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Is Scientific Genius Extinct?

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- 1864 days ago -
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.

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Kit B (276)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 3:06 pm
Photo Albert Einstein, public domain

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.

"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 today’s (Jan. 31) issue of the journal Nature.

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.

"The core disciplines have accumulated not so much anomalies as mere loose ends that will be tidied up one way or another," he writes.

Only theoretical physics shows signs of a "crisis," or accumulation of findings that cannot be explained, that leaves it open for a major paradigm shift, he writes. [Creative Genius: The World's Greatest Minds]

Prior predictions

This isn't the first time someone has predicted that science's most exciting days are over.

Before the arrival of quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity, two theories physicists have not yet been able to reconcile, 19th-century scientists predicted that all major discoveries had been made, Sherrilyn Roush, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out.

"They didn't see the revolution coming, didn't even see the need for it," Roush told LiveScience in an email, adding, "Above all, revolution and genius, like accidents, are not predictable. You often don't even know you need them until they show up."

She did not find Simonton's argument persuasive, noting that geniuses aren't necessarily crucial for revolutions in thinking, and she questioned the importance he placed on the creation of new disciplines.

"People are dazzled by revolutions and have too little appreciation of 'normal science,' where we accumulate lasting, and often useful, knowledge," she wrote in the email.

Coping with increasing information

While he sees diminished opportunity for genius, Simonton says that the demands of science are increasing.

"If anything, scientists today might require more raw intelligence to become a first-rate researcher than it took to become a genius during the 'heroic age' of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, given how much information and experience researchers must now acquire to become proficient," he writes.

Roush agreed, saying that nowadays reading all of the literature published in a particular field may no longer be possible.

Individual researchers, and human society, in general, may be adapting to the increasing demands by redistributing the work both to other people and to computers, she told LiveScience.

Given the increasing use of computers to process information, “who knows that the ability to see it all and abstract to new ideas is not increasing?" she wrote in the email.
****Links within article***

By: Wynne Parry,| Live Science Contributor


Theodore Shayne (56)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 5:08 pm
I wonder what they would make of guys like Richard Feynman and Michio Kaku or Frank Wilczek?

Fiona Ogilvie (590)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 5:30 pm
I understand completely. How can you keep striving to soar like an eagle when all of your associates are buzzards and turkeys?

Glenn B (195)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 5:34 pm

Heidi Aubrey (16)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 5:54 pm
This is not a new concept. But I really do believe their will be, in fact their MUST be a reconciliation between Einstein's Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It has not yet been discovered.

But neither theory explains the other, yet they both DO exist. So it must be, that the connection has not yet been discovered.

Quantum mechanics do not explain what happens in the macro world. The Theory of Relativiity DOES, but CANNOT accout for what happens in the microscopic world of atoms and thier particles.

Einstein spent the rest of his life looking for the connection and was unsuccessful.

For example, reality as we know it doesn't exist in the quantum world, really. Yet hear we are and can completely predict the outcome of macroscopic(up here, what we see, where we exist) events with nearly 100% accuracy. Absolutely, completely untrue for the quantum world. The quantum world is almost a place of fantasy outcomes.


Kit B (276)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 5:58 pm

We still have MIT and Cal Poly turning out brilliant minds, and even making major breakthroughs, but in a far more cooperative effort. Now the ground rules are lain, we don't look for that one singular mind, but the results of many minds working together. We needed Feynman - what a brilliant mind, to set the rules and advance mathematics, but even Feynman longed for equal partners to challenge him.

Christine S (134)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 6:20 pm
I think they exist- it's just that if their findings don't match the agenda of those in charge, their "genius" will be unpopular and unfunded!

Mitchell D (104)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 6:24 pm
Well, if you read the Dec. 2012 Smithsonian Magazine, you will find it devoted to the winners of the Smithsonian's "American ingenuity Awards," who may just amaze us down the road.

JL A (282)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 6:33 pm
There have been major advances in math and statistics, which required more powerful computer technology to make possible...and string theory has a long way before it is done with its exploration. Genetics is being transformed with the floating gene evidence and physiology with neurotransmitter receptors found in skin cells when formerly considered exclusively brain.

I predict findings in math will create the impetus for changes in physics, which generally has calculus as its foundation.

g d c (0)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 6:44 pm

pam w (139)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 6:59 pm
Unfortunately, there's been far too little emphasis placed on science in schools....think of Arizona and Texas (sorry, Kit) and the near RIDICULE of science by right-wing fundamentalist groups.

President Obama continues to emphasize SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY in his speeches but he certainly can't focus attention of the problem alone!

It begins with parents who value education.....we need more science heroes, too!

Hartson Doak (39)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 7:10 pm
Do you know that the US patent Office was closed in 1844. It was decided that everything that could be invented was already invented. Using this as logic, one could come to the conclusion that Scientific genius was dead. So then, where is my filing car and warp drive?

Mike S (86)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 7:11 pm
Great article Kit. Feynman once said "I think nature's imagination is so much greater than mans, she's never going to let us relax". I like to think he was correct...there is still much to be learned. The key, of course, is fact based education and, imo, a return to altruistic ideology.

greenplanet e (155)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 7:51 pm
...and women!

Nancy M (197)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 8:37 pm
not extinct- just not funded.

Lin Penrose (92)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 8:48 pm
Thanks Kit, Could it possibly be that most of the 'genius's' built, from the bottom person(s) ideas? The first human or proto human had the first "Ah-Ha" moment in the proto brain? Perhaps instincts or going further back to having cells able to sense light, smell, touch, temperature, textures, electrical & magnetic impulses and more? Yes, I'm speaking of evolution.

Human genius and the abilities to be one or many, are not extinct unless we humans extinct ourselves and other supportive life by extincting a habitable earth/home. Frankly, I think by our own human species actions of stupidity and ignoring many of the "Ah-Ha" persons, we, including potential genius's, should be put on the Endangered Life Form List, along with the others we have put on that list, and those who became Extinct during our time (stewardship for the religious persons) on earth.

We, as a species, have many intelligent humans with abilities of logic, common sense and some genius among the 7 plus billions. Surely, with those combinations, we can stop being parasites/virus and become the symbiotic species we need to be. Genius will only continue with the applied logic, common sense, intelligence, and caring for the world and all living forms, the rest of us must contribute for survival.

Yes- there is hope human genius is not extinct - yet.

Stephen Brian (23)
Wednesday February 6, 2013, 9:33 pm
There are a few sides to this:

First, major advances in flashy fundamental physics tend to be made by large collarborations because the sheer number of man-hours and disparate skill-sets involved in design, data-analysis, equipment-handling, etc. are just too much for a few brilliant people. The LHC has been a full-time job for, if I recall correctly, thousands of technical staff and reserachers for years. There just isn't enough time in a single career to do what has been accomplished there. On the theory-side, nobody can really make major advances without new experimental verification.

That said, in retrospect, "genius" is only labelled that after the utility of an advance is known. Consider Einstein: Who, at the time, would have imagined that quantum physics would allow us to go from vacuum-tubes to microchips and transform the economy? Who would have imagined that special relativity, which was intended only to really apply to objects moving at much higher speeds than anything man-made went at the time, would get us the precision we need for satellite-based telecommunications and, again, transform the world? They were both considered very interesting at the time, but Einstein got his Nobel prize for explaining why shining high frequency light on metal made sparks, not for E=Mc^2. (To be fair, his explanation for the photo-electric effect was half of the basis for quantum mechanics.)

In, in physics, we know there are breakthroughs to be made. Our theories break down at high energies. We have no idea what the origins of the observed forces and masses are. (The Higgs mechanism just translates the mass-problem into the language of force-problems.) Somebody will come up with the right idea, if it is not already waiting to be tested. Like Heidi mentioned, we also need to develop a way to effectively express relativity in the language of interaction-state quantum mechanics or, equivalently, interaction-state quantum mechanics in terms of geometry. (The problem, I think, is that the interaction-state is that of particles and gravity couples to energy, which is the wave-state.)

There are still experiments that can be performed in the average kitchen in the developed world. If you have an external speaker for your computer, set it up to run a single tone. (Find or make an appropriate sound-file.) Then put a washbasin, or large serving bowl, or whatever, filled with water, over it. Turn it on and you should get a kind of grid of ripples. If the frquency is high enough, you should be able to drip water onto it, and have the droplets bounce around rather than just join the water in the bowl. If that works, try it again with soap and a bit of salt in the water that's in the bowl. You should see the soap-bubbles forming strings. Welcome tothe edge of modern physics. We don't know why it forms those strings. Who knows? If understanding this turns out to lead to something that affects everybody's daily lives, then whoever figures it out may be the next "genius."

Sciences other than physics are ready for breakthroughs in application, even if not in basic understanding. In biology, we are just entering a time for individual geniuses: New computing capabilities make advnaces from biological modeling far more ikely. We could very well see the economy tranformed again by biological factories making whatever chemicals we need (oil, antibiotics, whatever). We are also seeing the beginnings of multiple new branches of medicine: The trachea, grown from a patient's stem-cells, used to replace a cancerous trachea a while back, may be the beginning of some real sci-fi medicine, replacement-parts. People have modified HIV, not to disable immune cells, but to have them produce proteins which stop other diseases. That could lead to a whole new class of medicines which may be more effective and safer in large doses than modern antibiotics. Something similar is true for chemistry. If I understand correctly, modern technology is allowing closer examination of meta-stable materials than has ever been possible before, and even allowing better study of geometric effects on chemistry than has been done before. This could easily lead to products or production-methods that affect everybody.

TomCat S (132)
Thursday February 7, 2013, 4:37 am
No, but Republicans who pay attention to Scientific genius are extinct.

Gene J (290)
Thursday February 7, 2013, 6:45 am
"While he sees diminished opportunity for genius, Simonton says that the demands of science are increasing."

One might argue that the reason for the dearth of fresh new genius intellects is the dumbing down of the world by right wing evangelical extremists. Okay, I might argue that. Anyone who wants children taught the earth was created 6,000 years ago and Christ had a pet dinosaur, well, that sort of speaks for itself. The good news is that scientists (these folks really ought watch the science channel or discovery - there are some amazing shows there, Morgan Freeman's Through the Wormhole is wonderful) know they are barely scratching the surface. Quantum mechanics and theory could well change the way we see the world as well as the way we live in it. It is human hubris to think everything that could be discovered has and I suspect the same was said in the time of Pythagoras and those talking through their hats then are still doing so today. Just wait, we haven't seen anything yet.

Nancy M (197)
Thursday February 7, 2013, 8:24 am
NEw Genius will come from Biology. Forget about Physics and Chemistry- nothing basically new there.

SInce it is coming from Biology- it wiil be contentious. The Fundies will reject it every time.

Stephen Brian (23)
Thursday February 7, 2013, 6:54 pm
When it comes to education, the trouble isn't a partisan political issue as many people on both sides seem to think.

On both sides, there are those who teach "science from authority". Rather than demand self-consistency, rigourously gathered empirical evidence, elimination of alternate theories explaining the same data by gathering more supporting data which it cannot explain, rigorous application of Occam's Razer, duplicability of analyses, and the rest of the scientific method, they argue that because some trusted authority says "this is so", it must be so and any contradictory data must be either non-rigourously gathered or expliacble without abandoning whatever the authority said. Whether that "authority" is biblical, the "Hockey Team" (I really think the data-quality promoting the dominant theory of global warming is so bad that the trends which canot be explained otherwise can be dismissed), or supporters of any of countless junk theories of social science, it's the same abandonment of science in schools. This is a global phenomenon, and not a new one:

There is much more to the problem than that. Education is still an evolving field. A theory came out a while back, that students with higher self-esteem will perform better, and education-systems reformed to promote self-esteem, rather than just concentrate on teaching the material. School has been changed to be less stressful and promote self-esteem, and while these are good goals, they have been pursued in a way that really harmed the system's ability to teach course-material and, I think, has even backfired in terms of self-esteem. I could give an example from my own experience teach if anybody wants (though the story is a little long), but I really think that the pride which comes from becoming demonstrably more knowledgeable or skilled, which is reduced with the shift of concentration away from course-material, was greater before the shift than the pride which educators try to instill in students now. Even in terms of stress, I think better preparation earlier would lead to less stress later, so reducing course-material for kids may actually lead to greater stress overall, at least in some cases. It also hurts education in the natural sciences and math specifically: In those, it is impossible to leave a kid feeling his or her belief was valid when the answer is wrong. A lot of kids avoid those subjects because they are less pleasant, in the immediate term, than the rest of education has been made.

In the natural sciences specifically, I think the time is ripe for a fundamental shift in education. In physics and chemistry, at least, we now have first principles from which everything we understand can be derived. The approach in teaching, however, still follows historical construction rather than logical. The current idea is that by looking at things in the order in which they were discovered, students should never run into a need to understand something later in the curriculum in order to understand something earlier, which seems intuitive but is wrong. Newton wrote in his work on gravity, Principia, that he had no idea how or why gravity works, only what equations it seemed to follow from his observations. Planck's half of the foundation of quantum mechanics was the invention of a function meant to fit observations too: He didn't really know what was going on either. Biology and chemistry have also had data-driven discoveries which now confuse students as much as they did the original discoverers. Now, however, with the Standard Model of physics, quantum mechanics, statistics, calculus, genetics, etc., we can explain it all in terms of mathematics, basic principles which children can intuitively grasp, and structures which exist and work by those principles and math.

Munro Tapper (80)
Thursday February 7, 2013, 7:27 pm
GOOD article. Very good. These people did not only have a high intelligence quotient, they have a high emotional quotient.

Kit B (276)
Thursday February 7, 2013, 7:47 pm

Really interesting comments, many better than the article as often happens when something stimulates our thinking process. I have no Green Stars, but please accept my sincere thank you. Stephen I had a hunch this article might have meaning for you. Nancy, my dear - you most than most know that funding is the core to building on what we have and growing what we learn.

I might take some exception with Newton, not that he didn't provide some sound foundations, but only that most of his work is lost to us, he burned it before his death.

Thanks Mitchell I do read Smithsonian, and many other journals. I do like Smithsonian, but there are much better Science and math journals out there.

Each of you gave such great ideas, I thank you.

Nancy M (197)
Friday February 8, 2013, 6:09 am
Yes, funding. At a time of government cuts and an NIH grant rate of 9% or less- even on renewals.

Nancy M (197)
Friday February 8, 2013, 6:12 am
Stephen- I am going to have to read your post more carefully and think about it.

Hard part is where do you start? Grade school and so on in the public school system, Teacher an"authority" and needs to be in many ways. Some states, however, don't require the teacher to major in the usbject being taught- so the teacher may no really be an authority.

A true authority, however, should teach using the scientific method. At what point do students start getting that?

Judy C (97)
Friday February 8, 2013, 11:17 pm
The author doesn't explicitly acknowledge computer science as a new paradigm, but this really is the Information Age. There are multiple offshoots, such as Cybernetics and AI. Certain statistical models and operations used today would have been impossible without computers to do the calculations in the blink of an eye.

I don't think Scientific Method is even taught much until college, with Statistics classes, and Research Methods classes for Social or Natural Sciences.
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