Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Twilight of the Idols

By Aussiegirl

It looks like the towering genius of the past -- what better example than Isaac Newton, seen here -- as portrayed in scientific biographies, is being replaced by a more realistic portrait of collaborative effort. Even with the great ones of the past, to quote from this article, “What’s happened in the last 15 or 20 years is that we’ve learned how even the very greatest scientists — Newton, Darwin, Einstein — were always engaged in collaboration of a very important, fundamental nature with their contemporaries.”

Twilight of the Idols - Books - Review - New York Times

Twilight of the Idols

In 1676, Isaac Newton explained his accomplishments through a simple metaphor. “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he wrote. The image wasn’t original to him, but in using it Newton reinforced a way of thinking about scientific progress that remains popular: We learn about the world though the vision of a few colossal figures.

This idea has a literary corollary: the scientific biography, a genre that dates at least to the early 18th century and is flourishing today. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in biography for “American Prometheus,” their portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, while at least two dozen English-language biographies of Albert Einstein have been published in the past 10 years alone. Recent works like James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” and W. W. Norton’s “Great Discoveries” series, which includes volumes on Copernicus and Darwin, provide compact profiles of major figures, while waves of science writers have followed Dava Sobel, author of the 1995 smash hit “Longitude,” in chronicling lone mavericks whose insights have — supposedly — changed the world. Three centuries after Newton, we’re still learning our science one genius at a time.

Yet the biography exists in a state of tension with contemporary science, which has become increasingly oriented around massive, collaborative research projects. Today’s insights are not so much perceived from the shoulders of giants as glimpsed from a mountain of jointly authored papers announcing results from large labs, and rapidly circulated through journals, conferences and the Internet. So is the end of the traditional science biography in sight? The genre may be a lens magnifying portions of the history of science, but in time it could seem as antique as Galileo’s telescope. At the least, changes in science itself may demand that science biographers adapt or become extinct.

Paradoxically, one of the biggest problems is the abundance of good scientists. Immediately after the Civil War, there were perhaps 2,000 scientists in the United States. Today American universities award roughly 14,000 science doctorates per year, forming a sea of competence that engulfs even the most distinguished researchers. As James Gleick put it in “Genius,” his 1992 biography of the physicist Richard Feynman, “the world has grown too vast and multifarious for the towering genius of the old kind.”

Contemporary science is also far more collaborative than non-scientists may imagine. A giant new particle collider soon to open in Switzerland, for example, will have more than 7,000 physicists participating in its experiments. “If you try to understand that kind of work through a biography,” Peter Galison, a historian of science at Harvard, said in a recent interview, “you’re really cutting the wood against the grain, and you can easily end up making invisible the collective work that’s so crucial for that kind of accomplishment.”

This trend applies even to theorists, who, in the mode of Newton or Einstein, still tackle problems in relative isolation. “The main difference today is there are so many people working on these deep problems,” the physicist Brian Greene said recently. In one 15-page span of his best-selling book “The Elegant Universe” (1999), Greene mentions 24 scientists whose work prefigured a rich period in the development of string theory, the dominant idea in theoretical physics for the past 20 years. Faithfully untangling these various threads makes it harder for any writer to create a linear narrative of discovery, in which a few key influences on one scientist lead to a singular insight. [....]

Indeed, science biography has sometimes distorted its subject by ignoring the communal aspects of scientific thought. Geology once had a great-man history in which 18th- and 19th-century British iconoclasts like James Hutton and William Smith discerned the antiquity of the earth, an idea that was absorbed in turn by the geologist Charles Lyell, and then set the stage for Darwin’s theory of evolution. But as the historian of science Martin Rudwick has shown, a whole network of European scientists was advancing geological research in this period. Daniel Kevles, a historian of science at Yale, said recently, “What’s happened in the last 15 or 20 years is that we’ve learned how even the very greatest scientists — Newton, Darwin, Einstein — were always engaged in collaboration of a very important, fundamental nature with their contemporaries.” [....]

How can writers interest audiences in lives rather less resembling Greek dramas? “It may be there’s another side of biography that drops the idea of the heroic figure, but looks at the exemplary figure,” Galison said. “It could take some retooling to tell that kind of story, where the actors see what they’re doing in more moment-to-moment, pragmatic terms.” Writers may have to look farther outside the scientific pantheon, and abandon comfortable biographical tropes, like the protagonist as an outsider crashing the gates of science — an image that applies to Newton and Einstein, and was self-consciously adopted by Feynman and by James Watson and Francis Crick. [....]

Illuminating those overlooked sources of fascination may be an important part of the genre’s future. “The science biography ... is critical in an era when science gets ever farther afield from everyday experience,” Greene said. “Our human link to that is through the process of discovery, through human stories, so that remains an element that I think has to be preserved.” If our discoveries no longer come from the realm of giants, the science biography may have to be constructed to a more human scale as well.


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