Science Heroes Refuse to Die

The heroic genius was always something of a myth, convenient shorthand to make it easier to make a narrative out of the act of discovery; an exciting tale, but not a very accurate depiction of how science and scientists operate. Newton wrote: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, recognising that his discoveries did not come about in isolation. Why should discovery need to be the work of a single mind to make it exciting? It will be just as important whether it is the product of one brain or one thousand.

Concentrating on the brilliance of an individual is to falsify the nature of most scientific research and mislead the aspiring scientist as to how discoveries are usually made.

Athene Donald, “In science today, a genius never works alone,” responding to Dean Keith Simonton’s article in Nature, “After Einstein: Scientific Genius is Extinct” (behind Nature’s ubiquitous paywall).

Cute little scientists working together reach the infamous apple before it falls on Newton’s equally infamous head.
Cute little scientists working together reach the infamous apple before it falls on Newton’s equally infamous head.

While Simonton, perhaps, longs for a now lost era of geniuses, Donald nicely points out that such an era never existed. Both positions run headlong into the attachment people have for the heroic myth—and despite what Roger Highfield has suggested, heroes do more for practicing scientists than they do for the general public—as many of the comments to Simonton’s Nature article suggest (the comments are not behind the paywall).

Geniuses and heroes seem woven into the fabric of science and science education: sidebars in text books offer potted biographies of this or that genius, of such and such discovery and its brilliant discoverer; discoveries are named after the person who has been given credit for that discovery; Nobel and other prizes have been and continued to be awarded to the particular scientist or few select scientists who, retrospectively, have been thought to make revolutionary (or nearly revolutionary) contributions to science.

If heroes serve scientists as much or perhaps more than the broader public (whoever that might be), then it seems we are stuck with the distorting picture of science such heroic tales present. Maybe we should wonder why scientists themselves are so fond of heroes. Maybe we should wonder about what work the myth of heroes and lone geniuses and the general hero worship does for practicing scientists.

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