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The End of Individual Genius?

Soulskill posted more than 5 years ago | from the at-least-until-zefram-cochrane dept.

Math 364

An anonymous reader writes "A recent study suggests the downfall of individual researchers, who are being rapidly replaced by enormous research groups. Quoting: '... in recent decades — especially since the Soviet success in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 — the trend has been to create massive institutions that foster more collaboration and garner big chunks of funding. And it is harder now to achieve scientific greatness. A study of Nobel Prize winners in 2005 found that the accumulation of knowledge over time has forced great minds to toil longer before they can make breakthroughs. The age at which thinkers produce significant innovations increased about six years during the 20th century.'"

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In elemental news (4, Insightful)

smitty_one_each (243267) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110333)

The molecule claims to trump the atom.

Re:In elemental news (4, Insightful)

Gerzel (240421) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110997)

Please. It has pretty much always been like this. The more brains you have on a project generally means the faster it gets done(note I did say Generally).

Even many of our great inventors are often given credit as individuals when really they were working as heads of larger teams. Edison comes to mind. And while we contribute relativity to Einstein it was large teams of people that actually got nuclear power working and confirmed his ideas. Darwin nearly got scooped by another man for natural selection(or natural preservation as he(Darwin) would have preferred), even if the other guy hadn't done his work nearly as throughly.

In the end while there are often genius individuals none of them work in a vacuum and there are often many people around them working towards similar ends.

I believe a wise man once said... (5, Insightful)

geekmux (1040042) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110349)

None of us are as dumb as all of us.

Re:I believe a wise man once said... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110569)

None of us are as dumb as all of us.

I'm not so sure about that. We should probably form a committee to figure out if that interesting quote is true or not. Either way, we'll end up being right.

Re:I believe a wise man once said... (1)

dimeglio (456244) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110675)

I think it's really just a question of genetics and natural selection. Selective breeding is the likely answer. Now take off your lab coats and start towars (wherever smart girls hang out).
$1: if anyone knows where that is, you have evolved a mutation that might save us all!

Re:I believe a wise man once said... (4, Insightful)

aliquis (678370) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110761)

The smart girls most likely hang around at the same place as the smart boys, don't ask me why you never meet one of them.

Re:I believe a wise man once said... (4, Funny)

bsDaemon (87307) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110849)

They don't allow talking in the library, 'tis why.

Re:I believe a wise man once said... (1)

aliquis (678370) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110859)

So start throwing paper balls at her!

Kids nowadays, know nothing about attraction...

good! (5, Insightful)

thermian (1267986) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110377)

It may sound romantic that a lone genius comes along and changes everything, but its not a good thing in practice, nor, for the most part, is it even true.

There have been great people that came along and made breakthroughs, but always this was the result of their building work of others.
The myth of the lone scientist is just that, a myth. Newton, to pick an example of the 'great man working alone' wasn't the only one working in his field, he just 'rewrote' a lot of history to make this seem the case. We don't even use his version of calculus, but everyone still credits him.

Einstein too extended the work of many others. He did a lot of thinking on his own, but everything he did was an extension of the work of others. I'm not saying he wasn't smart, he was, but how much faster would his work have arrived had he been working in a group the whole time?

This trend of working in groups can do naught but good.

Re:good! (2, Insightful)

liquidpele (663430) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110397)

I think another aspect is that type of breakthrough. If the breakthrough is more of a theory or proof, it's much easier to do as a single person and, say, developing the silicon transistor. I think as scientific ideas stabilize, you'll see more and more research being to do more complicated things that an individual would be hard pressed to do alone.

Re:good! (3, Interesting)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110549)

If it's a proof, I'll bet you 10-to-1 that the real business of proving it was done by a computer, not by a human.

And in fact most discoveries these days are really done by computers, not by humans.

Just like building design (and esp. bridge design). Most of the work is done by programs. Chip design ... again ... mostly done by computers. Designing electrical or gasoline engines ... done by computers.

The list goes on. Humans are still a critical part of "the loop", but their importance is dropping lower every year.

Of course the reverse is also true. Computers are responsible for an ever bigger part of the "loop" from discovery to production. But they're a loooong way from completing the chain.

Re:good! (3, Insightful)

theaveng (1243528) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110633)

"That's soooo depressing."
- Marvin the Paranoid Android

I don't want to be just a robot that serves the computers. If my life is that unimportant than I might as well turn Amish and become a farmer.

Re:good! (1)

unlametheweak (1102159) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110665)

As long as you get to tell the computers what to do then you should just relax and exploit them to their maximum benefit. Don't give them to much power or self-awareness and they won't become as arrogant as the people who created them.

Re:good! (5, Funny)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110653)

If you start using buildings that are designed by computers, they will really be designed by programmers.

Which is terrifying.

Re:good! (5, Funny)

Oktober Sunset (838224) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110763)

Ha, I can still draw a schematic without my computer, but when I'm not around my computer just sits there and does nothing.

So who's the fucking daddy?? *gives computer a bitchslap* WHO'S THE FUCKING DADDY??

Re:good! (5, Interesting)

thermian (1267986) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110811)

If it's a proof, I'll bet you 10-to-1 that the real business of proving it was done by a computer, not by a human.

And in fact most discoveries these days are really done by computers, not by humans.

You've not quite got that right. Some problems can only be solved in reasonable time with computers, some hypothesis confirmations can also only be done in reasonable time with computers. That doesn't mean that the algorithms aren't the result of many hours of human work.

The hypothesis in my Ph.D thesis was demonstrated as being valid through use of computers. It took me two years to come up with the underlying principles, and weeks for the computer to crunch its way to the answer. The computer found that I was correct, but only through applying my algorithm.

That's how things work these days.

Re:good! (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110889)

IMHO it would be more depressing if humans were still wasting time doing computationally intensive/iterative calculations by hand, like solving statically indeterminate rigid beam structures like bridges. There are some tasks that computers are VERY well suited for, and this is one of them. It still takes a human to look at the results and make the determination that they are valid, relevant and reasonably accurate. FEA is another good example of this. Sure, the computer can generate a very pretty picture of von Mises stress distribution over a body, but it can't tell you whether or not it's accurate. Humans have creativity and judgment, computers have computational power; we need to remember our strengths, and use computers for theirs.

Re:good! (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110563)

"I think as scientific ideas stabilize"

This idea of stabilizing could actually be more like the old saying "Familiarity breeds contempt". As more people become familiar with the subject, new advances don't seem as important as the earlier advances, (even though the new advances could actually be very important in advancing the field).

Also its much easier to look back in hindsight, to see existing advances were historically important. We can't do that with new advances (yet). Only in hindsight can many people see some advance were important.

These (as the title says) "Individual Geniuses" are the few who can see something new is going to be fundamentally important (which is why they research it). Most people don't have that kind of foresight (or more to the point, don't have such deep knowledge of a field, to give them that kind of foresight). Most people need hindsight to see something was important.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

The majority of the people start by ignoring the importance of breathroughs. I find it facinating reading up on the history of technology and science from centuries ago. What Mahatma Gandhi said was so true (and still is so true). This same pattern of human behavior repeats throughout the history of human progress.

Re:good! (1)

theaveng (1243528) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110683)

I just finished a book by Lee Smolin (physicist) in which he argues that Physics has not advanced since circa 1980. No new discoveries have been found since that time, even though thousands of physicists have been creating grandiose equations.

He compares this current period (1980-2008) to the Middle Ages when scientists wasted time calculating how many Angels can dance on the head of a pin. A lot of effort and number-crunching and elaborate equation-massaging which signifies nothing.

He said what Physics needs is another paradigm shift, like when Newton declared there are no such thing as "perfect heavenly bodies" - that all matter is the same. Until that happens, we will be stuck in a kind of limbo.

Re:good! (2, Insightful)

loonycyborg (1262242) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110403)

There have been great people that came along and made breakthroughs, but always this was the result of their building work of others.

You're confusing things here. Working alone doesn't preclude you from building on other people's work, while working in group often does due to NIH etc.

Charisma makes you famous (1)

unlametheweak (1102159) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110437)

He who markets the idea first reaps the rewards. Sales is everything. Humility and hard work are for the proletariat.

Re:good! (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110511)

>There have been great people that came along and made breakthroughs, but always this was the result of their building work of others.

Of course, but the others weren't a moving target. Depending on how you define "working in a group", you could make all of humanity being one group and obviously everyone works in a group, then.

Point is, when you "work alone", you don't have to argue with others and get them to understand your viewpoint about the theory. If you try to understand their viewpoint, it isn't "A" today but "B" tomorrow (and if it is, you ignore them until they decided it themselves - something you usually can't do in a "official" small group you are part of).

>Einstein too extended the work of many others. He did a lot of thinking on his own, but everything he did was an extension of the work of others.

>I'm not saying he wasn't smart, he was, but how much faster would his work have arrived had he been working in a group the whole time?

Much much slower.

No, really. I'm all for working in groups but working out fields in theoretical physics is something you wouldn't be able to do in a group in any reasonable time frame. Apart from the social problems (whose idea was "it"?), too many cooks spoil the soup and you end up with frankentheory, if anything.

In Experimental Physics, I'm all for it. A million monkeys on a million typewriters......

Re:good! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110555)

Individuality is still an important aspect of the creative process to protect. However, it can easily be protected if the group is structured properly. The problem comes when a genius worker must obey the parameters laid down by a decisively non-genius project manager who has too much say. But if individual creativity is allowed to have its full expression within the group...no problem.

Re:good! (5, Insightful)

kumanopuusan (698669) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110573)

Don't bother to mod me up, but the parent should be modded down. Newton is the perfect example of an individual genius, and he changed the world drastically, irrevocably and all by himself. "Everyone still credits" Newton because the calculus wasn't even his biggest accomplishment. He invented classical mechanics by himself. There is no dispute about it.

The greatest minds in the rest of the world were decades behind him, so it's hard to imagine what group he should have been working with. It wasn't just the case with Newton either. Gauss discovered non-Euclidean geometry 30 years before it was published anywhere else.

Before you claim that Newton and Gauss were lying, consider that they didn't have any reason to. Without claiming credit for calculus, Newton would still be the most influential physicist of all time, and there was no peer to Gauss.

I'll admit that for all the rest of us, working in groups will help immensely, but let's not shackle the few truly exceptional people that exist to the mediocre. The solution here is for us not to pretend we're geniuses. Just because it's encouraging to pretend that Newton is just like the rest of us, doesn't mean we should be so dishonest as to pretend it's true.

Re:good! (4, Insightful)

timeOday (582209) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110901)

Newton and Gauss don't prove the value of lone-wolf researchers in modern times, which I take to be the point of the story. These days, many, many more people have access to information and the material means to spend a good chunk of time thinking. That makes it much, much harder to stand head and shoulders above the crowd. The easy discoveries have been made - nobody is going to be immortalized for discovering that distance = acceleration * time^2 these days. Einstein himself called Newton lucky because "there is only one Universe to discover and he did it."

Re:good! (4, Insightful)

m_cuffa (632043) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110911)

Newton was truly exceptional and head and shoulders above most if not all scientists of his age, but he did not work alone. He worked closely and/or drew on the work of Halley, Huygens, Leibniz, to name but a few, and his work built on the earlier work of Kepler and Brahe. The romanticized notion of the lone scientist toiling away in his lab is really a myth. Science has always been collaborative.

"If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
- Isaac Newton

"To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. 'Tis much better to do a little with certainty, & leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing."
- Isaac Newton

groupthink requires (the luxury called) consensus. (2, Insightful)

boombaard (1001577) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110643)

You seem to be leaving little room for ideas that aren't generally accepted by the field you're working in.
How likely would it have been that those guys would've been allowed to reformulate their contemporary thinking in the way they thought best if they'd have been forced to justify everything immediately to their colleagues? All this may work fine in periods of evolutionary growth of a theory (or complex of theories), but it seems rather less workable if and when people get stuck. (this is not to say that both these things can't be looked into by different researchers simultaneously, one still working and adding to the old paradigm while the other might be reformulating it, but the point you're making sort of ignores the aspect of office politics.)
"string theory" might be one such example.

Re:good! (1)

expatriot (903070) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110649)

My personal measure of Great Genius, is how far they were ahead of their contempories.

Most of the breakthroughs in the 19th and 20th centuries were either pure engineering where engineering alone would have eventually caught up even if performed by average scientists.

Determining the speed of light is constant in a vacume (engineering), determining the chromosome structure (would have been done eventually by better scanners and computers), atomic bomb (engineering), integrated circuit (engineering).

Rembrant (genius), Newton (mostly genius, far ahead of his time, but others were working on calculus for example)

The need for genius is to breakup group think and complacency. A secondary value is to provide inspiration to others that follow after to dream of their own accomplishments.

Re:good! (1)

russotto (537200) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110819)

Determining the speed of light is constant in a vacume (engineering)

Err, no. Mathematics. Engineering can only verify that the speed of light is constant within some error -- which they already had by the time Einstein came around (Michelson-Morely). Einstein made the insightful observation that Maxwell's equations, along with the principle that physical laws do not change based on your reference frame, implied that the speed of light was constant in any reference frame. And then there's general relativity...

determining the chromosome structure (would have been done eventually by better scanners and computers)

Without having any idea what to look for? I think not.

atomic bomb (engineering)

The bomb itself is engineering. The discovery of the nuclear chain reaction, on the other hand, was physics, 20th century physics.

integrated circuit (engineering).

Perhaps, but the transistor itself? Lots of basic physics there. You also seem to have missed quantum mechanics and the Big Bang.

Rembrant (genius)

Perhaps, but not scientific genius.

Re:good! (1)

Cally (10873) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110659)

I was just reading an interesting piece [realclimate.org] on the media presentation of stories relating to consensus vs. the "lone genius":

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it's clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story.

1 lone scientist's view atop shoulders of giant's (1)

An dochasac (591582) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110757)

Indeed, most think of me as a lone indeed, "mad" scientist, alas it was not so. For when I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy's apprehensions as tyros engaged in the same pursuit... ...But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became their disciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the eighteenth century; but while I followed the routine of education in the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self-taught with regard to my favourite studies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child's blindness, added to a student's thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frahn-kehn-steen)

Genius matters. (1)

tjstork (137384) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110773)

You know it may be true that the Genius incorporates the work of others, but, there's usually a piece of insight that they arrive at, sometimes exhaustingly, that other people simply cannot grasp or see and in fact will even argue with the line of thought right up until it is proved.

Groups tend to push people down to a common denominator of thought. You eliminate the pursuit of "wild ideas" and get locked into dogma, and wind up accomplishing nothing. Could a committee have made the insight to invent the calculus and use it then to explain the laws of motion? I don't think so. In fact, the committee of the day more or less threw its hands up at the problem and delegated it to Newton.

Please show me the committee that could have delivered Beethoven's 9th, A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall, Newton's Principia, Einstein's Relativity, and other number of breakthroughs great and small. It doesn't exist.

Newton invented F=ma, Optics, and Calculus (4, Insightful)

drerwk (695572) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110897)

Newton and Leibniz may well have invented calculus independently. And I'd like to know which version you use, because Newton introduced the product rule, the chain rule, the notion of higher derivatives, Taylor series, and analyticity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calculus [wikipedia.org] We don't use his notation, but that is a small difference.

You do a real injustice to suggest that math was "his field", as he invented calculus to help him invent classical mechanics. He invented F=ma. Not until Einstien 200 years latter was that improved upon significantly. He invented color theory. Which led him to construct the Newtonian telescope to remove the chromatic aberration his color theory implied.
And, thanks to his use of Newtons's rings to measure the quality of the mirrors he was grinding to build his telescope, they were the best telescopes available in the day.

If he was not a Genius, then there have never been any.

Re:good! (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110907)

Nikola Tesla... The exception that proves your rule perhaps? And don't jump on the fact that he worked for Thomas Edison either, because a lot of Tesla's ideas were at odds with what Edison thought (See AC vs. DC for the national power grid). It's true that he did not discover the electron and that people like Micheal Faraday made huge break throughs with electricity before Tesla came along, but you can't say that he was stealing anyone's ideas, or that his discoveries and ideas were small hops forward.

Similar conclusions from bibliometrics (3, Interesting)

haluness (219661) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110379)

Studies in bibliometrics also seem to indicate this pattern - not the genius aspect but the fact that many high profile or high impact papers are collaborations. In general the number of single author papers has declined.

http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue2/walsh.html [indiana.edu]

Re:Similar conclusions from bibliometrics (5, Insightful)

YourExperiment (1081089) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110515)

It's possible that this is due in part to the sheer amount of bureaucracy that goes on in academia these days. Perhaps these collaborative papers are written by one genius, backed up by one or more people who know how to secure the funding and generally get things done.

Re:Similar conclusions from bibliometrics (5, Insightful)

JDevers (83155) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110545)

I can certainly back this up, from my experience the first author on a paper does 80% of the work, the next few work in the same lab and contributed in some minor way and the last few are the people you put on the grant application to have any chance of getting money.

Easier to put someone's name on than say "No" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110577)

Far far easier to put someone's name on the paper than say "No".

Common courtesy to build everyone's resume/CV. Hell we are all gaming the system together.
Christ, go ahead and put the janitor's name on there.

Re:Similar conclusions from bibliometrics (3, Interesting)

Sockatume (732728) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110657)

Indeed, it is a commonly-known fact that the lowest-ranking member of any research group does 80% of the work, by the magic of delegation.

Re:Similar conclusions from bibliometrics (4, Informative)

ettlz (639203) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110717)

I can certainly back this up, from my experience the first author on a paper does 80% of the work, the next few work in the same lab and contributed in some minor way and the last few are the people you put on the grant application to have any chance of getting money.

I can't back that up at all.

In all the papers to which I contributed, the names were in alphabetical order.

Correlation not causation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110595)

This article is based on academic science papers published in the last 30 years. TFA states that government sponsored research essentially began in the early 50's. Could the increase in collaboration shown in your article be due to increases in government sponsored research rather than fundamental in the complexity of science as your article suggests?

"Correlation does not equal causation."

Work is play (3, Insightful)

Samschnooks (1415697) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110385)

...the ingredients of a great and productive mind: cognitive abilities, educational opportunities, interest, and plain old hard work.

When you really love to do something, work and play become the same thing. Many of the great scientists didn't have to force themselves to do the work.

The Wisdom of Groups (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110395)

groups tend to be smarter than any individual member.
The trouble is that they also give us the 1929, 1987, and whenever the last stock Market crash was.

Re:The Wisdom of Groups (4, Insightful)

Eudial (590661) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110459)

groups tend to be smarter than any individual member.
The trouble is that they also give us the 1929, 1987, and whenever the last stock Market crash was.

In my experience, groups tend to be dumber than any individual member. Being accused of groupthink [wikipedia.org] is not a compliment.

Re:The Wisdom of Groups (0)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110517)

... groups tend to be dumber than any individual member. Being accused of groupthink is not a compliment.

Isn't that an example of groupthink? Or did you "critically test, analyze, and evaluate" this idea?

I'd ask a group, but they're too stupid ...

(the housing bubble, Wall Street, gov't bailouts, etc. - provide enough real-life examples that the herd are just a bunch of dumb-as-shit cows :-)

Re:The Wisdom of Groups (2, Informative)

unlametheweak (1102159) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110645)

Groups tend to be a moderating influence on the individual. So extremes of genius and stupidity are tempered by peer pressure. In small groups it can be presumed (at least) that compatible mindsets of genius can outmatch individual mindsets of genius. Groupthink is only (wholly) bad if the premise of thought is flawed.

For "scientists" groupthink shouldn't even be an issue because "Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas." (Ref. Wikipedia). A group of individual scientists by definition would be the antithesis of Group Think, though irrationality often trumps education and ideals.

Having alternative opinions and personalities is often better than following one bad or mediocre idea. In business however, things are often dictatorial and goals are driven by shareholders whose goals are only abstractly reflected in a balance sheet.

Re:The Wisdom of Groups (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110579)

groups tend to be smarter than any individual member.
The trouble is that they also give us the 1929, 1987, and whenever the last stock Market crash was.

In my experience, groups tend to be dumber than any individual member. Being accused of groupthink [wikipedia.org] is not a compliment.

All the research says you are wrong. But then I suppose that is just "groupthink".

If you read the definition of "groupthink" you might have recognized that it has nothing to do with collective intelligence, but the tendency of social groups not to think or welcome thinking outside the box.

There is good reason for collaborative research. In fact, its always worked that way. Einstein's theory of relativity was a result of collaboration with some of the best minds in Europe. There were even suggestions that parts of it were appropriated from others.

What has changed is the ability of those minds to closely collaborate in ways that used to require physical presence or reading papers that were exchanged over distance. Modern technology has made those collaborations immediate and made it much harder to separate one person's from the rest of the group's.

Re:The Wisdom of Groups (4, Insightful)

Software Geek (1097883) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110691)

In my experience, even though groups are dumber than any individual member, individuals are smarter when they are in groups.

Individuals rarely challenge their own assumptions. Just having someone to listen to your ideas and ask a few pointed questions can save a huge amount of time wasted in unproductive directions.

It is when a group keeps steering you back to the same bad assumptions that it makes you dumber.

Re:The Wisdom of Groups (1)

CBravo (35450) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110561)

Since the 'scientific process' (not the outcome) can contain subjective elements one can state that 'the wisdom of groups' (aka concensus) can hinder it. I would think that especially revolutionary thoughts are hindered by this mechanism.

PS the story is _exactly_ the reason why I did not choose to become a researcher.

PS2 Currently, universities (in the Netherlands) are more school than university.

Every invention is Obvious with enough thought (2, Funny)

unlametheweak (1102159) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110401)

If somebody wouldn't have invented the wheel before me then I would have become quite famous, although I'm sure the venture capitalists would have stolen the company from under my feet and probably sold my ideas to the Big Three.

So we should have been using tin-foil hats ... (0, Offtopic)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110415)

especially since the Soviet success in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957

It doesn't take a genius to see the connection - rays from the satellites are making us dumb!

Want proof? Look at the stupidity on satellite TV - 837 channels and nothing on.

... and the gubbermint conspired to make things worse - with the switch-over to digital broadcasting, the poor could have been FREE - but no, they gave subsidies for set-top conversion boxes so even the poor will remain in thrall.

It's all a plot to cover up the climate change caused by all those rocket launches!

(All kidding aside, what sort of sense of "entitlement" do you have to have to feel that people need to be given set-top boxes? Stupid politicians. Then again, it's OPM - Other People's Money. Bail out the broadcasters. Bail out the banks. Bail out the worst car manufacturer in a century. Where the #@%! is MY bailout?

It's always like that... (1)

Vo1t (1079521) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110429)

Exceptional entity requires support of other individuals in order to be elevated to glory. Be it science, presidential election or showbusiness. It is not a new thing, in fact it is older than ancient Rome and Greece. Nothing to see here, move along.

Genius needs quick failures (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110433)

The ability to fail QUICKLY and move on is largely gone. It takes much longer to do innovation when the ability to test and fail takes so long. Next thing you know you are 30 years old and past your prime and have only failed a few times. Lots of small but quick failures is the way to go. Can't do that by committee.

Ha! (4, Funny)

OpenSourced (323149) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110435)

Happens to me too! I'm as smart as, like, Einstein, but everything I can think of, is already invented, or something. I was just born late, I guess.

Re:Ha! (2, Interesting)

dword (735428) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110827)

Actually, I've "invented" lots of things when I was younger but nobody believed they could work so nobody helped me in any way. In the past few years, I've seen dozens of contraptions similar to mine and that have quite a lot of success. The 3D crime scene scanner is one example, which creates a 3D copy of a crime scene for later analysis. Another might be the water condensator I've seen on /. a few weeks ago, trying to condensate water vapors from the air and store it for later use when the atmosphere is too dry to get any water from it. There are many many other cool things I thought of, but because I didn't have any kind of support from others, I couldn't actually build them.

In today's society, it's very difficult to accomplish anything on your own.

A Recent Study... (3, Interesting)

Zephiris (788562) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110469)

A recent study suggests that there are too many recent studies.

Eh. Whatever happened to multiple studies, or recurring studies over a longer period of time?

All you ever hear these days is 'a recent study', as if the mere fact that one group of researchers came up with it, it's golden fact.

Mind, it's a group of researchers...basically saying that group-research mentality is where it's at and that individual pioneers are all but over. Isn't that the fox guarding the hen house? ^^;

A great many studies are also done by fringe researchers, or paid for/sponsored by companies. If any news source runs with it, there often seems to be little (if any) fact checking done to make sure it's legit, and we never hear about/keep tabs on who is behind the studies. So you always here the 'a recent study suggests' part, but you never hear everyone else in the scientific/research community laughing or ignoring it because it's a joke.

Of course research groups would find out that research groups are great at research. Would Stephen Hawking find that Stephen Hawking is great at theoretical cosmology research?

Always take studies with a side of common sense and skepticism, particularly if there's not a fair mountain of corroboration.

Obviously (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110471)

" The age at which thinkers produce significant innovations increased about six years during the 20th century.'"

Tell me about it- I have been working on this post since 2002. Sheeesh.

"The End of Evil Genius" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110477)

I read the topic as "The End of Evil Genius"...of course that would be the most interesting topic heading for a /. article in a while...

Good or Bad? (1)

RAMMS+EIN (578166) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110479)

"... in recent decades especially since the Soviet success in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 the trend has been to create massive institutions that foster more collaboration and garner big chunks of funding."

Put that way, it sounds like a Good Thing. More collaboration? Good! Funding? Good! Especially if working in such an institution means the scientists don't have to spend as much time and energy securing funding, and can spend it on research instead.

Duh. (1)

LurkerXXX (667952) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110493)

At one time (the Renaissance) it was possible for one person to know all the science was known at the time. It's hardly surprising that as we accumulate more and more knowledge it takes longer to learn disparate facts that might be needed to make a leap. And that a group might tend to bring that knowledge together when a single person might not have all of them alone.

A few things not considered here (4, Interesting)

Rastl (955935) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110519)

Of course, I didn't RTFA but this is /. so when has that ever stopped anyone from commenting?

Standardized education has extended its tentacles farther and farther. And since it's .. standardized .. you get less chance of anyone standing out. That's kind of against the entire idea of standardized education. Smear all those little minds in to one mildly mediocre band of test results. So now you have brilliant children having to work twice as hard just to be themselves.

Companies (and universities) own your soul. You can't come up with a great idea on your lunch break - it's not your idea. You might get to put your name on the list of people who worked on it but the company/university is going to take the credit and the money.

Take away the precocious youth and the curious adult and you lose the independent researcher.

I won't even get into extended lifespans, artificially extended childhood or a whole host of other, related societal issues.

Sputnik? (1)

MLCT (1148749) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110523)

I don't really see what Sputnik has to do with much - scientific, quasi political, enterprises have always required large-scale collaboration. The Apollo program was the same. Those activities were all government sponsored and government defined, not day-to-day inquisitive experimental science. CERN's goals are defined and executed by scientists, not by politicians (they just fund them, the same way they fund all public science).

There is truth in the message that large collaborations are becoming more common, and individual scientific achievements less (there are very few individual author papers in experimental science these days), but that is due to the nature of experimental science. The ability to execute world-revolutionary science in a small lab is becoming much much harder. The minutiae of nature is where most work is done, and minutiae now quite often requires large, expensive and extremely complex experiments. Measuring the mass of an electron can be done on a table with an oil drop experiment. Measuring the products of GeV collisions of hadrons requires CERN.

bureaucracy (3, Insightful)

owlnation (858981) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110531)

Working in groups is fine as long as there's relative freedom to work. The problem with institutionalized anything is that there's always more bureaucracy to suck up time away from creative progress. While status reports and performance reviews might be less in the academic world (I don't know if they are or not) than in the corporate world, I'm sure they are still a time-wasting headache.

I'm fairly sure the human race would be significantly more advanced if someone could travel back in time and assassinate Bismark. Both private and public sectors would be dramatically more productive if they didn't have to report progress, make funding proposals to the same extent, and handle human resources nonsense. This is the only reason why two guys in a garage can start a massive software company, and that same company stagnates and treads water after 8-10 years of existence.

Bureaucracy, middle managers, and human resources are the single biggest drain on human advancement.

Two guys... (1)

NotQuiteReal (608241) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110959)

You start with two guys who have lots of (pick some) brains, luck, tenacity, etc...

As you add people to the enterprise, generally you will pick up "normal" people and experience regression toward the mean.

After that you bring on the bureaucrats to wrangle the herd and it goes down hill from there.

Counter-argument: scientist in a sea of ideas (5, Insightful)

Morgaine (4316) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110551)

In my view, TFA has got it very wrong because the writer has romanticized a fictitious "lone scientist" into existence. In reality, so-called "lone scientists" never work or think alone at all, and they never have. Instead, scientific thinking always takes place within an international sea of ideas.

Throughout all of history, scientific progress has always occurred within a framework of communication between thinking people, and those thought processes arise out of education in the relevant subjects followed by extremely extensive reading and discussing of ideas with others. New scientific insight has never popped out of nothing by some sort of magic. Novel ideas arise only by alternative analysis of other people's published or communicated thoughts.

Instead of the lone scientist being at a disadvantage now versus large organized groups, the opposite may even be true because of the Internet. Never before have lone individuals had so much up-to-date information at their disposal (including research data), and never before have they had the means to communicate with others so easily. This suggests that the lone scientist has a lot going for him or her today, at least in part.

Science contains two parts however, a theoretical one and an experimental one, and there is no doubt that the experimental side of science benefits hugely from good funding. However, you need the germ of a new idea before you can turn it into a theory let alone test it, and new ideas don't spring up directly through funding --- it's a more complex relationship.

Large research groups certainly provide a good environment for high-bandwidth scientific discussion among peers in a scientific discipline, but even those scientists will be communicating with others worldwide, particularly through conferences and publications, and so they're still adding to the international sea of ideas which is the real bedrock of science. Things haven't really changed much.

Re:Counter-argument: scientist in a sea of ideas (1)

bob.appleyard (1030756) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110679)

The lone scientist was not the article's myth. It's a common by-product of the manner in which the history of science is discussed.

Not "age at which thinkers produce innovations.." (4, Insightful)

StupendousMan (69768) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110553)

... but "the age at which researchers have built up large research teams to carry out projects for which they (for the most part) acquire funding."

In other words, eighty years ago, a 30-year old physicist and a technician or two could build a device to study the absorption of X-rays by various elements. The resulting publications might win a Nobel Prize.

These days, a 30-year old physicist is working as a post-doc in someone else's lab. He won't by the leading author on the grant proposal to design a new detector for CERN -- some 50-year old with an established track record will be. That 50-year old guy will probably still be alive when the detector is finally built and goes into action. He MIGHT still be alive when the Nobel Prize committee gets around to considering the results of the research.

If you think this is lamentable, ask yourself about bridges. How many people design and build large highway bridges BY THEMSELVES these days? None. Do you long for the days, millenia ago, when a single man, or perhaps a man and his brothers, might construct a bridge to span the local creek?

Practical architecture has become too big for one man to do all by himself. The items of interest just cannot be built by a single person in a human lifetime. The same is true in SOME spheres of the sciences, but not all.

The death of the individual (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110557)

From TFA:

"Bejan's thinking, it should be noted, is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation."

Given this fact it should come as no surprise that the author's conclusion is a wishy-washy mess. He doesn't reject or accept the idea of "collective" research he just makes some broad strokes that provide for uninteresting conclusions. Ayn Rand would roll over in her grave if she read this.

Re:The death of the individual (1)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110833)

Ayn Rand would roll over in her grave if she read this.

The degree to which any proposition would make Ayn Rand roll over in her grave is a good measure of its correctness.

Apples and Oranges (5, Insightful)

vadeskoc (1374195) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110583)

It's kind of weird the article compares Einstein - a theoretician - with large experimental / engineering enterprises such as Sputnik or CERN. Theoretical and experimental physics are two very different beasts (that don't always even get along), and to my knowledge, there aren't any grand collaborations in theoretical physics (still done on a small / individual scale).

Re:Apples and Oranges (1)

timeOday (582209) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110957)

But more to the point, no theoretical physicist since Einstein has attained his stature - even though the 100 years since he published E=MC^2 accounts for the vast majority of theoretical physicists who ever lived.

I call BS (2, Insightful)

ChienAndalu (1293930) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110611)

I don't agree at all. Of course there are more research groups than before, and more excellent research is done in groups, that doesn't mean that there aren't any extraordinary individuals.

I also think their definition of genius is a little bit narrow. I think "Einstein" just became a meme for "genius" and the others just haven't made an impression in the public mind.

Just try to make a graph with the number of geniuses per century. Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century for example, Galileo late 16th, Newton late 17th century. In the 20th century we have Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Goedel, James Watson and Francis Crick (ok these are two), Feynman just died 20 years ago!

To me, the genius density is increasing. Just because you can't think of an Einstein living today (and you can argue about that, too), doesn't mean that there won't be one in the next 50 years.

The CONCEPT of Individual Genius is almost dead (1, Insightful)

Gothmolly (148874) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110617)

Years of stealthy replacement of educators, first at the college level, then the high school level have beaten the very idea out of people. Now that THOSE people are having kids, there's nobody who really remembers individual genius as something normal, and so the anti-reason, anti-individual Left has almost won. Don't stick out, fit in. Don't complain, accept. Don't succeed if others fail. Don't win if someone loses. Don't excel if someone falls behind. Don't live for yourself, live for others. When nobody will stick up for the 5 year old kid who instinctively knows that this is crap, then that kid is pretty much doomed.

Re:The CONCEPT of Individual Genius is almost dead (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110755)

Genius isn't normal - these are people who's achievements are way out on the thin end of the bell curve in terms of what normal people do. Genius and madness (maybe a touch of Aspergers') also go hand in hand, and I doubt that too many genius's were either created or suppressed by the educational system or socio-political norms of the day. Genius's are more likely people who are doing their own thing - going off on their own tangents - completely ignoring most of what is going on around them.

Re:The CONCEPT of Individual Genius is almost dead (2, Insightful)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110795)

Years of stealthy replacement of educators, first at the college level, then the high school level have beaten the very idea out of people.

I think you have no idea how much tougher the educational system used to be on people who stood out from the crowd. "Don't stick out, fit in. Don't complain, accept," indeed. Do you think being a genius as a schoolkid was easy for Newton?

Part of the reason for people gathering in (5, Insightful)

antifoidulus (807088) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110621)

large groups to do science is simply the cost and complexity of experiments. Nowadays very few groundbreaking experiments can be done in your garage, you need access to expensive machines(and often lots of energy) in order to conduct your research. And since they probably won't hand the keys to the LHC(once its repaired) to some upstart grad student with a new theory, it becomes necessary to spend vast amounts of time "proving" yourself while building the necessary connections to see your experiment come to fruition.

I think this study is partially flawed because they only look at Nobel prize winners, which exclude fields like Mathematics(where no labs are necessary in many cases). If mathematicians are getting older then I would be more inclined to believe their conclusion.

Re:Part of the reason for people gathering in (1)

SpinyNorman (33776) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110721)

Maybe, but remember that Einstein didn't come up with the theory of relativity by studying the results of a multi-billion dollar LHC - he did it my concocting his own thought experiments.

Re:Part of the reason for people gathering in (1)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110767)

If mathematicians are getting older then I would be more inclined to believe their conclusion.

Of course, it would be hard to measure this by the "top prize in the field" criterion due to the age restriction on the Fields Medal. There's probably a better measure to use for all fields, though -- age of authors on publications in top journals, maybe?

Ultimately, judging great science is like judging great art. You don't get to say you're great. Your contemporaries don't get to say you're great. The closest we come to an objective standard is what people think about you after you're dead, and so is everyone who knew you. If a major change in science took place in the latter half of the 20th c., we won't really be able to decide that until, oh, 2050 at the earliest.

Is that the problem then? (1)

tjstork (137384) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110789)

. And since they probably won't hand the keys to the LHC(once its repaired) to some upstart grad student with a new theory,

Why not hand the keys of the thing over to the kids every now and then? Maybe that's the problem? Last time I checked, the kids pay taxes for it too.

But not 'huge' groups (1)

Mutatis Mutandis (921530) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110625)

I agree that lonely geniuses are extremely rare. Most people work in the context of their time and rely on the work of others. And besides, many people just have a need to debate their ideas critically with others. Many 'lonely geniuses' kept up an extensive scientific correspondence.

On the other hand, I think the same rule can be applied to science as to programming, i.e. that a good team is at most five to seven people strong. In larger teams communication breaks down quickly and people work at cross-purposes. Adding more people makes discovery slower, not faster. Large institutions may work as long as they provide a framework in which small, effective teams can work without creating too much administrative overhead.

A factor that contributes to the disappearance of the 'lonely genius' is the increasing specialization of scientists. The geniuses of the 17th and 18th century were not 'universal men' any more, but they still had a wide scope of interest and knowledge. These days individuals often have rather narrow knowledge, and teams need to be assemble of people from different fields to make good progress. (It's interesting to look at the recruitment lists of modern biotechnology centers.)

This raises the question whether there is "a limit of specialization", at which a team that is small enough to be effective is also too small to have a sufficiently wide range of knowledge. At which point scientific discovery must slow down to a crawl.

n*mediocre greater than genius ... (1)

313373_bot (766001) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110651)

... for sufficiently large values of n.

A single genial paper may have more value than several (even infinitely many) mediocre ones. However, the majority will define the rules - funding, "peer" review, etc - so individual genius is eventually suppressed anyway.

Shoulders of Giants (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110687)

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.
Albert Einstein

Communal genius is a Good Thing and is common (1)

carlos4242 (1308775) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110735)

I am glad that this is being talked about. I think the way things are going is towards communal creativity in society and it is not a bad thing, although a lot of people don't like the idea and find it hard to accept. If you look at things that are more visible to the average person than science, these too are collaborative ventures but I find interesting is that I think people often try to ignore the fact to the point of flat denial of the facts. Who makes boy band "music"? The image, choreography, probably lyrics, musical notes, instrument playing, production, marketing, promotion are probably all done to a greater or lesser extent by teams of seasoned professionals. Yet the people who buy the music like to buy into ideas like "I like what they sing. I like the way they look. I would like to date him. He's special." It's an illusion and not even a well hidden one. I think the sooner people start to accept the idea that we are small cogs in big machines the happier we will all be. It doesn't mean you "don't matter". You still matter completely to those around you and your loved ones and that's really all that counts. The other is an illusion. And it doesn't mean you can't do your job well and take pride in what you achieve together. Do you think that football players feel less pride when they win than tennis players, just because they are a team?

In Soviet Russia, , , , (1)

Slugster (635830) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110741)

, , ,-research grants get you.

Not too surprising really.
It's very difficult for anyone to be a very good generalist in terms of original research work.
Individuals end up specializing, and the grants awarded for any tiny specialty generally aren't real big.

So then, is it that big grants are paying for things (great breakthroughs) that can't be done in groups?
Or are individual researchers doing things that won't pay?

More research is obviously needed.

Perhaps this is just because we know a lot more (3, Interesting)

thaig (415462) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110743)

At what point will it take a person their whole life to know enough about their subject to drop dead just as they are about to add a bit of new knowledge?

We can only escape this by becoming more and more narrow but that might present it's own limitations.

Perhaps we need to live longer and develop larger brains?

A lack of good theory hurts us. (2, Informative)

tjstork (137384) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110799)

This is why we need a better "theory of everything". The problem is that all the knowledge that we have accumulated is like so much trivia. There's not nearly enough abstraction where the universe is distilled down to a few essential rules that can easily applied to everything. It's not so much a problem of physics, really, as it is with pure mathematics. Physicists discover what works and how things work, but I think ultimately we want to take seriously and fund seriously mathematics as its own research discipline, so we can get that kind of abstraction that we need.

Edison (2, Interesting)

Software Geek (1097883) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110745)

The article incorrectly categorizes Edison as a lone inventor. Edison had dozens of other inventors working for him. He is sometimes credited with inventing the modern research lab. Notably, Nikola Tesla worked for Edison for a short time. I'm sure if he had spent his whole career with Edison, he'd be just as anonymous as Edison's other employees.

Large groups are related to funding policies (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#26110771)

The large groups are a consequence of funding. People have a "logarithmic" perception of money where large sums do not seem as large as they really are (just listen to politicians talking about money). Large groups get more money per person then small groups, sometimes more then an order of magnitude larger. Just divide the price of a "big science" project by the number of scientists working on it, and then ask any typical science professor on a typical university how much money they get, per person,
on their group.

So if you want money create/join a large group!

Innovation is still tied to bright individuals. Von Braun and company took one decade to put a man on the Moon. Just watch the difficulties NASA has to go back there, or even just get off the ground.
However as "big science" has big money, it can hire public relations people that convince the politicians and journalists they are doing great innovations.

There's more to learn (2, Interesting)

Pigeon451 (958201) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110805)

The amount of information required to be the "top" of your field has increased tremendously since the early 1900's, and consequently requires more time to learn everything.

An analogy is video games. Back in the 80's, games were typically made by a few (or even one) people on a shorter timeline than today's top games, which require a large studio with typically a very large amount of people working together.

Too many distractions (4, Interesting)

kanweg (771128) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110823)

To become a genius, you not only have to be smart, but also have to put in a lot of single-focus effort from a young age. And the latter is what has become hard, these days. Too many distractions, from games, TV, Internet, Slashdot, etc.

Remember the Polgar sisters. Intelligence and hard dedicated work made them into chess grandmasters.
Interestingly, I thought I'd look at Wikipedia for her, to see how she is doing now.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judit_Polgar [wikipedia.org]

Quote from her father: "Geniuses are made, not born"


Or death of individual genius (1)

simplu (522692) | more than 5 years ago | (#26110837)

Most of genial ideas were first rejected by community because they were not understood at that time. As a part of a group it will be impossible to impose such ideas to your companions.
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