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July 12, 2005


Ken Clarkson

I agree, up to a point; however, as you know those individual adventurers, those Lone Geniuses, were not generally alone: they were part of a larger scientific community, in which currents of vague notions and ideas are constantly circulating. This is not the same as "research by committee",
although often the community is too narrow.

From the existence of such communities comes the frequency of independent discovery or "near misses", like Darwin/Wallace, Einstein/Poincare, or Newton/Leibniz, and likely we all know of examples closer to home. At a certain point, the time is ripe, both with needed "machinery" for solving a problem, and for the understanding of why the problem is interesting.

Oftentimes the Lone Genius idea, the Science Hero, results in winner-take-all attitudes and situations. Why give grants to anyone but Dr. Genius? Everyone else will just fill the literature with boring, derivative work. Why work with anyone but Dr. Genius? Look at how many papers the Genius has co-authored! That idea must be great, after all, it came from the Science Hero. And so on.

And while "research by committee" is not so efficient, it can be great to have another kind of community, at a university or research lab, where you eat lunch with the person down the hall who does something radically different from what you do. You don't necessarily work with them, but they can be consulted, and sometimes you hear at lunch about interesting stuff outside your usual line. Great things can come from that kind of community also.

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