# Is scientific genius a thing of the past?

1. Feb 6, 2013

### phion

Last edited by a moderator: Feb 6, 2013
2. Feb 6, 2013

### micromass

I don't want to sound elitist. But I don't think a psychologist's opinion on this carries much weight...

3. Feb 6, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

I think it's a bit idiotic. All of those people built upon previous knowledge, and there is so much more knowledge now to build upon, incredible discoveries and advances are constantly being made, but there are so many now.

A psychologist is not a scientist, he might as well be an accountant as far as his major giving him credibility in judging advances in science.

4. Feb 6, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

Sounds about right to me. It is only 100 years ago that Einstein "overthrew" Newtonian physics. Does anyone really believe there will ever again be such a major upheaval in the accepted paradigm of how the universe works?

5. Feb 6, 2013

### micromass

That's a bit too much, I think. Psychology really is a science, in my opinion. I just don't see why a psychologist should be qualified to judge fundamental physics or mathematics research.

6. Feb 6, 2013

### phion

I don't necessarily agree either, considering a lot of psychology's claims are merely a consummation of the interpretation of apparent trends in scientific progress, on the basis of education.

I can't help but sympathize with this type of view, though, because I think, over time, the progressive limitations in scope during basically any research encourages more groupthink, instead of nurturing that purely individualistic, ivory tower, kind of thought process. There's nothing wrong with revolutionary ideas of course, but I think the author is off the mark concerning his power-of-prediction. It'll [probably] just take longer for another dramatic paradigm shift to occur with far reaching consequences. We just need to know where to look.

Last edited: Feb 6, 2013
7. Feb 6, 2013

### micromass

Yes, I believe this. It would be very arrogant to assume that our current physical theories describe the universe. In fact, we know that it doesn't.
As far as I know, dark matter hasn't been really explained well (please correct me if I'm wrong). So a theory that explains this could be the next major upheaval.

Also, there is no reason to limit ourselves to just physics. The theory of schemes in mathematics was quite revolutionary at the time and it is only 60 years old. And it seems to meet every criterium in the article. There are many such examples.
A new thing that I'm looking forward too is a rigorous definition of $\mathbb{F}_1$, the field with one element. There is no reason to expect that major advances and genius are a thing of the past in mathematics.

8. Feb 6, 2013

### zoobyshoe

This makes perfect sense. Ground breaking thinkers are relegated to working in smaller areas that just won't get the historical attention that Galileo or Einstein got.

9. Feb 6, 2013

### phion

To add, I tend to think of psychology in terms of behaviorism. In that light, it all seems a bit more scientific to me. After all I'm sure you could just as easily explain broad human behavior to a statistician as you could an amalgamation of physical collisions.

10. Feb 6, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

To even suggest that there is no "space for genius" is completely wrong, IMO. Of course we have geniuses making incredible discoveries and advancements. The difference is that today it usually requires a lot of money and collaboration. The individual genius is still there though. It's only that they are forced to share the public awards or acknowledgements. I don't think we should confuse one with the other, it still may all boil down to an individual genius. Or perhaps, he is just saying that geniuses have to share the credit now? In other words the article title amounts to yellow journalism.

Last edited: Feb 7, 2013
11. Feb 7, 2013

### phion

I would have liked to see your reaction to the converse-- "Is scientific genius a thing of the future?". I think so, even if it is only syntactic slight of hand.

12. Feb 7, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

The question makes no sense, it has no meaning. There will always be "scientific geniuses, as there always have been.

13. Feb 7, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

Our observations of the world around us were widely known to not fit very will with theory 100 years ago. Today the error bars are much, much smaller. To me, that makes any "upheaval" an orders of magnitude smaller discovery in terms of its effect on how much it changes our level of understanding of the universe. This does not require the assumption that our understanding of the universe is or will ever be perfect, only the recognition that it is better than it used to be and the % error in our understanding gets smaller and smaller.

And that's even assuming that we will never know everything (that there will be an endless chain of new discoveries and theories, refining our understanding of the universe to smaller and smaller precision) when some scientists actually do think physics is nearly over.

Last edited: Feb 7, 2013
14. Feb 7, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

The article makes no such suggestion. It doesn't sound to me like you read past the title.

Last edited: Feb 7, 2013
15. Feb 7, 2013

### jim hardy

Well now this is interesting.
We are commenting on a zoologist's comments on a psychologist's comments on physics.

That's an ending worthy of Agatha Christie.

16. Feb 7, 2013

### phion

Oh no, it might be a sign. What if Pierre Boulle was right all along?

17. Feb 7, 2013

### micromass

So you measure the amount of "genius" by how much "upheaval" the theory makes? That doesn't seem to be the criteria used in the article: "either by founding an entirely new field or by revolutionizing an already-existing discipline". By their standards, the creation of a theory like QFT was genius, while by your criteria, it is not so much.

I'm sure scientists said the same thing before they discovered electricity. This is a debate for another thread of course, but I think it is very strange to claim we know all about the universe while we are entirely confined to this solar system.

or from 1874:

Last edited: Feb 7, 2013
18. Feb 7, 2013

### Jimmy Snyder

In the Feynman lectures, there is a paragraph on that quote by Lord Kelvin. He doesn't quote it directly, but he says that it wasn't true. That at the time it was said, physics was in a state of upheaval because of anomalous experimental data. It was a time when everyone knew that a breakthrough was necessary, but didn't know what form it should take. I think the current climate is the same. The problem we face today is that no one knows how to combine gravity into the standard model of particle physics. If someone comes up with a solution we can suppose that the discoverer will be considered a genius by many, and that others will say no, they stood on the shoulders of giants. If you celebrate the breakthrough insight, you will call them genius. If you celebrate the grunt work that has to be done first, you will not.

P.S. The problem then was data without theory. Today we have plenty of theory, but no data.

19. Feb 7, 2013

### Staff: Mentor

Nope, and neither does the author of the article we are discussing. In fact, he said that if anything, scientists are getting smarter, which also seems obvious to me.

20. Feb 8, 2013

### brenan

It seems to me the term "genius" (incidently a term with zero scientific evidence, relevance or definition) has more to do with popular media than actual mental superiority.
By all means applaud einstein or fineman but applaud their industrious dedication
and meticulous attention to very narrow obscure subjects for long periods of time - AND their luck in spotting things that others have missed possibly solely because of others lack of such focus - not some magical "superpower" that only "special" people have.
Einstein, Fineman, Newton etc. are simple products of their environment and social surroundings not products of some random genetic mutation. Yes they are special - but not because of some weird brain chemistry.

Such people will always pop up from time to time in various fields - most of them unrecognised - perhaps because their field doesn't happen to include a large percentage of math and the media likes it's geniuses to be "Phd's" before the term can be attributed.
(A small licence there but I think reasonably fair to say.)
Correct me if I'm wrong but - you can't win a scientific nobel prize unless you already have a BSc or similar - and that factor seems to rule out the traditional notion of "genius" to me anyway.

A thing of the past? A thing that's never existed I suspect.

21. Feb 8, 2013

### Samii H

1) At that time, very few people were fortunate enough to go to universities and reach high education, and thus, very few people did something incredible and that's why they were very distinctive from others. But right now, hundreds, if not thousands or PhDs in Physics, Mathematics, and Sciences are given each year, and thus one must do something VERY incredible to be distinctive and to stand out from the crowd, but that doesn't rule out the fact that we do actually have more genius people than before.

2) Usually you won't know the genius ones until the end of their lives or after they die. If you ask someone at the time of Newton about Newton, Kepler, Galelio, etc, he won't have much to tell. I predict that after 100 years, people will look at contemporary scientists like Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Michio Kaku, Leonard Susskind, and others the same way we look at Maxwell, Einstein, Hubble, and others

Regards!

22. Feb 8, 2013

### WannabeNewton

Uh....what? Are you actually comparing the famous physics faces of history channel to Newton and Maxwell lol. There is a difference between being a genius (which the people you mentioned certainly are) and doing/ discovering things at the level of Newton, for example (although not a great example since no one can touch the caliber of Newton's accomplishments).

23. Feb 8, 2013

### Samii H

I know Newton and Maxwell did something incredible, but you cannot diminish what the ones I mentioned did.

Why not considering Peter Higgs' prediction of the existing of the Higgs Bosons 40 years ago as an incredible achievement?

Why not considering the Superstring theory that was proposed by Michio Kaku as an incredible achievement that will be mentioned centuries to come? That is aside from Stephen Hawking who is the most famous physicist right now.

Appearing in media and speaking easy and simple English to the public doesn't diminish the greatness of those scientists ...

24. Feb 9, 2013

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
What was the error on the mass of the universe before discovering dark matter and dark energy? I don't remember the exact number but between the two we had missed something like 70% of the mass of the universe. Of course I had debates about things like this with people like you before those discoveries were made. We were right back then too.

The expansion of the universe is decelerating. Whoops, I mean accelerating [I was dating myself there], and we don't know why.

25. Feb 9, 2013

### DiracPool

IMO, the best way NOT to achieve something in science that is genius status is to think your going to do it by pursuing a "traditional" path to get you there, i.e., undergrad, grad, postdoc, etc. Ok, now I did what I'm supposed to do, and now it's my time to do my thing, and uhh, well, ummm....Hmmm? Ok, here I go...Uhhhh.

Yep, sorry Mr. "just got my PhD in physics", you have no original thoughts because your mind has been saturated and conditioned with what the psychologists (the real usung heros in this thread) call cognitive classical and operant conditioning. You are rewarded in undergrad by grades to wire your thought process with the status quo, and you are rewarded in grad school to kiss up to your senior professor and do his grunt work. You are punished if you do anything else. The end result...Your brain has been so conditioned to what everyone else can find in a standard textbook your opportunity to make any significant contribution much less a revolutionary advance is severely truncated, if not biologically impossible.

Thomas Kuhn made note of this in the 70's with his book as most of you know. It is typically the outsiders of the field that create the revolutions for the reasons I just stated. All of the scientific greats were iconoclasts, very few got there by following the traditional path.