Field of Science

Either dull or revolutionary, no middle ground...

I decided to have a go at some proper 'research blogging' today; taking an article and turning it, figures and all, from highly scientific language into understandable English. But I got as far as looking at the current issue of Nature, when I saw this quote, in a short piece down the side (about whether scientists are dull or not):

"Because, it seems to me, most working scientists have either long since accepted that they are not of the ‘revolutionary’ type exemplified by greats such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, or never strived to be."

I'm sorry, striving to be revolutionary? Darwin? The conservative family man who always vaguely reminds me of Dickens? Although if 'revolutionary' means 'a bit of a bastard' then Newton certainly fits the bill. Their ideas were revolutionary, true, at least in the world of science, but the author here seems to be using revolutionary as an antonym for dull, which in my mind does both words an injustice.

The rest of the piece also seems to suggest that there are two types of scientist: the 'revolutionary' who is vibrant, exciting and unhindered by paperwork, and the 'dull' who just wants to get on with a normal life, seeing research as work rather than vocation. The tone veers wildly between apologetic, defensive, and trying to allot blame. Paperwork and bureaucracy are mainly blamed for the dullness, because apparently none neither of them existed in sixteenth century Cambridge, or Second World War Germany. Apparently geniuses (because the revolutionaries are now geniuses, which should come as news to the Les Mis boys on the barricade) must have "the requisite levels of selfishness and creativity" which fits Newton, certainly, and James Watson as well, but falls short of being fair to Einstein and Darwin. They are also described as "the ‘clever crazy’ type that might belong in an institution" which kind of fits Einstein slightly (or at least fits his hair), Newton maybe, but again, does nothing for Darwin or Watson.

My problem here is that the author is dealing with a stereotype. Why aren't scientists all crazy and enthusiastic geniuses? Because they never were! Some were, true, but that doesn't mean everyone else was dull by comparison. Science is not limited to research drudgery working tirelessly to support and uphold the occasional flash of brilliance; rather the whole process is brilliant, occasionally flashing up bright in the public perception when it produces a particularly intelligent person (Einstein etc), or a particularly good idea (vaccination, antibiotics, etc). It is these flashes which get remembered, and worked into stories, and pointed out years later as stark events that existed on their own.

I resent the fact that I am meant to believe my work is dull but necessary just because I'm never going to reach the dizzy heights of selective fame. I also resent that I am told I should be dull but necessary. Maybe I should dye the front of my hair orange again...

You can read the full article here if your library or institution will let you in. Otherwise, here is a quick summary:
  • There used to be great scientists, revolutionaries, geniuses
  • Nowadays all is dull and boring
  • Well obviously, because there's lots of paperwork and bureaucracy
  • And you need some dull people, to support the ones who make the big discoveries
  • Acutally it's better to be dull
  • The revolutionaries are a bit odd anyway.
Underlying subtext: No I am not envious or unfulfilled, not at all, of course not, why should I be?


Luke said...

The set of people mentioned (Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Watson) really undermines the idea that there is a Revolutionary Type at all.

Newton was a antisocial recluse who most people disliked personally, but acknowledged from a young age to be a mathematical genius. Darwin was a friendly and well-liked man, who had a reputation for being knowledgeable and hard-working, and his major secret to success was prolific and diverse collaborations, as well as having an ability to fit these together into a big picture. Einstein was pretty social, and was never a wonderfully skilled mathematician, but he was skilled at visualising the structure of a problem. Watson was also never considered a genius beforehand, but was of the first people to properly interpret a new type of data, and perhaps more importantly was good at politicking to get hold of the data.

All four of these people had different gifts and situations that lead them to come up with revolutionary ideas; only one of them was thought from early on to be a genius. It seems like the only message you can take from the group is that you cannot know what approach of what type of person will spawn the next Big Idea.

Anonymous said...

Example choice aside (though it does highlight the logic lapse. perhaps the author combined Darwin and Huxley?), I'm confused how the author can think there are two types of scientist: the minion and the mad savant. As far as I can tell, our field is pretty much like the others - you get a mix of personalities, intelligence, luck, and publicity. For the most part, fame happens a good while after the work, or after death (the scientific community didn't even read Mendel until what, the next century?) And there's usually a subset of people who insist on analyzing it in isolation.

Also, for a writer in Nature, this person's really out of touch with all the awesome stuff (and people) happening in science right now. Stem cells is an entirely new field! Stephen Hawking is still rocking physics! Gene therapy! The wars on drug resistance! Hubble! Computer science! Bill Gates & Steve Jobs! I could go on, but you aren't the ones who need ranting at :)

Yes, there is more cooperation now, and more huge successes are attributed to teams rather than individuals. The paradigm of research and advancement is changing as we move beyond determining the basic set of principles to the compound implications. Each discovery is still incredibly important, but now we make them more quickly and, for the first time in history, there's a world full of awesomely smart people out there to talk with. I take that as a good thing.

And people always forget the origin of the word "revolutionary." Les Mis does have a good song about that, towards the end...

Hopefully next issue there will be a counter article.

Anonymous said...

I just went and commented on the article itself, which was interesting. You're right that it seems way out of line. Sounds like the guy got stiffed for a promotion.

Jim said...

I think it's somewhat trite for anyone to suggest that there are only two types of scientist, and that most of us aren't going to be Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins. My first response would be that they would be out of a job by modern standards anyway, as we need to publish, and these guys invariably waited 10 - 20 years before writing anything that represented a paradigm shift!

In any case, I covered an article describing the evolution of a scientific discipline here. The author describes four main stages in the development of a scientific discipline. The relevance of this naturally also applies to the scientists that work within disciplines at these different stages, each requiring scientists of different talents.

Thus, by the rather poor binary classification of the quote you found, the stage 1 researchers (the founders of new fields) are deemed the 'exciting/revolutionary', and the stage 3 scientists would be deemed the 'boring doers'.

Unfortunately, the vast body of literature is produced by the scientists who find their talents best suited to stage 3, and without them, we would have very poorly evolved disciplines. We can't all be 'revolutionary'; in fact, it is in everyone's best interest that there are so few.....someone's got to do the grafting!

The article was a good means to understand the conflicts that can exist between disciplines at different stages, especially when new disciplines arise directly from older ones. It also gives some food for thought when, as a jobbing scientist, you are trying to decide the field to which you are best suited.