Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Will we ever see another scientific genius?

A genius in captivity
The whole concept of genius is a very arbitrary one, something that struck me very strongly while reading Genius - a very short introduction for review. Part of the problem seems to be that the same label is applied to (say) the arts and the sciences, yet the criteria are very different.

To be a genius in the arts seems based on public acclaim and on the need for that acclaim to last - yet it is ultimately purely subjective. The author of the book clearly thought, for example, that Virginia Woolf was a genius - something I found totally mind-boggling. Genius in art is ultimately a matter of fashion.

In science there are very different criteria. If artistic criteria were applied, you would probably label Stephen Hawking a genius, yet most of his colleagues would simply see him as a very good scientist. However, when you find a real scientific genius like Newton, Einstein or Feynman it's very hard for anyone to argue because it's not such a subjective, publicity driven concept, but rather based on the fundamental level of their contribution to scientific knowledge.

Having begun to think about scientific genius as a result of reading the book, I do wonder if there will ever be another true genius in the field. Most geniuses in science had very limited scientific qualifications when they did their great work. Neither Newton nor Einstein had a PhD at the time. A fair number had very limited scientific training - Faraday springs to mind. Darwin, for that matter, did his great work well outside his area of expertise. Genius in science seems to have come from the ability to span different areas of thought, to bring breadth of knowledge and originality to bear, rather than concentrating on a tiny area of expertise.

It does seem likely that our current scientists, who don't seem to be allowed to think at all before they get their PhDs, are simply too constrained to ever produce a work of genius. You have to have too much technical and mathematical training to have the freedom of thought required.

I'm not saying that great work won't be done in the sciences - but this is the age of the narrow-focussed team, not the individual, broad-thinking genius. And in some ways that's rather sad.

Photograph from Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Couple of quick comments. I don't know if I agree with Virginia Woolf being a genius either, but critical evaluation of her works by literature academics is what justifies her place as one of the more important authors of the 20th century--her work is very good,and original. I don't know what you mean by public acclaim. Public acclaim would suggest Stephen King is a "genius" if we buy into your comment, yet no-one would make such an absurd claim.

    I think your reference to Newton et al in comparison to current science is simplistic. Let's use physics since that seems to be your model. Physics now is Big Physics. It requires money, large equipment, and collaboration to do important work. In comparison, Faraday et al did their work in a completely different milieu.