"Is scientific genius extinct?" That's the intriguing question posed by psychologist Dean Keith Simonton in Wednesday's publication of Nature.
It's a sweeping inquiry to be sure -- one open to dispute -- but if there's one person qualified to answer it, it would probably be Simonton. A distinguished professor at UC-Davis, Simonton has devoted more than three decades to studying scientific genius, and literally wrote the book on it.
In describing scientific genius, Simonton insists that while the creative scientist contributes ideas that are original and useful, the genius scientist tenders notions that also surprise. Instead of merely extending established knowledge, the genius scientist engineers novel expertise and provokes momentous leaps.
Sadly, in Simonton's opinion, scientific genius is in short supply, and likely extinct. In his Nature commentary, he writes:
"...in my view, neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists." Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the Universe, and we can investigate the tiniest of life forms and the shortest-lived of subatomic particles. It is difficult to imagine that scientists have overlooked some phenomenon worthy of its own discipline alongside astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology... Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge."
and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to
emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many
It's true: the manner in which the majority of science is conducted today is hemmed into a set system. Mostly, it revolves around attaining funding and working together in large groups. This large, publication-centered, interconnected system, with common knowledge and set rules, has its benefits, but it also turns science into a factory. Sure, it keeps the cogs turning, but it may also hamper true creativity and genius, which, as elegantly stated by Scientific American's Ingrid Wickelgren, "depends on an unfiltered view of the world,
one that is unconstrained by preconceptions and more open to novelty."
Moreover, with such arduous competition for limited scientific funds, the pie-in-the-sky ideas that may potentially hide brilliance underneath, are often ignored, abandoned, or simply never undertaken in the first place.
Simonton's fear is that "surprising originality" is a thing of the past. We certainly aren't there yet, but we may be headed down that unfortunate path.