We are Einstein

A lot has been said and written in the last years about the promise of online connectivity and open access, about the potential of borderless communication, the power of crowdsourcing, Wikinomics, and the wisdom of the masses. What does that mean for science? I have been wondering, will this impact the way we do research? Will we see the rise of “Wikiscience” and changes to the scientific method as Kevin Kelly predicts? Will we see the end of the “lonely genius problem” as Jeff DeChambeau suggests in a remarkable reinterpretation of my writing [1]? And while I can not give you a definite answer, I want to share some thoughts with you.

Unused Potential

There is without doubt unused potential in badly connected or unordered knowledge. Progress often comes from connecting the right pieces, or the right people, in the right way. And though this takes the ability to recognize two pieces fit together, as well as knowing how to connect them, it also requires knowing of them in the first place.

The larger the body of knowledge grows that we are working with, the more important it thus becomes for scientists – as for everybody else – to not only have information available, but also have the tools to search, filter, and structure this information, and to direct it to where it is useful. Given this possibility, we could save a lot of time and effort by more efficiently sorting through available sources of information, by faster finding people with the right knowledge to complement our work, by outsourcing specialized tasks to those who have the best skills. And while the first of these points is readily under way with ever more powerful search tools, the latter two are only in the beginning and will need to bring changes in the way science is presently done.

Global collaborations have become more and more common over the last decades, as communication becomes easier. And as more and more people put information about their research interests and education online, it also becomes easier to find them. In my impression, there are today few scientists who actually use this opportunity, but I have little doubt online networking will become more common, simply because it is useful. If there is a guy in Australia who happens to have thought for three years about what you are currently scratching your head over, just go skype him and write a paper together. And if you have a problem, ask everyone.

The Trouble with Specialization

But connecting, ordering, and filtering information alone is not sufficient. Knowledge can also remain unused due to communication barriers. Especially in highly specialized communities this problem is prevalent. Two people who do not share the same basis of information must make an effort to come to common ground, to properly ‘decode’ each other. This effort however does often not pay off due to the incentive structure of the present academic system that dominantly rewards specialization: The fewer people can judge on your work and the more the few who can like you and your work, the better your career chances. Thus, a good strategy is to put your effort into creating a niche that is of interest to the relevant people, being nice to your peers, and connecting your name with a research agenda [2]. This tactic flourishes well in the incenstual environment of peer review in specialized expert communities, and comes to full fruition when watered with ignorance.

Specialization is an inevitable consequence of more education that is required to work at the edge of scientific research, so I certainly acknowledge its necessity and its relevance for progress. But it comes with the side-effect that links between research areas might go unnoticed and unexplored. There should thus be a balance between specialization and interdisciplinarity, and more attention be paid to communication between different fields. In my impression, this balance is presently off to the favor of specialization, and communication remains underappreciated, which hinders progress. (For more about the problems with the present academic system see We have only ourselves to judge on each other).

But also with regard to improving this communication between specialized communities I think we are making progress mostly because online connectivity has opened new ways to circumvent what Bora so aptly referred to as the scientists ‘Kabuki’ dance (I disagree with him on several points but it’s worth reading it). Again, I think the major impact on science is yet to come, but it will come.

Taken together it seems while the trend towards specialization will certainly go on, we will see more effort going into communication and connection of experts, both driven probably by different groups of people (an example of what I referred to as a specialization in task).

Taken together we thus have four trends in different stages of development: 1) Better tools for archiving and searching available information, 2) An increased connectivity of the community’s network leading to easier ways for scientists to find each other, 3) More frequent outsourcing of tasks to experts possibly even outside the community, and 4) An improved communication among specialized groups. The only thing I presently see in the way of these changes is inertia that will not hold for long against the advantages in their adaptation. Now one can discuss whether I am too optimistic if I consider this the probable and pretty much inevitable development, but let us just boldly extrapolate these trends and see where it gets us: It gets us to a tightly connected network of scientists with a high interaction rate in which researchers will exploit the unused potential in the present knowledge.

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

It is very tempting then to compare the world wide web of scientists to neurons in a brain. No single neuron in your brain understands Special Relativity; it is only the whole together which can. Are we headed into a situation where no single scientist understands the theories we might be using, because this understanding is only emergent from all of their interactions? It is a likewise tempting and depressing future projection. It is tempting because it takes the pressure of ingenuity off the individual. On the other hand, it also takes away both the internal and the external driver of science: understanding and fame.

But aren’t we a long way towards this already?

Steve Fuller writes in his book ‘Knowledge Management Foundations’ about the “perceived lack of scientific genius in our time”:

“We are more impressed with such early 20th century physicists as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, for whom the chalkboard was the laboratory, than with the battery of physicists continuing these work on multibillion-dollar particle accelerators today. We even rank those seat-of-the-pants discoverers of DNA’s structure, Watson and Crick, over that well-financed and methodological mapper of the human genome, Craig Venter, even though the latter has enabled the promise of biotechnology to become a reality. […] In other words a “most bang for the buck” principle seems to rule our intuitive judgment for genius. Television producers know this all too well. It explains why viewers are more impressed by a John Doe who invents something that stumps experts than by a battalion of well-financed lab scientists who arrive at some equally counterintuitive and probably better grounded discovery.”

Considered this trend and my above bold extrapolation of present developments, Why no new Einstein? might just the wrong question to ask. It could simply be inappropriate for our times. We should not be looking for a new Einstein to bring progress, this suggests. Instead, we should be looking for networks of many stones [3], well connected, moving us forward together. We should be looking for well working communities of experts, and judge their knowledge production as a whole.

Will the future of science bring the end of personal genius?

Why no new ideas?

    “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Thus, the trend seems to be going towards a tightly coupled global network of scientists, in which we can 24/7 bounce ideas off each other, e-meet in second life, and distribute our talks and papers in no time around the world. That might be some people’s paradise and other people’s hell. To me it mostly seems like a good environment for ideas grow, but is that where they are born?

Missing in this picture is the fact that all the connectivity in the world won’t help us to overcome the limits we are set in expressing our ideas in the first place. When it comes down to this, we are all alone in our heads, and left to our own devices. It takes time and effort to find a way to communicate a thought such that other people can follow it. Every genuinely new idea – one that does not connect pieces but creates a new piece – has to go through a prestage in which it can only badly be communicated. In his talk at our September conference, Eric Weinstein referred to this as the “valley” in which you don’t make sense [4].

Now bouncing ideas off your colleagues is a good way to make progress once you have something to build up upon. But on the other hand an environment with a very high interaction rate thermalizes quickly, and can be very destructive in the early stage of an idea’s development. A highly connected community means we’ll have to watch out very carefully for sociological phenomena that might affect objectivity, and work towards premature consensus. We will have to watch out for fads that grow out of proportion, and we will have to find a way to protect the young ideas that “you have to ram down people’s throats,” in Atkin’s words, until people are ready to swallow them. There is no reason to assume scientists are immune to sociological effects.

Some People’s Paradise is Other People’s Hell

If you’d ask me what is the way to make progress in theoretical physics (and if you don’t I tell you anyway) I’d make the following suggestion: Pick 30 of the brightest physicists from all fields. Give them ten year contracts and put them on an island with no administrational duties, but all the necessary infrastructure (ie blackboards, chalk, coffee, and library access). In the first five years, they are not allowed to write papers or go to conferences. They can travel and invite collaborators, but are not allowed to give talks or schedule seminars. They are not allowed to teach, to mentor or to write proposals. That might be some people’s hell and other people’s paradise, but that’s how I think ideas are born.

We are Ein Stein – Or are we?

Over all the enthusiasm about our increasingly connected global scientific community, don’t forget that scientists need time to think and room to breathe. Some developments happen naturally and by themselves because they are of individual advantage. These include increased connectivity, more social networking, and outsourcing, and are not the ones you should be worried about. You should be worried about these trends dominating styles of research and reducing a diversity of approaches towards knowledge discovery.

Related posts (hand generated):

[1] He is referring to the following sentences from this post:“This does not mean the times of the lonely genius are over […] I am very skeptic about the enthusiasm caused by wiki-like collaborative efforts (see e.g. Wikinomics). It is one thing to use existent resources – here, human knowledge – most efficiently, but something completely different to add new.” Notably, I never did and never intended to regard the “lonely genius” as a “problem” in need of a remedy, and certainly not one that starts with “wiki”.
[2] In
Sean Carroll’s unsolicited advice it sounds like this “While you’re in grad school, establish a track record of productivity by writing papers. Even better, write good papers — write about things that other people are interested in. What is it about your research or skill set that makes you useful to people hiring postdocs? Become the world’s expert in some hot topic, or the master of some novel technique, along with establishing your broad-based competence.” Emphasis mine.
[3] Excuse the pun. “Ein Stein” is German for “one stone”.
[4] Yes, once again the same story with the mountain climbers and valley crossers.It is not so surprising this picture comes up again and again. It’s what it necessary to not get stuck in a local optimum.
For more about this, read my post The Best of All Possible Worlds.

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” ~ Albert Einstein

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