This is less an informative piece and more like an opinion. Think of this as an op-ed for someone who doesn’t get paid to have opinions. Should that make these opinions more honest or more reflective of my personality? I’m not sure.
I am currently in the youngest generation, as some of its older members. So I’m very tied to the previous one. I’m a Gen-Z’er, and as such, several of the aspects of this generation are reflected in me. I’m not a carbon copy of it, but I certainly think that several people share these opinions. I happen to be old enough to already experience the scientific community from the inside, and yet, not old enough to know all the ins and outs of it. But there are some elements of it I find interesting and I wanted to share them here.
I grew up hearing about juggernauts of science, people like Newton, Darwin and Einstein. How these individuals were able to achieve more than their peers to the points of gaining mainstream recognition. And how science has been in decline as we don’t really have any new Newtons or Einsteins. Calm down, I don’t share these ideas, at least not now. But I am used to seeing it parroted around, and I myself used to share these thoughts. I would feel dissapointed at myself for not being able to accomplish what previous generations were able to. But as I got more involved with the scientific process, the whole idea seemed ridiculous. We currently live in an age of information, where we have access to all the libraries we can think of, and get in contact with any other person in a field. If anything, right now we should be having more Newtons and more Einsteins, by the virtue of probability. When Einstein was alive, there were around 2-3 billion humans living on Earth. We are rapidly approaching 8 billion humans.
When all these and other factors are taken into account, the idea that we can’t have Newtons or Einsteins anymore doesn’t make sense. But there are definitely some things we probably won’t have anymore. Scientists of the old days are looked at with pride as masters-of-all-trades. It was not uncommon for someone who was influential in one field of science to also make relevant contributions to another field. Euler, which was the prince of mathematics in the seventeenth century, made also various contributions to physics, engineering and astronomy. There were even dynasties of scientists like the Bernoullis, all with their contributions to several different fields.
What the science books usually leave out when discussing these characters however is the circumstances under which they were born. From the sixteenth and up until the late nineteenth centuries, most scientifics were sponsored by nobles or were nobles themselves. At a time where a lot of labor was manual in nature, there was no reliable way to survive solely out of scientific practice without the resources of a wealthy family. When you take such circumstances into account, it makes sense that scientists are few and far in between. And with this reasoning, it also makes sense that the scientific field during this period was so competitive. While certainly it would be benefitial for the scientific community at large if they were able to know what their colleagues were working on, for many of them, this was a leisure, a game where an intellectual elite would compete amongst themselves to achieve recognition from their peers. While certainly a lot of our modern establishment is due to these early achievement, one can’t help but wonder whether they would be more productive were not for their competitive approach. There were several cases of disputes between scientists due to parallel investigations reaching similar conclusions. Now if many of them were nobles, why were they involved in science themselves or why did they sponsor scientists? For posterity and prestige, of course.
What then changed, between the past and now? Science! Science is not a static subject. I’m talking about it as if it was a single field, but in reality science is and has always been an amalgamation of several different fields who shared a praxis, the scientific method. That was an approach that would guide us towards the true nature of the world surrounding us, as philosophers of science would argue. There are slight variations depending on the field, but all of them fall under the umbrella of scientific method, and all fields who use such methods are sciences. There are schools of thought who may disagree with this definition of a science, but I think it is sufficient.
Why can’t we have more Da Vinci’s who are jacks-of-all-trades? Because science has evolved and has become so segmented with wildly different fields. Some fields do have some tangential connection between them therefore you may still be able to work in different fields, but they probably share some common denominator that makes it easier for you to jump right in. You can be a mathematician who works in biology, but usually through biomathematics. They may certainly be different fields and they are, but to an outsider they are distinguished enough that you are seen as an expert in multiple areas. And even if we were to look at large fields, these fields have evolved over time. We no longer live in a time where experiments can be done in a small kitchen. Right now, the edges of our knowledge need the most advanced technology to be tested, and needs the most specialized understanding to reach new goals. It’s not that we’re dumber, it’s science that has become more complex. And that is a good thing because it means science is now richer and more diverse.
This stratification of science has also lead to the advent of cooperative groups where scientists of different fields work together to try and reach a goal. I personally have been and am currently involved in such interdisciplinary efforts. Science has become too advanced for a single individual to be able to achieve much on his own. However, our cooperative initiatives potentiated by the ease in modern day communication which trespass barriers has lead us to achieve ambitious goals that would not be possible otherwise. There are several advantages to having different fields working together. As I pointed before, the stratification of fields in science has lead to a diversification of the scientific method. There are variations to the goals and to the approaches, and even the questions and the way we ask questions are different. So, having this group where everyone brings his own perspective and his own idea on how to tackle a problem, give us access to what we would otherwise not really know much about. I’ve grown used to reading papers and articles on scientific areas that I’m not too comfortable with, not because I might be able to get what they are talking about, but because I might learn how they’re talking about it.
What is currently happening in science, at least in the praxis of science, is something that gives me hope as a future career scientist. While I might have some systemic criticisms on some other bits, in this I just want to express my final thoughts. When I first started in science, I was worried we had reached a stalemate, that humans would not be able to revolutionize science in the way they used to. But now, when I’m really starting in science, I can confidently look to the future (ignoring the impending doom of course) and say that this cooperative nature of science will lead us further then we ever would be in a competitive setting.