Thoughts on the individual scientist, prompted by Ian McEwan

Thoughts on the individual scientist, prompted by Ian McEwan July 14, 2008

There is a Science Extra podcast today from the Guardian featuring novelist – and BHA Distinguished Supporter – Ian McEwan.

The podcast is here:

I won’t reproduce what he says – you can listen to the audio for that. But his first subject, before he gets on to talking about the beauteousness of theory and its relationship to truth, was creativity and the individual, and this prompted some thoughts.

McEwan mentions various drives and attributes (to some extent they are part of creativity and achievement, although it’s not entirely clear what these are examples of from the podcast as it starts out of context):

  • ingeniousness
  • playfulness
  • stubborness
  • ability to focus
  • degree of ruthlessness
  • ambition
  • associative intelligence
  • ability to think laterally

However McEwan then points out how much science is done in teams, rather than by individuals with which the above qualities might be associated.

There does indeed seem to be a discrepancy between the archetype of the lone genius scientist and the actual practice of modern science, which has moved from the individuals’ study into the laboratory. The notion of the great Einstein is still culturally prevalent (though often in a distorted, malign, “mad scientist” form) but is almost reduced to a myth. I speculate that many Britons, if asked to name living scientific high-fliers, might go with Stephen Hawking, and then immediately begin to struggle.

Meanwhile a similar shift has not really taken place on the artistic wing of academia. Artistic collaborations are still usually experimental. Ensemble music is collaborative by definition, but even then the composer and conductor are often honoured more than anyone else taking part – I imagine most people can name five classical composers but might struggle to name five classical musicians. Film is a modern, collaborative artistic work, but again the director or the star are held aloft. If Britons were asked to name living artistic high-flyers, we would doubtless get very little agreement, but nevertheless I speculate that there would be plenty of answers.

When the press report on new movies or think about new paintings or other works of art, the individual creator (be it Robert De Niro or Banksy or Madonna) is at the forefront, but when science is reported in mainstream press, not even the team, the university or theb company is always mentioned, let alone some individual supposed creative genius. Instead we get “Scientists have discovered…” and maybe buried away the bottom, “The research, published yesterday…” with an attribution as an aside, if they’re lucky.

On the one hand, this is very good practice by the media! partly because it really is true that the originators are less important than the finding and some named individual is unnecessary, but also because it encourages us to think of theory as objective, in the sense that it should be assessed, criticised and implemented without too much regard for its personal origins, peoples’ reputations or the social implications amongst peers!

But on the other hand, perhaps the de-emphasis of individual creative input and the move away from the notion of the great individual scientist (both in practice and in reporting) is a depersonalisation of science which removes motivation for those who might otherwise be more interested to learn about or take part in a more scientist-oriented science.

Physics teachers are disappearing from British schools, apparently. Why? Perhaps it is hard to be personally ambitious in a discipline, when there is a dearth of role models to follow; without living examples of high-achieving individuals, presented as such.

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