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Is Scientific Genius Over?

by Stephen Propatier

February 6, 2013

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Donate Is scientific genius extinct? A recent Fox news article proposes just this question. Fox news is not a world renown science reporting outlet, but nowadays who is? I would disagree with the premise that scientific genius is extinct. Science is just a little more complicated than that.

"Modern-day science has little room for the likes of Galileo, who first used the telescope to study the sky, or Charles Darwin, who put forward the theory of evolution, argues a psychologist and expert in scientific genius. Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, says that just like the ill-fated dodo, scientific geniuses like these men have gone extinct."

In some ways, true. Ground breaking work about Evolution and Astronomy still happens but it is mostly incremental/cumulative.

The author quotes Dean Simonton "Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge, Simonton writes in a commentary published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature."

It is wrong to assume that prior scientific knowledge is "genius", and subsequent innovation is somehow less. Frankly I think that he is minimizing how science works. Singular researchers working in an isolated location, counter to all knowledge, is usually a scientific fail, not genius. Fringe/pseudoscience uses this perception to promote non-scientific ideas. Ideas based upon a "real genius". The stereotypical, isolated brilliant individual avoiding the trappings of education IE: Good Will Hunting. This narrative is used to support implausible ideas by fringe scientists. It is more likely that they are fringe researchers because other opinions are not welcome. Could a single person build and run the LHC, a fusion reactor, or the hubble space telescope? I think not. Science is not a end result, it is a process. A process that relies on what we know to learn about what we don't know.

"An end to momentous leaps forward?
For the past century, no truly original disciplines have been created; instead new arrivals are hybrids of existing ones, such as astrophysics or biochemistry. It has also become much more difficult for an individual to make groundbreaking contributions, since cutting-edge work is often done by large, well-funded teams, he argues. What's more, almost none of the natural sciences appear ripe for a revolution. Sherrilyn Roush, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California. "The core disciplines have accumulated not so much anomalies as mere loose ends that will be tidied up one way or another," he writes."

The fact that most science can be broadly categorized into labels says nothing about the level of genius involved. Secondly I think it is only human arrogance that leads us to believe that we are at the end of knowledge as opposed to the beginning. Worse is the idea that "loose ends" are all that remains to be learned.

I am not a leading academician but in my humble experience scientific knowledge has glaring gaps. There is plenty of room for "Genius". Medicine has problems much bigger than just "Loose Ends". There are gaps in knowledge; cellular aging, brain function, psychiatry, immunology, infectious disease. I think it would be "genius" to discover precisely how prions function. It would be "genius" to develop a method to clone complete replacement organs in vitro. Organ cloning is science fiction right now. It is possible given what we know and it would change human lifespan dramatically.

Medicine is my discipline but it is an example of "room for genius". I only have a passing knowledge of other fields. Still I see great opportunity for changing what we know about the universe, ourselves, and reality. Great cosmological questions like what is Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the true nature of the cosmos? In physics; a quantum theory of gravity, "theory of everything", and possibilities of multiple dimensions. In biology the true origin of life on earth. The possibility of completely different life forms on other planets IE: silicon life. We only have our small speck of the universe and what we can learn at distances for examples. The list goes on and on. Seems more than just a few loose ends are left.

Now is an exciting time to be alive. I would call now the beginning of understanding, not the end. We have huge amounts to learn about ourselves, the universe, and reality. We are standing on a soapbox at the bottom of the hill. We still have a lot of climbing to do.

The perception that past scientific genius was superior or done in a vacuum is itself a fallacy. Einstein is widely regarded as a genius yet he did not invent the science of physics. Nor did he personally develop the physics behind the speed of light measurements. He did end Newtonian physics as a primary theory, yet he used Newton's Calculus to figure it out. Living genius like Stephen Hawking built on his knowledge. No science takes place in a vacuum and it does not minimize the genius involved.

Genius, whatever that means, is still open for all. For the first time in human history we have a reliable tool to learn and develop current knowledge. Galileo was a groundbreaking scientist because he lived in a time when superstition and religious dogma surrounded human knowledge. Science was new. He helped us to learn that science is the best way to discover. It is not depressing that we have the "giants" of science to stand on. It is exhilarating. We will always have more to learn. Science history has taught us that every time we think we are at the end of knowledge, we are at the beginning. Genius is not extinct, we just lack the "Genius" to see the possibilities.

by Stephen Propatier

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