|How many scientists does it take to make a discovery?||
Ask people to conjure up an image of a scientist and Albert Einstein is most likely to pop into their head. The iconic image is of a lone genius beavering away in some secluded room until that familiar equation – E=mc2 – crystallized in his brain sufficiently to be written down. I very much doubt doing science was ever quite like that, but it is even more unlikely to apply now.
Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, the three-part series currently running on the Discovery Channel, includes vignettes of many of the famous historical names of science: Einstein is there, as are Galileo, Newton and Descartes. They are all, says Hawking, his heroes and in each case their work is identified with them as individuals. But move into the 20th and 21st centuries and the famous names are no longer necessarily singletons.
Discoveries are more likely to be the work of teams which, as in the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), may number hundreds, if not thousands.
One of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century is the code of life residing in the DNA double helix. In this case, the discovery was undoubtedly not linked to a lone brain puzzling things out in solitude.
Instead, as James Watson so memorably described in the book The Double Helix, he and Francis Crick tossed ideas around in a Cambridge pub and constructed physical models in the lab.
These models helped them visualize ways in which the molecules making up DNA might pack in order to fit with the high quality X-ray patterns they’d been secretly shown by Maurice Wilkins. These had been obtained by the fourth crucial player in the discovery, Rosalind Franklin.
So, the work was carried out in essence, even if not in any formal sense, by an interdisciplinary team of four: two crystallographers (Wilkins and Franklin), a biologist (Crick) and a physicist (Watson).
Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-winning American chemist, did try to solve the same problem earlier, but failed, publishing a paper with a fundamental error (in bond angles) which might well have been spotted by a collaborator.
Diversity of approaches
There is strength in a diversity of approaches and trying to tackle a problem from a single viewpoint, or discipline, today may well be insufficient to achieve the necessary breakthrough. I believe the age of the lone hero(ine) scientist is past. The challenges we face are so multi-faceted and vast that no single mind can encompass all that is needed.
I can hear the alert reader asking, “But what about the Higgs Boson? That was dreamed up by a single man: Peter Higgs.” Well, no. There were several theorists all working on this problem simultaneously (this was 50 years ago).
It wasn’t feasible to name the particle after all of them, but that is not to say they didn’t all make serious contributions. This is a problem that is likely to cause the Nobel Prize Committee a headache when it comes to working out which of them are to win the prize; the rules restrict it to a maximum of three individuals. But it’s not just theorists who contributed to the “discovery” of the Higgs Boson. None of them would be in the running for the prize if it weren’t for the multi-disciplinary, international teams that built the LHC. Such large teams are increasingly typical of the way the major breakthroughs are being made.
The Human Genome Project and its successor, Encode, again involve large, multi-disciplinary, international collaborations, the consequences of which have the potential to affect every one of us.
We can look forward to a day of personalized medicine, when treatment is prescribed and optimized according to our specific genes. It will be a while before we reach that point and there are challenges, many of which do not reside in pure science.
We have to consider how to progress from scientific discovery to an end product tailored to the individual. Thus the science is only the beginning of a long process, which has little to do with lone genius and much to do with the D phase of R&D (Research and Development).
The days of the gentleman scientist who could study at his leisure, working in isolation are not likely to be regained.
The heroic genius of popular imagination needs to be consigned to where it belongs, history.
Increasingly the norm is, and will continue to be, to work in multi-disciplinary teams. Even once the scientific breakthroughs are made, that is only the beginning.
Development of ideas into something useful for mankind takes many more people beyond those unraveling the underlying science.
With ever greater urgency, it also requires the involvement and understanding of both policy-makers and the general public; without this comprehension many promising lines of enquiry may never get translated into reality.
(Source: Daily Telegraph)
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