Is the scientific genius on the brink of extinction?

Take a random article from a random renowned scientific journal and there’s a good chance its title is preceded by a large number of authors. It seems ages ago a doctor to be published revolutionary findings on his own, US professor Dean Simonson argued in Nature last week. He doubts there will ever be another Einstein. But isn’t that a common fear? And is it really that bad scientists are now team players?

“There still are brilliant scientists, every single one of them a genius, but they’re just not as well-known as Einstein”, says Martin Peterson, associate professor at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences (E&IS). He starts off right away. “Grigory Perelman is a Russian mathematician who solved one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems. On his own. The people who discovered graphene, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. Or take biochemist Kary Mullis -a Nobel Prize laureate- who developed the polymerase chain reaction, a technique to replicate DNA. I could go on.”

“A genius has original, innovative ideas that are trailblazing in their area of expertise. The current scientific climate has many people working together in extensive research projects. But more often than not there’s only a small group of scientists who initiated the project, and trust me, they won’t die out anytime soon.”

“I don’t mind the increasing collaboration. Problems can be so complex and experiments so elaborate that research benefits from combined expertise and varying viewpoints. One thing does not exclude the other anyway. Take the Higgs research project. The initial theory about this special particle was drafted by an Italian physicist in the thirties, a lone wolf. Still, it took a whole bunch of scientists to prove the actual existence of the Higgs particle.”

“The media have their own definition of a genius, by the way. Everyone knows the photo of Einstein with his hair in disarray and him sticking out his tongue. Geniuses are supposed to be eccentric and weird. And although Gregory Perelman and Kary Mullis may fit that profile, there are ‘normal’ geniuses out there, too. They’re not as interesting to the general public, but does that mean people are only geniuses if the media recognizes them as such?

“There are many things that are yet to be discovered, including lots of brilliant findings. The fact so many scientific phenomena have already been described doesn’t change that. I do think there will be a shift towards applied sciences. A Higgs particle doesn’t really rouse me, but a Majorana fermion enabling the development of a superfast quantum computer certainly does. Applicability is key, it’s obvious in grant applications as well. And unfortunately, money is becoming an increasingly important factor in the science arena. Despite that, revolutionary findings can be done without lots of money, although those are often done by our more eccentric colleagues. I feel it’s our task as a university to create an atmosphere where geniuses-to-be are free to be ‘different’. Brilliant eccentricity must be cherished in the name of science!”

Share this article