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A new kind of scientific genius

According to Professor Dean Simonton, scientific genius has gone the way of the Japanese river otter. It’s a thing of the past. Unlikely to be seen again. Now the subject of historians rather than psychologists, like himself.

In a recent Nature commentary, Simonton argues that scientific genius – the individual spark that inspires new disciplines or rewrites existing ones – is no longer a feature of contemporary science. And given the structural changes that have occurred within the sciences over the past few decades, individual geniuses may never again emerge.

According to Simonton, “neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists”, not because today’s scientists are dullards, but because of where we are in the grand sweep of scientific endeavour.

Most of the low hanging fruit (apples, most likely) have been plucked, and the big revolutionary game changing ideas have already been incorporated into our understanding of the world. As such, “it is difficult to imagine that scientists have overlooked some phenomenon worth of its own discipline alongside astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology,” he says.

This means the future of science won’t be driven by wild haired geniuses but by “well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors”.

If you’re a practising researcher, you might well be prompted to get a haircut and quit your job at the patent office.

That said, I don’t think Simonton is entirely correct. He might be talking about the passing of a particular kind of scientific genius, but that doesn’t mean genius is dead, only that it has changed.

This is because science isn’t just about establishing the fundamental laws of nature. That’s only one of the many elements of scientific enquiry, if the most glamorous, and most associated with geniuses of old.

It might well have taken genius to extrapolate from seemingly unconnected phenomena – or even disparate micro-theories – to some grand unifying theory. Newton did it by connecting Kepler’s and Galelio’s laws, along with notions of inertia and observations of pendulums into his three laws of motion plus gravitation. Einstein did it again by connecting time, space and gravity. Mendeleev condensed many micro theories and patterns in chemistry into the periodic table. All were able to reduce the number of theories required to explain and predict observable phenomena. Geniuses, to be sure.

But the theory of relativity didn’t mean physicists could all go home early. The discovery of the periodic table didn’t mean chemists were suddenly out of a job.

Natural laws only make up one of many premises in scientific explanations. Certainly, they’re important – after all, being general laws, they are premises in a great many explanations – but particular cases are still crucially important. They point to the actual bits of the world we want to explain. They are the problems we actually want to solve.

And there are enough particular cases to keep scientists busy until the end of time. Some of them might even take a genius to figure out.

How consciousness emerges from electrochemical processes, for example. How three billion base pairs – only a tiny fraction of which codes for proteins – creates a living human being. How materials can be manipulated at the nanometre level to produce microprocessors with billions of transistors. What the heck is dark energy. How to mitigate the effects of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I could go on.

There’s also that old chestnut of levels of explanation. A completed Standard Model won’t tell us much about how traffic flows through a city, or how cancer forms and spreads, or the evolutionary dynamics of an ecosystem. Yet all these things are connected. Sometimes it takes genius to see how.

Finally, Simonton’s rumination could be seen as a symptom of a deeper problem with science today. It could be a hint that something is about to change.

After all, historically, it’s often right when someone raises their hand and says science is nearly complete, or that the future of science amounts to adding a few decimal places to general laws, that science undergoes one of its signature Paradigm ShiftsTM.

And I suspect that such a shift might even be quite close.

It may be the very fact that science is a collection of mostly independent ultra-specialised silos that has driven science to its genius-bereft funk. It’s hard to be creative and inspire new disciplines when you need to pigeon hole yourself in some specialisation in order to get a job as a scientist at all.

Yet even well-funded collaborative teams require a visionary leader to direct the enquiry. Maybe even a genius.

Furthermore, nature isn’t compartmentalised quite so cleanly as the taxonomy of scientific disciplines would have us believe.

Everything is interconnected, and there is still a tremendous amount of scientific endeavour remaining to connect all the pieces together. This is something I’ve referred to in the past as Synthesis, and it’s something that I suspect could trigger a whole slew of paradigm shifting revelations about the workings of the natural world, writ large and small.

Simonton might be correct that a particular stereotype of scientific genius has passed. But I think it’s premature to declare that genius is extinct. It might just be resting its eyes. It seems to me that there’s still a lot left to do, and we need all the geniuses we can get to make those bold and creative conceptual leaps in order to do it.

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