Why is it that most great discoveries are found by single individuals? People like Newton and Einstein and Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler?
I think that one answer is that some people have a lot of idle time in which to think and explore. This was true of Newton: he was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, but hardly anybody attended his lectures (he sometimes delivered lectures to empty rooms), so he didn’t have to mark his students’ work, or answer their questions. Once he’d delivered a lecture to an empty room, he was free to explore heat and light and gravity for the rest of the day. And that’s what he did.
But I think there’s another reason why Newton could make progress with all these various matters, and it was that he was doing what he himself wanted to do, and didn’t need to get anybody’s permission to do it. He didn’t need to persuade anybody else that it was something worth doing. He didn’t need to explain to the university’s chancellor or rector why he wanted a prism or a lens or a telescope. He could make them himself.
And as he studied something – say light – he could quickly change his mind about what to do next, what to try next, what sense to make of what he saw. And he probably kept changing his mind the whole time, realising he’d made a mistake somewhere, missed seeing something somewhere down the track.
The same was true of Einstein when he was a patent clerk. It seems he had lots of free time to explore the questions that interested him: like what would it be like to ride on a speeding wave of light?
Both Newton and Einstein spawned whole new fields of science, and now there are thousands of scientists in research institutes and universities working on the science they inaugurated. Science has become professionalised. And somehow or other, it seems to me, nothing new ever seems to come out of this well-funded, institutional science. They never seem to come up with anything really genuinely new.
And perhaps the explanation for this is that the more people who are working on some investigation, the more people whose permission is needed to do anything, and the more people who need to be persuaded to look in any new direction. In this institutional science, you’d need to apply in triplicate for a prism or a lens or a telescope. And you’d need to persuade about a dozen people why you needed one.
So it seems to me that the more people who are engaged in any investigation, the slower the progress that will be made.
And eventually, given some critical mass of people, progress will completely grind to a halt. And this is where dogma sets in. Science becomes dogmatic when everybody thinks the same way about something, and there are so many of them that it’s become impossible to persuade anyone to look at things in a different way.
I think that this is something that may have happened in quantum physics. The whole thing seems to have ground to a halt. There was a “wave-particle duality” back in 1920, and in 2018 it seems that there still is. After a decade or two of rapid progress around 1900, there seems to have been hardly any since.
And the same seems to be true in climate science. Back in the 1960s when Carl Sagan (lone thinker) came up with his carbon dioxide explanation for the high temperature of the atmosphere of Venus, climate science seems to have been a bit of a quiet backwater. But once huge amounts of money was poured into it, and more and more scientists employed, it very rapidly ground to a halt, and has now become completely dogmatic: Carbon dioxide has now been thoroughly demonised in ways that would have shocked Sagan.
And the same is true with cancer research. The hypothesis that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer has become an unquestionable dogma. And Public Health has become another huge, bloated, institutional science that’s incapable of pursuing new lines of inquiry, and so has ceased to be any sort of science at all.
If you want to kill off innovative thinking, shower it with money, and build it huge, shiny, new research institutes with lots of managers and supervisors. That will kill it off pretty quickly.
It’s the same elsewhere. There was a time when there were just a few universities, and they were centres of excellence. Now that pots of money have been thrown at them, and we have ten times as many universities than we had before, the new universities have become hotbeds of Political Correctness, which is a form of extreme dogmatism. Instead of producing inquiring minds, the universities are now producing closed minds.
Newton, Einstein, and all the rest of them probably weren’t “geniuses.” They were instead just people who found themselves in an environment where they could think about whatever they liked, and did exactly that. They were like seeds that found themselves germinating and growing in the warm, moist, rich soil of a greenhouse. Any other seed of the same species would have prospered just as well, and been just as fruitful.