This week I strayed from my occasional home on the Guardian blogs to a mainstream print newspaper, writing a piece for the Telegraph to follow on from the Stephen Hawking Grand Design programme launch I wrote about briefly before. My given brief was to write an article prompted by the programme, which provoked me to consider the lone heroic genius of popular imagination. I would like to congratulate the Telegraph for, not only providing a title which was totally appropriate – How many Scientists Does it Take to Make a Discovery? – but also, by choosing one of the standard images of Einstein to illustrate the article, they absolutely demonstrated the point I was trying to make.
For many members of the public, whether they are considering a Newton or an Einstein, the popular imagination envisages a singleton beavering away in splendid isolation until that lightbulb moment when all is revealed. I don’t believe science is typically like that now, and one can question whether it ever was. Furthermore, I think it is the kind of myth that is liable to put youngsters off entering the profession because it confirms the image of a scientist as a geek/nerd (for an eloquent discussion of these terms see Richard Jones blog), someone who is a bit odd, a bit of a loner, and that these are the necessary characteristics for success in the profession. However, if you want to find a cogent argument counter to this view, I suggest you go and hear Roger Highfield give the Wilkins-Medawar Prize Lecture at the Royal Society next Wednesday, in which he argues (according to his abstract) about heroes:
Scientists love them. Historians of science can’t stand them. The view that science rests on the shoulders of heroes and on them alone cannot be defended. Nonetheless, the public are moved and inspired by the stories of astronauts who’ve risked their lives, mathematicians who crack enemy codes or laboratory scientists who make life-saving medical discoveries. Science still needs their illuminating stories to engage with the public, even if that does distort the depiction of the way real science is done. Not only should we reinstate the heroes of science, we need other kinds too – heroes that are not even made of flesh and blood.
(And if you can’t get to hear the lecture, I believe he will have his own article on the subject in next week’s Telegraph, which could be read in juxtaposition to mine.)
My own central thesis in the Telegraph piece was that, given the way science is currently being done, the ‘lone genius’ of the Newton and Einstein variety was unlikely to be the way major discoveries will be made now or in the future. I cited examples, not only from my own field of physics (the Higgs Boson and accompanying huge teams at the LHC), but also from biology in the form of the Human Genome and ENCODE projects, as well as the story of decoding the structure of DNA. My remarks were interpreted variously by commenters as a kind of denigration of the single-minded genius, an Ayn Rand scare story or ignorance of work beyond my own sphere (which sphere was that?). However, I think when we consider how science will move forward, we have to look at the problems that face us so that we know what it is we want of science today, and think about what success might look like. That isn’t to say it is impossible that some individual will indeed make a breakthrough which can be solely attributed to them. I just think it is unlikely.
Let me take the example of Alzheimer’s Disease, which was (yet again) in the press this week. Currently one of the main targets for this disease is the protein amyloid beta, which is known to be involved in the plaques found in post mortem studies of victims of the disease. But the drugs so-far designed to impact on this target have not been shown to have beneficial effects in clinical trials on humans. Maybe one day some single someone will have a genuine lightbulb moment and identify some other protein that is actually the trigger for everything that happens thereafter, or home in on some viral factor or something else totally different and currently unimaginable. But, even if this is true, this will only be recognizable as success in the public’s eyes once a huge further swathe of work has worked out how the relevant pathways can be interrupted, and what molecules can be designed to interfere with the pathway without horrendous side-effects in patients. How many individuals are likely to be involved in getting any such putative drug onto the market, accepted by the NHS and NICE etc etc? A lot. I doubt we are going to end up remembering that it was Professor M – or more likely their student – who had that breakthrough moment.
This is not a value judgement, it is a reality check. Do we do our young any favours by telling them that they need to be ivory tower thinkers waiting to leap out of a bath when inspiration strikes? Unfortunately the Primary School National Curriculum seems to be heading off in a direction which will tend to reinforce this message, with the biographies of men such as Darwin, Copernicus, Linnaeus and Neil Armstrong (I quote) intended to be introduced from the tender age of about 6, according to the draft released this summer. I foresee the Ladybird series of White Men of Science (replacing the heroic endeavours of the Walter Raleigh’s of this world I was brought up on) if we are not careful. For those who worry about such things, I can reassure you that the (lack of) diversity aspect in this list has already been drawn to the attention of the Department for Education at a ministerial meeting I attended.
I think dwelling on lone researchers is not a healthy way to teach science, and highlights to me all the more the need to remind people that ‘teams’, even if this team might number no more than 2, are a valuable and exciting way to proceed when it comes to solving problems. (Is this a gendered argument? Women are collaborative, men are competitive sort of thing? I don’t know and I really don’t want to go down that path). I was amused by one commenter (through Twitter) who named a slew of great scientists whom he claimed were of the lone genius variety. I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of all of them, but it was obvious to me that Huxley (as in Andrew, not Thomas) was intimately tied to Hodgkin so I felt this was a poor example. I tweeted back to this effect, whereupon he seemed to pair all the others off. By this point I’d lost track of his argument. The bottom line for me, though, is that big science – as exemplified by the LHC – or science done in more moderately-sized teams, is not intrinsically better or worse than lone genius science. It’s just different, but possibly more relevant to the present day. And it may be more honest to say so to the children/students we are purporting to educate.
I think what is usually required of a scientist is the ability to communicate, to listen to other people’s ideas and chip in with your own. If you go off and do your own experiment you may nevertheless be part of some big picture, particularly if you’re working in an interdisciplinary project such as must be the case for drug discovery (as with the Alzheimer’s target). But even if you’ve made a breakthrough, the road of translation into reality (be it slamminorg together elementary particles to look for the elusive Higgs, or getting a drug to market) is tortuous, may involve policy as well as technology and science, and is unlikely going to be done by that individual hero in splendid isolation.
Heroes may once have been important in science. Now their importance is as a myth, but my argument is that the utility of such a myth is dubious; it may do nothing to inspire future generations or instruct them in the reality of a life in science.
In my original piece submitted to the Telegraph, there were a number of paragraphs about policy and politicians and the importance of their role in relation to scientists. The editors decided to cut all this out to make room for other science stories of the day. I’ll save these ideas up for another time.