The death of the scientific genius?

Albert Einstein versus the inventor of the washing machine: what counts as genius?

Albert Einstein versus the inventor of the washing machine: what counts as genius?


THE READERS:What you said on this week

Irish Times Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom wrote on Wednesday that we may never again see a genius of the likes of Einstein, Newton or Galileo. Ahlstrom was reporting on an article in the science journal Nature by Dean Keith Simonton, who believes scientific discoveries in the future will build on current knowledge rather than create new fields of learning, as Galileo did with telescopic astronomy, Newton in the field of physics or Darwin with evolution.

“Part of the problem is that scientific discovery has been so thoroughly picked over during the past 500 years. After a time we had physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy, but much of what followed were just hybrids: biochemistry, astrophysics, astrobiology,” Ahlstrom wrote.

The article drew wide reaction on . Here’s a selection of the comments.

Very few independent minds exist in science these days. Most have been retired off or forced out, or kept out, and the manner in which research is conducted through large consortia is not conducive to free thinking.

If you disagree with the consensus you don’t get the grant money, therefore you don’t get tenure. The geniuses these days are found mostly outside academia, struggling to hold down jobs, often blogging in relative obscurity.

Universities have had their day as centres for learning and scholarship; they have become businesses staffed by media-savvy careerists, managed by suits, driven by research and teaching output targets. Many promising young researchers, without tenure, have been let go, thrown on the scrap heap, since the beginning of the recession, while the salaries of the burgeoning executive class continue to climb.

Science journalists, like the majority of those who write for The Irish Times, are destroying science by refusing to tell the full truth, and by acting as PR agents for the college administrators. _Brendan_OBrien

This idea is built on a woeful misunderstanding of the history of science and scientific progress. Until relatively recently, “science” was carried out almost exclusively by independently wealthy white men who mostly worked in isolation. While that social phenomenon no longer exists, you have to admit it’s a pretty nice way to work. You don’t have to rely on your findings for income, and your servants are bringing you your meals. Who wouldn’t discover something significant in such circumstances?

Nowadays, as wealth and opportunity have equalised somewhat, scientific progress is more collaborative but is also more results-based. So while you’re not working alone, you’re not likely to spend years trying to figure out one problem – you’ll have to move on to something more productive, and in the meantime someone else builds on your idea.

Consequently, “genius” is diffused over far more people – while John Logie Baird invented the television largely on his own, who invented the smartphone (arguably a more significant invention)? Thousands of technicians, working in both competition and collaboration.

So there may be no easily identifiable “geniuses” any more, but that is quite a different thing to saying that genius no longer exists. CJAMcMahon

“Everything that can be invented has been invented” – Charles H Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899. ThomasGeoghegan

Don’t buy this. The three people cited are individuals who, as members of their professional communities, and by virtue of the time in which they lived, utterly changed the way we conceive reality.

Science is axiomatic. If new evidence comes to light which is true, and is so true that all other knowledge and theories cannot be made compatible with them, everything changes.

Galileo, Newton and Einstein fundamentally changed everything, but these individuals lived centuries apart. It’s less than a century since Einstein died, so we’re in for a wait until a new scientific “genius” emerges. Extinct? No. Rare? Absolutely. DarraghMcsweeney

None of us would be having this argument without the genius of Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates and others.

I don’t know why Einstein is always cited as being the ultimate genius when his theories haven’t had that much of an impact on how we actually live our lives. By that metric, the guy who invented the washing machine was a much bigger genius. seamusenright

If you want research grants or job security, you have to work within the academic system and you have to specialise. Those guys are so busy looking at the leaves they can’t see the trees, never mind the wood.

We’ve got people who are able to go off on tangents and try something new, but we don’t fund them or listen to them, so they have to be independently wealthy (like back in Newton’s day), and independently wealthy people these days are not rushing to be scientists. It’s not cool any more, and there are so many more distractions in a life with money than there used to be. Gavin Kelly

Where does this guy get off implying that genius can only be found in scientific discovery? Is there nothing else in the field of human endeavour that has improved our human condition? No insights or discoveries that cannot be monetised and commercialised?

Shakespeare; Keats; Milton; Yeats, Carravaggio, Michelangelo, etc must all be very chastened to have their dunces’ hats so put on. ConO’Driscoll

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.