Heroic Genius or a Distraction from Reality?

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.

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14 Responses to Heroic Genius or a Distraction from Reality?

  1. Jenny Jones says:

    Great post and very interesting for someone like me who isn’t from a scientific background but is responsible for buying books for a primary school library. I’ve added a fabulous picture book about the life of Darwin this week, a Manga title about the life of Einstein and a beautiful picture book biography of Neil Armstrong so I’m feeling just a little bit uneasy now! Can you make some suggestions about some books that might redress this balance between science myth and reality?
    Quite a part from being a school librarian I’m also mother to a science-obsessed 6 yr old so I’d like to help him imagine as realistic vision of being a scientist as is possible. Recently we watched the landing of Curiosity and that was quite obviously a group effort and I think that must have sunk in. Likewise we have watched documentaries on the LRC and had the chance to walk through a life-sized model of part of it a few weeks ago where he met a physicist who works at CERN so hopefully he is developing a sense of reality about “being a scientist”.

  2. J Elliott says:

    When people start to learn about science, having a person to associate with a particular idea might be helpful to some, even if it is a distortion of the story of the real process of scientific discovery. It’s also a practical approach to referencing ideas.
    Learning all kinds of subjects requires people to be content to put in the work of studying and that will involve solitude. Many people prefer to study than play sports for example, so to be able to identify with key scientists rather than sports personalities may have some utility, however oversimplified it is.

  3. Dave Paisley says:

    One obvious antidote to the Neil Armstrong story (not that his isn’t a fantastic story in its own right) is the story of Apollo 13 – well told in many forms, but most obviously the Tom Hanks movie. The enormous numbers of people that are evidently a part of the whole project shows just what it takes for one person at the end to plant the flag and get all the history. (It doesn’t show what it takes to design and build and test the rockets though, mores the pity). Odd, though, that we have a great movie about the mission that failed to get there rather than the first one that did (apart from numerous documentaries). Movies need obstacles and failures to create drama, so I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise.

    And Neil Armstrong was a great guy – very unassuming. One of my favorite stories that circulated just after he passed away was this:

    Armstrong would tell terrible, unfunny jokes about he moon. When he got the inevitable blank stares and dead silence, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well, I guess you had to be there…”.

    Brilliant. I just hope that story is true.

  4. Is it true that scientists love heroes? There may be an excessive regard for reputation and ranking but most scientists I know are very much aware that science is collaborative and are not at all happy with the idea of scientific heroes. People who write about science like heroes because it allows them to impose a simple, memorable, structure on complex subject matter.

  5. Steve Eichhorn says:

    Great post and it got me thinking……I don’t think people are quite as aware as they could be about the varied ways in which ideas are formulated. We often hear the quotation “Standing on the shoulders of giants” (attributed to Bernard of Chartres) with respect to discoveries made on the foundations of great works preceeding them. This was certainly true of Einstein, but for reasons that probably get ignored. The Lorentz contraction and Fitzgerald’s work on the contraction of rods travelling through the ether were two pieces of work which pre-date Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Both of them were mathematically correct, but as I understand it, were founded on incorrect assumptions and conjectutres. It cannot be disputed that Einstein would have gained from this in some way. Often “our scientific discoveries” can be found on the basis of someone elses apparent misinterpretation, leading us to re-think the problem. This is even true of Geim and Novoselov’s recent Nobel winning prize discovery of graphene. One of the papers that they cite is one published in the journal in which I am an editor, Journal of Materials Science. Entitled “Cleavage of graphite to graphene” the paper by (a single author!) Shioyama (J Mat Sci Lett, 20, 499-500) describes a technique to, as the title would suggest, cleave single layers of graphene from graphite. The author concludes, perhaps wrongly, that they have not managed to do this and the single layers must surely scroll up into a tube – this does not happen in reality. How close to the prize you might say? Close enough for someone else to try it?

    Sometimes the rivalries between groups can lead to a rush of thought towards getting the paper out first. For the big prizes I like to think about pass the parcel. When the music stops the winner may get to peel off the last layer revealing the prize but they should remember all the others in the group who also had a hand in peeling off the layers before them.

  6. cromercrox says:

    On my first day as a cub reporter at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, the then editor, the late, great John Maddox, gave me a screed of guidance for science reporters. Near the top was the edict that the word ‘BREAKTHROUGH’ was banned. I can remember the justification almost word for word, 25 years later – most discoveries are single bricks on a wall that’s already huge. The really big discoveries might add two bricks at once.

  7. To take one of the people you mentioned: apart from his nerve work being a partnership with Alan Hodgkin (and later involving Bernard Katz too), the late Sir Andrew Huxley’s work on muscle contraction is famously associated with his collaborator Rolf Niedergerke, who also died within the last year. Andrew Huxley did almost all his notable work together with one, or sometimes two, close collaborators at any given time. And the muscle sliding filament work is associated with two simultaneous and independent two-author papers, the other coming from Hugh Huxley (no relation) and my father’s old PhD advisor Jean Hanson (more about her in an old blog of mine here).

    Anyway, I think Henry’s quote from John Maddox is spot on as to the nature of scientific discoveries. Perhaps the role of the ‘heroes’ is to give people role models and inspiring stories, though that is another debate…

  8. Excellent piece – and points well made.

    As a build I would argue the issue is often one of ego destroying or limiting discussion, ideas, creativity and enquiry. In industry, science, and commerce – its is those who are able to engage with the brilliance of others, who are able to create breakthroughs. Creativity happens in the spark as two ideas clash together. The issue with Highfield’s piece is not that it lauds great individual achievements of the past, its just that it does not put it in context. We do not live in the 19th century with frizzy haired scientists and single handed merchant adventurers.

    Yes, I love the history of pioneers, the stories and inspiration of Edison, Tesla, Marconi, Selfridge, Lipton, Ford and Whittle. But its 2012. We’re in the social age not the industrial age. Today is the era of collaboration, venture capital, free flowing media and open source. It requires a new kind of skill, a different approach – a more engaging way of working with others. Its why we’ve built training programmes and workshops to help people be better at sharing, discussing, building on ideas of others ( see – http://goo.gl/qG0x0 ).

    Recent authors such as Nilofer Merchant, Morten T Hansen, Steven Johnson and others have all commented on the need for smarter, more open relationships – and smaller, more agile teams and networks, that the individual has to learn to operate within. Those people and organisations who can do this are more likely to prosper and share their ideas. As Merchant said recently, when she discussed the death of traditional large business strategy; “in the social era, the herd of nimble gazelles is going to beat the 800 lb traditional gorilla”

    For those interested, I’ve written about this topic in my blog; http://andrewarmour.com/


    Andrew Armour

  9. Jackie Caasell says:

    I teach at a UK medical school where one of the highlights is an “Individual Research Project” in the 4th year. Except it’s not – it is proposed, supervised and supported by at least one doctor if not a whole clinical team. And many of us prefer to supervise pairs or teams of students, splitting and differentiating their search and analysis, as they learn more that way. The heroic individualist is completely embedded in our culture, and we learn to hid the collaborative instinct early on…

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