Will we ever have another physicist as well loved and revered as Albert Einstein was? For that matter, would we have a naturalist as prominent as Charles Darwin or biologists of the ilk of Francis Crick and James Watson?
In several established fields, we are unable to name prominent people to serve as their figureheads. Nevertheless, we have advanced by leaps and bounds in every single one of those fields. How is it that we are making progress, but are still unable to single out the prominent people who are responsible for it?
One reason that is often stated is that the substantial leaps of understanding – such as such as the theory of relativity or the helical structure of DNA – were all ‘low-hanging fruit’ that have already been discovered. However, this is short-sighted. Since Einstein’s time, physicists have discovered a flurry of new sub-atomic particles, furthered our understanding of quantum mechanics and formulated string theory. Biologists have bio-engineered crops, mapped the human genome and discovered gene editing. We have also created new fields that straddle several existing fields such as evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and quantum computing. Knowledge is a vessel that keeps on giving. The more we learn, the more likely we are to uncover new paradigms.
The real reason could that scientific progress is more democratic today and spread out among scores of eminent individuals rather than confined to one or two prominent ones. In his 1993 book, Genius, James Gleick pondered why physics hadn’t produced more giants like Einstein. Paradoxical as it might seem, Gleick suggested that there are so many brilliant physicists alive today that it has become harder for an individual to stand apart. Our perception of Einstein as a towering figure is, well, relative.
Every established field with centuries of legacy, such as physics and biology, has a hive of scientists furthering our understanding. Just as it is difficult to identify individual bees in a hive, progress in these fields is so widespread that it has become difficult to single out prominent individuals.
The stereotype of a scientist has always been that of a reclusive geniuses whose abilities overshadow their peers. However, scientific progress is more communal today than ever before. Prominent scientists would do well to nurture and lead communities of peers rather than ponder away in isolation.