Is Scientific Genius Extinct?

UC Davis professor Dean Keith Simonton argues that scientific genius as we know it is dead.

It’s a chilling thought—UC Davis psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton, who has studied the topic of genius for three decades—has just published an essay in Nature that argues that scientific genius as we know it has gone extinct. Here’s the crux of his view:

The days when a doctoral student could be the sole author of four revolutionary papers while working full time as an assistant examiner at a patent office—as Einstein did in 1905—are probably long gone. Natural sciences have become so big, and the knowledge base so complex and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors.

. . . I am not saying that scientific progress will cease. On the contrary, I believe that the scientific enterprise will continue to get “faster, higher, stronger.” . . . Just as athletes can win an Olympic gold medal by beating the world record only by a fraction of a second, scientists can continue to receive Nobel prizes for improving the explanatory breadth of theories or the preciseness of measurements. These laureates still count as ‘Olympian scientists.’

Considering that the most impressive things around us—computers, spaceships, medicine, and even the scientific method itself—are all of a century old (if that), and any of those would most certainly meet his own genius-level criteria of “original, useful, and surprising,” that’s either a very pessimistic view, or a sadly egocentric one.

Read the paper here (subscription required).

[Hat tip: Ars Technica]

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3 Comments

  • Tom Fuller

    That's the ivory tower overdosing on its own smugness. Fact is, the peer review process blocks major advances in theoretical science; if the idea is major it's assumed to be wrong, a policy which also just so happens to protect careers and grants. No way would Einstein's early papers be accepted today. See "Solutions to 5 Major Problems in Physics" for current examples of highly innovative ideas that are auto-rejected.

  • Cameron

    When Einstein said 'imagination is more important than knowledge,' I think what he meant was that imagination is required to overcome low-hanging fruit and simplistic assumptions (the big-bang comes to mind). Without Einstein's attitude, is is likely impossible for us to truly come to a complete understanding of the universe on a macro and micro level.

  • Cameron

    People don't like things that are undefined, so they latch onto the mechanistic scientism worldview, and have decided that we already know *almost* everything. Which couldn't be further from the truth. Such a view also is hostile to scientific philosophy and the original scope of science as a method of inquiry, which sadly discourages bold new ideas as heretical and lunacy.