The Scientific Hero Myth

Only connect, as E.M.Forster said. For your pleasure tonight I connect astronomer and necromancer John Dee, Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse, and movie icon Kevin Bacon. Ready ?

Today I attended the annual Crawford Lecture on the history of astronomy, this year given by Adam Mosley. His theme was the way we simplify the history of science by presenting it as the passing of the baton from one scientific giant to the next. We saw this story yet again on the TV tonight, in “The Story of Science”. The truth is far more complex, Mosley told us : then as now there was a whole community of scientists with ideas bouncing between them in letters and books. The classic example is the way one hears repeatedly that Tycho Brahe “dissolved the crystal spheres” by observing a comet that must have cracked through several layers. But this idea had been discussed many times by many people; and in fact Brahe never claimed credit for this discovery; he only said that his own comet observations convinced him it was correct.

Adam’s opening gag was a reference to an article in The Onion :  Four or Five Guys Pretty Much Carry Whole Renaissance . Very funny and very much au point.

He also showed us a hairy network diagram of sixteeenth century astronomers illustrating the links between them. Over nibbles afterwards I asked him whether he’d heard of the Erdos number, and indeed he had. Actually, he said, he thought the astronomer turned necromancer John Dee was the sixteenth century Kevin Bacon : the person who minimised the links from Scientist A to Scientist B.

So now check out this interview with Paul Nurse . Sir Paul is lined up to succeed Martin Rees as the next President of the Royal Society. He says we should reform science funding by giving long term support to the small number of scientists who can actually “move the needle”. I must admit some days I feel this too : just give lots of money to the best people and let them get on with it. There’s too much mediocrity in the world.

And yet… isn’t this being suckered into that simple narrative, where the complex fluid dynamics of history is re-written as the human story of four or five guys ?

26 Responses to The Scientific Hero Myth

  1. Dr. Paul says:

    Ahhh, so he’s advocating a return to the PPARC* model, then…

    [*] Please Pass All Resources to Cambridge


  2. Martin says:

    At least with the renaissance we can actually pick the four or five guys *after* the event. How are we supposed to know which researchers can ‘move the needle’ in advance?

    Good thing the Royal Society doesn’t control any science funding — oh, wait…

  3. Kav says:

    I too was worried by Sir Paul’s comments (and not just because I’m mediocre) but for the twofold reasons of wondering who identifies who the good people are (a la Martin) and questioning whether good people are good people in a vacuum (sort of a la Andy)

    I think this is something that Sir Paul must be challenged on. Andy illustrates that the concept of a few good men (and women) is a flawed paradigm that many of us tend to buy into unthinkingly.

    oh look I managed to sneak in Kevin Bacon reference.

  4. Michael Merrifield says:

    What you describe about scientific progress goes back rather nicely to your post about foot paths a while back, Andy: the clear march of scientific progress that we perceive as a well-defined path through history arose from the tramping of many scientists, very few of whom initially actually followed the path itself. Stop providing a good fraction of the community with at least a decent pair of walking boots, and the path soon peters out.

  5. Bob says:

    Identifying the lucky few will be easy. By the time he get’s the chance to implement it, there will only be 4 or 5 people left.

  6. Bill Keel says:

    The myth doesn’t die. Some years ago in the US we had a fairly serious set-to on this, when a Famous Astronomer Who Shall Not Be Named (but with whom I eventually came again to be on speaking terms) circulated a letter which did not exactly say, but could easily be interpreted to suggest, that only a few astronomers Really Matter, and that the rest of us could best serve by standing aside and letting the funding flow to them. I especially remember the comment about the National Observatories’ clientele being mostly junior and lacking clout. (I guess I just managed to retain the latter status for unusually long). FAWSNBN did eventually regret circulation of this letter, since it was very difficult to be taken seriously with any policy proposals after this was seen by, for example, the Kitt Peak users’ committee. This view of scientific progress is venerable and widespread – the 1968 book “The New Brahmins” calls it the “invisible college”. Were all supposed to know who they are. In my freshman classes, I do the usual tracing from Copernicus to Tycho to Kepler and Galileo to Newton, and say several times that students should realize that they are getting the Cartoon Network version for brevity and a simple mental framework.

  7. Bob O'H says:

    Interesting – I hadn’t thought about Nurse’s ideas from this angle. Perhaps you should write a letter to The Times about it.

    (sorry for not having a Kevin Bacon reference)

  8. ian smail says:

    i also found his suggestion very worrying.

    but i wonder if it just reflects a background in a field which operates differently to astronomy (or at least the way we used to work).

    which got me thinking whether he thought the ~10 astronomers, who would be included in his ~100-150, would be expected to exploit all of the resources his plan would provide them with. or was he expecting them to act like gate-keepers to distribute it to what they viewed as the most promising areas (perhaps even outside their own institutes)?

    even with our current reduced level of resource (180 PDRAs in total?), i don’t think a single researcher in astronomy can make efficient use of ~18 PDRAs for their own research: 1-2 yes, 3-4 maybe, more than that no (unless some of them are building kit or doing infrastructure/support). indeed you might argue that some of the most influential researchers in this field have difficulty making good use of (or at least the case for) even a single PDRA. in this situation the sensible thing for them to do would be to diversify their research portfolio by giving resources to other researchers… perhaps guided by peer review?

    I ask you, is this a job for intelligent men?

  9. Martin E. says:

    ‘Genius’ should always be a term accorded AFTER the fact. The few folks I’ve known who everyone said was a genius, went on to do… nothing much.
    Picking a few winners is a poor strategy. You have better chance of success by spreading the wealth as someone will come up trumps – a capitalist or evolutionary viewpoint. [But what’s the minimum resources below which it’s not worth bothering?

  10. Ross Collins says:

    All this talk about judging the success and identifying geniuses sounds very similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis in his recent book “Outliers: The Story of Success”:

  11. A really interesting exercise would be to compile a list of every paper that Paul Nurse has cited in all his own papers. Anyone care to take bets on how many names feature in it?

    Most of us here could do this on NASA ADS but this sounds like a Medline rummage. Anyone out there able to do that?

  12. Jim Wild says:

    In these recent “interesting” time for UK physics and astronomy, one hears this view (or variations on the theme) time and time again. I find it rather worry that there are senior astronomers who would say that the UK community is spread too thinly and that the only way ahead is to shave away a large fraction of the community to leave a handful of beacon institutions. I agree with the first part (there is not enough cash in the system!) but not the conclusion. It comes right back to the issue of picking winners that makes folks so uneasy about the impact agenda.

    Who makes the decisions about where to focus resources? And on what grounds?

    Recent events outside astronomy really should be a warning. I wonder how many geophysicists and volcanologists out there are making offerings to Gaia for handing them their economic impact plan following the air traffic chaos? How many have suddenly written a killer grant that a month ago might have been thought to be a bit marginal? How many university research deans looking at their geophysics groups are rubbing their hands with glee as they start to ramp up their REF preparations? Wondering how to spend precious resources, how many VCs might now consider setting up research groups in this area? How many new chairs of ash research will emerge?

    What a difference a few weeks can make. Putting all of our scientific eggs in a few baskets seem really dumb to me.

    Anyhow, I’ve got to run. I’m preparing an offering to Helios for a really big CME to cause expensive but fortunately limited damage to the world’s power grids…

    • andyxl says:

      Killer rocks anyone ? What about a nearby supernova ? Maybe a particularly big flare from Cen A could … err.. make a slight hiss on my FM radio ?

    • Paul Crowther says:

      I tend to agree with Jim here on the risks focusing on a few beacons – otherwise before we know it we’ll end up where nuclear phys has got to within the UK. Some questions obviously require big teams, but what still sets astro aside is that small groups – or even individuals – can also make major contributions. If UK astro were to rapidly go down the path of huge consortia, as some senior astros have intimated, what would set our field aside from, say, particle phys to potential PhD students?

      • Jim Wild says:

        I think you could use “nuclear phys” as a synonym for “small research community”. Or perhaps that should be “smallest research community” (implying that the shave point is gradually moving up the list…)

  13. Pierre Maxted says:

    Who in 1994 would have picked a Swiss professor plugging away with his PhD student on long-term project to study bright, bog-standard G stars using a 2m-class telescope as someone who would ‘move the needle’?

    • Indeed. Who in 1904 would have picked a Swiss patent clerk with his “institute for theoretical physics” consisting of a drawer in his desk at the patent office?

      If you can look into the seeds of time and say,
      which grain will grow, and which will not,
      speak to me.

      —-Shakespeare [Macbeth]

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