical mass, generally not higher than about seven people, adding more people slows down R&D work. Larger groups can work effectively only if they divide themselves into smaller teams working on well-defined parts of the job.

        Even armies have figured this out -- modern armies may be huge and complex organizations, but the smallest tactical unit is a squad of about ten people, much like the Roman contubernium.

        Indeed Einstein did not work in complete isolation: Much of the mathematical framework for the theory of relativity was explored by Poincare and Lorentz. And he corresponded about his ideas with others. Nevertheless, theoretical physics at this level is a highly individual activity, because ultimately it is all about thinking and testing concepts in a mathematical framework.

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:38AM (#26110349)
    None of us are as dumb as all of us.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      None of us are as dumb as all of us.

      I'm not so sure about that. We should probably form a committee to figure out if that interesting quote is true or not. Either way, we'll end up being right.

    • I think it's really just a question of genetics and natural selection. Selective breeding is the likely answer. Now take off your lab coats and start towars (wherever smart girls hang out).
      $1: if anyone knows where that is, you have evolved a mutation that might save us all!

      • by aliquis ( 678370 ) <> on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:07AM (#26110761) Homepage

        The smart girls most likely hang around at the same place as the smart boys, don't ask me why you never meet one of them.

        • by bsDaemon ( 87307 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:25AM (#26110849)

          They don't allow talking in the library, 'tis why.

  • good! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thermian ( 1267986 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:43AM (#26110377)

    It may sound romantic that a lone genius comes along and changes everything, but its not a good thing in practice, nor, for the most part, is it even true.

    There have been great people that came along and made breakthroughs, but always this was the result of their building work of others.
    The myth of the lone scientist is just that, a myth. Newton, to pick an example of the 'great man working alone' wasn't the only one working in his field, he just 'rewrote' a lot of history to make this seem the case. We don't even use his version of calculus, but everyone still credits him.

    Einstein too extended the work of many others. He did a lot of thinking on his own, but everything he did was an extension of the work of others. I'm not saying he wasn't smart, he was, but how much faster would his work have arrived had he been working in a group the whole time?

    This trend of working in groups can do naught but good.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by liquidpele ( 663430 )
      I think another aspect is that type of breakthrough. If the breakthrough is more of a theory or proof, it's much easier to do as a single person and, say, developing the silicon transistor. I think as scientific ideas stabilize, you'll see more and more research being to do more complicated things that an individual would be hard pressed to do alone.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        If it's a proof, I'll bet you 10-to-1 that the real business of proving it was done by a computer, not by a human.

        And in fact most discoveries these days are really done by computers, not by humans.

        Just like building design (and esp. bridge design). Most of the work is done by programs. Chip design ... again ... mostly done by computers. Designing electrical or gasoline engines ... done by computers.

        The list goes on. Humans are still a critical part of "the loop", but their importance is dropping lower ever

        • Re:good! (Score:4, Insightful)

          by theaveng ( 1243528 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:39AM (#26110633)

          "That's soooo depressing."
          - Marvin the Paranoid Android

          I don't want to be just a robot that serves the computers. If my life is that unimportant than I might as well turn Amish and become a farmer.

          • As long as you get to tell the computers what to do then you should just relax and exploit them to their maximum benefit. Don't give them to much power or self-awareness and they won't become as arrogant as the people who created them.

        • Re:good! (Score:5, Funny)

          by maxume ( 22995 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:44AM (#26110653)

          If you start using buildings that are designed by computers, they will really be designed by programmers.

          Which is terrifying.

        • Re:good! (Score:5, Funny)

          by Oktober Sunset ( 838224 ) <sdpage103@yahoo[ ].uk ['.co' in gap]> on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:07AM (#26110763)
          Ha, I can still draw a schematic without my computer, but when I'm not around my computer just sits there and does nothing.

          So who's the fucking daddy?? *gives computer a bitchslap* WHO'S THE FUCKING DADDY??
        • Re:good! (Score:5, Interesting)

          by thermian ( 1267986 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:18AM (#26110811)

          If it's a proof, I'll bet you 10-to-1 that the real business of proving it was done by a computer, not by a human.

          And in fact most discoveries these days are really done by computers, not by humans.

          You've not quite got that right. Some problems can only be solved in reasonable time with computers, some hypothesis confirmations can also only be done in reasonable time with computers. That doesn't mean that the algorithms aren't the result of many hours of human work.

          The hypothesis in my Ph.D thesis was demonstrated as being valid through use of computers. It took me two years to come up with the underlying principles, and weeks for the computer to crunch its way to the answer. The computer found that I was correct, but only through applying my algorithm.

          That's how things work these days.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          IMHO it would be more depressing if humans were still wasting time doing computationally intensive/iterative calculations by hand, like solving statically indeterminate rigid beam structures like bridges. There are some tasks that computers are VERY well suited for, and this is one of them. It still takes a human to look at the results and make the determination that they are valid, relevant and reasonably accurate. FEA is another good example of this. Sure, the computer can generate a very pretty pictu

        • Re:good! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by syousef ( 465911 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @03:54PM (#26112459) Journal

          And in fact most discoveries these days are really done by computers, not by humans.

          Also humans don't build houses. It's the tools that do it. People say the construction crew built it, but really it was the hammers, saws and nail guns that did it.

          Also my accountant doesn't do anything. I should be paying his calculator directly.

          Yeah it sounds stupid when you credit the tool, doesn't it? Computers are just tools.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        "I think as scientific ideas stabilize"

        This idea of stabilizing could actually be more like the old saying "Familiarity breeds contempt". As more people become familiar with the subject, new advances don't seem as important as the earlier advances, (even though the new advances could actually be very important in advancing the field).

        Also its much easier to look back in hindsight, to see existing advances were historically important. We can't do that with new advances (yet). Only in hindsight can many peopl

        • I just finished a book by Lee Smolin (physicist) in which he argues that Physics has not advanced since circa 1980. No new discoveries have been found since that time, even though thousands of physicists have been creating grandiose equations.

          He compares this current period (1980-2008) to the Middle Ages when scientists wasted time calculating how many Angels can dance on the head of a pin. A lot of effort and number-crunching and elaborate equation-massaging which signifies nothing.

          He said what Physics n

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      There have been great people that came along and made breakthroughs, but always this was the result of their building work of others.

      You're confusing things here. Working alone doesn't preclude you from building on other people's work, while working in group often does due to NIH etc.

    • He who markets the idea first reaps the rewards. Sales is everything. Humility and hard work are for the proletariat.

    • Re:good! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:10AM (#26110511)

      >There have been great people that came along and made breakthroughs, but always this was the result of their building work of others.

      Of course, but the others weren't a moving target. Depending on how you define "working in a group", you could make all of humanity being one group and obviously everyone works in a group, then.

      Point is, when you "work alone", you don't have to argue with others and get them to understand your viewpoint about the theory. If you try to understand their viewpoint, it isn't "A" today but "B" tomorrow (and if it is, you ignore them until they decided it themselves - something you usually can't do in a "official" small group you are part of).

      >Einstein too extended the work of many others. He did a lot of thinking on his own, but everything he did was an extension of the work of others.

      >I'm not saying he wasn't smart, he was, but how much faster would his work have arrived had he been working in a group the whole time?

      Much much slower.

      No, really. I'm all for working in groups but working out fields in theoretical physics is something you wouldn't be able to do in a group in any reasonable time frame. Apart from the social problems (whose idea was "it"?), too many cooks spoil the soup and you end up with frankentheory, if anything.

      In Experimental Physics, I'm all for it. A million monkeys on a million typewriters......

    • Re:good! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kumanopuusan ( 698669 ) <> on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:26AM (#26110573)

      Don't bother to mod me up, but the parent should be modded down. Newton is the perfect example of an individual genius, and he changed the world drastically, irrevocably and all by himself. "Everyone still credits" Newton because the calculus wasn't even his biggest accomplishment. He invented classical mechanics by himself. There is no dispute about it.

      The greatest minds in the rest of the world were decades behind him, so it's hard to imagine what group he should have been working with. It wasn't just the case with Newton either. Gauss discovered non-Euclidean geometry 30 years before it was published anywhere else.

      Before you claim that Newton and Gauss were lying, consider that they didn't have any reason to. Without claiming credit for calculus, Newton would still be the most influential physicist of all time, and there was no peer to Gauss.

      I'll admit that for all the rest of us, working in groups will help immensely, but let's not shackle the few truly exceptional people that exist to the mediocre. The solution here is for us not to pretend we're geniuses. Just because it's encouraging to pretend that Newton is just like the rest of us, doesn't mean we should be so dishonest as to pretend it's true.

      • Re:good! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:40AM (#26110901)
        Newton and Gauss don't prove the value of lone-wolf researchers in modern times, which I take to be the point of the story. These days, many, many more people have access to information and the material means to spend a good chunk of time thinking. That makes it much, much harder to stand head and shoulders above the crowd. The easy discoveries have been made - nobody is going to be immortalized for discovering that distance = acceleration * time^2 these days. Einstein himself called Newton lucky because "there is only one Universe to discover and he did it."
      • Re:good! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by m_cuffa ( 632043 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:41AM (#26110911)

        Newton was truly exceptional and head and shoulders above most if not all scientists of his age, but he did not work alone. He worked closely and/or drew on the work of Halley, Huygens, Leibniz, to name but a few, and his work built on the earlier work of Kepler and Brahe. The romanticized notion of the lone scientist toiling away in his lab is really a myth. Science has always been collaborative.

        "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
        - Isaac Newton

        "To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. 'Tis much better to do a little with certainty, & leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing."
        - Isaac Newton

        • Re:good! (Score:4, Interesting)

          by radtea ( 464814 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @05:00PM (#26112917)

          Err... no.

          Your quote from Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants is from a letter to Hooke, who was extremely short, whom Newton was trying either to flatter for political reasons, or possibly subtly insult.

          The second quote is a not-so-subtle put-down of Descarte, Leibniz and others whose conjectural claims Newton found pointless and stupid, and defence of his own approach of saying, "This is WHAT happens" rather than "This is WHY it happens."

          Newton did NOT "collaborate" with anyone for the greater part of his career if you are going to give "collaborate" its ordinary meaning. If for some reason you want to stretch the meaning of the word "collaborate" all out of shape so that it applies to the use of ANY past result, then please be clear you are imposing on the word an entirely non-standard meaning.

          According to your novel meaning of the word Newton also "collaborated" with the guy who invented the alphabet, because Newton's work was dependent upon that guy's work.

          Science as always been cumulative. It has been increasingly collaborative over its three hundred year history. But it has not always been collaborative, and Newton was perhaps the least collaborative and most successful scientist who ever lived.

          Even in the cases where he did arguably collaborate, as with Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory, he was remarkably fractious in the relationship, and while he was friends with Halley their relationship is mostly famous for Halley's encouragement for Newton to publish all of the work he had done in complete isolation over the past twenty years. That work was published under the title "Principia Mathematica", and owes much to Euclid, but was not a collaboration with anyone.

          Attempts to get Newton to share credit with Leibniz for their independent inventions of calculus also quite famously lead to a long-running campaign by Newton against Leibniz.

          None of this proves that science, especially today, is not mostly and increasingly collaborative. But Newton was a rare bird, and rarely engaged in anything resembling "collaboration" in the usual sense of the term.

    • You seem to be leaving little room for ideas that aren't generally accepted by the field you're working in.
      How likely would it have been that those guys would've been allowed to reformulate their contemporary thinking in the way they thought best if they'd have been forced to justify everything immediately to their colleagues? All this may work fine in periods of evolutionary growth of a theory (or complex of theories), but it seems rather less workable if and when people get stuck. (this is not to say that
    • by Cally ( 10873 )
      I was just reading an interesting piece [] on the media presentation of stories relating to consensus vs. the "lone genius":

      The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it's clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story.

    • Indeed, most think of me as a lone indeed, "mad" scientist, alas it was not so. For when I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries
    • by drerwk ( 695572 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:39AM (#26110897) Homepage
      Newton and Leibniz may well have invented calculus independently. And I'd like to know which version you use, because Newton introduced the product rule, the chain rule, the notion of higher derivatives, Taylor series, and analyticity. [] We don't use his notation, but that is a small difference.

      You do a real injustice to suggest that math was "his field", as he invented calculus to help him invent classical mechanics. He invented F=ma. Not until Einstien 200 years latter was that improved upon significantly. He invented color theory. Which led him to construct the Newtonian telescope to remove the chromatic aberration his color theory implied.
      And, thanks to his use of Newtons's rings to measure the quality of the mirrors he was grinding to build his telescope, they were the best telescopes available in the day.

      If he was not a Genius, then there have never been any.
  • by haluness ( 219661 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:44AM (#26110379)

    Studies in bibliometrics also seem to indicate this pattern - not the genius aspect but the fact that many high profile or high impact papers are collaborations. In general the number of single author papers has declined. []

  • Work is play (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Samschnooks ( 1415697 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:46AM (#26110385)

    ...the ingredients of a great and productive mind: cognitive abilities, educational opportunities, interest, and plain old hard work.

    When you really love to do something, work and play become the same thing. Many of the great scientists didn't have to force themselves to do the work.

  • by unlametheweak ( 1102159 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:51AM (#26110401)

    If somebody wouldn't have invented the wheel before me then I would have become quite famous, although I'm sure the venture capitalists would have stolen the company from under my feet and probably sold my ideas to the Big Three.

  • Ha! (Score:5, Funny)

    by OpenSourced ( 323149 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:56AM (#26110435) Journal

    Happens to me too! I'm as smart as, like, Einstein, but everything I can think of, is already invented, or something. I was just born late, I guess.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dword ( 735428 )
      Actually, I've "invented" lots of things when I was younger but nobody believed they could work so nobody helped me in any way. In the past few years, I've seen dozens of contraptions similar to mine and that have quite a lot of success. The 3D crime scene scanner is one example, which creates a 3D copy of a crime scene for later analysis. Another might be the water condensator I've seen on /. a few weeks ago, trying to condensate water vapors from the air and store it for later use when the atmosphere is t
      • Re:Ha! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by fictionpuss ( 1136565 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @12:20PM (#26111107)

        Thinking of a cool idea is not even almost in the same league as inventing it. Example: The flying car.

        But don't blame a lack of support from others, because that's just lame. You could always, you know, take a dead-end job in a patent office or something giving you the time to develop your ideas into something that will gain you recognition rather than derision.

  • A Recent Study... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Zephiris ( 788562 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:03AM (#26110469)

    A recent study suggests that there are too many recent studies.

    Eh. Whatever happened to multiple studies, or recurring studies over a longer period of time?

    All you ever hear these days is 'a recent study', as if the mere fact that one group of researchers came up with it, it's golden fact.

    Mind, it's a group of researchers...basically saying that group-research mentality is where it's at and that individual pioneers are all but over. Isn't that the fox guarding the hen house? ^^;

    A great many studies are also done by fringe researchers, or paid for/sponsored by companies. If any news source runs with it, there often seems to be little (if any) fact checking done to make sure it's legit, and we never hear about/keep tabs on who is behind the studies. So you always here the 'a recent study suggests' part, but you never hear everyone else in the scientific/research community laughing or ignoring it because it's a joke.

    Of course research groups would find out that research groups are great at research. Would Stephen Hawking find that Stephen Hawking is great at theoretical cosmology research?

    Always take studies with a side of common sense and skepticism, particularly if there's not a fair mountain of corroboration.

  • "... in recent decades especially since the Soviet success in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 the trend has been to create massive institutions that foster more collaboration and garner big chunks of funding."

    Put that way, it sounds like a Good Thing. More collaboration? Good! Funding? Good! Especially if working in such an institution means the scientists don't have to spend as much time and energy securing funding, and can spend it on research instead.

  • At one time (the Renaissance) it was possible for one person to know all the science was known at the time. It's hardly surprising that as we accumulate more and more knowledge it takes longer to learn disparate facts that might be needed to make a leap. And that a group might tend to bring that knowledge together when a single person might not have all of them alone.
  • by Rastl ( 955935 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:13AM (#26110519) Journal

    Of course, I didn't RTFA but this is /. so when has that ever stopped anyone from commenting?

    Standardized education has extended its tentacles farther and farther. And since it's .. standardized .. you get less chance of anyone standing out. That's kind of against the entire idea of standardized education. Smear all those little minds in to one mildly mediocre band of test results. So now you have brilliant children having to work twice as hard just to be themselves.

    Companies (and universities) own your soul. You can't come up with a great idea on your lunch break - it's not your idea. You might get to put your name on the list of people who worked on it but the company/university is going to take the credit and the money.

    Take away the precocious youth and the curious adult and you lose the independent researcher.

    I won't even get into extended lifespans, artificially extended childhood or a whole host of other, related societal issues.

  • I don't really see what Sputnik has to do with much - scientific, quasi political, enterprises have always required large-scale collaboration. The Apollo program was the same. Those activities were all government sponsored and government defined, not day-to-day inquisitive experimental science. CERN's goals are defined and executed by scientists, not by politicians (they just fund them, the same way they fund all public science).

    There is truth in the message that large collaborations are becoming more
  • bureaucracy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by owlnation ( 858981 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:17AM (#26110531)
    Working in groups is fine as long as there's relative freedom to work. The problem with institutionalized anything is that there's always more bureaucracy to suck up time away from creative progress. While status reports and performance reviews might be less in the academic world (I don't know if they are or not) than in the corporate world, I'm sure they are still a time-wasting headache.

    I'm fairly sure the human race would be significantly more advanced if someone could travel back in time and assassinate Bismark. Both private and public sectors would be dramatically more productive if they didn't have to report progress, make funding proposals to the same extent, and handle human resources nonsense. This is the only reason why two guys in a garage can start a massive software company, and that same company stagnates and treads water after 8-10 years of existence.

    Bureaucracy, middle managers, and human resources are the single biggest drain on human advancement.
    • You start with two guys who have lots of (pick some) brains, luck, tenacity, etc...

      As you add people to the enterprise, generally you will pick up "normal" people and experience regression toward the mean.

      After that you bring on the bureaucrats to wrangle the herd and it goes down hill from there.
  • by Morgaine ( 4316 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:21AM (#26110551)

    In my view, TFA has got it very wrong because the writer has romanticized a fictitious "lone scientist" into existence. In reality, so-called "lone scientists" never work or think alone at all, and they never have. Instead, scientific thinking always takes place within an international sea of ideas.

    Throughout all of history, scientific progress has always occurred within a framework of communication between thinking people, and those thought processes arise out of education in the relevant subjects followed by extremely extensive reading and discussing of ideas with others. New scientific insight has never popped out of nothing by some sort of magic. Novel ideas arise only by alternative analysis of other people's published or communicated thoughts.

    Instead of the lone scientist being at a disadvantage now versus large organized groups, the opposite may even be true because of the Internet. Never before have lone individuals had so much up-to-date information at their disposal (including research data), and never before have they had the means to communicate with others so easily. This suggests that the lone scientist has a lot going for him or her today, at least in part.

    Science contains two parts however, a theoretical one and an experimental one, and there is no doubt that the experimental side of science benefits hugely from good funding. However, you need the germ of a new idea before you can turn it into a theory let alone test it, and new ideas don't spring up directly through funding --- it's a more complex relationship.

    Large research groups certainly provide a good environment for high-bandwidth scientific discussion among peers in a scientific discipline, but even those scientists will be communicating with others worldwide, particularly through conferences and publications, and so they're still adding to the international sea of ideas which is the real bedrock of science. Things haven't really changed much.

    • The lone scientist was not the article's myth. It's a common by-product of the manner in which the history of science is discussed.
  • by StupendousMan ( 69768 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:21AM (#26110553) Homepage

    ... but "the age at which researchers have built up large research teams to carry out projects for which they (for the most part) acquire funding."

    In other words, eighty years ago, a 30-year old physicist and a technician or two could build a device to study the absorption of X-rays by various elements. The resulting publications might win a Nobel Prize.

    These days, a 30-year old physicist is working as a post-doc in someone else's lab. He won't by the leading author on the grant proposal to design a new detector for CERN -- some 50-year old with an established track record will be. That 50-year old guy will probably still be alive when the detector is finally built and goes into action. He MIGHT still be alive when the Nobel Prize committee gets around to considering the results of the research.

    If you think this is lamentable, ask yourself about bridges. How many people design and build large highway bridges BY THEMSELVES these days? None. Do you long for the days, millenia ago, when a single man, or perhaps a man and his brothers, might construct a bridge to span the local creek?

    Practical architecture has become too big for one man to do all by himself. The items of interest just cannot be built by a single person in a human lifetime. The same is true in SOME spheres of the sciences, but not all.

  • Apples and Oranges (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vadeskoc ( 1374195 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:27AM (#26110583)
    It's kind of weird the article compares Einstein - a theoretician - with large experimental / engineering enterprises such as Sputnik or CERN. Theoretical and experimental physics are two very different beasts (that don't always even get along), and to my knowledge, there aren't any grand collaborations in theoretical physics (still done on a small / individual scale).
    • But more to the point, no theoretical physicist since Einstein has attained his stature - even though the 100 years since he published E=MC^2 accounts for the vast majority of theoretical physicists who ever lived.
      • by HuguesT ( 84078 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @05:40PM (#26113237)

        In the general public's eye perhaps, but to physicists he is far from the only one. Quite a few came close, especially the people working in QM: Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, de Broglie, the Curies, Landau, more recently Feynman, Gell-Mann, Weinberg and many others.

        Physics has become enormously more complicated now than at the turn of the 20th century. To contribute now requires long years of study to catch up with recent science and enormous budgets to run experiments.

        Coming up with a paradigm-shifting theory like relativity was now requires understanding and undoing literally piles upon piles of theory. It's easy to get lost, and most likely no one will understand you.

  • I call BS (Score:2, Insightful)

    I don't agree at all. Of course there are more research groups than before, and more excellent research is done in groups, that doesn't mean that there aren't any extraordinary individuals.

    I also think their definition of genius is a little bit narrow. I think "Einstein" just became a meme for "genius" and the others just haven't made an impression in the public mind.

    Just try to make a graph with the number of geniuses per century. Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century for example, Galileo late 16th, N

    • You're omitting many geniuses from hundreds of years ago, because you're maybe more familiar with recent ones.

      Eg. Boyle, Hooke, Kepler, Leibniz etc..

      Also, how about a single genius who has radically changed our understanding of the universe and physical law since the Standard Model (1970s)?

      There are none. Not because of a lack of talent, but because the physics we still don't know is much harder to find out (cf the massive effort that has gone into String Theory from many, many researchers, and which has s

  • Years of stealthy replacement of educators, first at the college level, then the high school level have beaten the very idea out of people. Now that THOSE people are having kids, there's nobody who really remembers individual genius as something normal, and so the anti-reason, anti-individual Left has almost won. Don't stick out, fit in. Don't complain, accept. Don't succeed if others fail. Don't win if someone loses. Don't excel if someone falls behind. Don't live for yourself, live for others. Whe

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Years of stealthy replacement of educators, first at the college level, then the high school level have beaten the very idea out of people.

      I think you have no idea how much tougher the educational system used to be on people who stood out from the crowd. "Don't stick out, fit in. Don't complain, accept," indeed. Do you think being a genius as a schoolkid was easy for Newton?

  • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:37AM (#26110621) Homepage Journal
    large groups to do science is simply the cost and complexity of experiments. Nowadays very few groundbreaking experiments can be done in your garage, you need access to expensive machines(and often lots of energy) in order to conduct your research. And since they probably won't hand the keys to the LHC(once its repaired) to some upstart grad student with a new theory, it becomes necessary to spend vast amounts of time "proving" yourself while building the necessary connections to see your experiment come to fruition.

    I think this study is partially flawed because they only look at Nobel prize winners, which exclude fields like Mathematics(where no labs are necessary in many cases). If mathematicians are getting older then I would be more inclined to believe their conclusion.
    • Maybe, but remember that Einstein didn't come up with the theory of relativity by studying the results of a multi-billion dollar LHC - he did it my concocting his own thought experiments.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by HuguesT ( 84078 )

        He did it by studying the results of the experiments of his days : Michelson-Morley, black body radiation, Brownian motion, Photo-electric effect. Today those are well understood.

        Frontiers of physics today require access to terabytes of experimental data produced by some of the most expensive and complex machinery build by man.

    • If mathematicians are getting older then I would be more inclined to believe their conclusion.

      Of course, it would be hard to measure this by the "top prize in the field" criterion due to the age restriction on the Fields Medal. There's probably a better measure to use for all fields, though -- age of authors on publications in top journals, maybe?

      Ultimately, judging great science is like judging great art. You don't get to say you're great. Your contemporaries don't get to say you're great. The closest

  • I agree that lonely geniuses are extremely rare. Most people work in the context of their time and rely on the work of others. And besides, many people just have a need to debate their ideas critically with others. Many 'lonely geniuses' kept up an extensive scientific correspondence.

    On the other hand, I think the same rule can be applied to science as to programming, i.e. that a good team is at most five to seven people strong. In larger teams communication breaks down quickly and people work at cross-purp

  • , , ,-research grants get you.

    Not too surprising really.
    It's very difficult for anyone to be a very good generalist in terms of original research work.
    Individuals end up specializing, and the grants awarded for any tiny specialty generally aren't real big.

    So then, is it that big grants are paying for things (great breakthroughs) that can't be done in groups?
    Or are individual researchers doing things that won't pay?

    More research is obviously needed.
  • by thaig ( 415462 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:03AM (#26110743) Homepage

    At what point will it take a person their whole life to know enough about their subject to drop dead just as they are about to add a bit of new knowledge?

    We can only escape this by becoming more and more narrow but that might present it's own limitations.

    Perhaps we need to live longer and develop larger brains?

    • This is why we need a better "theory of everything". The problem is that all the knowledge that we have accumulated is like so much trivia. There's not nearly enough abstraction where the universe is distilled down to a few essential rules that can easily applied to everything. It's not so much a problem of physics, really, as it is with pure mathematics. Physicists discover what works and how things work, but I think ultimately we want to take seriously and fund seriously mathematics as its own research

  • Edison (Score:2, Interesting)

    The article incorrectly categorizes Edison as a lone inventor. Edison had dozens of other inventors working for him. He is sometimes credited with inventing the modern research lab. Notably, Nikola Tesla worked for Edison for a short time. I'm sure if he had spent his whole career with Edison, he'd be just as anonymous as Edison's other employees.

  • by Pigeon451 ( 958201 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:17AM (#26110805)
    The amount of information required to be the "top" of your field has increased tremendously since the early 1900's, and consequently requires more time to learn everything.

    An analogy is video games. Back in the 80's, games were typically made by a few (or even one) people on a shorter timeline than today's top games, which require a large studio with typically a very large amount of people working together.
  • by kanweg ( 771128 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:21AM (#26110823)

    To become a genius, you not only have to be smart, but also have to put in a lot of single-focus effort from a young age. And the latter is what has become hard, these days. Too many distractions, from games, TV, Internet, Slashdot, etc.

    Remember the Polgar sisters. Intelligence and hard dedicated work made them into chess grandmasters.
    Interestingly, I thought I'd look at Wikipedia for her, to see how she is doing now. []

    Quote from her father: "Geniuses are made, not born"


  • There is only one way to prove an assertion like this wrong, and it isn't to be found on Slashdot.
  • by mkiwi ( 585287 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @12:11PM (#26111063)

    This title is misleading. There are many types of genius outside of math and physics.
    Artists, authors, composers, financial gurus, etc. can all be geniuses. To limit the definition of genius to a scientist is to discard most the minds who have greatly contributed to our society.

    I'm not saying the submitter did this out of malice, but there is definitely a negative "stereotype" in the scientific community about intelligent people who do non-science-related work.

  • by S3D ( 745318 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @12:17PM (#26111097)
    Perelman [] and Wiles [] both were working completely alone(or mostly alone for Wiles). Of cause they were using tools developed by others, but still they were lone researchers against insurmountable odds.
  • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @12:45PM (#26111251)

    or perish, in the scientific academic world.

    So since it takes, not six years, but six years LONGER, to
    come up with anything truly significant, it must mean that
    A) Most scientific papers are full of nought but
    drivel, detritus, and dutifully determined data, and
    B) Significant breakthroughs will be hard to come by,
    as most scientists toil wasting their time publishing
    the drivel in order to be well accepted in their exclusive
    communities. The geniuses will be driven mad by the
    death of their career and loss of income as they try to
    concentrate, for years, on teasing out a single significant
    insight, at the sacrifice of the many papers and
    conference cocktail parties.
    A bit sad really. It's a good thing that the google
    AI machine will be making the significant insights
    from now on.

  • Cross Discipline (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Evil Pete ( 73279 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @04:54PM (#26112879) Homepage

    The easiest areas to make advances in are ones where others have not bothered to look at. Typically fields that are the intersection of various disciplines. There are the obvious ones, but I strongly suspect that almost any serious such intersection, as in intersection of real sciences, would yield interesting scientific insights after minimal or moderate work. But most people shun these because they like to specialise. This is why polymaths are so prolific, they see connections across fields that others don't see because the others only have one field.

    Only my opinion of course.

  • by Werthless5 ( 1116649 ) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @05:46PM (#26113291)

    If they had bother to read, say, a single scientific journal from the past 50 years, there would be a realization; not only do great scientific minds still appear, but they appear more regularly now than ever before.

    Einstein, Feynman, Bohr, Curie, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Heisenburg, Hawking, Planck, and many more who made outstanding individual contributions were ALL 20th century scientists! And there are dozens more like them, making BRILLIANT contributions to science. These are geniuses.

    The article is ignoring how history is written; you don't write it as it is being experienced. Often someone isn't recognized for genius for 20 years after they've made some incredible discovery, theory, etc. 20 years from now we'll have a new list of geniuses for the 21st century.

The optimum committee has no members. -- Norman Augustine