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.