Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The loneliness of my notepad

Few myths have been busted as often and as cheerfully as that of the lone genius. “Future discoveries are more likely to be made by scientists sharing ideas than a lone genius,” declares Athene Donald in the Guardian, and Joshua Wolf Shenk opines in the NYT that “the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness.” Thinking on your own is so yesterday; today is collaboration. “Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network,” Shenk goes on. It sounds scary.

There is little doubt that with the advance of information technology, collaborations have been flourishing. As Mott Greene has observed, single authors are an endangered species: “Any issue of Nature today has nearly the same number of Articles and Letters as one from 1950, but about four times as many authors. The lone author has all but disappeared. In most fields outside mathematics, fewer and fewer people know enough to work and write alone.”

Science Watch keeps tracks of the data. The average number of authors per paper has risen from 2.5 in the early 1980s to more than five today. At the same time, the fraction of single authored papers has declined from more than 30% to about 10%.

Part of the reason for this trend is that the combination of expertise achieved by collaboration opens new possibilities that are being exploited. This would suggest that the increase is temporary and will eventually stagnate or start declining again once the potential in these connections has been fully put to use.

But I don’t think the popularity of larger collaborations is going to decline anytime soon, because for some purposes one paper with five authors counts as five papers. If I list a paper on our institutional preprint list, nobody cares how many coauthors it has – it counts as one more paper, and my coauthors’ institutions can be equally happy about adding a paper to their count. If you work on the average with 5 coauthors and divide up the work fairly, your publication list will end up being five times as long as if you’d be working alone. The logical goal of this accounting can only be that we all coauthor every paper that gets published.

So, have the numbers spoken and demonstrated the lone genius is no more?

Well, most scientists aren’t geniuses and nobody really agrees what that means anyway, so let us ask instead what happened to the lone scientists.

The “lone scientist” isn’t so much a myth than an oxymoron. Science is ultimately a community enterprise – an idea not communicated will never become accepted part of science. But the lone scientist has always existed and certainly still exists as a mode of operation, as a step on the path to an idea worth developing. Declaring lonely work a myth is deeply ironic for the graduate student stuck with an assigned project nobody seems to care about. In theoretical physics research often means making yourself world expert on whatever topic, whether you picked it for yourself or whether somebody else thought it was a good idea. And loneliness is the flipside of this specialization.

That researchers may sometimes be lonely in their quest doesn’t imply they are alone or they don’t talk to each other. But when you are the midst of working out an idea that isn’t yet fully developed, there is really nobody who will understand what you are trying to do. Possibly not even you yourself understand.

We use and abuse our colleagues as sounding boards, because attempting to explain yourself to somebody else can work wonders to clarify your own thoughts, even though the person doesn’t understand a word. I have been both at the giving and receiving end of this process. A colleague, who shall remain unnamed, on occasion simply falls asleep while I am trying to make sense. My husband deserves credit for enduring my ramblings about failed calculations even though he doesn’t have a clue what I mean. And I’ve learned to listen rather than just declaring that I don’t know a thing about whatever.

So the historians pointing out that Einstein didn’t work in isolation, and that he met frequently with other researchers to discuss, do not give honor to the frustrating and often painful process of having to work through a calculation one doesn’t know how to do in the first place. It is evident from Einstein’s biography and publications that he spent years trying to find the right equations, working with a mathematical apparatus that was unfamiliar to most researchers back then. There was nobody who could have helped him trying to find the successful description that his intuition looked for.

Not all physicists are Einstein of course, and many of us work on topics where the methodology is well developed and widely shared. But it is very common to get stuck while trying to find a mathematically accurate framework for an idea that, without having found what one is looking for, remains difficult or impossible to communicate. This leaves us alone with that potentially brilliant idea and the task of having to sort out our messy thoughts well enough to even be able to make sense to our colleagues.

Robert Nemiroff, Professor of Physics at Michigan Tech, noted down his process of working on a new paper aptly in a long string of partly circular and confused attempts intersected by doubts, insights and new starts:
“writing short bits of my budding new manuscript on a word processor; realizing I don't know what I am talking about; thinking through another key point; coming to a conclusion; coming to another conclusion in contradiction to the last conclusion; realizing that I have framed the paper in a naive fashion and delete sections (but saving all drafts just in case); starting to write a new section; realizing I don't know what I am talking about; worrying that this whole project is going nowhere new; being grouchy because if this is going nowhere then I am wasting my time; comforting myself with the thought that at least now I better understand something that I should have better understood earlier; starring at my whiteboard for several minute stretches occasionally sketching a small diagram or writing a key equation; thinking how cool this is and wondering if anyone else understands this mini- sub- topic in this much detail; realizing a new potential search term and doing a literature search for it in ADS and Google; finding my own work feeling reassured that perhaps I am actually a reasonable scientist; finding key references that address some part of this idea that I didn't know about and feeling like an idiot; reading those papers and thinking how brilliant those authors are and how I could never write papers this good...”
At least for now we’re all alone in our heads. And as long as that remains so, the scientist struggling to make sense alone will remain reality.


  1. who shell remain unnamed ---> who shall remain unnamed

  2. Hi Sabine,as you say at some time in the scientific enterprise it always comes down to one's own knowledge and skills with a calculation or a piece of apparatus. Nevertheless friends and colleagues help us even then. We build on the books and papers they have written, the lectures and seminars they have given, the advice they will proffer when asked.

    If you haven't already read it, I know how busy your schedule is, may I recommend 'Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure' by Cedric Villani as a wonderful description of the working life of an mathematician which will ting true to a theoretical physicist as well.

  3. Hi Sabine,
    "If you work on the average with 5 coauthors and divide up the work fairly, your publication list will end up being five times as long as if you’d be working alone." this is probably not so simple. Practically no problem allows the possibility of such a neat divide. In a fair collaboration, every author has to think the whole thing through. Good collaboration are those where the end product is greater than the sum of its parts.

  4. Thanks for defending science against the scary statements that seem to be parrotted everywhere, and which simply claim that only networks exist nowadays and must prevail and grow. Such statements are only violence against individuals (that tend to think that this irrationality is a 'de facto' truth) and a major burden against genuine scientific developments that often come out of loneliness.

    As you say, a scientist is never alone, also when working in complete loneliness. In order to write one paper in which you are the sole author, you have to master the existing knowledge on the topic, i.e. what others have contributed. And you must always strive with all your energy to deepen this knowledge and to appropriately acknowledge all previous work. If you work on a new idea that nobody can understand (in the short term) you have to do also the additional work to check that the idea is, in fact, new. Sometimes a theoretical idea was always there in a guise of a different notation or jargon, or hidden between the specific purpose of getting insight on a certain application. One truly has to pay attention and assimilate, as much as possible, others' approaches.

    Of course, the 'publish or perish' culture of deadlines and competition tends to favor networks, which also help authors in diluting their responsibility and their requirement to learn new things and to be honest with previous work. Sometimes authors seem to be encouraged by the sole fact of being many of them signing a paper, and group leaders seem to play just the mere role of politicians even lacking deep knowledge of what is being discussed in the paper (!). If one finds commodity in feeling that one is a piece in a machinery of a group of people with just a certain task to accomplish, one has a much easier and less demanding task of producing articles and one can then even boast of taking part in 'interdisciplinary' enterprises.

    I find that, in general, the quality of published articles is dramatically decreasing with the increase of the numbers of coauthors. I do not see the very much boasted 'interdisciplinary knowledge' nowhere. And deep specialized knowledge is also becoming rare.

  5. I never trust a theory paper with 5 or more authors ;).

  6. Michael,

    If one would plot the reliability curve as a function of the number of authors, I am guessing it would increase towards the end of a large numbers. The reason is that once collaborations get really large they start putting into place thought-trough procedures for paper writing, revision, and trouble-shooting. There is a messy middle range, somewhere between 5 to 15 or so, is my guessing, where much depends on how organized people are.

  7. Phillip,

    Thanks for spotting this, I've corrected it :)

  8. Committee IQs sum like parallel resistors' ohms. Dissenting authors sum serially. Management counting things counters progress. New answers are interdisciplinary not insular. Phthalo Blue dissolves in boiling concentrated sulfuric acid. Dissolve it in Plexiglass? Impossible! Metallurgy creates 30 wt-% solutions in Plexiglass. Discovery is insubordination.

    "most scientists aren’t geniuses" Intelligence solves novel problems in real time. Productive hard science begins at 130 IQ, one person in 50. "sounding boards" Yes! Dare to be stupid.

    Racemic D_3-4,7,11-trioxatrishomocubane is easily synthesized. Blow a vacuum 1 kelvin molecular beam through a microwave spectrometer. If non-degenerate rotational spectra are observed, geometrically extreme opposite shoes heal gravitation and the standard model. Look.

  9. Robert Nemiroff's note goes a long way to explain why my theoretical physics profs always appeared so gloomy in comparison to the experimentalists.

  10. I'm afraid I don't get it. The advent of the internet, especially the arXiv, has meant that it is now far easier for individuals to get hold of the resources they need without interacting personally with other researchers. That is why conferences are dying out. For me personally, I find it very pleasant that the arXiv allows me to publish more of my papers alone.

    On a side note: when I was a student, the chairman of the department introduced a rule: single-author papers count as 1 unit, two-author papers count as 1/3 of a unit for each author, three-author papers count as 1/4, and so on. When asked whether he realized that this discouraged collaboration, his reply was, "I hope so." Good times!

  11. "thought-trough procedures" should probably be "thought-through procedures"

    Glad you included the "-", though; this is one of my pet peeves: people leaving the dash out of compound adjectives, i.e. neglecting the compound-adjective dash. (That, and stuff like "only costs 20 cents" as opposed to the correct "costs only 20 cents".)

    On the other hand, one meaning of "trough" is "Futtertrog", so a thought trough could be a Gedankentrog. Feed your head! :-)

  12. Yes, the internet and arXiv have made it much easier to work alone. However, this has nothing to do with collaboration. In the old days, one would have to jump through hoops to get data one can easily download in a couple of seconds today, but that doesn't mean that back then one would make the owners of the data co-authors.

    Conferences are not dying out. Far from it. However, the relative importance of going to a conference to see the newest data has dropped, and other aspects have become more important.

    The non-linear ranking might be a bit too extreme, but anyone who compares two people, one with 10 single-author papers and one with 50 papers with 100 co-authors on each one and concludes that the one with 10 single-author papers is not as productive is just stupid. Sadly, some people look at only the number of papers, or citations, and don't divide by the number of authors.

    Using bibliometry as a proxy for quality of research is almost as bad as using the top-10 music charts as a proxy for quality in music. But if it is to be used, one should correct for the number of co-authors.

  13. arXiv is such an unvaluable resource. If I had to rate the most useful historical creations to spread and promote scientific knowledge, I would rate arXiv second, only after Gutenberg's invention of the print. The general public can now access the latest fruits of scientific research, and everyone can find there all material needed to start doing theoretical research. Certainly, this has made much easier to work alone and it is a proof that one is never truly 'alone' doing research. Just by going to an internet address everyone today has access to most valuable treasures produced by most fine, sharp and subtle minds in the world. In my times one had to go by foot from city to city to visit Galileo. This has, certainly, changed.

  14. "arXiv is such an unvaluable resource"

    That should be "invaluable", which means "very valuable"; "in" means "not" but here the sense is that it is so valuable one can't put a value on it. "Unvaluable" is not really a word---one would probably say "valueless" or use different wording---but most would parse it as "having no value", which is not what you want. :-)

  15. Not counting the proposal, you wrote only one research paper in the last 5+ years
    with co-authors, right?
    This is very little even for geniuses ;-). E.g. I checked that even Steven Weinberg, who
    also writes most of his paper as single author (including his master piece founding
    the Standard Model), wrote at least one paper with co-authors in each of the 5 years before
    he had your age...
    What's the reason for this aversion to co-authors?


  16. Maurice,

    It's a combination of several different factors. First, I have no funding neither for students nor postdocs, which is one of the most common coauthor acquisitions there is. Then I'm partly working from home, plus there's nobody at my institution (nor at the adjacent university) who works on quantum gravity (not counting string theory), so there are no local people to work with. The rest of it is plain impatience on my side. I write papers very quickly or not at all. If I start discussing an idea with somebody and they don't move within a matter of weeks, I'll do myself. And as evidence shows, it works nicely, I have no trouble getting my papers published. There are pros and cons to it. It sometimes gets pretty frustrating. Otoh, I don't have to run after other people, which is something that really drives me nuts. I make an effort to discuss my papers with at least a handful of people (who go into the acknowledgements) just to make sure I'm not fooling myself. Either way, I'm not dogmatic about it, teamwork clearly has its benefits when it works. Best,


  17. A human brain consumes only 10 W/hour no matter how hard the intelectual work it performes. So if a scientist works 1700 hours per year, his brain consumes a total of 17 kW which is not a lot of energy. One can say that some scientists are very efficient or even very effective, but I think they nevertheless are very privileged. To try and become a scientist really is worth all the effort required.

  18. The myth ironically is not about the genius, and not intended to be about the genius. No one seriously doubts genius, and no one seriously doubts the genius is a lonely place to be, nor that geniuses are typically loners.
    It's not about that. It is incidentally about the contributions of those willing to isolate themselves if that's what it takes. Actual or potential major contributions can happen, that might only have been possible to happen from isolation. But it's not really about even that.
    It's about the misconceptions of the scientific franchise deriving from lone genius envisioning's.
    What is not about is "everyone says that, look at all bleating sheep; but not me not you, we're so very not sheep. Because we say the lone genius is a myth".
    BOllocks to that. Everyone says that as well. It's a fashion thing.
    peace and love man

  19. Another point of note in regard of the statistical trends, collaborative science, gang-bang scientific papers, and the new possibilities on the good ship teamer: Isn't it reasonable to roll the eyes just a little and best spotty teenager undertones burp out "yeahh...and how is all that going in the age of conceptual desertification"? The current and previous 3 generations of people in scientific careers have brought science within sight of catastrophe. That may yet be the death of it.

  20. "A human brain consumes only 10 W/hour"

    Doesn't make sense. Watt is a unit of power, i.e. energy per time. You can say that the brain has a power consumption of about 10 watts.

  21. @matteen "A human brain consumes only 10 W/hour" 10 W is power, energy/time. 10W/hr is acceleration. 12.6 W. Human basal metabolism is ~2 Mcal/day, 2000 Cal/day. "So if a scientist works 1700 hours per year, his brain consumes a total of 17 kW which is not a lot of energy" Trace your units. 17 kWh is 22.8 horsepower-hrs, huge!
    Human watts toasting a slice of bread.

    (12.6 J/sec)(1 cal/4.184 J)(60 sec/min)(60 min/hr)(24 hr/day) = 0.26 Mcal
    (0.26 Mcal/day)/(2 Mcal/day) = 13% of basal metabolism

    " To try and become a scientist really is worth all the effort required." Bee demands vacuum is exactly achiral isotropic toward matter. A 1 kelvin molecular beam Raman spectrum of racemic D_3 -4,7,11-trioxatrishomocubane (van der Waals volume = 0.1168 nm^3) showing two rotational spectra falsifies that, hence "worth" - either result.

    Barrelene; DOI: 10.1021/jo962267f
    4,7,11-Triheterotrishomocubanes; DOI: 10.1002/ejoc.200600019
    Cold molecular beam Raman; DOI: 10.1080/00268976.2013.793888

  22. hehehe, thanks for the correction Phillip Helbig, you understood me well

  23. Was Democritus a "lone genius"? Yes and No.

    Same for Spinoza, Galileo, Faraday, Einstein, Mandelbrot, etc.

    But hey, if journalists say consensus model-building has replaced mavericks who think independently and provide essential course-corrections, who are we to argue.

  24. In my view there is never true loneliness. In the cross there seems to be absolute loneliness for a moment in eternity ("why have you forsaken me?"...) to make even more truly compelling that loneliness does not exist as something stationary, but as a moment: there is a You, and immense Other which is Truly Good. For this You, everything, absolutely everything, is possible.

    Perhaps what we usually call a loner is a life unfolding more more slowly than this accelerated world. A life that is able to absorb the violence of the world as a spounge and through some kind of prayer reducing it to a point and thus, getting rid of it. A black hole that sucks violence out of the world and replaces it by the human dignity of being. A saint. A life being intensely lived, in thanksgiving for the wonders of the universe and which, out of love, necessarily, happily and amusingly acquiesces. I think true genius is the simple unfolding of such a life. A life beyond any human measurement and understanding, being deeply human at the same time.

    To be alone is of course another matter. Being absolutely alone is hopeless unadulterated suffering devoid of any desire and thirst of justice and love. Without pushing the things to such an extreme, there are also differences between loneliness and being alone. In German these differences are beatifully expressed in the differences and nuances between "einsam" und "allein".

    For German readers, here is a poem that I particularly love from a German poet called Dieter Leisegang (1942-1973)


    Einsam ist ja noch zu leben
    Hier ein Ich und dort die andern
    Kann durch die Alleen wandern
    Und auf Aussichtstürmen schweben

    Einsam ist noch nicht allein
    Hat noch Augen, Ohren, Hände
    Und das Spiel der Gegenstände:
    Und die Trauer, da zu sein

    Doch allein ist alles ein
    Ist nicht da, nicht dort, nicht eben
    Kann nicht nehmen oder geben
    Leergelebt und allgemein

    Oktober 1972

  25. Philip/Uncle Al

    Back from hard work in France, thanks for your comments.


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